LGBTQ+ Representation in Entertainment Media and its Impact on Queer Mental Health

Abigail Franks

University of Mount Union

The overwhelming abundance of media in the 21st century has changed the way people view and adapt to the world around them. With entertainment always readily available in the form of movies, television shows, books, music, and more, young people today are growing up constantly exposed to fictional representations of reality. However, the term “fictional” itself doesn’t mean that these representations aren’t informed by reality or that they don’t impact reality—quite the opposite is true. When consuming media, audiences from a young age often see reflections of themselves in on-screen action heroes, romance protagonists, world-class detectives, and so on. These reflections are far more impactful than they seem, as they ultimately influence the way individuals see themselves and others in the real world. Unfortunately, positive media representations are not equally distributed among the social groups that make up modern society’s vastly diverse population. While some groups are given a wide variety of positive media portrayals, other groups struggle to get any positive representation at all. Historically, the LGBTQ+ community in particular has been subjected to an abundance of both subtle and blatant negative representations in entertainment. From an eccentric, dysfunctional laughingstock to a perverted and sadistic villain, negative LGBTQ+ media representations come in many forms. These representations all perpetuate harmful messages about the LGBTQ+ community that have destructive effects on the already-vulnerable state of queer mental health.  

The Alarming Condition of Queer Mental Health

Before discussing common harmful tropes seen in entertainment media, it’s important to first acknowledge the troubling state of queer mental health today. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI, n.d.), both adult and adolescent individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual are more than twice as likely to suffer from symptoms of mental illness than their heterosexual counterparts. Additionally, those who identify as transgender are around four times as likely to suffer from symptoms of mental illness compared to cisgender individuals whose gender identity aligns with their assigned gender at birth (NAMI, n.d.). The Adolescents Behavior and Experiences Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2022) in 2021 of nearly 8000 students across 128 American high schools also sheds light on the significant mental health crises faced distinctly by today’s queer youth. The survey found that the combined percentage of LGB and questioning high school students who attempted suicide was around eight times higher than that of heterosexual high school students (CDC, 2022). Of course, the specific numbers and rates of mental health experiences are bound to vary, but the trend is clear: queer individuals are far more likely to severely and even fatally struggle with mental illness compared to heterosexual cisgender individuals. 

The natural response upon learning about the LGBTQ+ community’s significant vulnerability to mental health issues is to question why this community in particular is more at risk. According to the 2003 Minority Stress Model (Meyer, 2003), which is today still frequently used to explore this question, three main factors contribute to the increased risk of mental illness for queer individuals. These three factors are external stressful events such as exposure to blatant, objective forms of discrimination, the expectation and paranoia of these external stressful events, and the “internalization of negative societal attitudes” (Meyer, 2003, p. 676). In other words, the primary suspects behind the alarming mental health crisis facing the queer community are the overwhelming prejudiced attitudes and behaviors targeted toward queer people, which over time become expected and even adopted by queer people themselves. Common movie and television tropes surrounding the LGBTQ+ community undoubtedly contribute to these factors by spreading negative stereotypes about queer people, which influence both how they are viewed in the world and how they view themselves. Out of the many tropes that exist in the entertainment world, the most significant and damaging are queerness being synonymous with or caused by mental illness, queer people being sexually or morally perverse, and the Bury Your Gays cliche. 

Queerness as a Mental Illness

Perhaps one of the most vivid media depictions of queerness as a mental illness comes from the iconic and beloved sitcom M*A*S*H (Gelbart et al.,1972-1983). In this dramedy surrounding an army hospital during the Korean War, the side character Corporal Maxwell Klinger (Jamie Farr) can on most occasions be seen wearing traditionally feminine clothing such as frilly dresses, jewelry, and high heels. While Corporal Klinger’s fashion choices may at first seem surprisingly progressive to a modern viewer of the show (disregarding its absurd presence in the context of war), the explicit reason why he chooses to dress the way he does is because it is supposed to serve as proof that he is mentally unstable and should therefore be sent home. For instance, when he first introduces himself to Colonel Potter in the season four episode “Change of Command” (Fritzell et al., 1975), he enters the room wearing a gown, tiara, and pearl necklace, stating, “I’m wearing a Warner bra. I play with dolls. My last wish is to be buried in my mother’s wedding gown. I’m nuts. I should be out” (Fritzell et al., 1975, 10:40). Corporal Klinger is a comedy-relief character who, despite not truly being homosexual or gender nonconforming, sends a clear message about the period’s perception of queerness: to be queer is to be mentally ill. From a solely diagnostic standpoint, M*A*S*H was correct, as homosexuality at the time (though more specifically, a year before this episode’s air date) was considered a literal mental illness. 

It wasn’t until 1973 that homosexuality was no longer considered a mental illness when the American Psychological Association (APA) removed its diagnosis from the second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Drescher, 2015, p. 570). This change, according to psychiatrist Dr. Jack Drescher (2015, p. 570), primarily came about due to pressures from the LGBTQ+ community as well as the surfacing of further sex research that disproved the notion of homosexuality as a mental disorder. However, while movies and television shows created after this change would eventually refrain from explicitly referring to queerness as a mental illness, they continued to perpetuate and spread this message in more subtle ways. One of the most significant ways in which this message is sent by modern entertainment media is the invalidation of queerness by framing it as a sometimes-curable condition experienced by particularly damaged or confused individuals.

The “Just a Phase” Trope

The trope that homosexuality and bisexuality in particular are just “phases” is what has most notably surfaced due to the media-promoted notion that queer people are simply confused and can be cured of their queerness. There are countless examples of the “just a phase” trope in film and television, though a fitting encapsulation of it can be observed in a scene in the season three episode, “Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl…” (Bicks & Thomas, 2000) of the 1998 romantic comedy series Sex and the City (Star et al., 1998-2004). In the scene in question, Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) laments to her friends that the man she is seeing is bisexual. Immediately, they all launch into a passionate conversation about the “trendiness” of bisexuality and “all the sexes” of the younger generation becoming “confused” (Bicks & Thomas, 2000, 7:30-7:40). They observe that both men and women who identify as bisexual often end up with men, which prompts Carrie to state, “I’m not even sure bisexuality exists. I think it’s just a layover on the way to ‘Gay Town’” (Bicks & Thomas, 2000, 8:09). Though this scene is comedic, it sends the clear, damaging message that people who are bisexual are actually just gay or straight and are simply identifying as bisexual temporarily. After their brief phase of experimentation and confusion is over, the trope suggests that bisexuals eventually “pick a side” and return to their normal state of hetero or homosexuality. In a broader context, this trope also often communicates that people who identify as homosexual (primarily women) or asexual aren’t truly queer, but that they simply haven’t found the right partner of the opposite sex yet to make them snap out of their delusion. In all cases of the “just a phase” media trope surrounding queerness, individuals are invalidated because of their queer identity. They are pathologized and assumed to have some sort of underlying issue that explains their queerness, and it’s suggested that if these underlying issues were to disappear, they would no longer be queer. Not only does this trope question the very legitimacy of certain queer identities, but it also sends the message that queer people can and need to be fixed. 

Once again, the mere fact that homosexuality (and any other queer identity) is no longer an officially diagnosable mental illness doesn’t mean that it isn’t subtly (and not so subtly) treated like one even in media today. The entertainment industry’s continual depiction of queerness as a result of some sort of defect that can be cured contributes to the increased mental health risks that queer people face today, especially when viewed through the lens of Meyer’s Minority Stress Model (Meyer, 2003). Without being in the frequent presence of people from the LGBTQ+ community or actively seeking out destigmatizing content, those outside of the queer community rely heavily on inaccurate media depictions of queerness to shape their perception. Thanks to the heavy stigma surrounding mental illness as well as queerness, these negative media depictions can at their worst cause others to view queer people as “crazy” and therefore deserving of social isolation or aggression and at their best cause others to view queer people as poor souls who need help. As this specific media trope and its effects on public opinion have existed for many decades, queer people have learned over time to expect this sort of reaction from the community and even internalize it. When queer people grow up constantly told by media and those who are influenced by media that their very identity is either a permanent or temporary flaw that should be corrected, they often experience cycles of shame, confusion, and even anger that negatively impact their mental health.  

Sexual and Moral Perversion

The notion that a fundamental flaw lies at the root of queerness makes up the foundation of other harmful media tropes of the LGBTQ+ community, one of which is the stereotype that queer characters are more sexually and morally depraved than their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts. In 1934, the Motion Pictures Production Code, more commonly referred to as the Hays Code, set strict guidelines and restrictions on content produced within the film industry. Maria Lewis of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image Museum writes that the purpose of the Hays Code was to more strictly manage the on-screen content that the public was exposed to, as the significant influence films had on general audiences was becoming increasingly apparent (Lewis, 2021). The Hays Code banned the depiction of several topics and subject matter deemed too inappropriate or profane to show to the public. According to the 1937 version of the code found in cultural historian Thomas Doherty’s book Pre-Code Hollywood (1999), one of these forbidden subjects was “sexual perversion” (Doherty, 1999, p. 363). Though homosexuality was not specifically mentioned in the code by name, subtext within the code such as, “Pure love, the love of a man for a woman permitted by the law of God and man, is the rightful subjects of plots” (Doherty, 1999, p. 354) cemented the ban of openly queer expression in American cinema for over three decades. Though the Hays Code was no longer in effect by 1968 (Lewis, 2021), the notion that any content related to queerness was taboo, lewd, or morally corrupt lingered. 

In modern entertainment media, common tropes that manifest out of the belief that queer people are sexually or morally corrupt come from queer people being hypersexual and interested in highly fetishized, perverted activities, and queer people being more likely to make sexual advances toward nonconsenting (often straight) individuals. These tropes are often shown comedically with varying shades of subtlety. For instance, in the widely popular comedy movie Pitch Perfect (J. Moore, 2012), Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean) is the only member of Barden University’s all-female a cappella group who is explicitly gay. The comedy surrounding this character is almost entirely dependent on her queer identity, with her most significant running gag being that she consistently makes inappropriate advances toward her groupmates. She is seen staring at Stacie’s (Alexis Knapp) breasts when asked if she can hold Stacie’s hair back if Stacie drinks too much during “Aca Initiation Night,” implying that she may be willing to take advantage of Stacie while her groupmate is intoxicated (J. Moore, 2012, 30:45). Later, when Amy (Rebel Wilson) is hit with a burrito and dramatically crumples to the ground, Cynthia is the first person to arrive. She immediately climbs on top of Amy and attempts to administer mouth-to-mouth when doing so is unnecessary (J. Moore, 2012, 1:07:45). These instances, while comedic, subtly frame the only queer character in an ensemble film as overtly sexual and predatory. 

There are unfortunately many cases where the implications of sexually and morally deviant queer characters turn from subtle and comedic to blatant and sinister. A fitting example of this development is displayed in Quentin Tarantino’s iconic 1994 film Pulp Fiction when Butch (Bruce Willis) and Marcellus (Ving Rhames) are captured by a pawn shop owner and a police officer. When Butch and Marcellus wake up tied to chairs with BDSM gags tied around their mouths while the shop owner and police officer vaguely discuss what to do with them, it becomes increasingly clear that the kidnappers intend to rape them. To send the message home that the two kidnappers are exceptionally sick and twisted, they awaken The Gimp, a man in a cage who is led on a leash and covered entirely in black leather and zippers, to become involved in the horrific event that is about to occur (Tarantino, 1994, 1:57:00). The sight of The Gimp as well as the gags around Butch and Marcellus’ mouths are so ridiculous compared to the rest of the plot surrounding the two characters up to this point that this scene has an initially comedic underlying tone. However, as the scene progresses, the danger and evil posed by the kidnappers become increasingly sinister and, eventually, fully realized. While this scene still manages to comedically communicate that queer people (specifically gay men) are sexually perverse in its beginning, it even more significantly communicates a recurring media message that queer people are outright dangerous and malicious individuals who pose a serious threat to society by its end. 

Queer Villains

In media directed at children, queer characters are still often depicted as threatening and evil even without the inclusion of overtly sexual themes or behaviors. Disregarding those who incite fear through the threat of demented sexual violence, there are still countless queer or queer-coded (meaning that they are solely implied to be queer through subtext) villains dominating the entertainment world. When these villains are men, they are often depicted as flamboyant and effeminate. On the other hand, when these villains are female, they are often depicted as brutish and masculine. One of the most frequent contributors to this trend is the multi-billion mass media and entertainment company, the Walt Disney Company. For instance, King Candy (Alan Tudyk), the murderous and power-hungry main antagonist in the 2012 Disney film Wreck-It-Ralph (R. Moore), wears a purple and gold ensemble completed with white lacy sleeve cuffs, tights, a large pink bowtie, a ruff, and a small, comical crown. He also drives a sparkly pink car, lives in a mostly pink castle, employs feminine hand gestures, and speaks with a stereotypical lisp (R. Moore, 2012). Other queer-coded male Disney villains along the same vein as King Candy include Captain Hook (Hans Conried) in Peter Pan (Geronimi et al., 1953), Governor Ratcliffe in Pocahontas (Gabriel & Goldberg, 1995), and Scar (Jeremy Irons) in The Lion King (Allers & Minkoff, 1994). In contrast, Ursula the Sea Witch (Pat Carroll) in the 1989 Disney film The Little Mermaid (Musker & Clements, 1989) has a deep, gravelly voice, a wide jaw and chin, short spiky hair, and exaggerated, drag queen-esque makeup. The queer-coded female Disney villain trope is not as common due to female villains in general not being as common as male villains, though some more antagonist characters who share similar features with Ursula are the Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton) in Alice in Wonderland (Geronimi et al., 1951) and the Matchmaker (Miriam Margolyes) in Mulan (Cook & Bancroft, 1998).

Despite not being directly presented as queer or sexually threatening like the previously discussed examples, queer-coded villains in popular movies directed at children are still harmful representations of the queer community. They, like the perverted queer characters in mature films, send the message that those who even seem like they may deviate from hetero or cis normativity are threats that need to be neutralized. The fact that queer villains appear heavily in children’s programs is even more alarming since this message is being conveyed to young people who are generally more impressionable and less likely to question the reality that fictional stories imply. Hollywood framing queer people as potential perverts and villains encourages further rejection, discrimination, and possibly even violence against the LGBTQ+ community in the real world. Within the LGBTQ+ community itself, this trend also has the potential to trigger feelings of self-loathing or paranoia that one will at some point commit violent acts against others with little control. As many queer villains are often rewarded with death or pain at the end of their respective stories, many queer people may be manipulated by these stories into believing that they deserve to suffer, possibly resulting in self-destructive behaviors or the avoidance of treatment for existing mental health issues. Like with the “queerness as a mental illness” trope, both the external and internal effects of the “queer perversion and moral corruption” trope have negative impacts on queer mental health.

The Bury Your Gays Phenomenon

Audiences generally applaud when a queer villain meets their brutal end—and in more cases than not, this reaction is completely understandable given the horrific acts committed by said villain. However, the message that queer villains don’t deserve a happy ending doesn’t seem to dissipate entirely in stories that feature non-antagonistic queer characters. In many television shows and films that feature queer or queer-coded characters (often part of the supporting cast), a vague motif of suffering and death hangs around these characters despite there being a distinct lack of villainy to warrant such suffering. This disturbing trend, which often manifests itself as the untimely death of a love interest in a same-sex couple, is what is often referred to as the Bury Your Gays trope. According to an article published in the McNair Scholars Journal titled, “Bury Your Gays: History, Usage, and Context,” the Bury Your Gays trope has existed in literature since the 1800s (Hulan, 2017). While the trope was created so queer authors could write about queer relationships without breaking laws that banned the promotion of homosexuality, it is no longer necessary today since these laws are now largely nonexistent (Hulan, 2017, p. 17). 

However, not only has Bury Your Gays continued to exist, but it has also expanded to media outside of literature. In the popular late 1990s fantasy drama series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Whedon et al., 1997-2003), Willow (Alyson Hannigan), one of the show’s main characters, has a loving, yet complicated relationship with her girlfriend Tara (Amber Benson). However, as soon as the couple gets back together after being broken up in the season six episode “Seeing Red” (DeKnight & Gershman, 2002), Tara immediately dies by being shot on accident with a stray bullet (DeKnight & Gershman, 2002, 36:00). Similarly, Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey) in the drama series The 100 (Rothenberg et al., 2014-2020) is suddenly killed off the very same way in the season three episode “Thirteen” (Grillo-Marxuach & White, 2016, 31:47), just minutes after finally sleeping with Clarke (Eliza Taylor), a woman she has spent nearly a full season developing a strong bond with. Even though these episodes aired nearly fifteen years apart, the Bury Your Gays cliche is used in nearly identical ways within each story. The constant death that lingers around every corner for queer couples in media sends the message that queer people must pay an ultimate price in exchange for embracing their identity or finding nonheteronormative love.

However, it isn’t only death that queer characters in films and television must worry about. Although Bury Your Gays originally refers to the death of homosexual romantic interests, it has evolved over the years to include queer characters going through constant pain as a result of their queerness. Other ways in which LGBTQ+ characters are denied happiness due to their identity include the depiction of experiences such as persistent mental anguish and relentless bullying and abuse. Of course, these are legitimate issues that the LGBTQ+ community often faces, and on-screen representations of these issues aren’t inherently problematic; in fact, they can help bring these issues to the public’s attention and can also resonate with queer viewers who share similar experiences. It is also simply unrealistic and boring to depict characters in stories with perfect, conflict-free lives. However, the overrepresentation of queer death and pain sends a clear message: to be queer is to suffer. Witnessing this constant on-screen death and pain is damaging to the mental health of the LGBTQ+ community because there are rarely any portrayals of genuine, long-term joy to counteract all the bleak fates that fictional queer characters are forced to endure. The predominant options of endings that media seems to offer queer characters are largely negative and limited, whereas those outside of the community are given a wide, complex selection of endings associated with triumph, tragedy, pride, power, and so on. By being told throughout history that they will inevitably suffer and that they deserve to suffer, many queer people have grown to expect and accept the notion that they are bound to lead miserable lives because of their identity. 

Replacing Negative Queer Representation

Although LGBTQ+ representation in media is not the only influence on the state of queer mental health, correcting negative media tropes and replacing them with positive ones can help destigmatize and normalize queer identities. Rather than depict queer people as only queer due to a mental illness, sexually and morally twisted, and doomed to suffer, modern entertainment media should prioritize treating queer characters as diverse, complex human beings. Instead of queer characters being valued for their ability to fulfill stereotypes or serve as dispensable vehicles for tragedy, they should be valued for providing opportunities to tell new, refreshing stories that resonate with both queer and non-queer audiences. Luckily, movies and television shows today have been making progress in breaking down the stigmas that they have helped shape in the past. Films and TV shows such as Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (Kwan & Scheinert, 2022), Love, Simon (Berlanti, 2018), Heartstopper (Walters et al., 2022-present), and Booksmart (Wilde, 2019) uplift and humanize queer characters by depicting both the ups and downs of their lives as they navigate their queer identities. These depictions emphasized celebrating the triumphs and happiness of queer individuals despite the adversity they may face. Equally important representation can be found in ensemble television shows such as Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Goor et al., 2013-2021), The Umbrella Academy (Way et al., 2019-present), and Schitt’s Creek (Levy et al., 2015-2020), which all contain queer characters as part of their core cast. These depictions of the LGBTQ+ community work to normalize the presence of queer people within diverse stories that aren’t always centered around sexuality or gender identity. These characters, while occasionally undergoing arcs relating to their queerness, are first and foremost shown as functional and relatively ordinary members of their respective in-universe communities. Essentially, positive and, at the very least, humanizing media representation is necessary to combat messages that have historically contributed to both external and internal stigmas surrounding the LGBTQ+ community. With queer mental health in its current vulnerable state, the highly influential entertainment industry should refrain from producing content that could damage it further and continue producing content that could help push it in an upward trajectory.

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