Every Disney princess movie I watched as a child ended the same way: the prince swooped in to save the princess, they got married, and lived happily ever after. Although this is a nice story, the problem arises when it’s the only story being told. Before the days of Frozen, Moana, and Brave, pretty much every Disney princess movie had the same basic plot. As a 2003 baby, I grew up on Snow White, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and Sleeping Beauty. The details in these movies are different, sure, but the stories are the same. As a highly impressionable child, I learned that this was the way life was meant to be.
However, Disney is not the only perpetrator. Almost all childrens’ media comprises of white, cis, straight, able-bodied, neurotypical characters. As a white, cisgender, able-bodied girl, I saw a lot of myself in these shows and movies. However, many others do not have the same experience. Lack of diverse representation in media is a huge problem, not only for queer people, but for anyone who doesn’t fit the ‘norm’. Childrens’ media plays such a big role in shaping the opinions of youth, and the lack of diversity is honestly embarrassing.
Mainstream media has always been extremely heteronormative(1). Because of this, many queer folks take a lot longer than our straight-cis counterparts to realize or come to terms with our sexualities or gender identities. Cisgender/straightness is something that is assumed from birth, and identifying outside of those is considered abnormal. Queer folks are pressured with ‘coming out’, something our straight or cis counterparts never had to deal with, because their identity was assumed correctly. Why are we so quick to assume people’s identities, especially in an age when so many people don’t fit the assumptions?
A big part of the answer is lack of representation. If every movie in the cinema is about straight people, it will reinforce the belief that straightness is expected, and queerness is different. Even the word “queer” itself originally meant strange and odd. This is extremely harmful to LGBTQ+ folks who are already ostracized from society. Not only does this affect us by not allowing us to see ourselves represented in the media we consume, but also by shaping other people’s beliefs and assumptions about our community as a whole.
However, this is beginning to change. According to Gallup, 1 in 6 gen Zers identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community (Jones 2021). But are more of us queer than in the past, or are more of us just coming out? With the increase in queer representation, more and more queer people not only are able to come to terms with their sexualities, but feel comfortable openly identifying as LGBTQ+. In addition to this, the internet has allowed much more diverse media to be available to young people. However, we still have a long way to go.
Current examples of queer mainstream media aren’t as diverse as they should be. Almost all queer movies are centered around coming out. Why can’t the main character just happen to be queer without the entire story being about their queerness? These types of movies reduce queer people to our queerness, when in reality, we are just as complex and multifaceted as straight/cis people. On the other hand, if it’s not about coming out, often times the only queer character is portrayed by a stereotypical and overused trope. Examples include the ‘gay best friend’, butch lesbians, and ‘gender benders’. Not only does this cause non-LGBTQ+ people to make assumptions about how queer people look and act, but also causes queer people to question our own validity. If I want to wear feminine clothes and makeup and keep my hair long, can I still identify as wlw(2) when every lesbian I see on TV looks more masculine?
I myself, along with many of my queer friends, have often experienced the same response to coming out: “but you don’t look gay/lesbian/trans/etc.”. Just because someone’s physical appearance doesn’t match how their identity is portrayed onscreen doesn’t make them any less valid. It is imperative that we all examine our own biases and assumptions when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community. Almost everyone has them, and they are usually not the fault of the individual, but rather the fault of a heteronormative society.
Another problem, faced by wlw, is lesbian representation purely for the enjoyment of men. Lesbian relationships have been portrayed in media for longer than gay relationships because men want to see them. This reduces wlw and lesbian relationships to their appeal of men, which is exactly the opposite of how it should be. Lesbian women have to deal with men constantly saying things like “I can turn you straight”, partly due to their harmful oversexualization in media. This becomes exhausting and annoying to the point that some wlw are pushed back into the closet.
I’ve discussed the harm that many queer folks face, but what about people with less common identities? Non-binary identities, asexuality, and other less widely accepted identities are almost never represented in media. Because of this, many people wont even know these identities even exist without taking it upon themselves to do the research. Even the people who identify by these terms may not have known they existed for many years. It is extremely hard to figure out your own identity when you don’t even know that your identity exists.
Growing up, my knowledge of queer identities before doing my own research was limited to gay, lesbian, and trans. Because of this, I had a bit of an identity crisis when I first realized I had feelings for both boys and girls. I spent months of my life questioning whether I was straight or gay before learning that sexuality was a spectrum and other identities existed. This could have been avoided for me and so many young people by just including bisexual, non-binary, and other identities in mainstream media.
The main argument against LGBTQ+ representation in media, especially childrens’ media, is that it will brainwash and make the children gay. No one has answered this better than Florence Given: “Queer representation in the media isn’t going to brainwash your child…. Because heteronormativity already has” (Given 2020, 118). I can assure you, having media be entirely straight and cis is much more harmful to your child than having LGBTQ+ representation.
In conclusion, we need more queer representation and we need it now. Not just gay best friends and butch lesbians, but trans politicians, disabled asexuals, lesbian Muslims, non-binary parents… overall way more diversity. Diverse media will open the minds of many people in society and lead to a more accepting and safe world for queer people to live in.
(1) Heteronormativity: “the assumption that heterosexuality is the standard for defining normal sexual behavior and that male–female differences and gender roles are the natural and immutable essentials in normal human relations” (“heteronormativity” 2020).
(2) Wlw: women-loving-women
What can I do to help?
Sign petitions to advocate for more diverse mainstream movies and television shows.
If you are a parent, make an effort to diversify the media your child is consuming. Here is a great list of LGBTQ+ childrens’ books.
Educate yourself on LGBTQ+ terms and identities.
Learn more about LGBTQ+ representation in the media and where we stand as a society today.
Given, Florence. 2020. Women Don’t Owe You Pretty. London, Great Britain: Octopus Publishing Group Ltd.
“heteronormativity.” 2020. APA Dictionary of Psychology. https://dictionary.apa.org/heteronormativity.
Jones, Jeffrey M. 2021. “LGBT Identification Rises to 5.6% in Latest U.S. Estimate.” Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/poll/329708/lgbt-identification-rises-latest-estimate.aspx.