If you’ve ever seen an episode of “The Office,” you may know the character Oscar Martinez. He is a gay, Latino man who works at Dunder Mifflin as a paper supply accountant. And, despite the numerous episodes I’ve seen, this is all I could tell you about him. I couldn’t tell you anything about his family, aspirations or daily trials and tribulations (except, of course, the notorious Michael Scott).
Oscar is one of many gay characters who function as “token characters,” adding a superficial layer of diversity but providing no depth. We never learn anything about Oscar beyond the fact that he’s gay.
Though representation of gay culture on TV, film and magazines has increased, the representation conveys a warped depiction of LBGTQ life. Media platforms place gay characters on the sidelines and, on the off chance they do get the opportunity to take center stage, their stories revolve around struggles exclusive to being gay.
Nielsen, a company dedicated to studying consumer habits and ratings, found that adults ages 18-24 watch approximately 14.5 hours of TV weekly, ample opportunity for viewers to have their perception of the world melded and comported to the ideology of television.
Camden McNeil, a lesbian-identifying sophomore majoring in finance, said LGBTQ characters are portrayed in a one-dimensional way.
“Television tries to incorporate gay people but all their issues revolve around their ‘gayness,'” she said. “Even on the L Word, the characters deal primarily with issues related to being gay – one of them questions if she’s bi, one of them has a father who isn’t accepting. The media doesn’t show gay people living their lives and having identities outside of being gay.”
We can’t expect the heterosexual, cisgender community to understand the LGBTQ experience when we are skewing it and oversimplifying it right in front of their eyes.
“It’s become a trope to have the comedic, queer best friend,” said Sam Chan, a gay-identifying senior majoring in musical theater. “TV is built upon stereotypes, but being queer is anything but a stereotype. Queer people live outside the box and TV likes to box them in. The media around me tells me I have to be one pole of the gender binary: ‘masc’ or ‘femme.’ But I’m neither, I’m both.”
We depend on the media to mirror our experiences and help us craft our identities. When asked who their biggest media role models were, both students chose real people, not fictional characters. McNeil chose spunky liberal news anchor Rachel Maddow, and Chan said the gay community of YouTube. Impressionable, young LGBTQ people seek real, live inspiration because they don’t feel they see their side of the human condition reflected on TV, in magazines or in film.
The platform we turn to for inspiration and comfort is failing this community and shifting that paradigm is really how we can best serve the LGBTQ population.
Dana Munro is a sophomore majoring in musical theater.