Hollywood is notorious for its use of stereotypes, and members of the LGBTQ+ community deal with their fair share. Instead of focusing on the clichéd and sometimes hurtful representations of queer folk in the media, however, we wanted to highlight some of the shows and movies getting it right. Here are some of the movies and shows featuring queer characters with subtlety and nuance, whose sexuality is just a part of who they are.
The Wire was a show about some of the baddest dudes ever to live in Baltimore, and the baddest of them all was Omar Little. Omar was a stick-up man, frequently stealing from some of the more notorious drug dealers. He was an intimidating dude with a strong moral code. Omar didn’t kill anyone who wasn’t a criminal, and he refused to use profanity. He was a well-crafted, fascinating character whose moral ambiguity made him one of The Wire‘s most interesting and compelling characters. He also happened to be gay.
What makes Omar’s homosexuality so shocking is the world he exists in. Gangsters are notoriously homophobic, whether they’re old school Sicilians or from the streets of Compton. Yet Omar clearly has no shame about his sexuality and is generally open about his relationships with other men. Omar’s sexuality isn’t his defining characteristic. Instead, it’s one of the many facets of a complicated character. When Omar kisses another man in season one it comes as a shock because gay men aren’t usually portrayed as gun-toting badasses. He’s the opposite of a stereotype. He’s complex and fascinating, with layers to his character well beyond his sexuality.
Michael K. Williams received a good bit of critical acclaim for his portrayal of Omar. USA Today named him as one of the top ten reasons they still loved TV. Omar was initially supposed to die after seven episodes but was so popular that he survived for three full seasons. He’s the gay gangster Robin Hood, and that’s about as far from typical as it gets. [Danielle Ryan]
Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal was a feast for the senses. It was a miracle of a show — visually sumptuous, gut-churningly gory, and yet weirdly classical. Every week served up a new course in a season-long meal. Every season finale was a perfect dessert, always wrapping up loose ends just in case NBC decided to cancel the show. Despite low ratings, NBC kept Hannibal on the air for three seasons, fostering a loyal fandom.
But Fuller and the show caught a bit of flak for the show’s treatment of sexuality. The first season was relatively chaste, but the relationship between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter grew ever more intimate. They were in one another’s heads, and the show wasn’t at all subtle about their platonic love affair. Some fans interpreted this as “queer-baiting,” a narrative trope where the show teases a same-sex relationship between two characters, only to later reveal that both are canonically heterosexual.
But in Hannibal‘s central cast, almost no-one was canonically heterosexual. That includes Alana Bloom, who was originally Alan Bloom in Thomas Harris’s novels. Though she and Will acknowledged a romance between them, Alana later fell for Hannibal. After that ended in a bloodbath, Alana met Margot Verger. In the novels, Margot was a crude lesbian caricature. Here, she was more human — something of an anomaly on this show. But when Alana and Margot begin a romantic relationship (revealed in an epic kaleidoscopic love scene), fans were concerned. Was this no more than a salacious fling to titillate viewers?
As it turns out, no. The show kept their relationship going. Alana and Margot built a life and a family for themselves. But does that make characters like Alana, Will, or Hannibal canonically bisexual? Fuller seems to argue that in the show’s context, the labels don’t matter. What does matter is that Hannibal’s queer relationships were lasting and meaningful. [Travis Newton]
Far From Heaven
Todd Haynes’ magnificent ode to the honey-glazed dramas of yesteryear is lucid and honest where it matters most. It embraces and fairly portrays the claustrophobic and scary life people of color and homosexuals had to face in that era. It’s not shown as taboo or debauchery, but rather facts of life in the crosshairs of public opinion. Dennis Quaid’s sexuality forces him into a life of sneaking and overcompensation.
Though the interracial love story is at the forefront, the way the film addresses sexuality is as important to the tapestry of Haynes’ (who is openly gay) vision. It’s a remarkable film that hopefully one day will showcase the great divide between past and present. One we currently haven’t achieved. [Nick Nunziata]
But I’m a Cheerleader
But I’m a Cheerleader is one of those rare little gems made by queer people, for queer people. Though it offers some broad appeal with its quirky humor and fun, John Waters by-way-of Tim Burton color palette, the film was made especially for those feeling like they didn’t fit the status quo. The film’s central protagonist, Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is sent by her family to a “pray the gay away”-style camp to “cure” her of her lesbianism. The thing is, Megan doesn’t think she’s gay. She believes that she can’t be, because she loves girly things and, after all, she’s a cheerleader. At the camp, she ends up falling in love (with another woman) and realizes that being gay doesn’t mean conforming to stereotypes.
The film features several queer characters. Each is unique, and many are commentaries on stereotypes. One girl at the camp fits the “butch” stereotype with short hair and masculine features, but she is attracted to men. Others have tried to repress their homosexuality with ridiculous results. The film’s message is to be whoever you are without worrying about what the world thinks.
When Megan escapes and lives for a time with two gay men who help those fleeing the camp, she laments that she doesn’t know how to be a lesbian. (Despite the fact that she clearly is in love with another woman.) One of them tells her, “There’s not just one way to be a lesbian. You have to continue to be who you are.” That’s not just good advice for queer people, it’s good advice for everyone. But I’m a Cheerleader is a great little indie flick that promotes love, laughter, and self-acceptance. [Danielle Ryan]
The 100 began as a typical sci-fi teen-oriented drama, but along the way began breaking the mold for characters. The most well known was introduced in the second season. Alycia Debnam-Carey’s Lexa was a warrior queen of the native population. A proven champion, she fights as well as introduces reforms based on her understanding of the ways of the newcomers in her community. A violent yet wise chief, she is an imposing and intimidating force commanding thousands. After several episodes with subtext, she eventually kisses Clarke, the female main character. They begin a turbulent relationship that lasts until (and after) Lexa’s death.
Given the deep nuances of the character, when Lexa was killed it triggered an avalanche of public response. The manner in which the situation was handled was deemed a continuation of the “Bury Your Gays” trope, where an otherwise interesting character is killed primarily to service the plot of a straight character. The fan outcry started “The Lexa Pledge” alongside The Trevor Project, to hold television writers and producers accountable for LGBTQ+ sensitive actions and storylines. [Isaac Fischer]
“Malec” is one of the hottest gay couples around. Episode 12 of Shadowhunters, titled “Malec” contained one of the most adorable and epic moments of the whole season. The wedding that is supposed to be between Alec and Lydia, is disturbed by Magnus, who says nothing but stands there and looks at Alec. It’s a nail-biting scene where Alec strides down the aisle and walks up to Magnus, grabs him by the lapels of his blazer and kisses him on the lips.
The love between these two was one of the first in a big YA series in modern times. It was unique in that it featured a prominently gay couple in the books, film, and TV show. With this great undertaking, the producers of the show set out to create a truly beautiful moment between Magnus and Alec. They provided that in episode 12 and I feel privileged to have witnessed it.
Shadowhunters has done an excellent job in keeping everything normal and showing that being gay is more nuanced that the usual stereotypes. I leave you with the words of Alec Lightwood “I’m the same person I’ve always been. Now everything’s just out in the open.” [Kitty Bates]