There have been people of LGBTQ+ experiences throughout recorded history. They have come with different personalities, genders, skin colors, abilities, and socioeconomic status. What seems to be the only link between the current community of LGBTQ+ folks and those throughout history boils down to a problem of representation – or lack thereof – in the cultures in which they inhabit. While LGBTQ+ folk have existed for a long time, representations of them in society and culture as a whole has been extraordinarily limited. In fact, it has been until only the past few decades that LGBTQ+ folks have received any real amount of depiction in cinema, television, plays, and other forms of mass media. Before the 1990’s, a very heteronormative standard of viewing these folk has been in place. Prior to the flourish of gay representation in the mid-90’s, most representations of LGBTQ+ folk have been either seriously lacking, coded for gay audiences only, or playing roles of villains and victims. Yet as this flourish of LGBTQ+ visibility has blossomed in media, so too has it become more acceptable for queer people to exist in the public spaces in real life. Despite this development, the pictures of these folk are not complete, complex, or truly representative of many forms of queer life. These representations, however, provide an outlet, especially for youths who need to see themselves as people too, in a world which values heterosexuality more than non-heterosexuality. These representations thus provide a very blurry sort of mirror that is very important to a developing sense of self and identity which allows a creative outlet of expression for youth. Ideally, as these characters of LGBTQ+ folk become more complex, so too does our understanding of what it means to be LGBTQ+ in a culture.
With the rise of mass media – from the radio to the television to the Internet – has come a rise in representational images of all types of people. However, much of these representations only depict part of the actuality of real life – the part that society as a whole wants to see. For LGBTQ+ people, representations have been extraordinarily limited. While there have been hundreds of characters “coded” – that is to say, never verbally explained in media, but understood especially to the queer audiences who search for a mirror of themselves in media – many of them have been either in negative lights – depicting sadness, grief, lacking morality, or even evil incarnate – and rarely offered the roles which are offered to heterosexual characters, people, and situations. In fact, with very few exceptions, all of these images have been adult characters, personalities, and situations, leaving no room and no examples for youths to follow. Even as the perception of these LGBTQ+ folk have changed to be more inclusive, youths have been mainly absent from the screens, insinuating that LGBTQ+ youth does not, in fact, exist. This has created a gap in representation which was never really been bridged until youth oriented television has allowed for representation, the most well-known example being the television show Glee.
Yet while the LGBTQ+ youth representations are growing slowly in the current day, LGBTQ+ folk have been told what to wear, buy, look like, and act like throughout the decades of mass media. Especially in the 1990’s as more LGBTQ+ populations were being targeted as a niche market, youths have always been told how to look queer, or buy queer, because Elton John is listening to XM Satellite Radio, and Ellen is wearing Covergirl. Seeing as teens are a unique market themselves, representations of LGBTQ+ consumerism has fueled a market of trend-setting queers who look good and consume everything. So while we may assume that progress is moving forward, simply because we can all now see at least simple mirrors of our queer selves and be – for the most part – accepted by our peers, what we should also be noticing is how capitalism is helping queer youth feed into the reciprocal cycle of what Rebecca Raby calls “pleasurable consumption” (431). In A Tangle of Discourses: Girls Negotiating Adolescence, she makes the claim that “If teenagehood is a time of insecurity, teenagers can buy products and brand names that will help them negotiate that insecurity… Consumption emerges as a way for teenagers to express their emerging individuality, and as a safe outlet for youthful energies,” (437-8). So too is this true with queer youth who have the money and need to self-express a queer style of life guided by Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
This pleasurable consumption, however, should neither be taken as positive phenomenon, nor cast in a light of darkness, because the capitalist society in which we live allows us to see media and consume it. So to be angry at capitalism is to be angry at the representations we do and don’t see as consumers of capitalism. We must approach this new representational outlet of LGBTQ+ expression with both pride and take it with a grain of salt. While we should work towards more complex representations of the lives of LGBTQ+ folks, we must not lose sight of the capitalistic prospects which assimilate the queer communities into the same capitalism that runs the heterosexual patriarchy.
Nevertheless, these representations are indeed important, especially for youth, whom face the biggest problems within the home. Because of the prevailing myths of LGBTQ+ folks that have been painted since the dawn of mass media, there are still serious problems within the home for youths whom have begun to go further off the straight and narrow path of heterosexuality. What we’re not seeing is the homelessness and poverty of youth who are LGBTQ+ identified who are being abandoned both by these stereotypes and the myths that many people believe about queer life – mainly the conservative parents of these LGBTQ+ youth. For the youths of the current age, many of whom are not finding acceptance and stability they need in order to survive, the media becomes disillusioning once again. These white middle-classed depictions of wealthy LGBTQ+ folk are not the experiences of many teens who struggle with basic necessities throughout life. As a result, not only are we focusing our glance on happy-go-luck queers, but we’re also missing the bigger picture – that there is a real need for accurate representation and acceptance within the media of all types of LGBTQ+ folk. As it stands, the image is skewed.That is not to say that it hasn’t gotten better. Since the mid-1990’s, mass media has seen a flourishing of queer cultures which have given rise to more acceptance and representation in both media outlets and lived experiences. Now, queer characters can be more than just the villain or pervert. Yet while there is room for movement, we are still missing the real aspects of true depiction. Today’s queer character exists simply as a caricature of queer experiences – campy like Jack on Will and Grace, or flamboyant and fashionable like Kurt on Glee. However, by adding these characters, we are forced to face a world in which new visibility allows for the acceptance of actual queer folk. What we can look forward to for now is simply the growing cultural representation of LGBTQ+ folks that continues to change and progress towards depictions of full-fledged human life. Until then, some of us LGBTQ+ folks must be content with “representation at any cost”.