With the (albeit slow) rise of queer representation in media, the community has had more characters to relate to than ever. This positive forward progress is a good promise for the future, even if there’s still a lot of failure. However, not all media including or about queer people is good representation. This distinction and nuance is missed on a lot of young viewers, especially with the popularity of movies like Call Me by Your Name and shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Just because the characters are gay doesn’t mean the representation is positive.
Now, this can go in multiple directions. Sometimes the poor representation is due to the story and has an incredibly negative impact. Other times, it doesn’t hinder the story or character at all, and it’s the audience who misses the point. Either way, if the audience does not grasp the nuance in queer representation, this will stall progress and will only beget more flawed portrayals.
When consuming media with queer characters, don’t assume it’s going to be positive, healthy representation. For example, Call Me by Your Name is a love story between two men. Except not really. Because one of those “men” is only seventeen. That’s right. Everyone’s favorite “progressive” new movie is about a grown man in a relationship with a teenager. And, regardless of legality, it’s still morally wrong. There’s an inherent power imbalance in a relationship between an adult and a child. Furthermore, even in your early twenties you’re still worlds away from a teenager’s maturity level. Given this, you can’t call this positive gay representation. In fact, it may even do more harm than good.
For decades, the queer community has fought against the dangerous stereotype that all gay men are pedophiles. And, while this “love story” isn’t exactly pedophilia, it’s pretty darn close. A story like this only has the potential to set the fight back, rather than to help push it forward. Additionally, many fans of this film are teenagers themselves. They don’t yet have the decision-making skills and discretion to fully understand why this is so wrong (although there are always exceptions to this rule). Teenagers view themselves as grown up; many of them will see this as one of their own being treated as he deserves. Instead, this is a grown man sexualizing a kid and a kid being taken advantage of. If you’re looking for positive gay representation and a healthy relationship, this is not the film for you.
On the other side of this coin, just because a character’s coming out arc is good, doesn’t mean they are positive queer representation. Take Mac McDonald from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, for example. Over the course of twelve (short) seasons, we watch him drown in denial, even as his gayness becomes harder and harder to hide. By season twelve, he is out and proud. In fact, he never shuts up about it! And all this is great. Except. Mac is, after all, still Mac. And, being a main character on Sunny, he is an egocentric asshole. Despite how meaningful his arc is, he is still not positive queer representation.
However, unlike with Call Me by Your Name, this doesn’t come as a detriment to the show. Mac was never intended to be good gay representation. He’s meant to be a terrible person who is also gay. So the issue isn’t in the show’s portrayal of his character; it’s in members of the audience who don’t understand this.
I’ve seen a few different thinkpieces and complaints on this very issue. People complained when Mac went back in the closet after he came out in season 11. People accused Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Glenn Howerton of not wanting to write queer characters. Naturally, these people were wrong. They’re also placing way too much importance on these despicable characters representing them. The entire point of the show is that these characters are bad people and they don’t grow or change. Mac’s being openly gay doesn’t change that. If you’re expecting to find a role model or even Your Average Gay™, then this is not the show for you.
In fighting for more representation, we’ve become complacent. We settle for what we get, deciding that any representation is better than no representation. Or, we fail to see the nuance. We don’t recognize that sometimes a thing can be gay and still bad. We refuse to criticize queer media or expect too much from it. But it’s perfectly natural, and, in fact, acceptable to be critical of the representation we do get. It’s fine to take it with a grain of salt or understanding that not every queer character is meant to represent us. Don’t just pick your battles, pick which stories deserve your admiration and support. And remember, even with objectively unproblematic representative stories and characters, not every single one is going to reflect you. And that’s okay too. Ultimately, even though gay doesn’t always mean good, it is great to be gay. So go on with your queer selves!