Defining a Character’s Sexuality is Still Important
As a writer, I have been through a lot of workshops and received a lot of feedback. There’s one note that I have gotten several times, one note that I still come back to when I’m writing or even when I’m watching a new show.
“You don’t need to say this character is gay.”
Once explained, it was an innocent enough comment. Some people would argue that stating a character’s sexuality isn’t necessary, that not making it ‘a thing’ helps normalize LGBTQ identities. As much as I want that argument to be true — and I hope one day it may be true — we’re not quite there yet. So, I would like to present the opposite argument.
Defining a character’s sexuality is still important, and here’s why:
There are a number of characters that have been claimed by the LGBTQ community as Queer Icons. Mulan from Disney’s Mulan is the most prominent example from my own life. The story of Mulan portrays a girl hiding her true self to protect her family, and if that isn’t one of the most relatable stories for a young LGBTQ person, the song Reflection is also the biggest coming out bop Disney has ever released. And we can’t forget the obvious sexual confusion Li Shang faced throughout the film.
Similar arguments can be made for Elsa in Frozen, a queen who was “othered” and in the end never needed the love of a prince, only the love she had for her sister. Or, there’s Brave’s Merida, who had no interest in marrying at all. Timon and Pumbaa, adoptive male co-parents of Simba in The Lion King, Hades, who would be the epitome of Meg’s ‘sassy gay friend’ if it weren’t overshadowed by his desires to control the cosmos — there are countless examples of diverse sexualities throughout Disney movies alone.
All of these are examples that LGBTQ folk have found and claimed for themselves, not characters that were expressly given to us. We project molds that we have created to define our own identities onto these characters, and we do this to be able to see ourselves represented by them. Even Li Shang, who is the most obvious example, has never had his sexuality ‘confirmed’ in any manner. He’s even reportedly been cut from the live action remake, allowing the writers to further avoid handling his story and sexuality in a modern light.
There are plenty of characters out there that hold projections from LGBTQ folk: Sherlock Holmes, Dean Winchester, and about half of the cast of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. The LGBTQ community has claimed plenty of characters for ourselves, isn’t it about time we’re given some?
That’s it, that’s the sole reason I have as to why I will always find a way to state or explore my characters’ sexualities and why other writers should too. Representation isn’t just about a community being able to claim or project upon a character, it’s about giving them a clear example of someone like them.
The first time I saw someone in popular media that I could relate to wasn’t even a character. During the mass of Coming Out videos on YouTube in 2014, I came across Shane Dawson’s video, and for the first time, I heard a story that sounded like mine. It was the first time I ever felt good about the label ‘bisexual’, because there was someone else that shared my experience. The only other time I had even heard the term ‘bisexual’ within the content I watched was in an episode of Glee, when Blaine thought he could be “bi” after kissing Rachel, and that episode was full of biphobic language that did not make me want to accept that I was bi.
With shows like The Bisexual and even Brooklyn Nine-Nine showing characters that do confront their sexualities and come out, or just are out, we’re seeing progress. But comments like the note I received, that we don’t need to state a character’s sexuality, or that doing so is ‘shoving it in peoples’ faces’, are pulling that progress back. It may be a popular argument that we don’t need to ‘make a thing’ of queer characters anymore, but I will always argue for more direct representation. People deserve to clearly see their identities represented, not just projected onto these blank-slate characters.