GLAAD, an organization dedicated to promoting representation and equality for the LGBTQIA+ community, has released its annual report on the state of representation in media (and in particular, television). The overall news is somewhat disappointing, as this season is the first since 2013-14 to show a decrease in representation overall. However, there are smaller victories within the report that are important to highlight. There’s a lot to unpack in the analysis, which covers television as a whole, so we’re breaking down some of the top insights for you.
According to GLAAD’s report, just four showrunners account for 1 in 5 (17%) of the LGBTQIA+ characters on television. Those creators are Ryan Murphy, Greg Berlanti, Shonda Rhimes, and Lena Waithe. Murphy’s shows in particular are responsible for much of the transgender representation in the report via his series Pose (which features three characters living with HIV, who are the only characters on television depicted as living with HIV). This was noted to be a problem for representation, as one show being overrepresented in these tallies makes the overall representation vulnerable to show cancellations, planned endings, or even storyline changes that remove an LGBTQIA+ character. As GLAAD pointed out, this also applies to the COVID-19 pandemic, with many LGBTQIA+ focused shows facing production delays and even ending sooner than expected (like Glow, for example). It also makes it harder to get an accurate gauge on representation overall, since several shows having a lot of representation can mask the shows that have none or very little.
In the same way that certain showrunners are responsible for a large percentage of representation, certain networks have more representation than others. The divide is also stark between broadcast and cable, with cable seeing a huge decrease in LGBTQIA+ characters (215 characters last year, 118 characters this year). Of the broadcast networks, The CW (Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow) had the most LGBTQIA+ characters represented at 14.2% of their series regulars, and FOX was the only broadcast network to increase the amount of LGBTQIA+ series regulars on its shows, increasing to 8.5%. However, one area of improvement that GLAAD introduced for broadcast to work on is that while many broadcast series contain LGBTQIA+ characters in a larger ensemble of straight characters, “the broadcast networks have not produced a primetime scripted series with a majority cast of LGBTQ characters like those seen on cable and streaming.” Additionally, many shows with queer leads on broadcast ended this season, like Stumptown and How To Get Away With Murder. One bright spot is that unlike cable, all transgender characters on broadcast networks are played by transgender actors.
Cable networks have overall seen a big decrease in representation, with some networks picking up the overall slack for others. FX (Pose, What We Do in the Shadows) has the most representation at 20 characters, with nine coming from Pose. However, Freeform (Good Trouble, Motherland: Fort Salem) and Showtime (Shameless) are right behind with 19 and 18 respectively. Those three networks account for 50% of all cable representation, which GLAAD praised while also urging the other cable networks to increase both their overall LGBTQIA+ characters and the diversity of those characters. GLAAD also noted that in the upcoming season Freeform would be including a lesbian asexual character on one of its series, with the details under wraps for now due to spoilers.
Finally, streaming services like Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix continue to have difficulty with diversity within LGBTQIA+ representation. The majority of the queer characters on streaming services are white, while both broadcast and cable met GLAAD’s goal of having at least 50% of LGBTQIA+ characters be people of color. There is also only one character on a streaming service who is disabled and also identifies as LGBTQIA+ (Ryan from Netflix’s comedy series Special). However, streamers on the whole have more shows with large LGBTQIA+ ensembles focusing on queer perspectives, a type of show that GLAAD recommends that broadcast and cable series create more of.
It’s also important to note that GLAAD does not grade quality of representation or particular storylines in this analysis. The organization’s focus in this report is mostly on quantitative data and the character’s status as a series regular, recurring character, or guest star rather than qualitative measures. However, in its discussion of the results, GLAAD did identify a number of ongoing concerns and areas of praise in storytelling. For example, bisexual+ rep (which GLAAD defines as “people who identify as bisexual, pansexual, fluid, queer, and more”) has decreased significantly across all platforms, and GLAAD noted that the storylines afforded to bisexual+ characters reflect “the outsized number of bi+ characters who never get to own their own story or use a specific word for themselves.” GLAAD also identified that asexuality is woefully underrepresented, with just one asexual character appearing this season across all platforms. However, GLAAD noted that overall diversity of the LGBTQIA+ characters has increased, with BIPOC characters making up a larger percentage of the regular and recurring characters shown.
The good news? In a time of massive shifts in television production due to the COVID-19 pandemic, LGBTQIA+ representation has not been devastated by production delays. The trend of a decrease in representation overall will ideally improve when many series are able to resume production this year. However, there are always areas to improve in, particularly in disability representation and racial equity within the LGBTQIA+ community. What GLAAD’s report illustrates clearly is the need to continue to advocate for representation in storytelling so that the shows we watch reflect the world we live in. To read the full report, check out GLAAD’s website. And if you’re looking for a new show to watch that features LGBTQIA+ rep, check out our Pride series, where we highlight some of our favorite characters and shows.