Stop Putting Queer Characters In Everything and Just Tell Queer Stories

8 minute read

In 2022, I’ve developed a weekly ritual of absolutely screaming into my group chat about whatever queer show is currently airing. I grew up in the aughts and watched LGBTQ narratives slowly leak into the mainstream. Today, between Euphoria, Special, The Sex Lives of College Girls, Yellowjackets, And Just Like That…, Genera+ion, The Morning Show, The Other Two, Feel Good, The L Word: Generation Q, I can watch a new episode of television almost every week that has at least one queer character. But plentiful doesn’t always mean good.

Lately, it feels like every TV show has thrown a half-baked queer character into a pool of heterosexuality and taken the ladder away like a cruel tween playing Sims. I can’t believe we’ve reached a point, as a culture, where I can even think something like this, but we don’t need a queer character in everything; I’d rather see a genuine queer story than a refracted queer character that feels cobbled together, or like a studio note gone wrong. Half of these shows are led by and created by queer people, who can bring their firsthand experience to the writers room, but for the most part, those led by straight creators are lacking in authenticity. It’s not that straight creators have never met a queer person before (hopefully), but it often feels like they’re writing their queer characters to check a box or signify an entire community. These characters are reduced to one-dimensional pastiches, and end up seeming hollow, fake, and not actually representative of how real people—queer or otherwise—live.

On the more hollow end of the spectrum, season two of The Morning Show features Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), who had previously never mentioned her attraction to women, engaging in a relationship with Laura Peterson (Julianna Margulies). One minute, the two women are talking in the backseat of a car, the next, Laura asks Bradley the most unsexy question of all time: “Did you actually get vetted for this job?” Then, Bradley yanks Laura in for a surprise kiss. I’ve seen a sudden personal discovery of same-sex attraction done well many times before, even recently with George on Feel Good and Rue on Euphoria. If their emotional connection had developed organically, the kiss would have felt earned. But this story felt rushed, even forced, as if their relationship was created out of thin air to fill a need for more LGBTQ characters on the show. Both actors publicly identify as straight, which could have resulted in a lack of chemistry. Or it’s simply because the relationship felt precipitous and random so the story fell flat.

Similarly, the name on everyone’s lips, or in every queer person’s group chat, is Che Diaz. Played by Sara Ramirez (who identifies as nonbinary) in the Sex and the City reboot And Just Like That…, Che is arrogant, annoying, and sometimes predatory—like when they tell Carrie, “You better step your pussy up” after Carrie vocalizes her discomfort in discussing masturbation. But above all, Che is empty. In an early episode, Che introduces themself via their podcast as “queer, nonbinary, Mexican, Irish diva, representing everyone else outside these two boring genders,” before pressing a button on the sound board that quips, “Woke moment!” Instead of giving Che nuance or depth, the writers decided that Che’s identity is their personality. My main issue with Che Diaz isn’t the aforementioned traits so much as this recurring phenomenon of TV writers reducing queer characters to Twitter threads that breathe. And I’m not alone.

“Hollywood seems to have two speeds right now: This trans and/or nonbinary person is weak and to be pitied or this trans and/or nonbinary person is a powerhouse superstar warrior,” comedian and writer Nori Reed says. Reed, who is trans, wants to see more nuance in portrayals of nonbinary and queer people on TV: “Less strength as unbridled confidence and more strength as flawed humanity.”

That’s what chafes the most about Che Diaz; their character makes LGBTQ people seem like all we do is sit around rattling off queer theory to each other instead of talking about, you know, dating, our jobs, our friends, our lives—stuff that people talk about. No show or character is perfect, but there are certainly ways to connect to a human audience; in Mae Martin’s Feel Good, Martin’s character—also a nonbinary comedian—tells their sober coach, “I don’t actually really identify as a woman these days, just so you know,” to which their sober coach asks, “What do you identify as?” And Mae says, “Uh, kind of like an Adam Driver or Ryan Gosling.” I mean, that’s a funny joke, but also, Mae’s show is about their love life and sobriety. Their character has so much more depth , and because of that, they’re able to discuss identity in a way that feels true to form for queer people.

Conversely, The L Word: Generation Q is arguably one of the gayest shows on television, yet so much of it features characters sitting around discussing a microaggression at work or vocalizing how they don’t feel represented in art and media—things I have actually experienced. So, why do I connect more to the lesbian from Yellowjackets whose face was ripped off by wolves than I do to any character on Generation Q? Because Yellowjackets is deeply emotional and filled with real-life stakes. In exchange for discussing topics we’re dissecting right here, or in a Twitter thread, or in a college classroom, Generation Q and And Just Like That… fail to humanize many of their characters or emotionally invest in actual stories.

Don’t get me wrong; just because a show has one or a few queer people on a show doesn’t mean it’s doomed to emptiness and inauthenticity. On The Sex Lives of College Girls, one of the four leads, Leighton (Reneé Rapp), is gay; her character can be snobbish and patronizing, but because of her painful struggle with self-acceptance, I connect with and sympathize deeply with her. On Yellowjackets, Taissa (Tawny Cypress) might have actually killed a dog in a ritual sacrifice, but her character is so multidimensional and sympathetic—she is actively surviving a plane crash!—that I can still enjoy her teenage romance with Vanessa. And on Euphoria, Zendaya’s Rue shreds her life and support systems on a destructive bender; Hunter Schafer’s Jules cheats on Rue. Rue’s character is at times gruesome, and Jules’s toxic, but given the dimension of their stories—Rue’s father’s tragic death, Jules’s journey as a trans teen—and the thought and care given to their stories, I root for Rue and Jules. I connect deeply with them.

LGBTQ people deserve the full slate of representation: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Reed asks, “If cis characters are allowed to be unlikeable, on purpose, and messy and weird, again on purpose, then why can’t nonbinary and/or trans characters be allowed too?”

Not every queer character needs to be the most knowledgeable person in the room about “compulsory heterosexuality.” If you’re going to include queer people in a television show that’s mostly centered around heterosexuality, at least do us the justice of making us human. Stories change minds, but in order for stories to do so, they have to be told with empathy, care, and effort. I’d rather forgo the one-off queer characters in mostly-straight TV shows if they’re going to be half-assed or parodic. I want more evocative characters, whether that’s Rue from Euphoria ruining her mother’s life, or Taissa from Yellowjackets snapping and possibly killing her dog. I just want to scream into the group chat about something less soul-deadening than a “Woke moment!” sting button.

Jill Gutowitz is a culture writer and author of Girls Can Kiss Now.

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