Bury Your Tropes or How Queer Characters Get Confined in Their Portrayals: A Content Analysis of Recent Films Produced in the West
Julia Gornostajeva (12110310) Master’s Thesis
University of Amsterdam
Graduate School of Communication Master’s programme Communication Science
Thesis supervisor: dr. Irene van Driel
Word count: 7615 (supervisor approved due to two research aims present, the study method, i.e., content analysis, and clashing findings found)
As studies investigating mainstream entertainment media in the 21st century suggest, queer characters have lately been included more often. However, some research and
LGBTQIA+ organisations report that, while the overall number of portrayals of queer
characters has increased, using queer media tropes has proliferated too. To attest these claims, a quantitative content analysis of popular movies produced in the West and released in 2015- 2016 and 2020-2021 was conducted. Based on the cultivation theory, parasocial contact hypothesis, as well as a minority media representation analysis, the frequency of featuring queer characters and using queer tropes were investigated. The results showed that lately queer characters have not appeared in movies more often, neither has the frequency of using queer tropes proliferated. Potential reasons, explanations, and the current study’s limitations are discussed.
Key words: LGBT+; LGBTQIA+; queer; queer tropes; film; Lexa; content analysis
Bury Your Tropes or How Queer Characters Get Confined in Their Portrayals: A Content Analysis of Recent Films Produced in the West
As studies investigating mainstream entertainment media in the 21st century suggest, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and other (LGBTQIA+; further used interchangeably with “queer”) characters and stories lately have been included more often (Bond, 2015; GLAAD, 2020; GLAAD, 2021). In ten years’ time, the frequency of featuring queer characters has grown from 3.9% to 9.1%, with occasional slips in between (GLAAD, 2011; GLAAD, 2021). This constitutes a rather positive change for the
LGBTQIA+ community as queer characters have long been excluded from popular culture (Bridges, 2018; Raley & Lucas, 2006; Shugart, 2003; Waggoner, 2018), but are now carving out their place on screen.
However, the situation is not as rosy as it may seem. Some research and LGBTQIA+
organisations report that, while the overall number of portrayals of queer characters has increased, using queer media tropes has proliferated too (Bridges, 2018; Edwards, 2020;
GLAAD, 2021; Guerrero-Pico et al., 2018). This means that employing widely used, often stereotypical and/or one-sided portrayals of queer characters has recently become more frequent. Perhaps, the most prominent examples of queer tropes are “Camp Gay” and “Butch Lesbian” that highlight how gay men and lesbians are portrayed in ways adjacent to the opposite sex, i.e., effeminate and flamboyant for gays and masculine and butch for lesbians.
Another prominent queer trope is “Bury Your Gays”, which emphasises the disproportionate rates of queer, especially lesbian and female bisexual, characters’ deaths on screen (Bridges, 2018). However, this trope received a backlash in 2016 after death of a lesbian character Lexa, one of the “The 100” television series’ heroines, as it exemplified queer characters’
demise on screen.
At least allegedly this scandal has made the screenwriters of “The 100” and others to rethink the ways they portray queer characters (Butler, 2016; Levin Russo, 2017; Ryan, 2016). After that, some entertainment producers have become more careful when depicting LGBTQIA+ stories. E.g., not only have producers of the Netflix’s series “Sex Education”
(Campbell et al., 2019 –) portrayed asexual and non-binary characters, who are represented even less often than gays/lesbians (GLAAD, 2021), but they have also avoided using direct queer tropes, like “Gay Best Friend”. Although Eric, one of the main characters in the series, is gay and is friends with Otis, another main character, Eric is still portrayed as an
independent queer person. This means that he has his own storyline and does not only appear in the show to support his friend. Also, other companies, e.g., Disney, have lately tried to support their queer characters. The media conglomerate has recently declined some of the countries’ requests to cut out gay-kissing scenes from its movie “Eternals”, which it was praised for, however, the company still did it for the Indonesian market later (Angelina &
Lestari, 2021). This exemplified queerbaiting, the practice of entertainment producers hinting at or including queer characters without committing to showing their erotic and/or romantic relationships (Bridges, 2018).
Attesting recent changes in queer representation
To see if any large-scale improvements have happened after heated media discussions occurred, a quantitative content analysis investigating the frequency of featuring queer characters and using queer tropes is needed. In this study, the research focus lies on films specifically because of several reasons. Firstly, as most research on queer characters and queer media tropes thus far has focused on television series (Birchmore & Kettrey, 2021;
Bond, 2014; Corey, 2017; McLaren et al., 2021), it is important to investigate if the same findings also apply to other types of entertainment media, e.g., films. Secondly, GLAAD (2016) note in their annual “Where We Are on TV” report that television series remain far
ahead of movies when it comes to queer representation (at least, that was the case in 2016), thus attesting existing differences between the television and film industries. Based on this and recent cases of filmmakers sacrificing their queer characters for profits in some markets (Angelina & Lestari, 2021), it is important to fill in the research gap on featuring queer characters and using queer media tropes in films.
It is considered an important array of research because of the effects that queer representation can have. As the cultivation theory posits (Gerbner et al., 1986), a frequent repetition of messages ingrains them in the minds of those who are exposed to these
messages. As a result, recipients form beliefs, attitudes, values, and even behaviours based on the frequently appearing narratives. According to Schiappa et al.’s (2006) parasocial contact hypothesis, these effects can be more pronounced for certain groups. E.g., audiences with no contact with LGBTQIA+ representatives are more likely to hold negative attitudes toward LGBTQIA+ people after seeing queer characters in entertainment media. Although it may seem that negative attitudes toward specific groups only matter when it comes to these groups, it seems to be untrue. Representation of minorities, including the LGBTQIA+
community, helps elucidate majority’s prejudice, along with other positive effects spilling over to the rest of society (Birchmore & Kettrey, 2021; Burk et al., 2018; Schiappa et al., 2006). As science can contribute to this cause and since no quantitative content analyses have been recently published on featuring queer tropes, it is significant to examine films knowing how vital media representation of LGBTQIA+ is for the community itself and society in general.
Importantly, this study focuses on films produced in the West, as described by Huntington’s (1996) work on clashing civilizations, since the discussion of the prevalent use
of queer tropes has originated and is still most active in the Western world. Conditioned by the Western discourse on homosexuality in 19th and the 20th centuries, mostly as sexual perversion (Bridges, 2018), queer tropes are tightly connected to historical, juridical, cultural, religious, and social ways of thinking in that part of the world. E.g., Bridges (2018) argues that introduction of the self-censoring Hays Code by Hollywood studios in the 1930s (which banned depiction of homosexuality on screen) has largely been responsible for the birth of queer tropes that are remaining to be punitive to queer characters today. Therefore, it is most sensible to research these tropes in the media that is produced and may still be conditioned by the thinking outlined above. Accordingly, the research questions proposed in this study are:
RQ1: Did the overall frequency of featuring queer characters in films produced in the West increase in 2020-2021 compared to 2015-2016?
RQ2: Did the overall frequency of using queer tropes in films produced in the West increase in 2020-2021 compared to 2015-2016?
Queer tropes in entertainment media
Queer media tropes in television have been studied quite extensively (Bond et al., 2019; Colvin & Moton, 2021; Guerrero-Pico et al., 2018; Poole, 2014). Some of these tropes are described but never explicitly mentioned, e.g., “But Not Too Gay” refers to the
phenomenon of television makers portraying queer characters in ways acceptable for the cisgender and heterosexual majorities (TV Tropes, n.d.). Although this trope has been
described in research (Avila-Saavedra, 2009; Gross, 2001; Hart, 2000; van Meer & Pollmann, 2022), it has not been explicitly named. However, other tropes, like “Bury Your Gays”, have
been namely investigated by scholars (Birchmore & Kettrey, 2021; McInroy et al., 2021;
According to some research (Bond, 2015; van Meer & Pollmann, 2022), media
produced for queer audiences seems to do better when it comes to LGBTQIA+ representation.
This is so, perhaps, because queer characters in such content are portrayed in similar ways heterosexual and cisgender characters are portrayed in the mainstream media (Bond, 2015).
However, the same cannot be said about the mainstream media and queer characters as it is still portraying them using numerous tropes (e.g., Bond, 2014, Bond et al., 2019, Edwards, 2020). Some tropes have also been studied in movies (Li-Vollmer & LaPointe, 2003; Shugart, 2003), but, given the small number of such studies, as well as the fact that they date more than 20 years back, it is unclear if their findings are still relevant today.
Theoretical underpinnings of the effects of tropes
Overall, using tropes when depicting queer characters is problematic when done with high frequencies, as Bridges (2018) notes about “Bury Your Gays” and its common use for killing female LGBTQIA+ characters. Hence, given the current pervasiveness of employing queer tropes (Bond, 2014; Colvin & Moton, 2021; Parker et al., 2020), portraying queer characters in stereotypical, one-sided ways is considered problematic. According to Gerbner et al.’s (1986) cultivation theory, consistent depictions of characters, events, stories, etc. can affect those who are frequently exposed to them. Applying this logic to the use of queer tropes, entertainment media consumers who are exposed to many tropes can be affected in terms of their beliefs and attitudes toward LGBTQIA+ individuals (Bridges, 2018; Bond, 2014; Edwards, 2020; van Meer & Pollmann, 2022).
Moreover, according to Schiappa et al.’s (2006) parasocial contact hypothesis, the effects of such frequent repetition would be especially pronounced for those who have
no/little contact with queer individuals (Bond et al., 2019; van Meer & Pollmann, 2022). This may be so because those who do not have access to the actual members of the LGBTQIA+
community may not have the real-life experience to compare the media depictions to
(Schiappa et al., 2006). Parasocial contact precedes parasocial relationships which are formed by viewers engaging in repetitive media experiences with certain characters and establishing relationships with them (Rubin & McHugh, 1987). Parasocial contact, in turn, can later serve as the basis of opinion, attitude, and behaviour formation. Thus, if entertainment media consumers see queer people represented on screen, they can establish parasocial contact with them, even if media consumers do not have contact with LGBTQIA+ people in real lives.
Similar notions are voiced by Edwards (2020) who notes that television scripts can provide information to mainstream viewers who may otherwise be considerably unaware or
unknowledgeable about queer identities.
Although some proof exists that employing queer tropes results in positive attitudes toward LGBTQIA+ people (Birchmore & Kettrey, 2021), most research warn of potential harmful effects of using queer tropes. Some studies note that the mere presence of
LGBTQIA+ characters contributes to less prejudice and stereotypes among viewers (Calzo &
Ward, 2009; Edwards, 2020; Levina et al., 2000), hence tying it to the mere exposure effect (Zajonc, 2001). Nonetheless, others note that respectful media representations of LGBTQIA+
are better at inducing positive effects, e.g., emotions (Floegel & Costello, 2019; Gillig &
Murphy, 2016; Gomillion & Giuliano, 2011; Masanet & Buckingham, 2015). In their turn, ridiculing and regulating portrayals that aim to portray queer characters in limited ways only tend to result in negative outcomes (Garretson, 2015; Kelleher, 2009; Meyer, 2003). Since most queer tropes ascend to these constraining portrayals, the ways in which queer identities and sexualities are represented matter.
Current stage of queer representation
Although GLAAD repeats that portrayals of LGBTQIA+ characters have become more numerous in the last decade (GLAAD, 2011; GLAAD, 2021), this does not say much about the quality of such representation. Thus, a more qualitative method is needed to see how queer individuals are represented, on top of how often it happens. Perhaps, the most cited analysis of media representation that studies indicated above refer to is Clark’s (1969) four stages of representation, namely, non-representation, ridicule, regulation, and respect.
Although initially this research was done on representation of ethnic minorities, the
mechanisms behind the stages seem to be relevant for analysing other minorities too. If in the 1st stage a respective minority is completely excluded from the media, then in the 2nd stage this group gets depicted only as an object of derisive humour. The 3rd stage brings the bigger change about and a minority gets a limited place on screen, though is only portrayed in socially acceptable forms. The 4th stage represents a respective minority in both positive and negative lights, shows that there can be different representatives of the same minority and depicts these representatives’ daily lives, e.g., them communicating with kids or having romantic/erotic relationships. Since tropes are very often based on stereotypes, investigating their employment frequency can indicate at what stage queer representation is right now.
Raley and Lucas (2006) used Clark’s (1969) model and concluded that the then-queer- representation was in all: ridicule, regulation, and respect stages. This means that
entertainment media started depicting LGBTQIA+ characters, although some of these portrayals were still very limited and/or were based on stereotypes. Fifteen years later McLaren et al. (2021) still found the same results, but for trans characters specifically.
Interestingly, a year later van Meer and Pollmann (2022) reported that representation of LGB (lesbian, gay, and bisexual) characters was in the regulation and respect stages, marked by the fact that no jokes were made by heterosexual characters at the expense of queer ones.
However, LGB characters were still found to joke in self-derogatory ways, but this can be considered both a regulation and a respect practice. The regulating mechanism of it can be seen in the fact that jokes about LGB characters are still made, albeit by queer people themselves as this way heterosexual audiences accept such humour more easily. But, in this case the respectful practice can also be inferred as LGB characters take the autonomy of humour and become its authors instead of its targets (van Meer & Pollmann, 2022). Edwards (2020) also notes that representation of LGBTQ characters has lately become more frequent, however, was not initially met with media producers’ respect or support. Nevertheless, it was found that the numbers of queer portrayals were greater than they would have been in Clark’s (1969) first stage of representation, i.e., exclusion, based on 2017-2018 data. To conclude, although overall queer representation seems to be progressing, some groups, e.g., trans characters, still seem to be struggling with respectful representation (McLaren et al., 2021).
Tropes of interest
Some queer tropes have been studied more often than others, e.g., “Bury Your Gays”
(Bridges, 2018; Guerrero-Pico et al., 2018; McInroy et al., 2021) and “But Not Too Gay”
(Bond, 2014; Colvin & Moton, 2021; Walters, 2003), whilst others seem to have attracted only limited academic attention, e.g., “Sissy Villain” (Li-Vollmer & LaPointe, 2003) and
“Gay Best Friend” (Shugart, 2003), or have escaped the scientific and/or public eye
whatsoever, e.g., “Non-existent/Truly Deviant Asexuality” (TV Tropes, n.d.). In this study, some of the most common and rarer tropes have been identified and it was attempted to include queer tropes relating to various queer identities and sexualities, e.g., gay/lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer, asexual, etc. This was done to investigate how different groups within the queer community are portrayed since research seems to provide clashing findings
(McLaren et al., 2021; Raley & Lucas, 2006; van Meer & Pollmann, 2022).
Common tropes included
The most common queer tropes were included in this study to attest whether and, if so, how they are used in films and, if possible, to compare these findings to ones of television series. It is important to check the frequency of employing widely used tropes to understand what stage queer representation is currently at to be better able to reflect on the LGBTQIA+
community’s on-screen acceptance. Since media representation is crucial to minorities (Clark, 1969; Schiappa et al., 2006), attesting if usage of common queer tropes has lately proliferated is significant. Some of the most common queer tropes included in this study, as well as their explanations, are available below. Other common queer tropes specifically investigated in this research are noted in the appendix (see Appendix A).
But Not Too Gay. Many studies conclude that, when queer characters are depicted, their identities and/or sexualities are sanitized not to discourage the heterosexual and
cisgender majority from consuming the content (Avila-Saavedra, 2009; Bond, 2014; Bond et al., 2019; Colvin & Moton, 2021; Fisher et al., 2007; Gross, 2001; Hart, 2000; Parker et al., 2020; Shugart, 2003; van Meer & Pollmann, 2022; Walters, 2003). Very often this means that queer characters do not engage in explicit romantic and/or erotic relationships, e.g., Harry in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (Parker, 2018), and are featured in entertainment media merely to “tick the diversity box”. This can be considered questionable as the portrayals of queer characters are limited in ways to only contain those parts of their identities that would not disturb hetero- and cisnormativity.
Bury Your Gays. One of the most scientifically researched queer tropes refers to queer characters dying at disproportionate rates compared to their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts (Birchmore & Kettrey, 2021; Bridges, 2018; Guerrero-Pico et al., 2018; McInroy et al., 2021; Parker et al., 2020; van Meer & Pollmann, 2022; Waggoner, 2018). A way to
demonstrate non-heterosexualities and non-cisgender identities’ incompatibility with procreation and life, this trope serves as a long Western tradition’s continuation to punish queer characters; sometimes to aid heterosexual and cisgender characters’ development.
Described in previous sections, this trope is quite common in entertainment media, e.g., in The 100 (Rothenberg, 2014-2020) where a lesbian Lexa gets killed.
Rarer tropes included
Although it is important to check queer representation’s progress by looking at the most common queer tropes used, it is also significant to investigate somewhat less popular ways and/or stereotypes that are used for portraying the queer. If using common tropes becomes less prevalent, it can indicate an ongoing change, however, it would not be clear if this change is positive. Since it can also occur that some tropes, e.g., currently common, are merely replaced by others, e.g., less prevalent now, examining currently rarer tropes seems critical. Some of them and their explanations are listed below, while more is available in the appendix (see Appendix A).
Trans Tribulations. One way to portray trans characters is to focus on their struggles (McLaren et al., 2021). Although acknowledging that lives of trans people are not always rosy, very often such representations accentuate these struggles as the most important things in trans people’s lives, e.g., Jules in Euphoria (Levinson, 2019-). Sometimes, these
tribulations are even posited as insurmountable obstacles, thus drawing the end line for trans characters. If only the tribulating parts of trans characters’ lives are shown on screen, the cisgender majority can equal being trans to suffering from the world’s unfairness and
inequality, while the trans minority is given a signal that there are no happy endings for trans people, which is not true (McLaren et al., 2021).
Asexuality Does Not Exist/Is A Deviation. Although asexuality is currently one of the most discussed sexualities (Klein, 2021), it is almost never featured in entertainment media. Lately, some producers have started including asexual characters, e.g., Florence in Sex Education (Campbell et al., 2019-), however, the lack of scientific research on the topic signifies that asexuality is still struggling to be recognised as a type of sexuality, e.g., in House M.D. (Shore, 2004-2012). Given the ongoing efforts of the asexual community and its allies (Klein, 2021), it is important to investigate how many films still silence/ignore
asexuality, which deserves its place on screen as much as any other sexuality.
The problematic nature of queer tropes
To conclude, queer media tropes are problematic because they limit ways in which queer characters can be represented. Knowing the frequency of employing these tropes and how rarely queer characters are portrayed in other ways, i.e., not adjacent to tropes (Bridges, 2018), featuring queer tropes raises questions. Although stereotypical and problematic representation of the LGBTQIA+ community can be partly explained by the legal, medical, and cultural discourse on homosexuality in the 19th and the 20th centuries, this rather serves as an explanation than an excuse. To clearly understand the scope of the problem it is necessary to have the data on how queer individuals are represented but the numbers are not there yet for the film industry (Li-Vollmer & LaPointe, 2003; Shugart, 2003). Also, it is worth
investigating the frequency of using queer tropes in movies since the latter comprise a big part of entertainment media that people consume (Bond, 2014), and, according to Gerbner et al.
(1986), Schiappa et al. (2006), and Clark’s (1969), the ways queer characters are portrayed in can affect viewers’ opinions, attitudes, and behaviours when it comes to LGBTQIA+
representation and rights.
Sample & Procedure
The universe of this content analysis comprised the most popular films produced in the West, as defined by Huntington (1996), and released in 2015-2016 and 2020-2021. These time periods were chosen because of two reasons: firstly, to compare the frequency of featuring LGBTQIA+ characters in 2015-2016, when the public debate on employing queer media tropes occurred, and in 2020-2021, which are the latest two years in which all movies have been released. Also, using 2020 and 2021 was reasonable for comparison as five years passed since the discussion on using queer tropes originated (Bridges, 2018) and a change in the entertainment industry may had already taken place. In line with Gerbner et al. (1986), the most popular titles were considered for sampling as they were more likely to be impactful for mainstream audiences.
The population for the content analysis was drawn with the help of IMDb’s Advanced Title Search that allowed to see overviews of films based on several criteria, e.g., popularity in this case. The Title Types were set to “Feature Film”, “TV Movie”, and “Documentary”
since they all relate to film types. The Release Dates were set to “2015-01-01 – 2016-12-31”
(Block I) for films released prior and during the “Bury Yor Gays” scandal in 2016 and “2020- 01-01 – 2021-12-31” (Block II) for films released later (that could potentially portray queer characters while not using (that many) queer tropes). The Display Option was set on 100 titles (for each time block) and Popularity was set to “Ascending”. This allowed to see the
overview of the most popular films in the years indicated. The sampling strategy used at this level was purposive as only those films that met the criteria identified above were considered for further sampling.
Next, out of those two most popular film lists 25 movies from each time block (2015- 2016 and 2020-2021) were randomly sampled. A Google random number generator was used, and it provided numbers ranging from 1 to 100, each relating to the order number of a film on the list. If the same number was proposed several times, another number was randomly generated, and this step was repeated until a new number appeared. Once a random number was identified, the film sampled was checked to ensure that it was produced in the West (Huntington, 1996); if not, the film was dropped. This happened five times altogether and all dropped titles were produced in Asia (India, Japan, or South Korea). Countries of production were not filtered during the first steps as IMDb’s Advanced Title Search allows selecting only one country when using this feature. Thus, it was decided to perform this check while
sampling specific films by seeing where they were produced on each film’s IMDb page (section “Details”). Lastly, it was checked if the film selected was available on either Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Max, or Disney+, since these constitute the most popular streaming platforms in the West (Ceci, 2022) and they were available to the researcher. If the respective film was not available on one of these platforms, it was dropped due to the inability to
rent/buy films elsewhere.
All choices and decisions about sampling specific films were documented in a table indicating the order number of the sampling attempt, the film’s order number on the list composed through the Advanced Title Search, i.e., the number identified by the random number generator, the film’s title, the decision made (and the reasoning behind if the film was not sampled), and the platform it was available on (see Appendix B). Although the film lists did order movies based on their popularity, it is considered unlikely that the final sample was biased in this way, i.e., included only the most popular films, as the random number generator was used to ensure random sampling at this level. Overall, 50 films (25 in each block) were sampled, which means that the final sample comprised 25% (50 out of 200) of the population
identified. This was considered enough, given the mixed sampling technique used. As a result, two lists of films sampled were composed and were later used for coding (see Appendix C).
Unit of Analysis
In this study, the units of analysis were different for the two RQs proposed. As the 1st one addressed the frequency of featuring queer characters, the unit of analysis in this case was each film’s character mentioned on the respective film’s IMDb “Full Cast” section, as well as open-source information. The former can be accessed by searching for a specific film and clicking the “Top Cast” section below. Only credited characters on the list were coded, thus representing those characters that figured most prominently in the film. There were also exceptions to these rules, e.g., if the same character appeared in a film several times, but in different age periods, e.g., a child at first and then an adult, then all these appearances were viewed as one, hence were also only coded once. However, in the 2nd RQ’s case, the unit of analysis was each queer character, if coded such in the previous step. Only LGBTQIA+
characters were considered at this stage as queer tropes identified in this study targeted queer characters specifically. The codebook with more explanations is available (see Appendix D).
Out of 50 films coded, five were randomly selected for intracoder reliability, which comprised 10% of the entire sample. Since four films did not feature any queer characters, calculating intracoder reliability coefficient for these movies was impossible. For the other film Krippendorff’s alpha was 1.00, which indicated a perfect consistency of item coding.
Although movies with no queer characters could have been dropped and replaced by those that did feature LGBTQIA+ characters, this was not done due to two reasons. Firstly, this would interfere with the random sampling approach preferred in this study. Secondly, as it is
the case with most films sampled, featuring any queer characters was somewhat rare. Since most films randomly selected for recoding mirrored the situation in the sample, sticking to these four films was preferred. Based on the acceptable level of the intracoder reliability coefficient, the results were deemed to be reliable for further analyses, although the coefficient was calculated for one title only.
The first variable coded in this study was if a character on the list was queer. In its turn, queer meant either or both a non-cisgender identity and/or a non-heterosexual
orientation. There were various instructions on how a queer identity and/or sexuality could be inferred (see Appendix D) but, largely, each character’s speech, behaviour, and appearance were examined for containing queer references. If, after watching an entire film it was still unclear if a respective character was queer, open sources, e.g., Google, could be used for checking it. By coding this variable, i.e., “Is this character queer?”, RQ1 was addressed as the latter referred to the frequency of featuring queer characters in films produced in the West and released in 2015-2016 and 2020-2021. There were three answer options, i.e., “Yes”, “No”, and “Unclear”, and the latter option could only be selected when the coder doubted a character’s cisnormative and/or heterosexual identity even after searching open sources.
Next, if a character was queer, demographics, i.e., gender, sexuality, period of life, and race/ethnicity, were inquired. This was mainly done because prior research has indicated that queer characters very often tend to be portrayed in similar ways, i.e., being White, cisgender, adult homosexual males (Bond, 2014, Bond, 2015; Fouts & Inch, 2005; van Meer &
Pollmann, 2022). The codebook elaborates and provides answer options for demographics (see Appendix D).
In this study, ten queer tropes were identified for coding after performing a thorough literature review, mainly on research published between 2015 and 2022. This was done to ensure the fitness of studies in relation to the 2016’s “Bury Your Gays” scandal, so that the theoretical framework used for identifying the tropes would be applicable to this case. Some queer tropes described above figured in the scientific literature more prominently, however, more tropes and their brief explanations were also noted. An extensive list of additional queer tropes was drafted based on open-source information (TV Tropes, n.d.) used in previous research (Guerrero-Pico et al., 2018). This was done to ensure that other, less researched and/or unknown tropes, could still be identified. Even though these queer tropes may not have been investigated yet, it is still valuable to count their frequency to identify arrays for future research. The tropes indicated on the extensive list mostly related to queer characters’
appearance, speech, demeanour, and a film’s context. E.g., “Ambiguously Gay” related to media producers hinting at a character’s homosexuality without explicitly showing it. Another example of a queer trope is “Girl-on-Girl Is Hot” that uses lesbian relationships to (sexually) appeal to, mainly, heterosexual male audiences.
The coder was asked to identify if any of the tropes were present in a film by
answering “Yes” or “No” questions, e.g., “Is this queer character portrayed using the “Butch Lesbian/Camp Gay” trope?” If a respective trope was present, e.g., if a lesbian was portrayed as butch or masculine, the coder was instructed to choose “Yes”. If no portrayal described in the question was visible, “No” was to be selected. For queer tropes, there was no “Unclear”
option as the coder could always go back to a trope explanation either in the codebook itself
(see Appendix D) or online (TV Tropes, n.d.). Also, considering how vital queer tropes were for the research at hand, missing out on this information was considered unnecessary. All queer tropes, whether described specifically or indicated on the extensive list, were later summed to create a scale.
Frequencies & Demographics
Altogether, 2307 film characters were coded, out of which less than 0.1% were openly queer individuals (n = 15), while it was also unclear in 1.1% of cases if someone was queer or not (n = 26). Out of 41 potentially or openly queer characters identified in the sample,
cisgender males comprised 65.9% (n = 27), while the rest were cisgender females (34.1%, n
= 14). Eleven, i.e., 26.8%, queer characters were homosexual (gay), while for the rest sexuality was unclear (73.1%, n = 30). Most often (n = 14 each) queer characters were depicted as young/early and middle adults, with queer adolescents and children (n = 7 each) being depicted less often. Only four queer characters were seen in old/late adulthood, while in five cases a queer character’s life period was unclear. Importantly, some queer characters were depicted in several life periods. When it comes to ethnicity, most queer characters (68.3%, n = 28) were Caucasian/White, while African/Black and characters with unclear origins were minorly presented (9.8%, n = 4 each). Also, Asian and characters of other ethnicities/races were found (4.8%, n = 2 each), while there was only one (2.4%) Middle Eastern/North African queer character depicted.
When it comes to queer tropes, all queer characters, whether open or not, were portrayed using at least one trope. Out of 15 openly queer characters, 80% (n = 12) were portrayed using the “But Not Too Gay” trope, 33.3% (n = 5) died, thus attesting the “Bury
Your Gays” trope, 6.7% (n = 1) of queer characters was silenced, thus embodying the “No Bi- / Poly-/Pansexuals” trope, and 6.7% (n = 1) was portrayed as the “Best Gay Friend”. Other six tropes notably described below were not discovered, with some tropes (n = 24) from the extensive list being noticed (see Appendix E).
Presence of queer characters (RQ1)
To analyse if more queer characters were present in films that were produced in the West and released in 2020-2021, compared to 2015-2016, an independent samples t-test was run. Levene’s test for equality of variances was significant, F = 4.60, p = .032. The results revealed that queer characters were not featured more in 2020-2021 (M = 0.01, SD = 0.09) compared to 2015-2016 (M = 0.00, SD = 0.07), t(1946.06)= -1.05, p = .294, 95% CI [-0.01, 0.00], d = -0.05, therefore the answer to RQ1 was negative.
Queer tropes used (RQ2)
To investigate if queer tropes were used more often in films produced in the West and released in 2020-2021, compared to 2015-2016, another independent samples t-test was run.
Levene’s test for equality of variances was significant, F = 10.06, p = .007. The t-test results unveiled that queer tropes were not used more often in 2020-2021 (M = 4.44, SD = 3.09) compared to 2015-2016 (M = 4.50, SD = 1.38), t(11.81)= 0.05, p = .963, 95% CI [-2.50, 2.62], d = 0.03, therefore the answer to RQ2 was negative too.
Discussion & Conclusion
Recently, several claims about entertainment media getting more diverse, e.g., including more queer characters, have been made by both scholars (Birchmore & Kettrey,
2021; Bond, 2015; Bridges, 2018; Colvin & Moton, 2021; Waggoner, 2018) and LGBTQIA+
organisations (GLAAD, 2016; GLAAD, 2021). However, as the numbers of featuring queer characters progressed, so did the use of queer media tropes (Bridges, 2018; Edwards, 2020;
GLAAD, 2021; Guerrero-Pico et al., 2018). Although this can be considered reasonable based on media representation analyses, e.g., Clark’s (1969) research on ethnic minority
representation, using queer media tropes with high frequencies is still problematic (Bridges, 2018). Despite statements that certain types of entertainment content, e.g., television series, are now avoiding the most prevalent queer tropes (GLAAD, 2020; GLAAD, 2021), the same cannot be said about all entertainment media types (GLAAD, 2016).
To investigate how the film industry is doing when it comes to queer representation, a quantitative content analysis of movies produced in the West was conducted. The study focused on this part of the world specifically because recent discussions on employing media tropes have been most active in the West, as well as queer tropes originate from censoring practices historically operating in the Western world (Bridges, 2018). The time frame identified for current research was connected to the 2016’s “Bury Your Gays” scandal that originated when producers of a television series “The 100” killed a lesbian character Lexa, despite their affirmations that she would be well and sound (Bridges, 2018). This instigated adverse fans and media’s reactions and has brought up the subject of employing queer tropes in contemporary entertainment media that many had claimed to be unprecedently diverse.
To attest if a change has indeed happened since more attention has been brought to the topic of using queer tropes, films released in 2015-2016 and 2020-2021 were sampled. These time periods were chosen since they spanned across the Lexa scandal and five years after that (when a potential change could have already taken place). The precise research aim of the present study was twofold: firstly, to see if lately films have started featuring queer characters
more often, and, secondly, to see if these movies have also started employing queer tropes to a higher extent.
Based on data, neither frequency nor ways of portraying queer characters have altered since the Lexa scandal broke out. Also, queer characters are still majorly portrayed as White adult gay men, although some variation exists when it comes to these demographics. Overall, queer characters comprised less than 2% of all film characters analysed; moreover, most of these queer characters were only ambiguously queer. Very often, a character either exhibited some sort of behaviour/speech/appearance that could potentially be seen as queer, but did not address their sexuality, or were outed by other characters while showing no signs of queer sexuality. When it comes to gender, no trans, either closeted or open, characters were featured in the films analysed; consequently, no trans-related tropes were uncovered.
However, a lot of queer tropes were used when depicting queer sexualities, with “But Not Too Gay” scoring first. When portrayed, non-heterosexual characters only briefly
addressed or expressed their sexuality, while no explicit queer sex scenes were featured, as this trope proclaims. In other words, when represented, queer individuals mirrored
heterosexual characters, perhaps to keep straight audiences engaged, while also appealing to gender and sexual minorities. This only exacerbated the silencing of non-heterosexual identities, also practiced by other entertainment media (Avila-Saavedra, 2009; Bond, 2014;
Colvin & Moton, 2021; van Meer & Pollmann, 2022).
Although less prevalent, the “Bury Your Gays” trope was still present in roughly a third of queer storylines analysed. These numbers actually correspond to the figures of 2016 (GLAAD, 2016) when the Lexa scandal emerged, although back then only television series were considered. This proves that, today, queer characters are still very likely to die on screen,
regardless of the recently voiced claims that they are not so anymore. This means that, although television series seem to have progressed when it comes to the quality of queer representation, films still seem to be lagging. As GLAAD (2016) noted, television shows remain far ahead of movies, hence these findings are not so surprising. Nevertheless, “Bury Your Gays” should still be reduced in its employment quantity because of the signal it sends to queer, as well as cisgender and heterosexual, audiences, i.e., that one is quite likely to die if they are queer.
Also, employing other tropes, e.g., “Gay Best Friend” and “No Bi-/Poly-/Pansexuals”, was spotted. A bi-/poly-/pansexual character’s sexuality once went unvoiced, thus somewhat supporting the monosexual view on romantic and/or erotic relationships (Corey, 2017).
Moreover, the “Gay Best Friend” trope seems to have lost its popularity since the beginning of the 21st century (Shugart, 2003). This can reflect a somewhat positive trend for the
LGBTQIA+ community’s representation as the film industry seems to start using some tropes less often.
Other tropes were also present in the films analysed, with “Straight Gay” being used in 43.8% of all cases. As this trope stands for gay men being represented with no stereotypical gay mannerisms, e.g., low- instead of high-pitched voices, no flamboyant demeanour, etc.
(TV Tropes, n.d.), it can be considered somewhat adjacent to the “But Not Too Gay” trope.
However, if the latter only addresses the lack of homosexual romantic and/or erotic
relationships on screen, then “Straight Gay” concerns all: gay men’s appearance, speech, and behaviour as they try to mirror heterosexual characters. In other words, if two kissing gay men with no stereotypical gay manners are depicted, then it would only affirm the “Straight Gay” trope. However, if the same gay men would not be kissing, they would also affirm the
“But Not Too Gay” trope.
Nonetheless, the most widely used queer tropes identified in this research were
“Ambiguously Gay” and “Ambiguously Bi”. These tropes were used in more than a half of cases as filmmakers depicted queer characters by hinting at their queer sexuality without these characters going open. This is very problematic because the message these tropes send is that there are queer individuals in the world, however, they, for some reason, cannot be portrayed on screen. These tropes are also adjacent to the practice of queerbaiting as media creators hint at but do not depict queer identities and sexualities explicitly.
Theoretical explanation of the effects of employing tropes & Comparison to television The most problematic portrayals identified in this content analysis are “But Not Too Gay”, “Bury Your Gays”, and “Straight Gay, with the “Ambiguously Gay” and
“Ambiguously Bi” tropes representing the most frequent, hence most problematic, depictions of queer characters. According to Gerbner et al.’s (1986) cultivation theory, these tropes are likely to affect film viewers’ beliefs, attitudes, and even behaviours as the viewers are repeatedly exposed to the same narratives. In its turn, this effect can be more pronounced for those audiences that do not have contact with LGBTQIA+ individuals, as proven by Schiappa et al. (2006), because those audiences do not have the real-life experience to compare the media image to. As a result, viewers with no contact with queer people can accept the
mediated experience, i.e., what is shown on screen, as the truth, and implement it to their real lives. On the other hand, based on Clark’s (1969) four stages of minorities representation, these tropes can reflect an ongoing change of queer characters carving their places out on screen. But, the respect stage, clearly, has not been reached yet when it comes to queer representation in the film industry.
GLAAD (2020, 2021) has recently noted that queer representation seems to have been progressing on television. However, based on data gathered in this research, the same can
hardly be said about the film industry. Also voiced by GLAAD (2016), it seems that films are indeed behind television series when it comes to both: frequency and quality of queer
representation. Furthermore, trans and other gender minority characters are still largely missing in films, which can signify that the film industry is only starting to feature queer characters, as described by Clark (1969). Additionally, queer representation in film is now in its ridicule/regulation stage, which is proven by low frequencies of featuring queer characters and high frequencies of employing various queer tropes. Therefore, claims about
entertainment media being welcoming toward LGBTQIA+ stories should be taken with caution as there is still a long way for films to go. Perhaps, once mass audiences feel more comfortable with queer storylines being featured, LGBTQIA+ characters will be able to move on and be finally recognised as equally worthy characters to portray. This will also indicate that the majority’s bias toward queerness has been sufficiently overcome (Birchmore &
Kettrey, 2021; Burk et al., 2018; Schiappa et al., 2006).
Although this study has identified interesting results, it is not flawless. Firstly, this content analysis heavily relied on IMDb when it came to identifying characters eligible for coding. If information on IMDb was not complete or accurate (of which there is no account, but still), this study may have duplicated such mistakes. To improve that, future research can analyse characters based on films’ closing credits as these are regulated by film producers and creators. Since they are also the first sources of information, instead of websites’
administrators and crowds, who are providing free services online, relying on filmmakers can provide more accurate accounts of characters.
Next, although this study included demographics investigated in prior research, e.g., age and race/ethnicity (Bond, 2014; Fouts & Inch, 2005; van Meer & Pollmann, 2022), it did
not control for potential covariates when running analyses. Since there is currently no sound scientific proof that other variables can influence how many and how queer characters are depicted, this does not necessarily mean that there are no third variables in the real world.
E.g., GLAAD (2016, 2021) has consistently differentiated between television series run on broadcast, cable, and streaming services and has sometimes found different results. Another factor that can influence queer character depiction can be, e.g., a house of production
(however, currently there is no proof if it influences queer portrayals). Hence, future research can investigate if the predictors mentioned here, as well as other variables, can explain why films include specific numbers of queer characters and why they portray them in certain ways.
If we know this, it can help creating more diverse entertainment content to better suit and represent the audiences that consume it.
Lastly, the present study only focused on films produced in the West, which ignores movies produced in other parts of the world. Conditioned by the Western idea on
homosexuality in the 19th and the 20th centuries, as well as some media practices, e.g. the Hays Code (Bridges, 2018), featuring queer characters in films, while also representing them through queer tropes, can be explained through the Western lens. However, this does not mean that the same views and practices are not held throughout the world as there has been some research done on queer tropes in non-Western contexts too, e.g., India (Rao, 2014). If these practices are not unique to the West, then comparing them and comparing experiences on how to change/avoid them, may aid queer individuals around the globe. At the end of the day, LGBTQIA+ people do not only live in the Western world, and it would be very valuable for queer, but also cisnormative and heterosexual, individuals to share their experiences when it comes to media representation.
Despite current study’s flaws, several things can be said based on the data it gathered.
Firstly, not only should filmmakers focus on how they portray queer characters, e.g., avoid implementing prevalent tropes, but also how often they depict LGBTQIA+ characters in the first place. With sexual minorities accounting for less than 2% of characters on screen and totally absent gender minority representatives, the film industry needs a boost when depicting LGBTQIA+ stories. One way to do this can be inviting queer media professionals to work on films and ensure that they can contribute to the creation process to the same extent other people can. Another way could be shooting movies with main queer storylines, e.g., Call Me By Your Name (Guadagnino, 2017). Although these approaches do not guarantee a more frequent and/or diverse queer representation, they can serve as a start for the industry that seems to be behind its closest counterpart, i.e., television (GLAAD, 2016). After all, it has been found that representing and integrating minorities, be it ethnic or gender and sexual minorities, actually benefits the larger society too (Birchmore & Kettrey, 2021; Burk et al., 2018; Schiappa et al., 2006). E.g., content promoting inclusivity of various sexualities can positively affect wellbeing and connectedness, and lead to less bullying, discrimination, and suicidal thoughts, even amongst heterosexuals (Burk et al., 2018). As these effects relate to all people, it can be stated that a better and a more frequent queer representation is needed for us all.
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Other queer tropes specifically investigated in this study – common
Gay Best Friend
Although not always mentioned in the literature specifically (Shugart, 2003), “Gay Best Friend” is one of the most common queer tropes used in entertainment media (TV
Tropes, n.d.), e.g., George in My Best Friend’s Wedding (Hogan, 1997), George in The Object of My Affection (Hytner, 1998), and Robert in The Next Best Thing (Schlesinger, 2000). The trope usually refers to gay men being portrayed as, most often, female protagonists’ best friends and aiding their girlfriends in their personal lives. This portrayal can be considered problematic because it represents gay men as a mere supplement to their heterosexual female friends (instead of self-sufficient characters) as gays are deemed to be able to understand their girlfriends very well, given their own interest in male partners.
Butch Lesbian/Camp Gay
This trope is rooted in the stereotype that lesbians are usually masculine, whilst gay men are generally feminine. The most common reasons for this are based on either the heteronormative view on relationships, i.e.: if two (wo)men are together, one of them will copy characteristics conventionally associated with the opposite sex to mirror a heterosexual relationship, or just the stereotype that homosexuals are somehow trying to mirror the opposite sex, e.g., Big Boo in Orange Is The New Black (Kohan, 2013-2019). Identified and discussed in various research (Parker et al., 2020; Poole, 2014; Shugart, 2003; van Meer &
Pollmann, 2022), this representation is problematic because of its roots in heteronormativity and consequent stereotyping of gender and sexuality performance.
One of the most common tropes is the lack of or the lack of visibility of non- monosexualities (Corey, 2017; van Meer & Pollmann, 2022; Waggoner, 2018;). If the frequency of representing gay and lesbian characters has been lately increasing (GLAAD, 2020), the same can be claimed about bi-/poly-/pansexuals to a lesser extent. Rooted in monogamy, where only a hetero- or a homosexual relationship is visible, bi-/poly-
/pansexualities are somewhat rarely seen on-screen. This is even more problematic given that characters who can be perceived as bi-/poly-/pansexuals do not name their sexuality
themselves, e.g., Piper in Orange Is the New Black (Kohan, 2013-2019), thus engaging in its further silencing.
Other queer tropes specifically investigated in this study – rarer
Bi-/Poly-/Pansexual Love Triangle
Although somewhat common for representing bi-/poly-/pansexuals, portraying these sexualities as a part of a love triangle, usually between a gay and a heterosexual character (Corey, 2017), does not seem to be a common trope in absolute numbers. This representation highlights bi-/poly-/pansexuality’s fluidity and portrays bi-/poly-/pansexuals as unreliable and untrustworthy as they are constantly caught up between their hetero- and homosexual
feelings, e.g., Piper in Orange Is the New Black (Kohan, 2013-2019). This is also why this representation is viewed to be problematic by some (Corey, 2017), as this way of portraying bi-/poly-/pansexuals emphasizes their unreliability and indecisiveness when it comes to love relationships.
Specific to trans characters, portraying them as sex workers seems to occasionally occur on screen (McLaren et al., 2021). Although sex workers deserve representation as
anyone else does, entertainment media sometimes connecting being trans with doing sex work, e.g., Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club (Vallée, 2013), takes away from other trans representation, thus limiting ways in which trans characters are portrayed. This poses a
problem for trans individuals who strive for a more accurate and realistic media representation (McLaren et al., 2021).
Mostly used in animation, ascribing feminine characteristics to villains was not a rare phenomenon at the beginning of the 21st century (Li-Vollmer & LaPointe, 2003). When using this trope male villains were portrayed as in some way possessing feminine traits, e.g., Scar in The Lion King (Allers & Minkoff, 1994), thus transgressing gender-congruent appearance and behaviour. Equalling villainousness with femininity is problematic because of, mainly, two reasons. Firstly, gender-incongruent behaviour is labelled as evil and vicious, and, secondly, femininity is presented as something adjacent to villainy. Either way, this trope suggests that someone who looks or behaves in a feminine way is someone to be wary of, which restricts expression of femininity. This becomes even more problematic if the recipients of these messages are children who rely on the media for learning purposes and adjust their behaviours in real life based on what they see on screen (Bandura & Walters, 1963; Li-Vollmer &
History & Reasoning
Number of attempt
Title Decision (& Reasoning) Platform
1. 12th X-Men: Apocalypse Disney+
2. 63rd Burnt X Unavailable
3. 42nd Ant-Man X Unavailable
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
5. 30th Jurassic World X Unavailable
6. 61st Busanhaeng Not produced in the West -
7. 49th The 5th Wave Netflix
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
9. 37th Legend X Unavailable
10. 32nd 13 Hours Netflix
11. 44th Warcraft Netflix
Batman v Superman:
Dawn of Justice
Sampling History & Reasoning Documentation Table B1