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How Well Are Queer Americans Represented in Media?

Not very well.
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The cast of Orange Is the New Black accepts the award for Outstanding Ensemble in a Comedy Series during the Screen Actors Guild Awards on January 30, 2016. (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Turner)

The cast of Orange Is the New Black accepts the award for Outstanding Ensemble in a Comedy Series during the Screen Actors Guild Awards on January 30, 2016. (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Turner)

American movies and television shows are not very diverse. The overrepresentation of white men in American entertainment remains remarkably high, as previous reports have noted. Now, the latest report card on representation in Hollywood finds it's not just race; the industry does poorly at showing LGBT folks too.

Among more than 11,000 speaking characters who showed up in 414 movies, TV shows, and online series that aired between 2014 and 2015 and whose orientations could be ascertained:

  • Two percent were lesbian, gay, or bisexual. As a comparison, 3.5 percent of America identifies as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, according to a recent survey. Plus, things would be a lot worse without just two movies, Pride and Love Is Strange, which accounted for more than half of the LGBT characters shown in film in 2014 and 2015.
  • Seven characters—not seven percent, but seven individuals—were transgender. Four of those characters appeared in one show.

Among the LGBT characters of 2014 and 2015:

  • Seventy-two percent were male. Seventy-nine percent were white.
  • The majority were shown to be in committed relationships, but fewer than one in five were shown as parents or caregivers.

"These findings tell the story of a group still fighting for inclusion in media," write the study's authors, a team from the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California. Their conclusion jibes with GLAAD's well-known annual report on queer representation on TV, and expands GLAAD's findings to include movies.

Why should we care if TV and movies look like the real America? There are a number of reasons to root for entertainment that better reflects the diversity of the United States:

1. Think of the children: Kids prefer role models who share their race and gender, and earn better grades and have higher self-esteem when they have such role models available to them, research shows. Perhaps these positive effects would be reinforced with characters that share the kids' orientations too. Indeed, bisexual, gay, and lesbian teens who are exposed to more gay- and lesbian-oriented media report a stronger sense of well-being, a national survey found.

2. Think of the money: Movies with diverse casts tend to earn more. America wants diverse media, but it seems Hollywood executives just haven't gotten the message yet.

3. Think of yourself: Seeing characters that are reflective of American diversity can be healthy and grounding for Americans of all kinds. As one team of researchers explained in a 2007 study of lesbian, gay, and bisexual TV characters:

Cultivation theory suggests that watching television influences viewers' attitudes and beliefs through a process whereby the world as portrayed by the media comes to be perceived by viewers—particularly high-volume viewers—as an accurate reflection of reality. Regular television watching is proposed to create a shared set of conceptions and expectations about social reality among otherwise diverse viewers. Based on cultivation theory, some researchers have suggested that the lack of portrayals of homosexuality on television may influence the beliefs among heavy viewers that homosexuality is abnormal or extremely rare.

In other words, the more authentic your media programming, the more authentic your inner conception of the world. That gives the entertainment industry pretty great potential. Let's make the most of it.