What's More Important: LGBT Representation or Good Art?
I struggle with this issue.
In 2004, I co-founded AfterElton.com, a website that covered LGBT-related entertainment (the site was sold to MTV/Viacom in 2005, grew really big, and then folded a few years later in the online ad-pocalypse of 2012).
Ever since that experience, I have really struggled with the issue of "LGBT representation in art." Am I reviewing a book, TV show, or movie as art? Or am I covering its representation of LGBT folks?
Because these are two very different things.
On one hand, visibility matters. Representation in entertainment affects attitudes and culture, including the law itself. It’s also validating for LGBT folks. To not have representation is a lie: minorities exist. Art should reflect reality as much as possible.
So is it my job, as a gay man, to support all pro-LGBT content? But what about something's success (or failure) as art? I've long felt that supporting bad pro-LGBT art actually hurts representation (because people quickly learn, “Gay critics have no credibility," and "LGBT content is amateurish.")
I think the answers to these difficult questions change as visibility grows. Any one work becomes less and less important. And its success or failure matters less to the industry that is financing these things.
Which doesn't mean bias disappears. That’s probably why I still pull my punches with the "bad" stuff. Even now, while I'm quick to praise stuff I love, I hesitate to harshly criticize stuff I hate (unless it's made by Greg Berlanti, who I think is a consistent hack, and deserves all the criticism he gets).
As a content creator myself, I know how hard it is to get anything made or produced. The odds are so against you! And if any part of your project is out of the mainstream, your 1 in 100 odds instantly go to 1 in 1000. (And that's just for getting the project made. Even funded and produced projects often disappear without a trace.)
This isn't a question of "being negative" or "not believing in my work." It's just reality. This is the entertainment industry that I've worked in for the last twenty years.
All that said, when something high-profile is mediocre, I react exactly like the author of this article writing about Always Be My Maybe (on Netflix):
"Well, that’s nice,” I think. I just can't muster the unbridled enthusiasm for mere representation that other LGBT folks seem to constantly have on tap.
This makes me feel like a Bad Gay.
On the other hand, for me, representation is the very start of the process. I honestly don't take much pleasure in representation for the sake of representation.
More important than representation, I want the book, movie, or TV show to take me some place I've never been, and make me feel something I've never felt.
I also don't want to have to make excuses for bad or trope-ish writing, and I'm quickly annoyed by bad production values. At the same time, I know that the success of these pioneering projects really matters to the industry. Which brings me back to how I really struggle with this issue.
In my own work, I’ve never been comfortable telling people to support me because it also supports the “cause” of representation (or any cause, really). I’ve always wanted my own work to succeed or fail entirely on its own merits: Buy my book because you like my writing or you’re intrigued by the story, not because you think it’ll help LGBT visibility or keep kids from killing themselves. (Other writers have a different take on this, and I respect that, but I strongly believe it’s not for me to say things like this about my own work.)
I also think audience sensibilities shift over time. I think LGBT viewers have become much more discriminating lately — a reaction to all the new LGBT entertainment options. Representation does matter less, so "art" matters more.
Right now for other marginalized groups (or for niche groups within other groups), representation seems to matter more. That's because the choices are fewer — and sometimes nonexistent.
I suspect that will change in the years ahead, as will the audience's response to it. These things have a way of self-correcting.
But that doesn't mean I won't spent way too much time parsing and over-thinking these issues, and feeling Iike I'm doing it all wrong!