Skip to main content
How are identities shaped by the media?

As a kid with an overactive imagination, I compulsively consumed books, television shows, and movies. These stories and images fed my insatiable curiosity about the experiences of people both real and imagined. I learned some of my most important life lessons from TV and movies: Lizzie McGuire taught me how to buy a bra, the Parent Trap showed me how to pierce my own ears, and Gossip Girl taught me how to socially blackmail my classmates. Where would any of us be without the social intelligence we’ve gleaned from popular media? Not only did these images inform my ideas about the world around me, but I distinctly remember looking to these images to figure out how I understood my own identity. When you watch the Breakfast Club, you try to decide which one you are— are you the Criminal, Princess, Athlete, Brain, or Basket Case? What color Power Ranger would you be? When you watch Mean Girls, what table would you sit at in the cafeteria? It’s a little game we play with ourselves and I’m sure you just answered all those questions in your head as you read this. There is an implicit drive within us to see ourselves represented on screen. We want a character to identify with, to care about, to inspire us—otherwise it’s just boring. But what happens when you don’t see yourself? Who do you look to for those valuable life lessons you can’t get from parents and teachers?

Hitting a Wall.

As a young gay person, the media had an incredibly complicated influence on understanding my sexual identity. It took until my late teens to realize I wasn’t straight, and several more years to consider myself gay. Why did it take me so long to accept this about myself? While I would like to say I was just a progressive teen with a fluid and un-labeled sexuality, I was honestly just incredibly anxious about openly assuming a gay identity. Without any immediate role models, I didn’t know how to conceptualize this part of myself. Most of my notions of gay identities came from film and television, and I could never quite relate to these rare and often underdeveloped characters. The media already puts immense pressure on young women to meet expectations of appearance, sexuality, and relationships— so how was I supposed to navigate not only being gay, but being a gay woman? Unfortunately we can’t all be Ellen (but what a world that would be), so where was I supposed to look next? As someone that sublimates all their anxieties with books and movies, I went down the proverbial rabbit hole of LGBT media and consumed anything that could help me to better understand myself.


I did my gay homework. I learned everything I could about gay history, I read theoretical essays (lots of Judith Butler), watched documentaries, and looked up an embarrassing amount of “Top 10 Best Gay Movies” lists online. From my research, I learned quickly that preceding the late 20th century, LGBT identities were rendered virtually invisible. Aside from the careful use of innuendo and suggestion that circumvented the strict Hollywood codes, these characters were unseen except by those perceptive enough to pick up on the subtleties (if you are interested in ‘Old Hollywood’ gays, I strongly recommend the film The Celluloid Closet). Several decades after the Stonewall riots and NYC’s first pride parade, America witnessed the first kiss between a homosexual couple on television airing in 1991. Seven years later, Ellen Degeneres came out on the Oprah Winfrey show, and in the year 2000, two men shared the first televised homosexual kiss in Dawson’s Creek. In the 2000s we begin to see gay characters in popular TV shows like Will & Grace, The L Word, Glee, and Modern Family. So that pretty much brings us up to speed.


As we take a critical look at popular TV and movies, LGBT people are typically secondary characters or one-dimensional tropes. We are all aware of quintessential gay male stereotype: effeminite, flamboyant, and often used for comedic relief. We think of Jack from Will & Grace, Kurt from Glee, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Cam & Mitch on Modern Family etc. We are all familiar with the “sassy gay best friend” stereotype that has been widely embraced as the ‘ideal companion for straight women’. Lesbians, on the other hand, are not afforded many favorable stereotypes. If one imagines a ‘sassy lesbian’ their thoughts probably go immediately to armpit hair and denim vests with strongly worded buttons—not exactly the ‘ideal best friend’ for straight men. Straight men only applaud lesbianism as a pornographic fantasy in a world in which female sexuality exists only for the benefit of male pleasure. Big surprise there. The popular stereotypes for lesbians are the ‘man-hating butches’ or ‘lipstick lesbians’, and representation in the media is abysmally small. Oftentimes, the lesbians that do make it to the big screen are portrayed as complete psychos. In movies like Basic Instinct, Mullholland Drive, Jennifer’s Body, and Black Swan, the woman’s ‘lesbianism’ is comorbid with some sort of insanity that usually leads her to murder. Not exactly a premium role model for young queer women.

The Bigger Picture.

It is important to take note that when we look at shows like Will & Grace, Glee, and Modern Family, we are still seeing a highly curated representation of gay identities. From these examples we can see that the majority of LGBT characters on television are cisgendered, white, males that are middle to upper-middle class. With white, affluent, cis-gendered men in control of most media platforms, it comes as no surprise that the first gay identities we see in the media closely mirror this demographic. It seems that women and other racial identities are far less visible comparative to white men. For example, the 2015 film Stonewall completely whitewashed LGBT history by replacing the pioneers of the Stonewall riots, Marsha P. Johnson and Syliva Rivera (an African American and Puerto-Rican drag queen), with a white, corn-fed boy from Indiana. Big-budget Hollywood films often ignore intersectional identities in favor of ‘easily marketable’ characters. As a result, the rest of the colorful LGBT rainbow remains unseen. People that are trans, gender non-conforming, or of varied intersectional identities are scarce to non-existent in popular films and television. An LGBT person that is Asian, African American, Hispanic etc., experiences a completely different set of challenges than what is shown in the media’s primarily white construction of queerness. On shows like Modern Family, Glee, or Will & Grace, ‘coming out’ might mean discomfort or family drama, but for people of different socio-economic statuses or cultural backgrounds, they risk homelessness, estrangement, and physical violence.

LGBT Media: Where are we now?

Recently, popular film and television have taken efforts to represent a wider scope of LGBT identities. Shows like Transparent and Orange is the New Black are incredibly self-reflective in examining multi-faceted LGBT characters. These shows delve into the intersectional world of race, gender, class, and cultural background. Although the protagonists of both shows are still affluent and white, these shows must still be applauded for going places that no other popular programs have gone before. This past year, the films Tangerine and Carol received high acclaim in the media. Both films not only surrounded queer narratives and were were also created by LGBT directors. It is not only important to see LGBT characters on screen, but it is equally if not more important to have LGBT people creating, directing, and producing this media.

Moving forward.

So what can you do? Visibility relies on an audience. Pay attention to directors, writers, and production companies that are committed to representing different points of view. Find LGBT stories told by LGBT individuals. Expand your Netflix & Hulu queue to include independent or foreign films that showcase global queer identities. Searching outside traditional media channels is vital in expanding personal and public perception of underrepresented voices. From personal experience, discovering the immense range of LGBT voices outside of popular media was incredibly liberating.

In the spirit of Pride Month, here’s a list of 45 movies that showcase many sides of the LGBT experience. This is by no means a complete list, and these movies are not without their faults, but this is definitely a place to start. Have you seen any of these? Have any more to add? We’d love to hear what you think– let us know in the comments!

Film & TV with Intersectional LGBT Identities:
  • Portrait of Jason (1967)—Shirley Clarke
  • Paris Is Burning (1990)—Jennie Livingston
  • The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)— Stephan Elliott
  • Boys Don’t Cry (1999)—Kimberly Pierce
  • The L Word (2004-2009)—Ilene Chaiken
  • Pariah (2011)—Dee Rees
  • Orange Is The New Black (2013—present)—Jenji Kohan
  • Transparent (2014—present)—Jill Soloway
  • Tangerine (2015)—Sean S. Baker


Film & TV made by LGBT people:
  • Scorpio Rising (1964)— Kenneth Anger
  • Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966)—George Kuchar
  • Midnight Cowboy (1969)—John Schlesinger
  • Trash (1970)—Paul Morrissey & Andy Warhol
  • Pink Flamingos (1972)—John Waters
  • The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972)—Rainer Werner Fassbinder
  • Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1974)—Chantal Akerman
  • My Own Private Idaho (1991)—Gus Van Sant
  • Go Fish (1994)—Rose Troche
  • The Celluloid Closet (1995)—Rob Epstein & Jeffery Friedman
  • Bound (1996)—Lilly Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
  • Velvet Goldmine (1998)—Todd Haynes
  • High Art (1998)—Lisa Cholodenko
  • Party Monster: The Shockumentary (1998) (World of Wonder Productions)
  • But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)— Jamie Babbit
  • Todo sobre mi madre (1999)—Pedro Almodóvar
  • Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)—John Cameron Mitchell
  • La mala educación (2004)—Pedro Almodóvar
  • Shortbus (2006)—John Cameron Mitchell
  • Milk (2008)—Gus Van Sant
  • A Single Man (2009) —Tom Ford
  • RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009—present)—(LogoTV, World of Wonder Productions)
  • The Kids Are Alright (2010)—Lisa Cholodenko
  • Carol (2015)—Todd Haynes


More LGBT Film & TV:
  • Cabaret (1972)—Bob Fosse
  • La Cage Aux Folles (1978)—Édouard Molinaro
  • Desert Hearts (1986)—Donna Deitch
  • To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)—Beeban Kidron
  • Beau Travail (1999)—Claire Denis
  • Aimee & Jaguar (2000)—Max Färberböck
  • Mullholland Drive (2001)—David Lynch
  • Kissing Jessica Stein (2001)—Charles Herman-Wurmfeld
  • Y Tu Mama También (2002)—Alfonso Cuarón
  • Brokeback Mountain (2005)—Ang Lee
  • Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)—Abdellatif Kechiche
  • Gaycation (2015)—Ellen Page, Ian Daniels (VICE)


Videos featured above (in order of appearance): Thomas Edison’s Experimental Sound Film (1894), Morocco (1930), Aimee & Jaguar (1999), Il Conformista (1970), Queen Christina (1933), Some Like It Hot (1959), La Mala Educación (2004), Rope (1948), Paris Is Burning (1990), Portrait of Jason (1967), RuPaul’s Drag Race (2011), The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), Mean Girls (2004), Thelma & Louise (1991), Bound (1996), My Own Private Idaho (1991)