Earlier this year I saw Jinkx Monsoon, star of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, at the Leicester Square theatre. In her brilliant show “The Ginger Snaps!” Jinkx took us through an hour of cranky drag queen comedy while her onstage sidekick Major Scales lamented to the audience “I just don’t know what’s gotten into her!” At the end of the show, Jinkx performed the sort of monologue that is always felt most acutely by an audience when your face hurts from laughing and the tone shifts. She explained to the audience that she’s upset that after 50 years of progress in LGBT+ rights it feels like we’re going backwards again. And she’s right, like a cannonball shot into the air going up and up it now feels like we’ve hit the apex of progress and soon that cannonball is going to turn in mid-air and come plummeting back onto our faces.
Social media and clickbait headlines have produced some of the most reductive arguments on LGBT+ rights you can imagine. I still can’t get over one Twitter user who argued that “the current trajectory of trans ideology is rendering biological sex irrelevant.” If you’re ready to go through intense life-changing surgery to correct your biological sex, I’d say that renders it pretty relevant. Meanwhile, Piers Morgan continues to ridicule transgender and non-binary people on morning television, and his employers’ response was to publish a Twitter poll. No, they did not launch an internal investigation. Instead, they decided to use it to boost their social engagement metrics that month.
The fact of the matter is that the experiences of LGBT+ people, especially transgender people, are almost always too complex to share in 280 characters or a three-minute segment on the sofa. In the snake pits of combative interviewers, click-hunting sub editors, and Twitter trolls, people’s stories get twisted and derailed off course. We’ve forgotten how to sit and listen to people’s experiences and stories without feeling the need to interject our own opinions.
Enter the entertainment industry. This glorious industry that somehow, even in the attention crisis of the 21st century, can create compelling stories that people sit and immerse themselves in for hours. Where governments argue back and forth over the chambers and news media publish click bait headlines, the entertainment industry is quietly creating stories that build understanding and empathy for the community.
If you doubt for a second the power of the entertainment industry in this regard, look at the impact of Will & Grace. Launched in the days of linear, terrestrial TV (more on streaming services later), the United States was presented in 1998 with a mainstream TV show that represented two successful gay men living their lives in modern America. This was the same year that Ellen came out and, shortly after, had her self-titled ABC show cancelled. Yet Will & Grace persisted, thanks to great characters and storytelling, and went on to win sixteen Emmys. In 2012, then-Vice President Joe Biden cited the show in his drive for marriage equality, saying, “I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anybody has ever done so far.”
Fast forward 20 years from when Will & Grace burst into linear TV schedules and entertainment has changed dramatically. Unrestrained by channel numbers and “primetime” slots, the scope for broad representation is suddenly wide open. There is no need to go for the lowest common denominator approach to mass popularity in a bid to win ratings wars at 8pm on a Saturday. Will & Grace snuck through in a Trojan Horse of typical sitcom formatting and character tropes, but now the LGBT+ community is unabashedly taking up space in people’s entertainment diet without taking on the trappings of formulaic television.
As Will & Grace was in 1998, so Netflix is now. The glory of Netflix and other streaming platforms is the abundance of choice and therefore variety. If you want to watch Bechtel Test-failing nonsense to pass two hours, you can. But, if you want to watch Paris is Burning, the incredible documentary on the New York ballroom drag scene of the eighties, you can. There is room for everyone at Netflix. All stories are equal, and word of mouth is king. Beyond what algorithms serve you based on previous viewings, there is no fighting for primetime, no decisions on which lifestyles belong before or after the watershed, and no pushing “niche” programming down the channel list. The likes of Queer Eye and Ru Paul’s Drag Race are thriving in this environment so much so that Drag Race has expanded to the UK (following a record crowd for a drag show at Wembley earlier this year when their “Werq the World” show came to London) and Queer Eye to Japan.
Netflix has made a huge statement of intent in signing their latest mega deal with Ryan Murphy. Murphy’s writing CV illustrates a beautiful timeline of progress in LGBT+ representation in television, from Glee and American Horror Story’s prominent inclusion of LGBT+ characters to Pose’s ground-breaking representation of the 1980s ball scene, and, now, this year’s The Politician. The wonderful thing about the last show on that list is that the diversity lives beyond the plot. In The Politician, a character goes the whole show without the fact that they are transgender ever being mentioned – that is not the character’s defining point. They are part of the bigger plot and their gender is irrelevant to that. Throughout the show, characters display fluidity of sexuality and gender but that is just their reality, not the driving force of the story. Imagine!
Murphy said in his Guardian interview recently, “More and more showrunners, writers, networks, are taking people who are marginalized and making them the leads… These people have gone from being sidekicks at best to being captains of their own story. And that’s significant.”
As a communications industry, we need to make the same transition we’ve seen in entertainment. There was a time and place for adopting the Will & Grace model of injecting representation into campaigns and stories which are still largely heteronormative i.e., “We’ve taken our existing car advert and put two Dads in it!” That was good and important at the time, but it’s not enough anymore. Yet, we seem to be stuck in that period, bar one or two exceptions.
Renault’s new advert which follows a same-sex love story over three decades, released this week, is one of those exceptions. A beautiful piece of story-telling that puts the complexity of our relationships at the heart. Their existing advert with two dads, this is not.
We need our collective brand voices to represent the LGBT+ community’s unique stories and challenges better. In the same way that Ryan Murphy does in his screen writing: not as a sidekick or an adaptation of the main idea, but as the hero of a well-told story.
Take, for example, McDonald’s gorgeous TV spot in Taiwan where a young man comes out to his father over coffee. This spot was released before the Taiwan constitutional court voted to legalize same sex marriage in May 2017, so it was brave, even in a market known to be South East Asia’s most progressive for LGBT+ rights. But the reason I love this advert three years on is that it puts a unique moment for LGBT+ people at the center of it. Everyone has a coming out story and, even on what must be my hundredth watch, I still well up.
Examples like this are still the exception, though. This year, the always excellent team at UK’s Channel 4 has made their £1m diversity in advertising award focused on better representation of LGBT+ people. This follows 4Sales data that shows 60% of LGBT+ people polled felt their presence in advertising campaigns was tokenistic or based on damaging stereotypes. We can all look forward to the campaigns created as part of this initiative helping reverse the trend.
One danger of the box-ticking exercise is that marketers resort to gay white men as their diversity pick of choice. Again, this was fine for the Will & Grace era of inclusion, but we are well beyond that now. If brands want to show up at Pride month and beyond, they need to be there for all aspects of the LGBT+ community, especially when the transgender community is under such attack.
They also need to stick to their principles, unlike the NSPCC who buckled under criticism and cancelled their association with trans model Munroe Bergdorf in the middle of Pride month. Bergdorf was hired specifically to help the NSPCC engage with young trans people. They said they cut ties because she had previously DMed young people on Twitter offering support, which is baffling since this only demonstrates her passion and drive for the role in which she’d been hired. Most suspect that she was in fact fired after coming under pressure from media. As we move from the Will & Grace era of LGBT+ inclusive communications to aspiring to represent in the way that Ryan Murphy does, marketers who are there for gay white men will also need to be there for trans people of color.
Consider some of the other voices speaking on the LGBT+ community: corners of the media and politicians painting us not just as sidekicks but as villains, here to invade your bathrooms and defile the sanctity of marriage. In that context, an entertainment industry making us heroes is perhaps the one thing that can stop the onrushing reversal of rights. If we learn from them and add brand voices to those having such a profound effect in entertainment, then, together, we may just be able flip that cannonball.