By Karen Frost
Queer female fans aren’t your average fans. They’re so loyal that the “Xena: Warrior Princess” fan convention lasted for twenty years. They’re so emotionally attached to characters that they continue to fill Tumblr with page upon page of sites dedicated to Clexa (the characters Clark and Lexa from “The 100”) even though Lexa died in 2016. They’re so invested in representation that ten years later, they still get in fights about the good and bad qualities of “The L Word.” There is something tangibly different about how queer female viewers engage with TV and movies compared to how heterosexual viewers engage with media content. In this article, we walk through five ways queer women are different as an audience and what that means for queer content makers.
1. Queer fans are more likely to watch for specific characters and storylines than for genre/overall plot.
Most straight viewers watch a TV show or movie based on interest in the genre and plot, but a significant proportion of queer viewers target their viewership to media with queer content, regardless of genre and overall plot. For example, a straight female might watch “Legends of Tomorrow” because she enjoys sci-fi/fantasy and the show’s setting, while a queer female viewer might watch it in order to see the bisexual character Sara Lance and the Sara Lance-Ava Sharpe same-sex relationship. Thus for queer viewers, sexual orientation often becomes a primary driver for content selection, while for straight viewers, sexual orientation plays no part in content selection. That sexual orientation indeed acts as a driver for viewership is supported by the fact that almost all female same-sex romantic storylines can be found (edited to exclude all other storylines from the original source material) on social media platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, or dailymotion, but there is all but no similar phenomenon with straight romantic storylines. Because heterosexuality is so common as to be banal, there is no need for heterosexual viewers to invoke their heterosexual identity when selecting what to watch.
2. Queer fans use queer content to help in identity formation.
Generally, heterosexuals don’t have to go through a complex process of heterosexual identity formation because it is considered the social default or norm. Queer people, on the other hand, have a lengthier process of coming to terms with their queer identity. According to the Cass identity model, individuals generally form their queer identity in the following six stages: 1) identity confusion, 2) identity comparison, 3) identity tolerance, 4) identity acceptance, 5) identity pride, and 6) identity synthesis/integration. Because sexual orientation is a hidden minority—meaning individuals are less likely to meet other queer people in person or know they’ve met another queer person—representation on screen has taken on for queer woman an outsized importance in identity formation. For example, queer women use queer characters to help with identity comparison, particularly in situations in which they have no other access to queer individuals in person. In those cases, queer characters act as surrogates for real people. Representation also helps the queer female community as a whole develop identity synthesis, as will be discussed in point number four.
3. Some queer fans use representation as a resource for survival and hope.
Queer female viewers engage with queer content in a way that allows them to use characters, stories, and themes as resources for inspiration and, sometimes, survival. Particularly in places where queerness is criminalized or severely repressed, queer content enables viewers to articulate to themselves their desires and imagine what is possible even if their present circumstances seem to preclude a happy ending. Thus queer content becomes a beacon of hope and a possible model or roadmap to a happy life as a queer individual. Conversely, because heterosexuality carries no stigma, straight viewers have no need to use straight characters for similar sexual orientation-based role modeling.
4. Queer fans use representation to build queer community.
All fandoms create their own communities. However, unlike straight fans, queer fans use their participation in fandoms to build up the larger queer community through discussion of queer issues that spring from the specific TV show or movie. For example, queer viewers may criticize or praise a show for its representation and link it to broader trends, such as the Bury Your Gays trope. According to economist Steven Kates, queer individuals often use some type of “consumption venue” while coming out. This participation in a venue leads to connections with other queer people, which contributes to queer community building. Currently, many queer female viewers are using online communities (message boards, Twitter, etc.) as consumption venues en lieu of bars or clubs. Online conversations in these venues create a collective intelligence about the experience of being queer that is then permeated throughout the wider community.
5. Queer fans use representation to demonstrate socio-political progress.
Heterosexuals don’t need straight characters to be socially or politically validated. Gays, on the other hand, do. Because the heterosexual majority has historically been able to marginalize homosexuality simply by enforcing its invisibility, queer audiences consciously and subconsciously recognize the appearance of queer characters and storylines as forcing society to witness and acknowledge their existence (visibility politics). The appearance of more and more characters also represents progress in society’s acceptance of queerness. All queer characters are therefore a socio-political victory for the LGBT community. Conversely, any removal of characters (Bury Your Gays) inherently takes on a pseudo-political aspect that some queer individuals may interpret as a social attack on the community and an attempt to repress queerness. Because of this, the LGBT community uses representation as a barometer for social progress.
What It All Means
Because queerness has historically been a stigmatized identity and queer people “invisible” in society, queer viewers have an almost unique investment in their visual representation on screen, particularly in a positive light. Queer women will seek out queer characters irrespective of genre, station, platform, and often even language. For content makers who want to attract queer viewers, this suggests three possible lessons learned:
- First, queer viewers must know the content exists. Content makers need to publicize the queerness in their content in order to attract viewership. An excellent example of this is the marketing campaign conducted by the movie “Disobedience,” which used an interview blitz with queer-female centric sites like AfterEllen, Autostraddle, and Curve to bring attention to the movie. The movie’s Twitter handle also engaged actively with any Twitter users who tagged the movie.
- Second, representation should avoid longstanding negative tropes that will alienate queer viewers. For example, a queer character can be killed, but the death must be handled with care to avoid sparking accusations that this is yet another example of heterosexual society metaphorically killing its queer population. Content makers who want to add queer content should educate themselves first on the history of representation and case studies of how representation has been done right (“Wynonna Earp”) and when it has been done wrong (“The 100”).
- Third, because the queer community uses representation in community-building, content that is paired with a place and way for viewers to generate conversation about queer issues is likely to fare better. “The L Word,” for example, offered ample opportunities for fans to chat and engage with the show on the show’s website, and this community-building aspect was widely hailed as advancing connectivity among the lesbian community.