For young queers, there is often an intense draw toward seeing LGBTQ representation in the media. This same drive to see oneself represented is what has lead to queer baiting, an increase in LGBTQ characters in tv shows, and many of my personal obsessions. I have long been baffled by the feeling I get while witnessing gay characters doing, well, pretty much anything, on a tv screen. This feeling is one that many young queers experience. It has often lead me to type “gay” into the Netflix search bar and watch any mediocre movie that has some amount of homosexuality. However, I am one of the lucky gays who has grown up in the 21st century, where queer cyberspace has cracked wide open and the representation in tv and movies is steadily increasing.
Shortly after coming out to myself, I began consuming as much queer media as I could. I watched every movie that the internet provided and looked up every queer celebrity. I found queer filmmakers I loved and began secretly watching The L Word around my house. Seeing proper representation not only helped me in accepting my identity but also showed me what was possible for my future. Watching queer media felt like finally filling in a hole in my exposure to the world that I hadn’t previously noticed. The more I consumed the more complete I felt.
An increase in representation
A 2020 study done by Nielsen, a data analytics company, found that LGTBQ characters made up 6.7% of the “share of the screen”. Share of screen refers to the “ Identity group representation among the top 10 recurring cast members” of a tv show. The study also compares the share of screen percentage to the percentage of the population that identifies as the represented group. The study, conducted in December of 2020, lists that 4.5% of the population identifies as a part of the LGBTQ community.
That number has since gone up, and a New York Times study in February of this year found that 5.6% of the adults and 1 in 6 adults in generation Z identifies as LGBTQ. This number, while causing me immense excitement when I found it out, still feels far too low. Unfortunately, getting any real estimate feels far from possible. Queerness is difficult to quantify, and many people will never allow themselves to experience the reality of their identity. However, adjacent to the increase in the number of people who identify as LGBTQ, I assume the amount of representation has also risen.
Casey and Izzy
Netflix’s original Atypical is among this representation. The show centers on Sam, a high school student with Autism. Sam works through family issues, first love, and eventually goes off to college. The careful and dedicated attention it shows to its characters is what makes it stand out. In addition to Sam, the show follows Sam’s family, his best friend Zahid, and his girlfriend Paige. Each character gets a nuanced plot of their own and a well-written journey of growth. Among these characters is Sam’s sister Casey, who throughout the second and third season of the show, discovers she has feelings for her best friend, Izzy.
The writers of the show took their time with Izzy and Casey’s relationship, drawing it out in painfully slow lengths. Even though this caused me intense frustration, it is also the reason the relationship is written so successfully. Casey and Izzy are both high school sophomores when they become friends, and what dominates the beginning of their relationship is not a sudden and clear lust, but confusion.
At first, they gravitate toward each other in the excitement of finding a new person with whom they connect. Then, they draw even closer, unsure of why their friendship feels somehow different. One difficulty of being young and queer is having to draw new lines around intimacy that were previously clear-cut. I remember struggling between understanding the differences between romantic, platonic, and sexual attraction. Sorting through one’s own desires and feelings about intimacy is an experience that can only happen alone. There is very little clarity in the process especially when it comes to queerness, a less widely accepted and represented identity.
Izzy and Casey are both in the process of trying to sort through their intimacy. There is at once clarity and complete confusion. The clarity is that they are wanting to be close, and feeling some amount of right-ness in the intimacy of their friendship. The confusion is what the feeling means and what to do about it.
At the end of the second season, after making up from a fight, Izzy makes Casey “forehead promise” that the two would “never leave each other again”. The moment, which literally made me bring my hands to my mouth, overflows with the push and pull of romantic and platonic intimacy. The two, who long to be physically close, giggle at first when they press their foreheads together. They then fall silent, looking at each other and then, for a moment, closing their eyes. It seems like they are almost about to kiss, until Casey’s mother, Elsa walks in.
In the following episode, there is a similar moment. The two have gone out to get Slurpees at a convenience store and are sitting together in Casey’s car. Casey starts to talk about her boyfriend, saying that she loves him, and then says, “it’s just sometimes a thing feels so right”. The statement hangs in the air. At once applicable to both her relationship with her boyfriend and to her budding romance with Izzy. In the silence the two slowly, finger by finger, reach for each other’s hands. They sit for a long moment like that, holding hands and not saying anything.
A painfully slow intimacy
The romance is incredibly subtle and it isn’t for another seven episodes that the two actually kiss. They instead hover in the purgatory of the unknown. Struggling to figure out if what they are feeling is mutual, okay, or even real. Although it may seem a painful thing to watch, especially as someone who has long since come out and become comfortable within their identity, I was glued to the screen.
The show continues to put the couple through hell. They take turns pushing each other away. At first, Casey tries to stuff any feelings down to continue being with her boyfriend. Once the two are finally together, Izzy struggles with their public exposure. But despite the struggle and the frailty of the relationship throughout, the third season ends in a place of strength. They will be together, and they are both ready to face the difficulties of the new relationship, together.
To come out or stay in?
The trailer for the fourth, and final season of the show, alludes to struggles with the girls coming out. Critics of queer media often struggle with the laser focus on the coming out process. Rather than allowing queer love and connection to take center stage, queer media about coming out shifts the focus to how queerness deviates from the norm. The concept of “coming out” is formed from the conception of queer as not being “normal”.
Since the majority of people are heterosexual, for many people, being queer requires a definitive announcing of one’s sexuality. This process is inherently othering of one’s identity. However, there is a really important place for representation of coming out. It is for many people an important part of their queer journey, and seeing it portrayed is very valuable when done well.
Even so, having the first season and a half of Casey’s queer experience being shown without her worrying about telling her parents, was refreshing. It gave the center stage to Casey’s experience of her feelings for Izzy, focusing on the queerness she was experiencing rather than how that experience breaks the norm.
Watching queer media done well, like Atypical, feels like the scratching of some unreachable itch. It is hard to express the importance proper representation offers. In addition to being able to see characters that are like me, representation puts a piece of my identity that has for so long existed on the outskirts or had to exist in secret, on center stage. It is incredibly validating and at once both grounding and exciting. I feel ecstatic about the increase in queer media in recent years, and I am excited to see the new boundary-pushing queer media that is sure to come.