Why Are Queer Book Characters So Much More Compelling Than Queer TV Characters?

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With complaints of “long, tedious episodes, poor characterization, bad plotting and a general lack of focus,” being “both too much and not enough” and, broadly, “clumsiness,” the third and final season of Ted Lasso has thus far failed to garner the critical acclaim its first two seasons did. While I agree with all of those critiques, my biggest gripe with the season is the clunky, half-hearted way its queer characters are presented.

The first two seasons of the Apple TV+ show were rightfully called out as being overwhelmingly straight, but now, in the eleventh hour, the decision to highlight the queerness of not one or two, but three characters feels hasty, hollow and overcompensating. A review in Slate reads, “This season it seems to be throwing multiple examples at us. See? They're gay or bi! But none of its queer characters appear well-rounded. They won't get lasting love or happiness or escape trauma. The show is tolerating them, but their storylines are miserable.”

But this isn’t just a Ted Lasso problem; queer representation on TV often feels this way: LGBTQ characters are often relegated to supporting roles or stereotypical storylines. Even when they are given main character treatment, with robust and complicated backstories, many succumb to the ‘bury your gays’ trope, which refers to when queer characters are included in storylines but meet untimely, devastating deaths. (Think: Jodie Comer’s Villanelle in Killing Eve.) As an article in Screen Rant explains, “When TV and film only tell stories of suffering and death for their LGBTQ+ characters, it drives home the idea that to be queer is only to suffer.”

Queer book characters are, more often than not, a completely different story. Yes, there are still gay best friends or eccentric, ‘probably a lesbian but we’re never going to confirm it either way’ aunts, whose main purpose seems to be checking off an inclusion box, but there are so many books by LGBTQ authors that feature non-straight people who are complex and messy and happy and fully fleshed-out. They don’t feel like they were written to appeal to or appease a straight audience.

This isn’t to say that all queer representation should be accepting families and happy endings—it’s that LGBTQ book characters are allowed to be so much more than LGBTQ TV characters. There are fun rom-coms like Something to Talk About, Meryl Wilsner’s novel about rumors flying that a Hollywood powerhouse who’s never talked about her sexuality is dating her female assistant, or Casey McQuiston’s Red, White and Royal Blue, about fake-friends-to-lovers story about the son of the U.S. president and the prince of England. But there’s also Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Manhunt, a post-apocalyptic horror novel that follows trans women and men on a grotesque journey of survival, and dark comedies like Dawn Winter’s Sedating Elaine, which explores love, grief, sex and guilt through a woman’s scheme to tranquilize her sex-crazed girlfriend for a few days so that she can pay off her drug dealer and get some peace and quiet. Where queer TV characters can feel a bit like Mad-Libs (‘__ came out at age __ and her parents felt __ about it.’), queer book characters feel like real people. Of course there are TV shows that feature queer characters prominently and realistically—Heartstopper and Sex Education come to mind—but they seem to be the exception to the rule.

The gap in queer representation in books and TV shows isn’t just in quality, it’s in quantity. In GLAAD’s annual Where We Are on TV report, which analyzes LGBTQ representation on TV, GLAAD counted 659 series regulars set to appear on scripted primetime broadcast series for the 2022-2023 season. Of those, 70 (10.6 percent) are LGBTQ, a decrease of 22 characters and 1.3 percent from last year. Things look very different in the book world: According to NPD BookScan, which tracks the sales of most printed books sold in the United States, about 850,000 LGBTQ romance books sold at traditional retail outlets in 2021—a 740 percent increase over a five-year period, and more than double the number sold in 2020.

Now, if you’re a straight person reading this, the differences I’ve described might seem inconsequential. At least there *are* queer characters on TV, you might think. But at a time when the LGBTQ community is under frequent attacks, it’s more important than ever that queer people, particularly young queer people, are able to see themselves represented in media in all ways—not just ways that feel forced or stereotypical or end in tragedy.

While we wait for TV shows (and movies, but that’s another story) to catch up to books when it comes to writing real and complex characters, I’ll keep adding the gayest books I can get my hands on to my TBR, which currently includes Claudia Craven’s queer Western Lucky Red, the rom-com Best Men by Sidney Karger and Night of the Living Queers, a YA horror anthology by queer authors of color.

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...