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Jennifer O’Brien Ph.D.
Jennifer O’Brien Ph.D.

Why Visibility Matters

The impact of the rise of LGBTQ+ representation in the media.

Last week, GLAAD released their annual “Where We Are on TV” report for the 2017-2018 television season, which pulls together statistics about the number of LGBT characters that are represented across broadcast, cable, and streaming television networks. According to the results, it seems that the visibility of LGBTQ characters on television is at an all-time high.

The report finds that overall, a total of 58 or 6.4% of regular characters on television and 28 recurring characters are identified as either lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. An additional finding is that there is more diversity within the LGBTQ groups that are represented than in years past, particularly with the rise of characters who identify as asexual and gender non-binary. In the midst of these promising findings, the report highlights an area of major concern, which is the finding that LGBTQ people of color are significantly underrepresented on television — with only 23% of all characters identified as non-white.

Last week also saw the historic elections of Andrea Jenkins, who ran for Minneapolis City Council, and Danica Roem who ran for a seat in the Virginia State legislature. Both are the first U.S. elected officials to openly identify as transgender, with Jenkins’ victory marking her the first transgender woman of color to be elected into public office.

So what does it mean that there is greater diversity in terms of representation of gender and sexuality of people in the media? Why is this important?

The answer is complicated, and there are many important reasons why visibility matters. One factor to consider is that when more LGBTQ people are included in the media this means that they are actually seen by society as opposed to being rendered unseen or invisible. When people are able to see something represented, they are better able to understand and grasp who those people are, and this creates an important shift in the social consciousness to include people from a range of different backgrounds.

Another crucial piece to consider is that when people see representations of themselves in the media, this can foster a great sense of affirmation of their identity. Feeling affirmed with one’s own sense of self can boost positive feelings of self-worth, which is quite different than feeling as if you are wrong or bad for being who you are. The message that can come from a society in which LGBTQ people are invisible, especially through the lens of the media, is that “you don’t exist and you don’t matter."

There is another side to visibility, which is that when any minority group is represented in such a large format, the way in which they are portrayed carries a “burden of representation," and runs the risk of reinforcing stereotypes about a specific group, especially if only minimal variations of that group are portrayed. For instance, if most LGBTQ characters that are represented in the media are played by white actors, this drastically misrepresents the true racial makeup of the community and can leave LGBTQ people of color to be rendered invisible by society.

And so as visibility of diverse characters and people in the media emerges, it’s important to remember that there is only a limited range of stories being told — particularly with regard to racial minorities. However, it is a good place to start.

About the Author
Jennifer O’Brien Ph.D.

Jennifer O’Brien, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist at MIT Medical. She received her Ph.D. from American University.