I’ve gone back and forth with this piece, and to be honest I put it down to my discomfort towards representation within the media and the repeated mediocracy that’s occurring within some production companies. Now, I’m making assumptions here, but it seems that the majority of LGBTQIA+ content is predominately being made by cis, white heterosexuals who aren’t consulting the very community in which the story is being told.
For the better half of a decade, I’ve been working as a television producer, specialising in reality/lifestyle television. Say what you will, but there is beauty within these genres (when it’s done correctly). Reality television is the most consumed form of entertainment within Australia. According to a recent survey, 66% of Australians say they watch reality tv and 34% lie about watching it. That’s 90% of our population glued to these programs. Therefore, the importance of having any story told authentically and safely is essential. Production companies have a responsibility to ensure that not only the participants within the show are protected, but the audiences are too.
If we’re going to have ex-Bachelor/NFL player Colton Underwood share his coming out story to the world, then it’s important to take a leaf out of Kelly Clarkson’s 2004 classic and “make a wish, take a chance, make a change and breakaway”. Netflix’s Coming Out Colton in my opinion, didn’t deliver and left me asking the question:
"Is all representation good representation?"
I’m not quite sure it is.
For those lucky enough to be a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, they have the uncomfortable task of initially having to “come out” – to unlearn everything that they’ve previously been taught, seek safety and community, build their chosen family and work tirelessly to find the beauty within and accept their identity. Nine times out of ten, this can be a traumatising experience and in these times of need, we usually turn to television. When you can’t see yourself on screen or through authentic representation then this tells our glorious queer viewers that their story isn’t worthy, that they’re an outcast and that the wider population are disinterested in their existence. When Coming Out Colton premiered in December of 2021, I was hopeful and intrigued to see how they’d portray the story of a newly “out” public figure dealing with this exciting new chapter of his life. What I got was white privilege in the form of six 30-minute episodes. What I got was a man who is unfortunately clearly struggling with his sexuality and is afraid that due to the toxic masculine environments which he’s been previously linked to, would find him enduring the pain that marginalised individuals have had to go through before him.
My intention here is to not invalidate Underwood’s experience, as I know first-hand how daunting this can be, let alone doing it with the world watching. Instead, my intention is to highlight how they could have told Underwood’s journey differently.
Now, with all storytelling, an “inciting incident” is required: What is going to be the hurdle in which our protagonist needs to jump over? Obviously for Colton, this is him coming out to each group, portrayed in the first four episodes (family, friends, football and church). Time and time again, he becomes apprehensive about having this discussion. But unfortunately, they make a mistake by having the same inciting incident in each episode, portraying that this hurdle is, in fact, a mountain that even the most privileged of men aren’t able to get across. What does this tell LGBTQIA+ youth?
Instead, his warranted insecurities should have been addressed in Episode One, allowing the remaining five episodes to be an enlightening and hopeful experience going forward. Yes, drama sells, but so does inspiration. What would’ve been beautiful, is if the production decided to go in the direction of questioning those toxic environments i.e., the NFL and church. This would’ve changed the narrative entirely. Turn the mic around and ask the perpetrators, “Why does Underwood and other queers feel this way? Where does this hate stem from? How can we proceed and co-exist with love and respect?” Unfortunately, what the viewers witnessed was an anxious Underwood leading each episode with the dreaded question of “Will I be accepted?”. In my opinion, they’re using the trauma of our community to add nothing new to the conversation. If anything, it confirms that there hasn’t been as much growth as we had originally thought.
2021 was a rollercoaster year for LGBTQIA+ representation within the Australian media. It begun in March when Married At First Sight’s Instagram page posted a 1.26 minute clip of contributor’s Liam and Georgia’s wedding reception where Liam was outed as bisexual. He was immediately confronted with laughter, gasps and “ooo’s” as if it was a hilarious joke. When Liam confirmed that he was in fact bisexual, he was again the subject of laughter and whispers as if to imply, “Poor Georgia” (his match on the show) and “how embarrassing”.
When working within television production, it is our responsibility to:
- Look after the contributors to ensure that their wellbeing and whole self is protected.
- It is our responsibility to showcase a cast that reflect the community which we all exist in.
- Share stories in a way that is respectful, interesting, and powerful.
Married at First Sight is the most watched program in Australia when it’s on air. This fact alone has weight: it means that one million viewers witnessed the blatant bi-phobia displayed on their screens and were encouraged to laughed along. It reiterated to these viewers that this behaviour is okay.
The producing team used this information for their gain, they purposely took his bisexuality and made it into a story point which was engineered to make Liam feel uncomfortable. To isolate him, to make Georgia feel that she had to second guess his masculinity or devotion to her, and place him in an extremely dangerous position.
Cut to the final quarter of 2021, where we ended the year in the most beautiful of ways which tells me that we are in fact moving into the right direction with Network Ten’s The Bachelorette. This season, it featured Australia’s sweetheart Brooke Blurton in a worldwide first by having a first nations, bisexual woman searching for love within the franchise. This was the correct way to make television: it ignited hope, truly. We saw beautiful connections on a prime-time slot where our existence was normalised in an effective and progressive way. It told audiences that we exist, that we deserve acceptance and that we’re worthy of love. I can only imagine the conversations that were had due to this, for example among parents and their children, answering questions about bisexuality which is literally the reason why I got into this industry. Conversations are powerful. Visibility is growth.
Going forward, we need to ensure that we embrace this form of authentic storytelling to ensure that these productions companies are aware of the positive social impact it creates and the cravings for diversity and inclusion on our screens.
I have a lot of hope for our future. My friends tell me that I’m overtly optimistic, but how can I not be when I’m surrounded by immense beauty in the form of our community every day? It’s never too late for a conversation and the great thing about television is that visibility = safety. If we’re able to control the narrative and produce positive queer lived experiences while honouring our pain, then I know that this could potentially prevent one less stare. One less mis-gendering encounter. One less life potentially hurt.