GLAAD’s report on LGBTQ representation in television, released Thursday, initially looked like a cause for celebration.
The organization, which has been examining this data for more than 20 years, came out with some surprising data tailor-made for a happy headline: there were more LGBTQ characters on television than ever before. And while that achievement was notable, the report said, that milestone obscured some other critical representational issues, particularly when it came to queer women and women of color.
“Where We Are on TV” found that 4.8 percent (43 characters) of characters in the 2016/2017 broadcast scripted primetime TV programming are LGBTQ, compared to 95.4% of characters who are heterosexual (854 characters). Broadcast networks are scheduled to feature 28 recurring LGBTQ characters, the highest its ever been. This year, cable features 142 regular and recurring LGBTQ characters, the same as it was the year before.
But 4.8% percent still feels like a paltry number, especially when a recent study found that 7% of people aged 18-35 identified as LGBTQ.
The numbers also only tell part of the story. As Sarah Kate Ellis, GLAAD’s president and CEO cautioned in the piece, it’s not just the number of LGBTQ characters represented that matter, it’s how they’re portrayed:
“For all the advancement made, many LGBTQ characters still fall into outdated stereotypes or harmful tropes,” Ellis wrote in the report.
There’s a long tradition, for example, of television and film killing off their queer characters. A widely shared report produced by Autostraddle in March 2016 found that only 30 lesbian or bisexual TV characters of the 383 who have appeared on American television since 1976 were given happy endings, while 95 have died.
“Most of these deaths served no other purpose than to further the narrative of a more central (and often straight, cisgender) character, Ellis wrote in the GLAAD report. When there are so few lesbian and bisexual women on television, the decision to kill these characters in droves sends a toxic message about the worth of queer female stories.
Though the percentage of black series regular characters is at a record high, black women only make up 38% of those characters. Latino representation lags at just 8%, while Asian-Americans make makes up just 6% of all characters.
72% of LGBTQ characters on cable television are white.
You can read the full report here.