Representation, especially for young queer people, can be instrumental in how they view themselves, the world around them, and their identities. Positive portrayals of queer characters and relationships can help members of the community feel more accepted in the mainstream world. It can normalize different identities and show audiences that the world is not as black and white as it is often painted to be. Representation can not only help queer teenagers come to terms with their sexuality and gender identity in a healthy way but could also help them feel less alone and help build a community. Beyond humanizing a marginalized community, positive representation could play a part in undoing harmful stigmas and prejudice that exists especially in India.
But what happens when representation is harmful? The Indian film industry is one of the largest in the world, with its market size in 2020 of around 183 billion Indian rupees and its films being watched around the world. These films mirror our culture back to us, glamourized and filled with dance numbers and musical pieces. Hindi films, though, have a history with questionable representation of LGBTQ+ people- especially during the ‘Golden Era’ of Hindi cinema between the mid-50s and 60s, deliberate cross-dressing and playing the identities of trans folk for laughs was extremely common. In many films such as ‘Partner,’ ‘Kya Kool Hain Hum,’ and others, trans women are turned into sexually predatory characters or caricatures for humorous purposes. While the hesitancy and aloofness around this topic has gradually been decreasing, there are still several myths about the community that persist.
The history of LGBTQ+ advertising in India has been fairly limited; however, there has certainly been progress. From virtual erasure from the advertising industry to ads like the 2017 Vicks ‘Touch of Care’ showing a warm relationship between a trans woman and her daughter and the struggles that came with it, the LGBTQ+ community has found increasing representation in ads during recent decades. While there have been ongoing debates about ‘rainbow capitalism’ (the use of the LGBTQ+ movement to fuel consumerism and make profits for corporations) and whether having monetary motives takes away from the impact for representation in media, the fact that it even exists after decades of erasure is still a remarkable thing.
Recently, international TV shows and movies have made leaps in providing accurate, authentic representation of queer teenagers and young people. ‘Heartstopper,’ released in 2022, tells the story of a group of British high schoolers- including a gay and a lesbian couple, a transgender woman of colour, and most importantly the normalization of these identities. It discusses homophobia and bullying, but ultimately is about a group of teenagers exploring their identities: something that people across the world have been able to relate to, that makes young people feel seen. A similar show is ‘Sex Education,’ which came out in 2019, and which unabashedly represents many different identities and experiences. While representation in local media is certainly important, these shows and others on large international streaming services, while international, have a big impact in an increasingly globalized world.
It is important to note, though, that representation in movies and advertising and other such forms of media is most relevant here, in an urban setting. In far too many places across the country, honour killings and violence is what is meted out to young queer people who do not conform to gender norms. There has been significant progress made from a ban on ‘conversion therapy’ by the National Medical Commission to increased positive representation of LGBTQ+ people in the media. While we are far away from complete inclusion, even small steps forward are important, and this includes making the queer community feel seen and represented in the media they consume, as well as normalizing different identities. The smallest things can make the biggest impact.
This blog post was written by our intern Nayantara Narayanan, a 12th grade student of Mallya Aditi International School.