Why do TV and film have a hard time calling characters LGBT?

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With adaptations of comics and graphic novels flooding movie theaters and TV, many are wondering how to best boil down sprawling fictional universes into more linear narratives. David Goyer, an executive producer of the upcoming Constantine series, recently explained that he sees the key as focusing on the leads and keeping them “true to the [original]character’s DNA so that the comic book fans appreciate it and don’t turn on you, but at the same time open it up to the people like my wife, or my mom, who don’t give a crap about comic books.”

In a recent statement, Goyner responded to suggestions that Constantine is openly bisexual by saying, “When in the comics was he introduced as being bisexual? […] It was about twelve years into the character’s history when that happened. It’s not like he was introduced [as bisexual].” He continued,  “We just don’t show him getting in bed with a man in the pilot,” implying that the issue might be raised at a later time in the show. Goyer’s addition of “I don’t know what the big deal is” suggests Constantine’s sexuality remains a minor but not altogether irrelevant facet of the character he’s creating.

The situation has led to a number of negative opinion pieces and also spawned a discussion about the tendency for bisexual characters to not make it into final drafts. At roughly the same time, The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman addressed fan speculation that a sexually ambiguous character in the series might be gay. In spite of hewing to a similar narrative arc—lengthy character exposition without reference to sexuality, followed by a big gay reveal—Kirkman’s statement was met with a warmer reception.

This tendency of introducing LGBT characters without revealing their orientation upfront is on the verge of becoming a bonafide trend, indicating the challenges of writing credible LGBT characters. Beginning last year, GLAAD has evaluated movies using the Russo Test (modeled after the famous Bechdel Test) which, at its most basic, asks whether an LGBT character is identifiably LGBT, complex (especially in a “bigger than just being LGBT” way), and important to the plot.

TV series have the unique opportunity to develop a character over a much longer timeline than a movie—meaning, theoretically, many shows could excel at creating complex LGBT characters. But first they need to own the fact that a character is LGBT. Viewers annoyed by delayed reveals have coined a term for the trend: queerbaiting.

Its use is pejorative, with many adopting it to indicate representation that’s (allegedly) not quite brave enough to admit what it is. The term cuts to the heart of the tension between having an identifiably LGBT character and having a complicated LGBT character. As one description of queerbaiting put it, “If Dean [from Supernatural]were bisexual, Supernatural would still be about saving people and hunting things, and that would be a revolution in queer representation on TV.”

In short, what many people want is neither a “very special episode of some teen drama” where a character is clearly LGBT but has no other attributes, nor a situation where “the writers have successfully dicked around with the show’s queer audience for eight seasons” and end up delivering nothing certain.

The controversy surrounding the newest version of Constantine joins a long list of similar tensions between creators and fans. Earlier this month, one of the voice actors for Adventure Time stated that fans weren’t imagining the romantic tension between the show’s two major female characters, but also said that any relationship between them wouldn’t be shown.

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