Patterson: LGBT genre poses new questions

Patterson questions whether films about LGBT characters should be separate from others.

Sara Patterson

Sara PattersonI spent last Saturday night, like most of my Saturday nights, perusing Netflix to find something to keep me entertained. I just recently finished binge-watching “Mad Men,” so I was on the search for something new. I began by browsing through the genres Netflix offers: action and adventure, comedy, drama, gay and lesbian – wait, gay and lesbian? Is gay and lesbian really a genre?

I’m actually no stranger to the gay and lesbian section of Netflix. In fact, upon logging in, I am greeted with “Gay & Lesbian Comedies featuring a Strong Female Lead.” What can I say? Netflix gets me.

Netflix offers a wide variety of gay and lesbian films. There are comedies, dramas, documentaries and romance. There are famous award-winning movies, like “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Hours,” and there are low-budget films that, based on the poster, may or may not be softcore porn. The only thing that these movies have in common, really, is that there is at least one character that qualifies as LGBT.

So, why are they all lumped together? And why are they kept separate from other genres? I mean, isn’t a romantic comedy about a gay couple still just a romantic comedy?

I understand why Netflix, like Hulu, Amazon and pretty much any website that organizes media by genre, does this. Stories about gay and lesbian characters tend to attract a very specific audience: gays and lesbians. Now that’s not to say that straight people don’t relate to gay characters or feel an affinity for gay couples, but there tends to be this idea, especially in the movie world, that general audiences won’t watch movies about gay romance. It’s why we hardly ever see a movie in theaters about gay characters.

In Hollywood, gay characters are still just the funny sidekicks to the modern leading lady – gay men, anyway. In Hollywood, lesbians don’t seem to exist.

Giving gay and lesbian movies a section of their own certainly is convenient. If you know that you tend to prefer stories about gay characters and aren’t as familiar with some of the lesser-known movies, you can just click on gay and lesbian rather than scouring the other genres. It can also help people who are maybe questioning their sexuality.

If you don’t have personal experience, so to speak, fictional characters are the next best things. I can only imagine how many teenagers have gone right to gay and lesbian and watched episodes of “The L Word” or “Queer As Folk” to have some exposure to gay life.

As much as I understand the reasoning behind it and as convenient it has been for me in my late night Netflix browsing, I am a little bothered by the fact that films about gay characters are kept separate.

First of all, it gives the impression that movies about gay characters are inherently different than movies about their straight counterparts. Why aren’t Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal put right next to Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in the romance section? “Brokeback Mountain” is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking love stories I’ve ever seen and yet it is relegated to the gay and lesbian genre rather than romance because it is about two men.

Another major problem with the segregation is that it alienates audiences. Films have incredible power. For some, they offer characters to relate to. Discovering a character that you can see yourself in is a powerful thing, especially for someone who feels alone in their community, like so many LGBT youth.

For others, they offer a way of understanding. Films allow you to experience something outside of what you know. They put you in the point of view of someone other than yourself.

In the last 15 years, the gay rights movement has been helped immensely by positive portrayals of LGBT characters in media. When Joe Biden publicly announced his support for same-sex marriage, he cited the TV show “Will & Grace” as a major influence on America, saying: “I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anybody’s ever done so far. People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand.”

By sectioning off movies with LGBT characters, companies are pretty much saying to straight people, those who would benefit the most by having their horizons broadened, “These movies aren’t for you,” and limiting the power the films may have.

Despite my criticisms, it’s not Netflix’s way of categorizing movies that bothers me. It’s the movies in general.

Think of it as the plus-size section of your favorite clothing store. Sure, it’s helpful for those who wear the sizes and you may even commend the store for offering those options, even if they are sub-par to those offered in the rest of the store. But there’s still a feeling of embarrassment – shame, even – when walking straight to the plus-size section, or clicking on gay and lesbian, when you realize that things made for you are seen as different than things made for other people.

I’ll continue to keep gay and lesbian among my genre preferences and I’ll continue to watch low-budget movies with actors I’ve never heard of, but once, just once, I’d like to go to the movies and see a trailer where Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway meet and realize that, despite being totally different – one’s a free spirited musician, the other a straight-laced businesswoman – they are meant to be together.

Sara Patterson can be reached at

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