What Makes an “Unconvincing” Gay Character?

The enjoyment of film and television is inherently subjective; what resonates with one viewer may fall totally flat with another. At the most basic level, viewers probably are responding to three inputs: plot, writing (dialogue and characters) and acting.

Because every viewer experiences and judges these inputs differently based on her own cultural background and life experiences, every viewer will develop a different opinion of the quality of a movie, television show, or character. It’s a good storyline or a bad one; a character is loved, hated, or unmemorable; the actress portrays richly nuanced characters, or she is wooden as a board. 

The lesbian community seems, at times, indulgent of efforts by films and television shows to create lesbian and bi female characters. We embrace almost all of them because even if they are given terrible storylines, are poorly written, or are poorly acted, some viewers still manage to find some quality within the characters that enable them to feel a connection.

Possibly even more importantly, lesbian/bi visibility is so limited that every character counts in raising our numbers on screen. A gay character, even a “bad” one, is better than no characters.

Our overall support for lesbian visibility aside, whether voiced aloud or thought in the privacy of our homes, we can probably agree that some characters are less “convincing” than others. For reasons tangible or not, some viewers are left with the feeling that the character doesn’t “feel” gay.  It’s a “bad” gay character not because the character portrays lesbians or bisexual women negatively, or because the show uses the character’s sexuality for the titillation of male viewers, but because the character’s sexuality seems questionable to viewers familiar with the particular quirks of our own community. 

It can be hard to separate feelings about the “genuineness” of a character’s sexual orientation from feelings—, especially positive ones—about the character in general. We love characters because they speak to us in some way, and it’s hard to maintain the degree of awareness to say, “I love this character, but to be honest, she seems like a straight woman pretending to be a lesbian.”

But if it’s true that some characters are less “convincing” than others, what is it about them that viewers are keying into? The following section presents a working hypothesis that skepticism over a character’s sexuality probably results from a breakdown in at least one of the three basic inputs—plot, writing, or acting—and uses specific TV characters as examples. Given the incredibly subjective nature of assessing a character as “unconvincing,” many readers may disagree with the examples and are welcome to offer counterarguments in the comments section.

Plot Fail: Marlene Wolf

The credibility of a character’s lesbianism or queerness may be undercut if the object of her affection seems implausible. For example, a formerly heterosexual character suddenly becomes attracted to someone of the same-sex with whom she has little chemistry—especially if it appears to be a ratings ploy or an effort to bring more “diversity” to the show. In the soap opera Verbotene Liebe, singer Marlene Wolf leaves her fiancé Tristan van Lahnstein at the alter after falling for his sister Rebecca. (She’s also divorced from their older brother Hagen.) Melanie Kogler, who plays gorgeous, high fashion singer Marlene, acts her heart out, but Marlene’s attraction to timid, petulant fashion designer Rebecca feels forced for the sake of adding another queer storyline to the show. Marlene’s sexuality may have been more credible had she been paired with a strong and grounded female character with whom she had better chemistry.

Writing Fail: Kennedy (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

A character may feel inauthentic if given too many negative, stereotypically lesbian traits. It was hard to follow Tara, so Kennedy didn’t have much of a chance to start with, but the character fell flat out of the gate. Kennedy was brash, overly aggressive (both in challenging Buffy and in pursuing Willow), wore leather jackets and suspenders, and was a U-Haul lesbian to boot. Kennedy was so over the top that she became a caricature of a lesbian. Lesbian characters can have “stereotypical” traits and still be successful (Big Boo from Orange is the New Black, for example), but maybe not if given too many negative stereotypical traits. Kennedy’s character would have been more credible to viewers had she been toned down a bit.   

Acting Fail: Franky Doyle (Wentworth)

I support any and all actresses who play a lesbian, or bi character. That said, occasionally the casting isn’t the perfect fit for a character, through no fault of the actress. Imperfect casting can weaken a character’s credibility by creating cognitive dissonance over who the character is supposed to be in theory and who the character is on screen.

This is going to be an unpopular opinion, but I struggle with Franky Doyle. At least in Season 1, which is when I stopped watching after Erica Davidson resigned from Wentworth Prison, Franky could come across as a poor man’s Shane (The L Word). Intended to be a seductive yet troubled soul with poor impulse control, actress Nicole da Silva couldn’t completely back up Franky’s swagger. As a result, watching da Silva play Franky was like watching a child playing dress up: da Silva was physically too small to fill out the space that this “big dyke on campus” should have been filling. Franky might have been more believable if the actress cast was able to physically dominate a room by exuding more power and control. 

Hollywood is, for the most part, good at its job; plot, writing, and casting are the key to any show, whether gay or not, and because it does them well, “unconvincing”  female characters on TV are limited. Part of this, however, may be that the diversity of the overall gay andd lesbian community enables wide latitude within the three inputs.

For example, most gay plots revolve around a previously heterosexual character becoming gay or bi, something that is found in the community and therefore, raises no red flags.

If we can identify a breakdown in one or more key inputs as a cause of an “unconvincing” gay character, then it follows that a “convincing” character will successfully meet all three inputs. So how is it that some “unconvincing” characters can be more popular with viewers than “convincing” characters?

Because the credibility of a character’s sexuality seems to be correlated only weakly with that character’s popularity. This suggests viewers prefer their characters to be “convincing,” but will settle for an “unconvincing” one if two of the three key inputs are engaging enough—or if no other lesbian characters are on TV.