Coming Out Again and Again: Reliving The Coming Out Process on Screen

Coming out in real life, and again with your favorite movie or TV character is familiar to lesbian viewers.

In literature and film, conflict drives storylines. Conflict creates tension and draws the reader or viewer in, investing her in the fate of the characters. Almost all types of narrative conflict can be boiled down into four basic categories: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. society, and man vs. self. Although a character may face multiple conflicts in a single story, normally there is one major conflict that predominates.

When it comes to Hollywood’s approach to gay storylines, historically man vs. self—with strong elements of man vs. society—has been an easy go-to. A woman struggling with coming out and the effect this has on her sense of self-identity and/or family and friends is an instant source of conflict. Her coming out process is dramatic, often traumatic, and can drag on almost indefinitely. The storyline checks so many boxes it’s tailor-made for the screen.

fireInterestingly, Radha’s path to love with Sita in “Fire” is mostly man vs. society because of director Deepa Mehta’s focus on using her films to comment on Indian society.

As one would expect, coming out storylines are a sizeable minority of movie plots.  In a 2012 AfterEllen reader poll, at least a quarter of the top 50 lesbian/bi fan favorite movies focused on the main character’s struggle to understand her sexual orientation. (A possible factor for why the number isn’t higher: 64% of the movies were directed by LGB directors, and some of these movies were indie films, suggesting that films with strong gay input either from directors or writers may tend to deemphasize coming out in favor of another source of conflict.)

ruthI love you, but I have this fiancé, and it would be super awkward if I decided to follow my heart and dated a woman instead, you know? I knew you’d understand.

When it comes to TV, shows airing before the mid-2000s commonly used the coming out storyline when introducing gay and lesbian characters, probably because visibility was so low then that characters were in essence “coming out” and introducing the state of being gay or bisexual both to other characters on the show and to the public.

Coming out storylines on TV have dropped in the last few years with the growth of visibility, but they remain a common theme, as evidenced by Callie Torres on Grey’s Anatomy, Sophie Webster on Coronation Street, and Emma Muller on Hand aufs Hertz    

Sophie-and-Sian-10Sian later disappeared, probably when she drove into the same parking lot as Dr. Erica Hahn. That lot is like the lesbian Bermuda Triangle.

Although the coming out storyline might be on the wane on screen these days, its historical appeal and continued use mean that viewers who have watched multiple gay characters over time have been repeatedly exposed to it. For example, among the movies listed in the AfterEllen top 50 list that I’ve seen, 13 of them involved coming out stories, and that doesn’t count characters in movies not on the list or in TV shows that I watched come out. Cumulatively, I’ve probably seen almost 50 characters come out on screen in the last 15 years.

An unintended yet thought-provoking consequence of the redundancy of the coming out storyline is that because viewers identify with and live vicariously through these characters, we, in essence, re-experience “coming out” over and over again. The effect is more than psychological; it’s physical as well. Mirror neurons in our brains prompt us to subconsciously mirror the emotions of the characters we’re watching on screen, meaning that as the character agonizes over coming out, we’re physically living the experience along with her.

tumblr_m5m3c6acpv1qdp7auo1_500Based on what I’ve learned from TV, there’s at least one queer woman in each ER.

For most lesbian/bi women, coming out was emotionally taxing, often traumatic, and almost always difficult. Some lost family or friends after coming out while others grappled with the loss of what previously had been their self-identity. It seems logical that watching others come out under difficult circumstances could trigger negative memories in at least some viewers. And yet, does it? What is the degree of psychological separation between the viewer and the character?

The question spawns more questions than it answers. Is watching characters come out cathartic, or does it awaken old trauma but in a way so deeply subconscious that viewers don’t recognize it? Are we so separated from the characters that it has no effect at all but to provide entertainment value? By vicariously living through fictional characters who experience positive outcomes from coming out, are we salving the hurt we experienced after undergoing negative experiences in real life? The only answer seems to be that while it is difficult to gauge whether watching so many characters come out has psychologically helped viewers or left them unfazed, it probably doesn’t have a major negative effect (or we’d most likely just stop watching).

pauley-lostExcept this. This had a major negative effect.

The repeated use of coming out storylines can be frustrating to lesbian/bi/queer viewers seeking to move past them to new storylines. If a quarter of storylines are still coming out storylines, that’s a lot of plot bandwidth that could be reallocated to other things. Even if the percentage eventually does go down, however, the coming out story will always be present to some degree on film…which is not a bad thing. 

Coming out is an integral and inevitable part of the lesbian experience. To depict the experience on screen is to be honest to the real life experiences of gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Moreover, as many coming out storylines involve teenage characters, these storylines can serve as encouragement and instruction to teens for how to understand what they are going through. When seen in this light, it’s not such a bad thing at all to have so many coming out storylines, so long as they’re tempered by the presence of other storylines as well.