Ashleigh Atwell

Ashleigh Atwell: Queer TV, movie characters deserve better

One thing that sucks about becoming socially aware, or “woke” as the kids call it, is an inability to enjoy pop culture like I did in the past. Over the weekend, I watched one of my favorite movies, “Mona Lisa Smile,” for what feels like the millionth time. I’m a sucker for a good chick flick, especially one that has feminist undertones.

For the uninformed, “Mona Lisa Smile” is a film set in the 1950s about professor Katherine Watson, portrayed by Julia Roberts, who comes to a conservative college and challenges how her students think and the college’s traditional family values. On the surface, the movie is a beacon of progressiveness, and while I still enjoy the film, there’s one aspect that irritates the hell out of me.

School nurse Amanda Armstrong, portrayed skillfully by Juliet Stevenson, is the only queer character in the movie and we only know that because another character told Katherine about Amanda’s dead partner. Amanda starts her brief time on screen as fodder for gossip. Her final scene is tragic, like those of many other queer female characters.

After being fired for providing contraceptives, she tells Katherine that she should have left when her partner died because there was “nothing left to love.” As I watched, I couldn’t help but wish Amanda was given a prequel or at least another scene because I’m sick of queer characters being used as human fast forward buttons for plots.

I saw the same thing happen a few weeks ago as I binge watched Netflix’s “Dear White People.” One of the characters, Lionel, seemed to only appear when he was needed by a straight character or for comic relief. Lionel, like Amanda, has so much potential and I pray that he gets an actual story and personality as the series progresses because watching him pine after his straight roommate got old quickly.

Like many things in my life, my feelings swirl around my intersections. I was disappointed in Lionel’s character because as a Black queer person, I’m used to seeing Black queer characters in Black media get used the same way. If a creator wants to throw in a laugh, throw in a flamboyant Black gay man or, in Lionel’s case, an extended masturbation scene. Need some tragedy? Make his daddy beat his ass or throw him in a trash can a la “Empire.”

Amanda’s story struck me because although she was a white woman, I identify with how quickly her story was pushed aside and how typical it was for queer female portrayals. While male queer characters tend to be problematic, they are afforded dimensions that queer women don’t get. Queer women’s stories are almost always tragic or negative. Either something bad always happens to them or someone dies. They don’t get redemption or happily ever after. They’re merely an afterthought. It’s a little too close to reality considering queer women’s spaces are disappearing at an alarming rate.

I just want more. I know it’s possible because I saw it in America Chavez, a queer Latina comic book super hero. I read three issues in one sitting because it gave me everything I want. America struggles, but it doesn’t define her, the characters are diverse and queer people are at the forefront. I check my comic app (don’t judge me) every day because I can’t wait for the next issue.

Hopefully, I will feel the same way flipping through Netflix someday.