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Queer students on screen

By Otto Hampden-Woodfall

Music Editor Otto examines the quality of representation for those watching, and working on, films about queer students.

Being queer as a student is often defined by possibility. You are open not only to the barrage of new experiences that university provides, but entirely new and freer forms of self-expression. But whether or not modern media portrayals capture the essence of queer student life seems less dependent on its quantitative accuracy, than its understanding of opportunity brought about by queerness. 

Speaking to Babbel, screenwriter Charlie Tidmas highlights that Netflix’s Sex Education “handles its queer characters with real care and makes a point of using inclusive language at all times, which is a great way to normalise diverse identities.” While this is positive and represents great strides in queer acceptance, it does not contribute further to positive representations for queer people. This would cater more to those unsure about the validity of queer identities, manifesting in experiences and desires that queer people themselves have.

Director Oliver Warren highlights Netflix’s Heartstopper in this vein: “Heartstopper is a show that, as a queer man in his 40s, I wish I had when I was younger.” Bittersweet as it may be, there is undeniably a social good in portraying a positive queer student experience to a diverse audience: student and non-student. Though Heartstopper may not be detailing university life yet, the show’s popularity should see it continue long enough to give its secondary school-age characters long-lasting and meaningful stories. 

Similar positive representation is found in Channel 4’s It’s A Sin, written by Russell T Davies, which provides a vivid and authentic portrait of queer student life before and during the AIDS pandemic. Providing an unapologetic dramatisation of that tragedy and those affected, it reminds older queer folks that history will not forget them, and that their strength in the face of adversity is worth telling stories about.

There is a sense that these shows, either in and of themselves, or as part of a wider media landscape, are inadequate. Perhaps the white cis male leads found in It’s A Sin, Big Boys, Sex Education and Heartstopper are limiting the representative potential of these shows, codifying diverse queer experiences through the most conventionally accessible lens. They are also collectively a drop in the ocean compared to the ever-rushing tide of heterosexual dramas.

But in my view, not only do none of these critiques effectively rule out one particular show and its positive influence, but the very fact that these critiques are driven by a diverse range of queer voices demonstrates the necessity of the media being critiqued. Otherwise, there would be no yardstick with which to demand more, and demand better. Unless shows like It’s A Sin could demonstrate with their popularity and vitality that queer TV written by and for queer people – with a burgeoning caste of young queers seeking to see themselves on the silver screen – is an important part of the media landscape, there would be no grounds for critique at all. 

One area of necessary  improvement, however, is in the people working behind the screen. An Ofcom report highlighted that in 2020, not only were major broadcasting employers variable in their proportion of LGBTQ+ employees (between 2% and 7%), but that Black and South Asian employees were less likely to hold senior management positions by a factor of up to a half. Regardless of the positive influence that the media may have extrinsically, its intrinsic makeup is flawed. TV and film should provide equitable and aspirational pathways for those who want to work, not just those who want to watch. Moreover, it seems likely that better and more potent representation in stories will occur with better queer presence among those making those stories.

The queer student experience is, to me, central to the issue of representation. Portraying it on screen connects with a young and diverse audience, reassures older queer people that the world starts to see them and their lives positively, and (ideally) grounds a wide range of stories told by a wide range of working professionals in the media industry. Though what we have today is far from perfect, I would challenge anyone who thinks that we aren’t heading in the right direction. 


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