Last year, GLAAD retired its Network Responsibility Index. The annual report, which kept track of the number of LGBTQ characters on primetime television was always meant as a way to keep networks and producers accountable for the stories they portrayed. For over a decade, these reports drove the conversation about the need to have more and better representation. The decision to nix it was, as Sarah Kate Ellis, the CEO and president of GLAAD put it, to better look ahead. Rather than counting characters, the work of the media advocacy organization would rely on “pushing for real, intersectional diversity.”
Which brings us to this year’s historic “Nearly Invisible” report. Modeled on the retired NRI, this first-time study focused on Spanish-language scripted television airing in the United States between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016. Yep, those working at GLAAD poured over your mom’s favorite telenovelas to see how LGBTQ characters were being portrayed. And well, the results were less than stellar.
While a number of positive portrayals were found — including those at the center of Celia, the main LGBTQ storyline in Rastros de Mentiras, and the multi-ethnic casting and key storyline on Antes Muerta que Lichita — the study didn’t mince words: “The majority of scripted programming on Spanish-language television in the United States does not appropriately represent the LGBTQ Latinx experience, and, unfortunately, continues to rely on outdated and irresponsible stereotypes when content creators do include LGBTQ characters.”
The biggest revelation of the report, which stresses the minor and unimportant role that LGBTQ characters end up playing in telenovelas, is that, according to one producer based in Miami and who works on Venezuelan telenovelas, this is sometimes purposely done. This makes it easier to edit out these characters and storylines when selling the project to foreign markets. This gets at the heart of why looking at these numbers isn’t merely about homegrown productions but about the types of Latin American and Latino shows that get aired in the U.S. that cannot help but also speak to cultural biases from south of the border. In other words, there’s a lot of work to do. Find below 5 other things we learnt from poring over the full report.
The Overall Percentage of LGBTQ Characters on Scripted Primetime Series was 3%
Of the 516 characters on scripted primetime series, there were 14 LGBTQ characters across the three networks (MundoMax, Telemundo, Univision). That adds ups to just 3%, an insignificant number in itself and one which is even more disheartening once you realize those 14 characters are often sidekicks, best friends, and rarely have pivotal roles on their respective programs.
Telemundo Is the Most LGBTQ Inclusive Spanish-Language Network (Not by Much, Though)
It was truly a race to the bottom: MundoMax featured 2 LGBT characters (out of 96!), both of which came from the same show, La Guerrera. Univision had 4 characters (out of 219), all of which were gay men. Telemundo trounced them both, featuring 8 LGBTQ characters (out of 201) across several shows, including Celia, Avenida Brasil, La Querida del Centauro, and El Señor de los Cielos. And, unlike its competitors, they offered a bit of racial and sexual diversity.
Bisexual Female Characters Are Too Often Used to Provide Risqué Sexuality to a Plot
Ah yes. The good old “she’s a bisexual woman but somehow all of her sexy scenes with another equally beautiful woman require the plot to have a man around, to reassure audiences that her same-sex attraction is filtered through a male heterosexual gaze.” This was a popular trope in the 1990s in American media and somehow it remains in place in Latin American telenovelas where characters like the overly sexualized Esperanza Salvatierra in El Señor De Los Cielos continue a tired stereotype of what it means to identify oneself as bisexual, and which keeps in place a lot of assumptions people make about them. (More telling: the lack of any bisexual men in these shows.)
Far Too Many Stories Depict Gay Men in Outdated Stereotypical Roles
You know the type. He’s the “best friend.” He’s stylish. He’s there for the leading lady whenever she needs a shoulder to cry on. His own personal life is secondary, almost incidental. For decades this has been the most visible example of gay men on screen and, according to GLAAD, it remains alive and well in Spanish-language fare. As they put it, these flamboyant characters are “often not serious characters with rich emotional or romantic lives. This sends a message to audiences that can contribute to trivializing and marginalizing LGBTQ people.”
The Racial and Ethnic Diversity of Latinx Communities Is Badly Underrepresented
Lest you think GLAAD ran the numbers only to come up with statistics on gender and sexual identity, know that they also published findings on the racial and ethnic diversity. Of the 516 characters counted between the three networks, the report found that 15 (3%) were of African descent and only one character (0.19%) was of indigenous descent identified by character descriptions and network press. These numbers matter because they also point to other demographics that are underrepresented in Spanish-language media. As they conclude, “Writing, producing, and casting scripted programming with characters of varying ethnicities (including LGBTQ characters of varying ethnicities) is vital to ensuring that entertainment television airing in Spanish accurately depicts the rich diversity of our cultures and our lives.”