Editor’s note: Nicole’s piece was submitted on December 13, 2020 just after our holiday hiatus began. We are happy for it to start off our blog for 2021!
Light spoilers ahead for The Happiest Christmas, Uncle Frank, and The Prom:
The advertisements for The Happiest Season are everywhere. Maybe it’s because Instagram knows I’m queer, but I can’t seem to doomscroll for more than a minute without seeing Kristin Stewart tell Dan Levy that her girlfriend isn’t out to her parents. It’s great to see lesbians on the screen, especially when they get a happy ending, but I’m still having a hard time seeing myself as a bi woman who also has a disability.
Queer representation in media has come a long way since I saw my first bisexual character on TV. It was Thirteen from House, who was always being asked about her sexuality and surprised one of the theoretically more likable characters when she admitted to never having taken part in a threesome. Today there are bicons (bi icons) like Eleanor Shellstrop from The Good Place, Petra Solano from Jane the Virgin, and Korra and Asami from The Legend of Korra. We see transgender folks in shows such as The Politician, The Fosters, Orange is the New Black, and Pose, the last of which features the largest cast of trans actors ever seen on TV. More than one of these characters are people of color and almost all of them are women.
But watching The Prom the night it came out on Netflix, I was reminded of how much further we have to go with disability representation.
The Prom was great in that it featured a Black family (Ariana DuBose and Kerry Washington) dealing with a young woman coming out. It had two lesbians get their happy ending. It had transgender young people in love and deserving of love, though they were very much in the background. The only time disability is mentioned in The Prom is when James Corden’s character, Broadway actor Barry Glickman, mentions being in a wheelchair while playing FDR in a show about Eleanor Roosevelt. And while the line is supposed to show us how self-centered and inconsiderate Barry is at this point, it is still true that the only line about disability is used for laughs.
One aside—straight actor James Corden’s stereotypically gay acting in the film was disconcerting, but that’s a story for another blog.
The only instance of any disability I’ve seen in queer media thus far is in the Amazon film Uncle Frank. In it, Paul Bettany plays Frank, a closeted gay man who’s been in a relationship with Peter Macdissi’s Wally for ten years. The first person in the family to find out by accident is Frank’s niece Beth, played by Sophia Lillis.
Though I overall enjoyed the film, there were also negatives, such as the stereotypical and frankly Islamophobic portrayal of Wally at points. One of the highlights of the film was Frank’s talk with his sister Neva, the only family member besides Beth that he is out to. Neva, played by Jane McNeil, tells Frank that he should just come out to their family because “It’s 1977,” making the audience understand that homophobia is not a generational issue, but one of morality.
Another important aspect of the film was that Frank deals with PTSD, depression, and alcoholism, in part because of a traumatic event that happened in his teens involving his then-lover Sam. To see a queer character struggle with the same mental health issues that I myself have dealt with was empowering. I understood Frank better at the intersections of queerness and chronic conditions.
To be clear, no one in any of the three films laid out experiences a physical disability at any point, whether visible or not. No one uses an assisted device or uses an alternate mode of communication. Exploring mental health for queer characters in popular media is a start, and a wonderful one. But we still have a long way to go before we can all see ourselves on screen.
Nicole Zelniker (she/her) is a writer, activist, and podcast producer at The Nasiona. Nicole is also the author of Mixed, a non-fiction book about race and mixed-race families, and Last Dance, a collection of short stories. Dress Rehearsal, another short fiction piece, appears in the award-nominated Nothing Without Us anthology. You can check out the rest of Nicole’s work at nicolezelniker.com and follow her on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Medium.