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Runaways, Black Lightning, and a new kind of LGBT representation

Contributed by
Feb 5, 2018

LGBTQ+ representation has been a hot-button issue over the last few years, as the Bury Your Gays trope gained mainstream attention and acceptance of same-gender relationships increased in the US. The number of LGBTQ characters has also increased overall as writers' rooms become younger and more diverse, and as creators and networks begin to see LGBTQ audiences as worthwhile. But that representation is still lacking in variety and tends not to be a priority as shows are created. All too often, LGBTQ+ characters are added as the show moves into later seasons rather than incorporated at the outset, and the number of characters depicting varying types of coming out narratives still makes up the vast majority of early LGBTQ+ stories. Two brand new shows, however, are taking that challenge head-on, offering up a different approach to their own LGBTQ+ characters, and doing it much earlier than their competition.

In late 2017, Marvel’s latest series debuted on Hulu. Runaways is an adaptation of the wildly popular comic book created by Brian K. Vaughn and Adrian Alphona, depicting six superpowered teenage friends who discover their parents are actually villains and who run away from home in an attempt to stop their plans. From the outset, the show made it clear that, while it planned to stick to the core of the original story, there were a few specific changes on the way. The first was obvious, as the showrunners went out of their way to cast more diversely than the original series required. The second was a little less obvious, but become a core element of the show’s first season.

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Karolina Dean is one of the core cast of teens in both the original comic and the television series. In both cases, Karolina eventually reveals that not only is she a flying, rainbow-colored alien princess, she’s also rainbow-colored in her personal life. Karolina is gay, and she’s got a big crush on her friend and fellow Runaway, Nico. In the comic, this plays out slowly, as much of the first arc focuses on the kids facing off against their families. It isn’t until the second arc that Karolina reveals her feelings and is politely rebuffed by Nico. Eventually, she finds love when she meets a gender-shifting Super Skrull named Xavin.

The Runaways TV series, however, doubles down on Karolina’s personal growth, speeding up the story, and offering the show’s teenage target audience a different look at living life as an LGBTQ+ teenager with superpowers. As the first season unfolded, Karolina’s sexual orientation was made abundantly clear almost immediately as she sneaks glances at Nico whenever the two are together and attempts to express her feelings in fits and starts. Eventually, as they stare down possible death and destruction, Karolina finally works up the courage and makes her move, and to her surprise (and the surprise of fans of the comic) Nico reciprocates.

This particular depiction is important for two reasons. For one, there isn’t a queer person among us who doesn’t know the agony of falling in love with your straight best friend, and while reciprocation of those feelings is rare, this is a fictional world, and showing a young girl taking a chance and expressing her feelings and being accepted can be a powerful thing for others in the same situation. 

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For another, Karolina’s sexuality is never a question up for debate. She doesn’t discover that she’s gay as the season progresses, doesn’t come to terms with the idea of being gay, she simply faces the challenge of mustering the courage to talk to her crush. Karolina doesn’t have the specter of some big coming out or concern herself with whether or not people will accept her. She only hides it for fear of being rejected by Nico, not for fear of being rejected by her friends.

This idea of removing the weight of sexual identity is one that media hasn’t quite caught up to yet. Characters on TV often go through similar paces of discovery and coming out, making their story all about their sexuality and depicting it as fraught, frightening, and full of heartbreak. More often than not, shows use these characters to discuss society’s continued issues with same-sex relationships, forcing the characters in question to encounter bigotry and hatred. Even the characters whose family and friends accept them are often depicted as struggling to come out for fear that they may not be. Whichever way you slice it, though, these types of depictions tell audiences that being gay is not only strange and different, but scary and to be approached with a great deal of caution and fear. Regardless of whether that coming out story is good or bad, a positive reflection on society or a negative one, it does ultimately contribute to the idea that being gay is inherently more difficult than being straight, that coming out is supposed to be hard, and that straight relatives and friends who accept the LGBTQ+ people in their lives are doing something noble rather than the bare minimum expected of a human being.

Just a few weeks after the first season of Runaways took its bow, another hero rose to claim the title of TV’s newest superpowered lesbian. This time, it was from a DC Comics property, as Black Lightning made its long-awaited debut on The CW in January. The series, which focuses on retired superhero Jefferson Pierce and his family, is the second of the network’s ever-expanding universe of comic book shows to focus on a non-white hero (though Vixen’s animated series only ever aired on CW Seed). But while the ongoing story of Pierce and his family might be the core element of the series, it’s the way the show is depicting his eldest daughter that has brought about the most recent headlines.

Jefferson’s oldest daughter, Anissa, has long been written in the comics as an out lesbian in a relationship with her Outsiders teammate, Grace Choi. For that reason, fans of the character were hoping a similar story might await this new, live-action version, and they didn’t have to wait long at all. In just the second episode of the series, Anissa is reintroduced to the audience in bed with her girlfriend. Just like that. No muss, no fuss, just an out and proud lesbian woman of color with superpowers cuddling with her girlfriend and talking about their feelings for several minutes of screen time on a major network drama. Fans may have been expecting Anissa’s sexuality to influence her story, but none expected the subject to come up so quickly, or in such a straightforward, almost pedestrian, manner. 

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Anissa’s depiction is possibly even more important than Karolina’s, both because she is the only black, lesbian superhero on any of the countless comic book adaptations currently on the airwaves, but because she represents something almost brand new in the world of LGBTQ+ representation. Anissa’s sexuality isn’t treated as a reveal or a major plot point. It isn’t the core of her characterization or a preoccupation for her storyline over the first season. Anissa just is gay, plain and simple. 

 

It’s great that LGBTQ+ characters are becoming a greater priority for creators and for networks, though we still have a ways to go when it comes to the variety of experiences and sexualities we depict. It’s great that Bury Your Gays has become a more visible problem, and that writers are attempting to combat its negative effects. All of this contributes to better representation, better conversations, and a better world for young LGBTQ+ kids to grow up in. What we’ve been sorely missing are depictions not of people struggling with their sexuality, but of people who are simply living their lives out in the open, not afraid nor embattled - whose lives and stories are about who they are, not who they sleep with. Maybe Black Lightning and Runaways represent the first harbingers of a new kind of LGBTQ+ representation.