Padma Danturty (she/her)
I’m not the first person to notice common queer tropes in popular media, especially those that seem to only apply to the LQBTQ+ community. I’m going to break down one of the common tropes we see in TV media and if that representation has a negative impact on the community. For this article, I’ll be focusing on the hyper-promiscuity of queer characters within romantic relationships.
Spoiler warning: This article contains discussion about the plots of “Sex Education,” “Queer as Folk,” and “The L Word.”
The stereotype that gay men are particularly promiscuous, or are more likely to cheat, runs deep in the threads of our perception. This also applies to women who are attracted to multiple genders, with the misconception that, because their sexuality is fluid, they have a high chance of cheating as well. I find that this stereotype is reinforced in queer TV shows, dating back to the early 2000s. As queer characters are finally given representation and space in the media, it seems irresponsible to not consider the impacts these TV shows will have on viewers.
To be fair, cheating is something that happens in real life, in all kinds of relationships. Whether a person views cheating as an immense breach of trust, or a forgivable act, it’s not inherently negative to portray it, or other upsetting and immoral actions, on TV. In fact, it can be good: it all depends on what the piece of media is saying about such acts. However, I argue that many shows are purposefully and singly depicting queer characters as hyper-promiscuous. These characters are not just being depicted as cheaters, but as hyper-promiscuous. The distinction comes in how the show provides context and message about the situation. Cheating can involve misunderstandings, ambiguity, and complexity, such as closeted people in relationships. Hyper-promiscuity, however, solely shows one group as cheaters, and nothing else. The reasons behind the acts are not fleshed out, and are unearned. There is also a lack of consequence. The problem comes when a group of people are so persistently shown to engage in troubling behavior, that is hardly explained, that they come to be associated with such immorality both on and off screen. When this happens to marginalized groups that already lack power, these tropes can be stigmatizing and could result in a wider audience making incorrect assumptions about said group.
For example, consider the TV show “Sex Education.” I, just like most viewers online, adore the show’s capabilities to break boundaries, include underrepresented populations, and have diversity that feels fleshed-out and not forced. The inclusion of a myriad of characters and the sex-positve message certainly does wonders for the LGBTQ+ community. However, a fault many noticed from the second and third season especially, was the transformation of Eric from a sweet, nerdy, gay boy to a cheater.
Some might argue that the inclusion of messy, problematic characters provides a three-dimensional view of the character; however, I think it's fair to assess the pros and cons of TV personalities in comparison to their straight counterparts on the show. In “Sex Education,” our two main characters and best friends, Eric and Otis, go through ups and down in terms of their loves lives. Eric eventually dates someone named Adam; this relationship is confusing already, considering Adam used to bully Eric. After having iffy feelings about him and about commitment in general, even being swayed by another pursuer Rahim, Eric eventually decides to be Adam’s boyfriend.
All of a sudden, in the third season of the show, Eric seemingly randomly cheats on Adam with a man he meets when he visits Nigeria. Eric’s choice to cheat doesn’t feel earned. Though, like any TV relationship, there were small issues with his relationship, the writers fail to characterize any problems with Adam that explain or justify his infidelity; his inexplicable unfaithfulness seems more of an attempt to portray their Black queer character as hyper-promiscuous than an honest exploration of the messiness of relationships.
Further, the show isn’t framed as a place with hyper-promiscuity among all of its characters. Otis, who could be considered Eric’s straight counterpart, also has a love triangle situation with two girls, Ruby and Maeve, though none of his actions portray him as an open cheater. His character remains (mostly) likable. This contrast reveals differences in how showwriters view straight and gay relationship, and while it might not have been the initial intention for the show, it comes off as inappropriate considering the high standards the show does have with diversity.
Another more recent show with a similar problem, though not as popular, is the “Queer as Folk” reboot (2022) that came out on Peacock. Many fans of the original show “Queer as Folk” (2000) were looking forward to this as a more diverse and modern version of queer life.
Ignoring both the positives and negatives of the show in terms of plot, show writing, and acting, and focusing on the representation of promiscuity, the show similarly does a great job of portraying the queer community as hyper-promiscuious and borderline incestuous. To be fair, the show, similar to the original, has very few straight, cis characters to serve as a comparison, but regardless, anyone watching the show would certainly take away negativity surrounding the queer community.
Firstly, the main character and complicated protagonist Broadie, has an ex-boyfriend and best friend who get together within the first episode of the show. Though this is a common storyline for even straight couples, the show presents itself with problematic and unlikeable characters. Broadie is friends with a couple, Ruthie (a trans woman) and Shar (who is non-binary, and pregrant, with Broadie as a sperm donor). Later on in the show, both these characters cheat on one another, Ruthie with Broadie, and Char with… Broadie’s mom. This dynamic is hard to watch and a horrible representation of queer people, proving that somehow none of them can have committed relationships.
Finally, looking back a few years, the same issue occurred in “The L Word” (2004), in which every lesbian relationship had issues with cheating. It makes it especially hard to root for characters, and continue to find them likable, when they all have issues that don’t just make them messy, or complicated, but make them morally wrong. Essentially every couple, from Jenny (discovering her sexuality) and Marina to Bette and Tina have at least one partner being unfaithful.
The worst part is that they don’t seem to have remorse for such actions, and its somehow excused because of their queerness. With Eric especially, he’s somehow still meant to be a likable character because he’s gay, and we as viewers want to support and root for a funny, POC, queer character, who finally gets airtime. All told, this hyper-promiscuity that seems to be a recurring theme in gay overall presents a poor view of LGBTQ culture and is fundamentally wrong about personalities and moralities of queer relationships.
Despite these issues, I do want to highlight one show that I believe correctly handles moral ambiguity and messy love subplots without presenting a hyper-sexualized, promiscuous view of gay relationships.
The original Queer as Folk (2000), though it has many issues with diversity and does certainly portray gay men as hypersexualized, still provides a wide range of gay men with different morals. Unfortunately I can’t say the same about the presentation of queer women on the show, but it does have many interesting storylines dealing with cheating, without presenting the gay men as hyper-promiscuous.
Firstly, with so many gay characters, it was easy for them to have a range of opinions regarding cheating. Two of the main cast members, Michael and Emmet, are strictly monogamous with their partners throughout the series. Further, Brian, though complicated, and certainly sexual, is proven to not be promiscuous because he never commits himself fully to anyone. These characters help present to the audience that not all queer men are cheaters or excuse cheating.
The gay relationships presented in Queer as Folk are all completely fleshed out, and handle promiscuity in a more complex way. For example, when another main cast member Justin becomes infatuated with, and eventually lives with, “I don’t do relationships” Brain, their dynamic lands somewhere between casual hook up and full on boyfriends. They have rules they agree with, but overall never say their relationship is monogamous in the first place. So, when Justin ends up developing romantic feelings for someone else, and eventually breaking their pre-set rules, the presentation is a lot more morally gray and ambiguous than previous relationships. This proves that there can be interesting storylines written for queer characters (or any characters) that include complex, moral-questioning, entertaining storylines, without presenting a harmful stereotype to audiences.
Another interesting relationship dynamic is when Emmet has an affair with a famous closeted football player, who is getting married to his girlfriend. While this does involve cheating, the relationship that is failing is the straight relationship, and the situation presented is a lot more complicated. Additionally, the reasons behind the cheating are somewhat more excusable, considering the homophobia surrounding pro-athletes, especially considering when the show was aired. Again, the writers were able to include a storyline about promiscuity and cheating, which are clearly interesting for viewers, without presenting the message that all gay people are somehow prone to cheating.
There are clearly ways of writing well-developed characters, and interesting plots for queer characters and their relationships, without risk of presenting an over-sexualized or overbearing amount of cheating situations. If more shows employed more effort in writing complicated characters, and ways to present diversity without reinforcing negative stereotypes, people would start to view queer relationships as healthy and faithful, just like many in real life genuinely are.