A Call for Complex LGBTQ Anti-Heroes

GLAAD has always championed fair, accurate, and inclusive representation of LGBTQ characters in the media, a model which is essential as film and television have such an enormous power to change the perception of marginalized groups – for the better or for worse. But fair, accurate, and inclusive doesn’t always have to mean positive.

The "golden age of television" has brought about a renewed fascination with morally ambiguous characters. Just look at Walter White, Dexter Morgan, Tony Soprano, or any of the other straight white cisgender men traipsing across your screens doing horrible, reprehensible things. Their behavior is atrocious - that’s not disputed - but there is a window of empathy granted to these men that allows the audience to understand why they do what they do. It humanizes them and makes room for a connection between the viewer and the audience that isn’t possible with underdeveloped, two dimensional characters.

Complexity is the goal of all primary characters that walk across your screen, and LGBTQ characters should be no different.  “Fair, accurate, and inclusive” means that queer characters have a right to be on every end of the moral spectrum. They deserve to be the ones prosecuting people for their bad behavior, but they also deserve to be the ones evading the law and bending the rules. Between good and bad, there is a whole wealth of gray, and that is where the most interesting characters lie. It would be a shame for straight white cisgender men to be the only characters allowed to access this multi-faceted space.

While many shows have made a stab at the queer villain or anti-hero, most of them lack nuance. More often than not, these characters are seen as dangerous or corrupt because of their identity as LGBTQ. That isn’t the making of a complex and original villain; that’s harmful fearmongering based on outdated tropes and stereotypes that damage the community. A trope that’s still as rampant as ever on television is the depiction of bisexual characters as untrustworthy, unfaithful, and/or willing to use sex to manipulate those around them, as seen in Mr. Robot’s Tyrell Wellick and Halt and Catch Fire’s Joe Macmillan. Both of these characters only direct interaction with their queerness is when it can be used as a means to an end. This moral ambiguity doesn’t stem from complexity, but rather from the pervasive stereotypes about bisexuality.

How To Get Away With Murder’s Annalise Keating is a breath of fresh air in a largely barren landscape. She is the central character of the show, she is black, and she is bisexual – three facts which are remarkable on their own because of the sheer rarity of their occurrence. But on top of that, she doesn’t fall prey to the same stereotypes mentioned above, and she isn’t confined to conventional morality in order to be more palatable. She lies under oath, manipulates evidence, and has covered up two murders thus far. But none of that stops viewers from tuning in week after week and making the series so popular with viewers and critics alike.

We can appreciate her bad behavior, even enjoy it, because we know that there’s more to her than just sketchy legal dealings and infidelity. It's a part of who she is, but isn’t the defining trait of her character, and that complexity is what makes her so understandable. Moreover, we’re given an insight into her past, what makes her who she is, and why she does all of the things that she does. What drives her moral ambiguity – loyalty to her students and friends, a desire for power and prestige, and desperation to overcome her past – is universal. Annalise is a powerhouse of a character – one who could, potentially, pave the way for more like her given the series' critical success.

It’s important for LGBTQ characters to be given the opportunity to inhabit every fictional space with the same amount of nuance and complexity as their non-LGBTQ counterparts. Queer people are just as capable of being corrupt as we are of being morally upstanding. We make bad decisions, and we can hurt the people around us, and we can be selfish and cruel. We can exist in that wealth of gray between “good” and “bad.” Marvel's Jessica Jones’ morally questionable Jeri Hogarth is just as important to diversity and representation as Grey’s Anatomy’s upbeat, optimistic Arizona Robbins, as they both exist to show different types of people who are impacted by different issues and struggles. There is no one "right" narrative for LGBTQ characters, and there are so many untapped stories left for television to tell.