Representation Matters: Watching ‘The Real O’Neals’ As a Queer Teen

Half a decade ago in 2016, when data wasn’t as cheap as it is today and watching TV was still a legitimate pastime for a teenager, I was in the habit of mindlessly binging American sitcoms. On one such leisurely afternoon, I came across an ABC show called The Real O’Neals. While the sitcom itself was a bit run-of-the-mill, nothing could have prepared me for the impact it would have on my life.

The show was about a boy, Kenny O’Neal, who grows up in an Irish-American Catholic family and who happens to… like boys.

As a teenager about the same age as Kenny – and who had little clue what ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’ meant, but who nonetheless was a boy who liked boys the way boys my age liked girls – I consumed it greedily. It was a revelation, and I received it on an almost cellular level. It was a of those moments that tower above all the other moments in life; like a lighthouse, forever guiding the course of one’s life. Every word Kenny uttered, every movement of his wrists, every wrinkle of unease on his face, his fears, his anxieties, his tears – all of it – was my truth.

There are many reasons why the not-so-popular 29-episode series – which wasn’t even renewed for a third season – had such an impact on me. To be visible, to be represented and to be precedented is a very elemental human need. The Real O’Neals helped me realise that there were other people out there like me; that I was not alone.

The realisation that you’re not alone is an immensely powerful feeling. Growing up, it’s important for one to see other like you around you. Many of us grow up feeling like outsiders in our communities when we can’t seem to locate someone who we can identify with. This is especially true for atypical sexualities as these identities aren’t always present in your parents, your friend circles or your community. These identities are largely invisible. The depictions of these aren’t readily found; they need to be actively sought out. The task is made harder when you’re a teenager unsure if such a “thing” is valid, moral or even real.

A former professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts and a researcher on media effects, Michael Morgan, once told the Huffington Post, “When you don’t see people like yourself, the message is: You’re invisible. The message is: You don’t count. And the message is: ‘There’s something wrong with me’.”

This is why representation matters. And I was represented in Kenny. I was now assured that there was at least one person out there who was like me. That was enough to make me feel a whole lot less lonely.

To make a queer kid feel less alone is nothing if not an extraordinary feat, especially considering how queer adolescents are prone to mental health issues. CDC’s 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey observed that a whopping 60% of queer youth were reported to be suffering from acute depression. Another study by Caitlyn Ryan’s Family Acceptance Project suggests that LGBTQIA+ youth who face high levels of familial and social rejection are more than eight times more likely to die by suicide than their heterosexual contemporaries. These horrifying statistics give us an idea how essential it is to provide queer youth positive role models to identify with.

When the needs for such representations aren’t met in the society a young person lives in, they have to be sought out in the world of literature, television and social media. Such media depictions are an invaluable source of pride and comfort. When queer kids see successful and positive role models they can identify with, they feel they too can have a promising future.

A 2005-2006 surveys conducted by Sarah Gomillion and Traci Guiliano show that queer television characters had greatly helped the participants in the attainment of self-realisation. It was observed that more media exposure correlated feeling less sad, dejected and depressed. Positive media representation of LGBTQIA+ characters not only helps queer adolescents but also corresponds with promoting positive attitudes towards queer people in our society.

Throughout the subsequent decades since the 1990s, queer representation in American media improved significantly. This time period also concurred with the years in which public opinion in the US grew remarkably favourable towards the LGBTQIA+ community. This, again, was not a mere coincidence.

Also read: On Watching ‘Ek Ladki ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’ as a Queer Woman

An extensive study by Calzo et al. observed that participants who regularly consumed LGBTQIA+ positive media showed notably higher levels of acceptance towards queer people. “I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anybody’s ever done so far. People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand,” then Vice President, Joe Biden, said in a 2012 interview. And they did understand. At the time of the interview, more Americans supported same-sex marriage than opposed it. By 2015, US legalised gay marriage across all 50 states.

In India, it’s a whole different story.

There is not nearly enough data on mental well-being of queer Indians, and whatever data there is does not paint a rosy picture. A recent psychological study showed that 58.84% of gay men in India in the age bracket of 25–35 – keeping in mind these are highly educated, salaried individuals – suffered from depression. Another study on ‘MSM’ (‘Men who have Sex with Men’, a sex-centric, reductionist label still prevalent in psychology) by Sivasubramanian et al. found that 24% of the participants suffered from anxiety while 45% ideated suicide.

There is little no availability of data on queer suicide, but there are bone-chilling reports of suicides from all over the country. A 19-year old in Chennai died by suicide in 2019 because of bullying and social stigma he faced for being gay. In 2018, a lesbian couple from Ahmedabad jumped to their deaths in the Sabarmati river along with a three-year old child. Another Assamese same-sex couple killed themselves last year because of familial rejection.

This is why representation matters. The Indian media thus far has done very poorly in terms of portraying LGBTQIA+ individuals. The crumbs we get in the name of representation are more often than not a mockery. The humiliating caricatures propagate a very negative image of what it means to be queer. These depictions do more harm than good. If we wish a chunk of our youth to not internalise it all and resort to the unthinkable, we have to do better.

We still have a long way to go. Someday, hopefully, queer representation in the media won’t be “queer representation” but simply an authentic portrayal of a better society where people don’t have to live invisible lives. But till then, we will tread the footsteps we’ve discovered and leave some of our own, so that countless Umars will find themselves mirrored in countless Kennies.

No doubts about that.

Umar Shaikh is an undergrad student studying English Literature at Jamia Millia Islamia. He is passionate about reading Modernist fiction, writing, and taking naps.