In 2016, there was one transgender character in a major studio film release.
In 2017, there were none.
In 2016, 23 major studio releases had LGBT characters.
In 2017, that number fell to just 14.
All of which begs the question: Is LGBT representation in Hollywood actually getting worse?
Those 2017 numbers, taken from the newly-released Studio Responsibility Index—an annual report about LGBT representation in major motion pictures prepared by the advocacy group GLAAD—are the lowest they have been since 2012.
“We hope that next year’s report is able to paint a more promising picture than GLAAD’s 2017 findings,” GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis writes in the report, noting that 2018 has so far seen three well-executed, LGBT-inclusive films from major studios: Annihilation, Blockers, and Love, Simon.
But as good as those three films are, 2018 could still fall short of expectations.
“While the films mentioned above are impressive, three films are still only a small percentage of the total,” Ellis notes.
The GLAAD report, which tracks releases from seven major film studios—Fox, Lionsgate, Paramount, Sony, Universal, Disney, and Warner Brothers—also grades their overall LGBT representation on a five-star scale.
For 2017 releases, scores ranged from a “failing” one star for Warner Brothers—whose buddy cop reboot ChiPS had “incessant gay panic jokes,” as GLAAD notes—to an “insufficient” three stars for Fox, whose sci-fi film Alien: Covenant briefly revealed that a dying man was in a relationship with another male character.
Indeed, the quality of LGBT representation in 2017 films was even worse than its already low quantity would imply. Out of the 14 big studio films released in 2017 that had LGBT characters, a paltry nine satisfied the conditions for the Vito Russo Test, which is GLAAD’s LGBT equivalent of the women-focused Bechdel Test.
To pass the Vito Russo Test, a film must have an “identifiably” LGBT character who is not “solely or predominantly” defined by being LGBT, and who must play a significant role in the plot.
For example, much ado was made about Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie character in Thor: Ragnarok being bisexual but the scene that would have made her sexual orientation clear was left on the cutting room floor. Therefore, like so many superhero movies, it failed the Vito Russo Test. A brief flashback was the only whiff of Valkyrie’s identity, and even then the scene did not overtly confirm she was bisexual.
“If Valkyrie appears in the upcoming final Avengers movie,” GLAAD recommends in the Studio Responsibility Index, “her bisexuality should actually be represented onscreen rather than left to subtext that is only caught by those looking for it.”
2017 films released by major studio subsidiaries like Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics, however, paint a very different—and much more optimistic—picture of LGBT representation in cinema.
Fox Searchlight, for example, released Battle of the Sexes, featuring Emma Stone’s portrayal a still-closeted tennis icon Billie Jean King, as well as the Oscar-winning The Shape of Water, which boasted a particularly affecting performance by Richard Jenkins as a gay ad agency illustrator.
Sony Pictures Classics gave a transgender role to transgender actress Daniela Vega, whose star turn in A Fantastic Woman helped the film take home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film earlier this year.
Overall, GLAAD found that 28 percent of 2017 releases by the four subsidiary studios—Focus, Searchlight, Roadside, and Sony Classics—contained LGBT characters, which represents a 17 percent increase from 2016. That’s a rare bit of good news in an otherwise disheartening report.
But well-developed LGBT characters shouldn’t just be confined to independent cinema. LGBT people themselves, after all, exist in every sphere of life. A 2015 report from the Public Religion Research Institute found that seven percent of millennials identify as LGBT, as The Daily Beast previously reported, and a recent GLAAD survey conducted by The Harris Poll suggests that number could be as high as 20 percent.
It should be no surprise that a movie like Love, Simon could earn over 57 million dollars worldwide on a production budget a third that number. There is a young audience who is hungry for LGBT representation not just in the arthouse, but in the multiplex as well.
“If Hollywood wants to remain relevant with these audiences and keep them buying tickets, they must create stories that are reflective of the world LGBTQ people and our friends and family know,” Ellis argues in the Studio Responsibility Index. “This needs to take place in the major studios that play in wide release all over the country … as well as in the indie films that have long been home to stand-out queer and trans stories.”
In 2018, the gap between the lazy gay panic jokes in big-budget films like Paramount’s Baywatch and the sensitive portrayal of gay love in Sony Classics’ Call Me By Your Name is as apparent as it is embarrassing. These movies almost seem to exist in separate universes—or, at least, in different decades of cinema.
But GLAAD is hoping that its Studio Responsibility Index can motivate the major studios to change for the better in much the same way that the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index has incentivized companies to adopt LGBT-inclusive policies in pursuit of a perfect score of 100.
GLAAD started tracking films for the Studio Responsibility Index in 2012. In the coming years, Ellis notes, “we will begin to see more films hitting theaters that were greenlit following the beginning of GLAAD’s SRI tracking.” If studios want to get their scores out of the “failing” range, they will have to include substantial LGBT characters.
Perhaps soon, then, the Studio Responsibility Index will help solve the problem it so depressingly describes.