When Will Hollywood Movies Get LGBT Characters Right?
GLAAD’s index of representation of LGBTs in mainstream movies shows that studios prefer to ignore or insult LGBT people, rather than produce rounded, complex characters.
Out of 125 movies released by the major studios in 2016, there was one transgender character: a non-binary fashion model named All who was used as a punchline in Zoolander 2 when a character asks if All has “a hot dog or a bun.”
That single depressing fact is far from the only one found in GLAAD’s newly-released 2017 Studio Responsibility Index, an annual tracking of LGBT representation in film that now grades the major studios—Fox, Lionsgate, Paramount, Sony, Universal, Disney, and Warner Brothers—on a five-star scale. Universal scored the highest this year with a three-star rating of “insufficient”; the rest earned two stars or below.
“We still struggle to see meaningful improvement in Hollywood’s depiction of LGBTQ characters and stories,” wrote GLAAD CEO Sarah Kate Ellis in a letter introducing the report. “Major releases continue to lag behind the groundbreaking stories we see in independent films (like Moonlight) and even further behind the LGBTQ stories on TV and streaming series like Sense8 and Steven Universe.”
Indeed, if your media diet consists solely of wide releases, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that we’re still living in the ’90s. Whether it’s the relentless jokes about a black gay character in the Robert De Niro comedy Dirty Grandpa or the gay panic in the Kevin Hart/Dwayne Johnson comedy Central Intelligence, GLAAD “continue[s] to see many of the same problems repeatedly,” as Ellis noted, with uneven improvement and even some backsliding.
For example, in the same year that the art house film Moonlight won best picture for its brave portrayal of a black gay man growing up in Miami, the racial diversity of LGBT characters in big studio releases dropped yet again.
In 2014, according to the GLAAD report, people of color accounted for nearly a third of LGBT characters in major Hollywood releases. In 2015, it fell to 25.5 percent. In 2016—the year measured on the latest Studio Responsibility Index—it was just 20 percent.
That’s not even twice as many non-white LGBT characters as there were non-human LGBT characters in 2016 films, like the “lesbian taco” in the animated comedy Sausage Party or the blink-and-miss it gay couple in Disney’s Zootopia.
And much like Zootopia, over 40 percent of major studio releases with LGBT characters gave those characters “less than one minute of screen time,” according to the GLAAD report.
Remember all the anticipation for the (maybe) lesbian couple in the Finding Dory trailer? They were only in the movie for a few seconds, not even long enough for GLAAD to determine whether or not they should even be counted.
Other barely-there LGBT characters included a lesbian couple at a yoga class in Bridget Jones’s Baby and a cameo appearance by out CNN newscaster Anderson Cooper in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.
According to Ellis, many of the more fleeting characters “only existed to be punchlines or establish urban authenticity.” They were set dressing and little else.
In fact, only nine major releases in 2016 passed the Vito Russo Test, an LGBT Bechdel Test equivalent which measures whether a movie has an identifiably LGBT character who is not “solely or predominantly” defined by their identity and who plays a significant role in the plot.
One of the most surprising films to clear that bar was the Greek Life comedic sequel Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising which included what GLAAD calls “an unexpectedly well-handled subplot” about a former fraternity brother getting engaged to another man.
By comparison, zero Disney films passed the Vito Russo Test in 2016—which should come as no surprise to anyone who followed the hype surrounding this year’s “exclusively gay moment” in Beauty and the Beast, which as The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon noted, turned out to be about three seconds long.
Only once—in 2013—has Disney scored more than one star on GLAAD’s Studio Responsibility Index, giving it the “weakest historical record” on LGBT inclusivity.
Frustration with Disney around LGBT issues reached a boiling point last year with the social media campaign to #GiveElsaAGirlfriend, instead of continuing to trade in coded language and imagery. And the pressure from younger Disney fans, as Nico Lang noted for The Daily Beast, is especially strong.
Indeed, the contrast between the current boom of LGBT representation on television and the relative stagnancy of Hollywood is especially painful, as Ellis notes in her introduction to the report, because younger audiences are especially likely to be out as LGBT.
As The Daily Beast reported in 2015, a full 7 percent of millennials on a Public Religion Research Institute survey identified as LGBT, making it the “gayest generation”—or at least the most openly LGBT generation—in history.
“If film wants to remain relevant and retain an audience that has more options for entertainment than ever before, the industry must catch up in reflecting the full diversity of this country,” Ellis wrote.
There were, of course, limited-release bright spots in 2016 that GLAAD was happy to celebrate in this year’s Studio Responsibility Index. These include films like Moonlight or the Korean lesbian revenge drama The Handmaiden.
But as GLAAD noted, these movies “are limited by reach” and generally only appeal to viewers who “go specifically looking for them.”
That’s why the media advocacy organization wants to see major releases be more reflective of the diversity of their audience, too. LGBT characters shouldn’t just be siloed off in small, independent theaters; they should be in the multiplexes, too.
To that end, Ellis announced that, starting this summer, GLAAD will begin “reporting on films as they release” rather than waiting for the annual Studio Responsibility Index to publish their reactions.
The SRI will still be published every year, but GLAAD hopes that their “real time” commentary will put pressure on Hollywood to improve at a faster pace than they have seen over the last half-decade.
“There are plenty of unique and new LGBTQ stories to tell, and Hollywood must embrace that to remain competitive with other media industries,” concluded Ellis. “With this new method of reporting and future iterations of the SRI, GLAAD will continue to hold Hollywood accountable for who they are—or are not—representing.”