There's nothing quite like news of a gay character in a movie to send the internet up in a big ball of flame. Or should that be a big ball of flamers? I'm not sure, and that's the problem with Hollywood's LGBT representation in 2017 — the entire thing is one big smoke-and-mirrors illusion which misrepresents the idea of representation.
Here's what I mean by that: If you leave the cinema wondering "Did that movie I just watched casually introduce a gay character?," the answer is probably no. If we only believe a character is LGBT because an actor or writer says it could be, or because their dialogue hints at it in the vaguest terms possible — and not because of anything tangible that plays out on screen — it's at best a deliberate ambiguity carefully designed not to inflame audiences.
Hollywood wants to have its cake and eat it. That character wasn't gay if you're watching in China, where censorship is rife, or if you're a standard bigot in America — but if you do identify as LGBT, then he or she totally represents!
But, like... how?
To illustrate my point, and the problem with Hollywood's risk-free illusion of #LGBT representation, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at a clutch of recent examples of "gay" characters in blockbuster movies, characters whose deliberate sexual ambiguity seems to challenge the idea that gay people might actually want to reference their sexuality, enjoy on-screen relationships, or express themselves in any of the same ways that heterosexual people do.
Pitchforks at the ready.
Mantis In Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2
Last month, director James Gunn teased that his much-hyped sequel Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 might include a non-straight character ("We might have already done that. Watch the movie, see what you think").
Clearly Gunn is open to the idea of LGBT representation in the MCU, but the movie itself really doesn't go there — instead it gives us a weird friendship/borderline flirtation between Drax and Mantis, with Mantis telling Drax he's "not her type." That could mean quite literally anything (maybe she likes 'em skinny!) and I'm not the only one to pick up on that absurdity.
Gunn later backtracked by claiming that because not many Marvel characters are romantically involved, quite a few of them could be gay. Maybe. Technically. But imagined representation is not actual representation.
Sulu In Star Trek Beyond
In defense of Star Trek Beyond, it has been explicitly stated by cast and crew that the original character of Sulu (as played here by John Cho) is gay in the current continuity.
In the film, we see him being greeted at the airport by his other half, Ben (Doug Jung), and their daughter. It's a cute and triumphant moment and a very rare example of a blockbuster actually committing to the idea of a character being gay, rather than just floating the loose possibility.
Perhaps due to the likelihood of censorship in China (seriously, can someone just tell those guys that sometimes boys like boys and girls like girls?), there's no kiss, but you'd have to be a naive viewer to imagine that these guys were just brothers.
A question: How many of the sci-fi fans who claim they don't want gay things in their favorite genre had their enjoyment of Beyond impacted by this perfectly innocent and admirably progressive (if slightly tame) depiction of two gay men? Probably not many.
Le Fou In Beauty And The Beast
Perhaps the best recent example of Hollywood's determination to sit on the fence with gay characters comes courtesy of Beauty And The Beast. #Disney are famous for being conservative, so it was quite a surprise when director Bill Condon told the world that, in his interpretation of the classic fairytale, the antagonist Le Fou is gay.
That prompted a storm of controversy which ultimately ended in Condon down-playing his earlier comments. In the end, Le Fou acted mildly suggestively toward Gaston, and was glimpsed dancing with a man near the film's big finale. By Disney standards at least, that's just progressive enough to warrant the change from the source material, but also highlights again the problem of filmmakers hyping LGBT progression beyond what's actually there on screen.
What's The Argument Against More Visible Representation?
Obviously, opponents of more LGBT visibility in movies have their reasoning — the problem is that, once those arguments are deconstructed, they ultimately fall apart. It usually starts with an angry (but sometimes fair) objection against characters who were originally straight (in the comics, or the movie/series being rebooted) now being something other than. We've all read floods of those comments — "create original gay characters, just don't change the source material!"
But when original characters are revealed to be gay, the argument shifts to "I don't think sexuality has any place in sci-fi!," or whatever the genre in question is — but that, too, falls apart when you consider that most sci-fi movies have straight romance storylines. Both Guardians movies spend time establishing the reluctant romance between Star-Lord and Gamora. Their sexuality isn't hidden because "there's no place for that in sci-fi," it's displayed.
The strangest thing about this conservative, it's-there-but-not-really approach to diversity on the big screen is that cinema's little brother — television — is pretty fearless when it comes to representing the gays. Game Of Thrones featured a five-minute scene between Loras and Renly which was loaded with romantic interplay and sexual innuendo, and nobody turned off in objection.
Comic book series like Riverdale have featured gay romance story arcs, and this year American Gods will adapt an "intense, powerful" gay sex scene from Neil Gaiman's source material. There's no need for vague allusions to sexuality on the small screen.
So, where do we go from here? Let's be honest about what Hollywood is — it's a business run exclusively in pursuit of profit. It's funded by bankers, not activists. Hollywood doesn't care if LGBT representation is imagined, not real. Hollywood cares that when it logs onto its banking app, it sees seven-zero profits. (It doesn't really have a banking app.)
I don't know what the answer is, but I do know that well-meaning people like James Gunn need to stop trying to market something that doesn't exist. The MCU is no more diverse than a Goldman Sachs afterparty or a golf clubhouse in the Hamptons. Until the day a change comes, let's stop trying to attach gay meaning to straight characters and just let Hollywood get on with being a straight, white slave to profit.
What's your take on the way Hollywood markets supposedly gay characters, and what does the future hold for LGBT representation?