It’s true that representation matters. Media in all forms has the power to challenge stereotypes and give the audience something to find solace in. To not feel alone in a world that is often discriminatory is extremely uplifting.
Unfortunately, it seems that mainstream cinema has failed to acknowledge how vital representation is. GLAAD — the queer media guardian — released its fifth annual Studio Responsibility Index (SRI), a report that measures the quality of how LGBTQ characters are represented in movies released by seven major studios.
While Moonlight, distributed by independent studio A24, made history as the first film with a queer lead character to win the Oscar for Best Picture, major studios are still lagging behind when it comes to inclusivity.
The SRI examined that of the 125 films released in 2016 by major companies, only 23 (18.4 percent) contained #LGBTQ characters. Not to mention, nearly half of those 23 films (10 films, or 43 percent) gave their LGBT characters less than one minute of screen time. Furthermore, only 20 percent of LGBTQ characters were people of color (a 5 percent decrease from 2015), and only one major film contained transgender characters.
Those statistics are dismal, and clearly, Hollywood needs to make massive improvements moving forward. Let’s take a look at the rest of the findings.
The Vito Russo Test
Inspired by the Bechdel Test, which examines the way female characters are depicted in a narrative, GLAAD developed a system of their own to analyze LGBTQ portrayals in cinema. To pass the Vito Russo Test, a movie must meet the following criteria:
- The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender.
- That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity (i.e. they are comprised of the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate straight/non-transgender characters from one another).
- The LGBTQ character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect, meaning they are not there to simply provide colorful commentary, paint urban authenticity, or (perhaps most commonly) set up a punchline. The character must matter.
Since representation is a broad, multidimensional spectrum, these criteria are the minimum requirements of effective queer representation. Regardless, filmmakers should use this as a guide to learn and comprehend what true representation actually is. Only nine of the 23 queer inclusive mainstream films (39 percent) passed the test in 2016. While a small percentage of movies passed, this still does not guarantee that their depictions weren't controversial or offensive to the LGBTQ community.
Anti-LGBTQ Attitudes Are Not Okay, But Comedy Seems To Think The Opposite
Comedy has the highest chance of including LGBTQ characters, in fact, more than any other genre. GLAAD reports:
"Comedy films continued to include out-and-out defamatory portrayals of LGBTQ people. The jokes around these characters relied on gay panic and defamatory stereotypes for cheap laughs. 'Dirty Grandpa' and 'Central Intelligence' were two of the most egregious offenders, and the non-inclusive films 'The Brothers Grimsby' and 'Ride Along 2' also included offensive humor based in idea that two men touching each other is inherently strange."
While comedy is intended to entertain and encourage laughter, it still has the power to challenge existing norms and stereotypes. But when jokes are included without thought, they can suggest that anti-LGBTQ attitudes are justifiable, hindering chances of progress for an already marginalized community. Appealing to one audience does not mean insulting another is necessary.
Erasure Is An Enduring Trope
Erasing a character's sexuality is problematic and dishonest to their true identity. It was present in many 2016 films, especially those in the superhero realm. Harley Quinn and Deadpool/Wade Wilson of #DC and #Marvel, respectively, are notable for being out-and-proud in the comics. Both characters inspire readers to be comfortable in their own skin. #Deadpool is never afraid to hit on anyone, regardless of their sex or gender; The Merc with a Mouth was confirmed to be pansexual in 2013. #HarleyQuinn is openly bisexual, and her relationship with Poison Ivy is one of the most admired same-sex couples in comics.
When it came to Wade and Harley's live-action debuts in Deadpool and Suicide Squad respectively, both films' studios refused to acknowledge who the characters truly are. As the SRI analysis states:
"While director Tim Miller told press ahead of the film’s release that Deadpool was pansexual, the only references that made it to screen were played for comedic effect in throwaway jokes intended to emphasize just how outrageous the character is rather than any real sense of desire. Much was made of a scene where Wade and his girlfriend engage in pegging (a man being anally penetrated by a partner wearing a strap on), but again, the scene was played as a joke and as a painful moment that Wade himself was not actually wanting to engage in other than as a favor to his lover."
And in the case of Suicide Squad:
"Many audiences likely had no clue [that Harley is bisexual] unless they had extensively read the source comics or researched the character beforehand. 'Suicide Squad' instead chose to focus solely on her relationship with The Joker with very little back story, and largely sanitized the deeply abusive nature of their relationship. GLAAD did not count this character in its final tally based on the story presented."
The actor behind Wade Wilson, Ryan Reynolds, has expressed that it would be nice for his character to get a boyfriend in future appearances. There's even a chance to explore Harley and Ivy's relationship in #GothamCitySirens. Hopefully, studios will take those chances and create something beautiful.
There are many misconceptions about people who are bi or pansexual, and acknowledging them in mainstream media with positive depictions could reduce the frequency of harmful stereotypes.
How Can Queer Representation In Mainstream Cinema Improve? GLAAD Offers Recommendations For The Future
It's worth mentioning that Hollywood has come a long way. The confirmation of Hikaru Sulu as gay in Star Trek Beyond wouldn't have been accepted in cinema decades ago.
Television studios have made great strides; shows such as #TheWalkingDead and #Supergirl have made gay characters inspiring and essential to the storyline. So evidently, it's mainstream cinema that continues to fall short. Thankfully, GLAAD is on the case with recommendations to correct major studios' problems with LGBTQ portrayals.
Merely including LGBTQ characters in a Hollywood picture (or if you're James Gunn, implying their existence without showing it) is not enough to be considered representation if they are not directly tied to the plot. With the lack of racially diverse queer characters, it's important to tell all stories of the community from various perspectives. Audiences deserve to see unique stories come to life, and they're clearly successful, as Moonlight proved. Filmmakers should question their prior treatment of LGBTQ characters, and recognize that making them invisible does much more harm than good.
Newsflash: People are here, queer, and you better get used to it! My hopes are that filmmakers scan GLAAD's tips to understand what the drawbacks are, how to eliminate them, and how to create a meaningful work in the end. Since media has such a strong impact on society and our daily lives, infusing inclusivity can only lead to normalization and acceptance. And when people realize the power of acceptance, the world gets a whole lot brighter.
Which characters do you think are positive examples of the LGBTQ community? Share them with us in the comments below!