For the longest time, it was dangerous to live an openly queer life in most of America. Up until the 2003 Lawrence vs. Texas Supreme Court decision, many states across the country could still legally imprison homosexuals without cause other than just for being gay. The last 20 years have thankfully seen a reversal of centuries old laws discriminating against the LGBTQ+ community, including the recent Supreme Court decision this week to stop workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual identity. Though it is certainly a step in the right direction, there is still a lot of work to be done in order to move the country closer to making life better for it’s queer population. It’s only been in the last few years that attitudes have changed for the better in rural parts of the country, which have long been hostile to LGBTQ people. For the longest time, if you were a queer person who wanted to feel safe from discrimination and harassment, you often had to leave small town America behind and find a new life in the more tolerant cities. Though most queer Americans still had to live a quiet, closeted life, even in the more progressive urban areas, there was less of a danger of losing one’s career and livelihood in the city, and over time, some cities not only managed to tolerate it’s queer citizenry, but would also eventually celebrate them. One such community could be found in and around Hollywood. For the longest time, one of the areas in which Queer people could find acceptance was in the field of entertainment, though this was also bound by some limits. The representation of queer people in front of the camera took quite a while to catch up, but behind the camera, there was a flourishing of representation of Queer individuals in the entertainment industry. In the long run, the acceptance of the LGBTQ population in various departments of the film industry allowed for many barriers to eventually come down for other parts of the economy, as there became a growing number of queer individuals that wielded economic power and, more importantly, now had a platform.
So, why with all this progress made in the last 20 years, along with a long-standing tolerance within the film industry for queer people, is queer representation still lagging behind. There are more queer characters being brought into mainstream media, but it still feels like the industry is hedging it’s bets and merely tipping it’s toes slightly into the water. This is more true with the big budget movies being made, as the greatest advances in queer representation on the big screen have been coming from the independent market. You look at some of the most groundbreaking queer films made in the last decade, including the Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016), they were made outside of the Hollywood studio system rather than within it. And why is that? It’s not because there is a shortage of queer voices or queer themed stories. I can tell you from my own experience as a screenwriter and as a past screenplay reader that there are plenty of scripts out there that are telling stories with a queer viewpoint. The real reason that there hasn’t been progress made in queer representation on the big screen is because of economics. Hollywood just isn’t investing in these kinds of movies because they don’t yet see a profit motive in it. They aren’t exactly suppressing queer voices; it’s just that they don’t have the incentive yet to push them to the forefront. Film-making may be art, but it’s also big business, and the primary objective is to always invest in the things that will generate the most profit. An artistic statement becomes secondary. Contrary to what far right fear-mongers will have you believe, the queer population isn’t trying to indoctrinate people into growing it’s numbers. The LGBTQ population is still the same 10% of the total population that it has always been; it’s just now that more people within that 10% are living openly and declaring their identity without fear. Though the LGBTQ community has gained it’s voice and pushed back against years of oppression, their impact on the box office still doesn’t have the impact to move the industry towards better representation. But, that too is changing over time.
One thing that has gotten much better over the last decade is a greater groundswell of support of the LGBTQ community from those outside of it. Allies of queer people are now demanding more representation on the big and small screen, and that has enabled a still marginalized group like the LGBTQ community to finally have a voice in their own representation that otherwise would’ve gone ignored. This has taken a much stronger hold here in America, where the politics really have changed dramatically over a short amount of time. Only 15 years ago, the support for the gay community was so vulnerable that nearly half of the population was willing to add a ban on same-sex marriage into the Constitution of the United States. Now, taking a decidedly anti-gay stance can actually hurt your chances in getting elected; a complete reversal of where we were only a decade ago. Attitudes change, and the Queer community has benefited from one of the swiftest reversals in American political discourse. But, what’s stopping Hollywood from matching the changing attitudes of the American people. It has less to do with domestic politics than it does with international politics. Hollywood is an industry funded more and more by foreign investment. The worldwide box office now eclipses that of the United States, with the biggest international market being found in China. And let’s just say, the East isn’t quite as enlightened on the representation of queer people as the West has become. In fact, China even outright bans films that have a openly stated queer point of view or an openly gay character. The sad thing is, because they have a vested interest in the Chinese market, Hollywood has acquiesced to China’s demands and either censored their own films or failed to make any large investment into queer representation. Here we see the fundamental problem behind Hollywood falling behind the rest of the country in accurately representing queer characters in the culture at large, but there is another problem that has arisen as the industry has tried to cover up their lack of support by attempting to appease both sides.
This problem in question is something called Queerbaiting. What Queerbaiting represents is the industry touting it’s efforts towards expanding representation of queer people in film, while at the same time making the minimalist of efforts. Studios have been adding gay characters in their movies, but they are often supporting characters that either are played for laughs or have such a minimal impact on the plot that they can easily be edited out for international release. And yet, Hollywood will still make a big deal in Western press that they have made a historic decision to include a queer character in their movie, hoping to be celebrated for making a such a progressive move. The only problem is, the LGBTQ community isn’t buying it. The characters that Hollywood is touting as revolutionary are in fact the wrong kind of characters to be spotlighting as such. I’m sad to say that the company that has been most guilty of this recently has been Disney, which itself has had such a strong reputation with supporting queer rights. Long before same-sex marriage became legal across the land, Disney granted the same benefits to same-sex couples within their company way ahead of the rest of the industry. But sadly, they have decided that they also want the credit for creating the first out characters in their movies, and their choices couldn’t be any more counter-productive. In particular, they made a big deal about the character of LeFou from Beauty and the Beast (2017) was going to be portrayed as gay; a move that I don’t think they planned out very well. The character of LeFou is a minor one in the story, is played mostly for laughs (bringing in a number of reductive stereotypes in movie that otherwise didn’t need them), and also his name also literally translates into “the Fool” in French. It’s not exactly a progressive move at all when the queer character that you are proudly promoting is literally the bumbling, buffoonish sidekick of the villain. And thankfully, the LGBTQ community rejected this gesture as pandering.
Hollywood has long injected queer subtext into characters within their movies; sometimes in a covertly brave manner, like in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) or David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962). But, for the most part, Hollywood has retained the hetero-normative status quo, particularly when it comes to the main protagonists of their movies. But, the demands of the audience have changed, and it’s becoming less controversial to have a central character within the story be openly queer. However, to maintain their status quo in the international market, Hollywood is still downplaying character’s sexual identity, while at the same time spotlighting progress being made where none really exists. The subtext in the movies used to define a character as potentially being queer is now being touted by Hollywood as actual representation. The only problem is subtext and actual text are totally different standards for true representation. One of the most glaring examples of this can be found in the Harry Potter series. After having finished publishing her final volume of the series, author J.K. Rowling revealed in an interview that the beloved character of Dumbledore was always gay. The problem is, had she never said this publicly, you would not have been given any indication from either the books or the movies as to what Dumbledore’s sexuality was. Within the text itself, not knowing is actually a good thing, because it doesn’t matter in the end; it’s not what defines Dumbledore as a person. But because Rowling made a point of it in an interview, she cast a new light on the character. Did she know all along that this was the case, or did she come up with it after the fact to win some points for representation. Given Rowling’s rather controversial statements about trans people recently, she comes across as more of a person willing to change the text of her story in order to bring more attention to herself than anything. That in itself is a terrible trivializing attitude towards a very real issue. If you do care about queer representation, put it on the page or otherwise don’t do anything at all. All it looks like in the end is that you’re using other people’s crusade to further your own agenda.
This kind of pandering is especially troublesome for queer people, because it continues to portray them as a sideshow for a hetero-normative society. Queer people are not trying to shove their identity into anyone’s face; they just want to be sure that their face on screen is just given the same amount of dignity as any other group in society. It’s not about meeting some kind of quota either. Another unfortunate result of Hollywood’s queerbaiting is that they are putting gay characters into their projects like it’s an obligation, rather than a necessary move for the story. One thing that I have particularly hated in recent television is the “token” queer character, because it’s another instance of paying lip service towards queer representation rather than actually making a difference. It’s one of the reasons why I hold the unpopular position of hating the Emmy award winning show Mad Men, because it treated it’s queer characters as mere props to deliver a message, and then discarded them once they served their purpose. The best queer representation on television is found in stories where the queer characters are woven into the tapestry of the show as a whole, and contribute so much more to their story other than just their sexual identity. It’s shows like Shameless on Showtime, Modern Family on ABC, or even surprisingly Downton Abbey. Gay audiences like to see themselves treated as more than window dressing when consuming media. Television is thankfully following the leads of these more groundbreaking shows, but there still needs to be a lot more consideration towards how queer characters are used in the over-arching narrative of a story.
There is a danger of demanding too much of Hollywood to move towards queer representation. This is not so much to do with how queer characters are represented, but rather by whom. Some people pushing for queer representation also demand that the same representation be carried over into the roles being portrayed on screen. In some cases it’s justified; queer actress Tessa Thompson for example is campaigning hard for her character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Valkyrie from the Thor franchise, to have a same-sex love interest in the next movie, something which the film’s director (Taika Waititi) and the studio (Marvel) appear to be open to. But, demanding this across the board also limits the amount of queer themed stories that can be told. Take for instance the controversy that arose when it was announced that Scarlett Johnansson was going to play a trans character in an upcoming movie. Critics demanded that the role go to an actual trans actor instead of a cis gendered actress like Scarlett. The only problem is, there isn’t a trans actor at the moment that has the box office pull that Scarlett Johansson has at the moment. So, instead of having a movie with a trans protagonist at it’s center given a lot of attention with an A-list star attached to it, the movie is now likely to be made with a fraction of the budget and almost no widespread attention. Yes, it’s ideal to have an actual trans person play the role, but given that we are not at a point where a trans actor has huge box office pull, is it really worth burying this kind of film right now. The more important thing in my mind is to have many more films centered on queer protagonists, and it shouldn’t matter what the sexual orientation of the actors playing the roles are. Look at all the most groundbreaking gay themed films of the last couple years; Moonlight, Call Me by Your Name (2017) and Love, Simon (2018), all films with gay protagonists played by straight actors. If we invest in these movies now, no matter who is filling the roles, then we can change the attitudes of audiences faster and open the door in the future to having more queer performers reaching that lofty A-List box office pull.
The problem overall is that while Hollywood is touting their levels of progress with regards to queer representation, the actual reality of the matter tells a different story. For right now, the progress seems to be more self serving to the industry than it is being beneficial to the queer population itself. If you’re going to plaster that rainbow flag all over your logos and merchandise, you should back it up with some actual progressive actions. Queer people in general love Hollywood, and have played a part in it’s industry throughout the years. For all that loyalty, Hollywood should consider sticking it’s neck out more and actually challenge the status quo when it comes to representing queer people in media. In terms of casting, the representation question can be much more fluid; I for one believe that straight actors can effectively still portray queer characters, just as long as the reverse can also be true. Just look at that example from Beauty and the Beast, with sub-textually queer LeFou being portrayed by Josh Gad (who is straight) matched up with the aggressively heterosexual Gaston, played by Luke Evans (who’s an out and proud gay actor). The actual sexual orientation of the actors factored little into the equation, and that’s how it should be; and it was the least of the movie’s problems. The important thing is that we need more stories where a queer character is not treated as a prop, but rather as a fully fleshed out human being. Just releasing a bit of publicity stating that an upcoming Star Wars movie is going to feature it’s first same sex kiss matters little when that moment ends up being a blink and you’ll miss it bit of pandering. Hollywood should have the confidence that their properties can sustain themselves with queer representation included and not worry about how other parts of the world will react. That includes removing subtext and actually make those hinted at characters genuinely realized as out and proud individuals; like Poe and Finn from the Star Wars franchise or Elsa from Frozen. The fact that the studio that made those movies went out of their way to downplay their character’s potential queer story-lines is really disheartening. It’s Pride Month, so why not show a little more pride Hollywood.