The pink elephant in the room: Hollywood’s problem with queer representation

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If you look past the multi-million dollar companies painting their logos with rainbows every Pride and patting themselves on the back for it you’ll start to notice something disappointing beneath the sparkly veneer that is rainbow capitalism – the reality that most of these companies aren’t actually contributing to LGBTQIA equality or representation and are presenting themselves as queer-friendly primarily to attract our purchasing power. Nowhere is this more true than in the mainstream American film industry.

If you look at the ten highest-grossing Hollywood films for each year of the 2010s, you’ll notice a pattern – the main adult characters are exclusively cisgender and straight, but why? When the previous decade saw a myriad of progress for LGBTQIA rights, civil liberties, visibility, and social acceptance, why does the realm of the Hollywood blockbuster continue to lag behind in both the quality and frequency of its representation of queer and gender-nonconforming characters, all the while continuing to praise itself for inclusivity?

In financial terms, mainstream Hollywood cinema seemed to have first been convinced of the purchasing power of the queer dollar in the 2000s, with mainstream hits such as 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, which grossed $178 million on a $14 million budget. Its three Oscars would mark a turning point in how the industry saw same-sex couples onscreen. Additionally, Hilary Swank’s Oscar win for portraying a trans character in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry marked the start of an awards circuit where LGBTQIA stories are competitive and considered to be worthy of industry recognition. However, the problems both of these success stories suffer from are still plaguing the industry to this day.

The first and perhaps most sinister of these issues is censorship, with Brokeback Mountain and countless other films featuring same-sex couples not being shown in China, the Middle East, and various other regions, or in some cases could only be shown heavily censored. The loss of these lucrative markets has the effect of regulating the type of tentpoles produced, meaning that the influence of discriminatory laws and puritanical censorship bodies in other countries is prompting studios to self-censor any LGBTQIA representation in a blockbuster before it even enters into production.

The most egregious offender when it comes to the trend of hyping up queer characters and delivering inconsequential, blink-you’ll-miss-it representation is Disney and their subsidiaries. They first dipped their toes into this practice with 2017’s Beauty and the Beast remake, making Josh Gad’s LeFou hopelessly infatuated with Gaston and at one point wait for it…waltzing with a man. Yes, that’s it, that’s what GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis called “a small moment in the film, but it is a huge leap forward for the film industry.” Seriously?

They tried this playbook again in Avengers: Endgame by having one of the unnamed characters at a grief support group (played by co-director Joe Russo) refer to his lost “husband”, which is certainly more explicit than LeFou, but such a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in a three-hour film with literally dozens of named characters really is the absolute bare minimum. They most recently tried it with Pixar’s Onward, in which a female cyclops says, “It’s not easy being a new parent—my girlfriend’s daughter got me pulling my hair out, okay?” That’s it, really.

Even these innocuous, easy-to-miss crumbs of representation aren’t immune from censorship. LeFou’s waltzing moment led to the film’s ban in Kuwait, and Malaysia’s censorship board insisting the shot be cut but ultimately relenting because “the gay element was minor and did not affect the positive elements featured in the film.” A censorship body eager to ban the film decided otherwise because this moment was so completely insignificant that it wasn’t worth the effort.

Onward’s female cyclops meanwhile had her line redubbed to “my sister’s daughter” in the Arabic dub, “my friend’s daughters” in Israel, and “my partner’s daughter” in Russia (the Russian dub also didn’t refer to the cyclops with gender-specific pronouns, so may have accidentally given us a non-binary cyclops). These supposed huge leaps forward are so insignificant they can be undone by redubbing a single word or cutting a few seconds of footage, and frankly, we deserve better.

Then you have the other industry failure: the gay-for-pay-awards-complex, whereby the examples of Hilary Swank, Jared Leto, and Sean Penn were able to play an LGBTQIA character and receive a cabinet full of awards for it, prompting countless other established stars (most of them straight and cis) to jump onto awards bait dramas about queer characters in the hopes of landing themselves a gold statue. The main problem is that these stories so often seem to be made on a conveyor belt of tropes: period settings, white leads, bury-your-gays, staring longingly, coming out stories. Ammonite, Falling, Supernova, all tailor-made to make Academy voters feel good for not being bigoted. This genre isn’t made for us, it’s made for straight and cis people, their subject matters often touching on only the same small fragments from the myriad of queer and gender-nonconforming experiences.

Additionally, you still have the age-old trope of a straight actor playing a completely overblown camp gay man or gay best friend, which is alive and well thanks to James Corden in The Prom and Jack Whitehall in Disney’s upcoming Jungle Cruise. Although, thanks to the far better quality and frequency of LGBTQIA representation in TV and the indie sphere, we no longer have to regard these caricatures as the best the industry can do.

Then you have the broader problem that the most common forms of LGBTQIA representation fall into the same tropes and stereotypes: gay men can be either hypermasculine and partnered or a hyperfeminine accessory; lesbians can similarly be butch or femme and commitment obsessed; bisexuals can be promiscuous or outright erased; trans people can be a joke, a threat, or a victim; gender-neutral pronouns are still met with cries of political-correctness-gone-mad; and a broad and diverse spectrum of experiences are so often reduced to a usually white, usually gay or lesbian, usually partnered Other domesticated enough not to threaten the status quo. So, the next time you see a major studio paint their branding with rainbows and release a heteronormative, gender-conforming tentpole, remember that they’re making a very deliberate choice, and we all deserve better.

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