why hollywood can’t get past coming out

A new report says LGBT representation in studio films lags way behind television.

by i-D Staff and Colin Crummy
20 April 2015, 12:57pm

A cock sucking cellmate, a less-than-straight kind of concierge, and a gay Viking named Gobber. Not the line up at a sex dungeon near you this weekend, but some of the characters in Hollywood films last year that, according to gay media watchdog GLAAD, don't quite cut the mustard as LGBT.

GLAAD has just published its third annual report of US studio films' representation of LGBT characters. The findings make for stark reading for the major studios: of the 114 big releases that GLAAD reps sat down to watch, only 20 of them (that's 17.5%) included characters that could be identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual. None featured an identifiably transgender character.

That cock sucking cellmate - who gives head to Jude Law's character at the start of Dom Hemingway - did not tick the box. Nor did M. Gustave, Ralph Fiennes' concierge at The Grand Budapest Hotel, despite him taking issue with being called "a real straight fellow". And although pre-publicity revealed that Gobber the Viking would come out in How to Train Your Dragon 2, his pronouncement, "This is why I never married. That, and one other reason," didn't quite amount to a fully-fledged coming out, according to GLAAD.

The aforementioned films were all released by 20th Century Fox and its subsidiary Fox Searchlight. It's one of the seven major studios reviewed by GLAAD, all of whom come in for similarly forensic examination of the visibility, treatment and depth of their LGBT characters. It's a pretty damning report given that even when LGBT characters were represented, 10 had less than five minutes of screen time. "In the case of several films, audiences may not have been aware that they were seeing LGBT characters if they did not read outside press coverage or were unaware of the real-life LGBT person a character was based on," according to GLAAD.

Newsflash to no-one: we live in a heteronormative world. The audience goes into the multiplex with the assumption that everyone on screen is straight unless you say otherwise. So the scriptwriter has got to find a way for gay characters to come out. So far, Hollywood has not been too strong on that front, delivering gay characters who bear the brunt of punch lines or in their less than five minute screen time, have to walk and talk as gay stereotypes so everyone gets the message. Or, as the above examples show, characters need to deliver some sort of coded line that doesn't really cut to the chase or satisfy anyone.

Only one film got its LGBT characterization spot on in 2014 and that was Tammy, according to GLAAD, which praised the comedy for "featuring major characters who are openly and unashamedly depicted as LGBT and cast in a positive light." What was smart about Tammy, written and directed by Melissa McCarthy, was that its lesbian characters felt very naturally part of the story. It felt less like a Hollywood depiction of lesbianism and more like something you'd seen on the small screen.

There are nuanced, rich ways for LGBT characters to be out and visible in storytelling, as anyone with a subscription to streaming services will tell you. From Orange is the New Black to House of CardsGame of Thrones to Empire, How to Get Away with Murder to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, there are lots of ways of telling LGBT characters' stories. It's a point that GLAAD makes, urging the film studios to "catch up to other, more consistently inclusive media portrayals" elsewhere.

It feels like Hollywood can't get past its characters' sexuality and see what else an LGBT co-lead could do for storylines. The studios cannot get past the coming out. The clever thing that TV has done is ditched the coming out (in the strictest sense), as the only way to tell LGBT stories. The genius of Amazon's Golden Globe-winning dramedy Transparent is that when ageing dad Mort comes out as trans to his three adult children they are too narcissistic and immersed in their own L.A. dramas to really care for his dramatic transformation. It's not that Mort/Maura's story gets lost; it's enriched and widened with themes of family, sexuality and identity. Things we pretty much can all relate directly to.

It's telling that no major studio release featured transgender characterization in 2014. While television has worked out how rich the dramatic ground is there, the film studios have yet to take on the challenge of putting authentic, interesting, three dimensional trans characters on the big screen.

They are missing out. Television and streaming services have caught on to the fact that there are many ways to tell an LGBT story and that crucially, LGBT stories are rich with complexity, challenges and comedy that make for crucial viewing. Hollywood, in comparison, feels stuck on a loop, always asking "What will we do with the gay character?" when the question should be "what can the gay character do for you?" The answer is wherever your imagination can go with them. 


Text Colin Crummy

Game of Thrones
Orange is the New Black
Gay Rights