Here’s Why We Won’t See Meaningful LGBT Representation in a Franchise Blockbuster Anytime Soon

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This week GLAAD released its Studio Responsibility Index, a report grading the seven major Hollywood studios on LGBT representation. The results were not good. In fact, they were the lowest scores since 2012, with numerous studios receiving failing grades.

Even in an age of Love, Simon and Call Me By Your Name, the news isn’t surprising.

“Though wide release films this year like Love, Simon, Annihilation, Blockers, and Negasonic and Yukio’s relationship in Deadpool 2 have raised the bar … studios must still do more to ensure that LGBTQ storylines and characters are included in fair and accurate ways,” says Megan Townsend, GLAAD’s Director of Entertainment Research and Analysis. “We hope that these films are the start of an upward trend of sustained progress, and not just a blip in the radar of next year’s [report].”

LGBT Representation in blockbusters
Dumbledore from ‘Harry Potter’

Why is LGBT representation, nearly omnipresent in mainstream television, comic books, YA books and other corners of pop culture, so noticeably absent from popcorn flicks? You can thank the success of franchises like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and X-Men and the rise of a global entertainment market.

Prefab cinematic universes offer established characters, lucrative spinoffs and countless merchandise opportunities. They also rely more on sizzle and effects than plot and dialogue and transfer remarkably well to international markets. And that’s key.

Today a blockbuster’s success has more to do with how it plays in PyeongChang than in Peoria. The Fate of the Furious made nearly $400 million of its $1.2 billion global box office in China alone. More than half of Black Panther’s total take came from foreign markets.

While that’s great for profits, it means storylines and characters have to pass muster in Indonesia, Russia, China and other countries with records of silencing LGBT voices. It’s not ignorance or bigotry keeping Fox from giving us a gay Iceman. It’s fear.

Take China, one of the fastest-growing movie markets in the world. Depictions of homosexuality are banned from television and streaming services and heavily censored in movies: A brief same-sex kiss was cut from Alien: Covenantand the Oscar-nominated Call Me by Your Name was yanked from the Beijing International Film Festival earlier this spring.

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LeFou from ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Even queer-coded content can do a movie in: The live-action Beauty and the Beast was banned in Kuwait and Malaysia (and a drive-in theater in Alabama) for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene of LeFou dancing with another man. There had been enough chatter about the scene that censors pulled the plug.

Sometimes it’s not just a question of failing to incorporate LGBT characters but actively erasing characters’ queerness: Tessa Thompson played Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok as queer, she said, because the character is bisexual in the original Marvel comics. But a scene of a woman exiting Valkyrie’s bedroom was cut by director Taika Waititi so it wouldn’t “distract from the scene’s vital exposition.”

Right.

That remark came two years after Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige claimed “there’s no reason” there couldn’t be an openly LGBT character in the MCU “in the next decade or sooner.”

queer characters in deadpool yukio negasonic teenage warhead LGBT Representation in blockbusters
Yukio and Negasonic Teenage Warhead from ‘Deadpool 2’

But don’t hold your breath, moviegoers.

Deadpool 2 was an outlier — an R-rated movie not really marketed to kids. (And there’s still every chance foreign censors will re-dub Negasonic Teenage Warhead’s dialogue or cut her from the film entirely.) Billion-dollar box offices and multi-movie franchises are the norm now, and Disney and Warner Bros. are terrified of losing a single dollar to a Focus on the Family boycott or a Saudi Arabian censor.

But as businesses, the studios do want to support the LGBT community (and continue to enjoy our patronage). So we get Hollywood’s version of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” wherein actors and directors are free to discuss queer subtext in movies like Wonder Woman and Star Wars: The Force Awakensso long as it stays just subtext.

Queer moviegoers, though, are finally saying “enough” to these breadcrumbs.

“Personally, I’m not fond of celebrating scraps as major or even minor victories,” tweeted Stevie Mat of Negasonic’s relationship in Deadpool 2. “We were thrown a bone. It’s a nice nod, but I’m weary of setting the bar this low.”

Both Donald Glover and screenwriter Jonathan Kasdan gleeflully described Lando Calrissian as “pansexual” in the upcoming Solo. “I feel like if you’re in space it’s kind of like, the door is open! It’s like, no, only guys or girls. No, it’s anything,” Glover told EW. “This thing is literally a blob. Are you a man or a woman? Like, who cares? Have a good time out here.”

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Lando Calrissian in ‘Solo’

Glover deftly embraces a pan identity while dismissing it with an “anything that moves” response. And his orientation is only vaguely hinted at on-screen when Lando tells Han to “buckle up, baby.”

Spare us. Gone are the days where queer moviegoers should have to read between the lines (or read a chapter in The Celluloid Closet). If we can have well-written multidimensional gay characters on Star Trek Discovery and Black Lightning, we should be able to have one in a big-screen adaptation.

We need to stop fawning over and shipping every innuendo and examine representation the same way we would for race or gender. So long as we sheepishly accept hints and nods, that’s what we’ll get: John Boyega and Oscar Isaac joking that they ship Poe and Finn, too. A Dumbledore who came out posthumously in the footnotesGuardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn claiming “There are probably gay characters in the Marvel Universe, you know, we just don’t know who they are yet.”

At this point, I’d rather have no representation at all than have to read a Reddit AMA about how Gamora once had a girlfriend in college. “I mean, I would have loved to have gotten a more explicitly LGBT character into [Solo],” Kasdan whined to Huff Post. “I think it’s time, certainly, for that, and I love the fluidity — sort of the spectrum of sexuality that Donald appeals to and that droids are a part of.”

If we want LGBT characters in the Star Wars universe we have to settle for robots? It’s insulting. And hopefully the younger generation, raised with openly LGBT people in every other aspect of their lives, won’t abide it anymore.

Do you think we’ll ever see meaningful LGBT representation in blockbusters? Let us know in the comments.