Here’s Why We Won’t See Meaningful LGBT Representation in a Franchise Blockbuster Anytime Soon
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This article on LGBT representation in blockbusters was originally published on May 25, 2018. It has since been updated.
In May 2018, 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.
“Though wide release films 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].”
Despite being nearly omnipresent in mainstream television, comic books, YA books and other corners of pop culture, why is LGBT representation in blockbusters so noticeably absent? You can thank the rise of a global entertainment market and the success of franchises like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the MCU.
Prefab cinematic universes offer established characters, lucrative spinoffs and countless merchandise opportunities. They also 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 (2017) made nearly $400 million of its $1.2 billion global box office in China alone. More than half of Black Panther’s (2018) 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: Covenant (2017), and the Oscar-nominated Call Me By Your Name (2017) was yanked from the Beijing International Film Festival. China’s censorship board made a series of cuts to Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) that completely de-queered the film. The communist country’s censorship of LGBTQ culture is alarming and knows no bounds.
Even queer-coded content can do a movie in. Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast (2017) 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 representation in blockbusters 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.”
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.”
But don’t hold your breath for truly meaningful LGBT representation in blockbusters, moviegoers.
Deadpool 2 was an outlier — an R-rated movie not really marketed to kids. 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 Awakens … so long as it stays just subtext.
Queer moviegoers, though, are finally saying “enough” to these breadcrumbs.
Dumbledore's Wardrobe: When a creator says a character is canonicly queer but there's no evidence in the material itself. The character is then still in the closet.
— Carli Velocci 👽 (@velocciraptor) May 17, 2018
Thinking about the "Lando is actually a pansexual" thing, you'd think professional storytellers would be familiar with the concept "show, don't tell."
— John Cullen (@nellucnhoj) May 18, 2018
“Personally, I’m not fond of celebrating scraps as major or even minor victories,” tweeted Stevie Mat of Negasonic’s queer 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 Star Wars prequel film Solo (2018). “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.”
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.”
Make your characters textually queer, or keep it out your goddamn mouth. This whole "Oh, BTW Dumbledore is gay, Lando Calrissian is pansexual, Frodo Baggins was actually one of the founding members of the House of LaBeija…" Put it in the FUCKING movie or shut up, you coward.
— [kie.ran] (@danblackroyd) May 17, 2018
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 meaningful LGBT representation in blockbusters.
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 footnotes. Guardians 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? That’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?
This article was originally published on May 25, 2018. It has since been updated.