The queer media watchdog group GLAAD just released its annual Studio Responsibility Index, a report that measures LGBT representation in film. The index found all seven of Hollywood’s major film studios to be insufficient, failing or poor at representing visibly queer people on the silver screen — although GLAAD says the quality of LGBTQ roles represented onscreen improved by 25%.
GLAAD also has a roadmap to help the studios improve, the ambitious goal to have 50% of all major films present LGBTQ characters by 2024. But how realistic is that goal?
GLAAD’s first major finding: LGBT representation in film was down in 2017
While GLAAD noted an increase in racial diversity among LGBTQ film characters, the percentage of visibly LGBTQ characters dropped nearly 6% over last year, from 18.4% in 2016 to 12.8% in 2017.
In 2016, major studios had 70 visibly LGBTQ characters in their films. In 2017 that number dropped to 28. A majority of the visibly LGBTQ characters were gay men. Not one major 2017 film featured an openly transgender character.
The report examined the seven film studios with the highest theatrical grosses from films released under each studio’s name throughout 2017. Here’s how the top seven studios (didn’t) measure up on a five-point scale from “poor” to “excellent”:
In the measurement above, GLAAD excluded films released by major studios’ smaller “arthouse” imprints, which are “typically distributed and marketed to a much smaller audience than their major studio counterparts.”
GLAAD’s second major finding: The quality of LGBT representation in film improved drastically in 2017
GLAAD then evaluated the overall quality of these films’ LGBTQ representation using something called the Vito Russo Test, a test GLAAD devised in 2013 named after the gay activist and film historian who literally wrote the book on LGBT representation in film, The Celluloid Closet.
The Vito Russo Test, similar to the Bechdel Test, uses the three following criteria to determine the quality of LGBT representation in film:
(1) The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender.
(2) The character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity.
(3) The character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect.
Based on that measurement, the films of 2017 performed significantly better than in previous years. Here’s how it measured up to previous years:
This is actually encouraging, because it means that while the number of LGBTQ characters on-screen decreased, those shown had meatier roles, which is a significant improvement.
Examining GLAAD’s ambitious plan for Hollywood (and whether it’s realistic)
GLAAD wants an annual 20% of all major studio releases to have visibly LGBTQ characters by 2021, and to have 50% of films include LGBTQ characters by 2024. Minor inclusions of queer characters would rank low on the Vito Russo test, but they’d achieve GLAAD’s ultimate goal.
GLAAD has a roadmap of three points to help studios reach its 2021 goal. In its report GLAAD says, “Studios must do better to include more LGBTQ characters, and construct those stories in a way that is directly tied to the film’s plot. Far too often LGBTQ characters and stories are relegated to subtext, and it is left up to the audience to interpret or read into a character as being LGBTQ. Comic book films must reflect the diversity of their source material.”
Those last two points refer to filmmakers who claim their characters as queer without ever showing as much explicitly onscreen (think pansexual Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Star Wars film) and Marvel’s habit of closeting characters on-screen who are (or have been) LGBTQ in the comics, like the studio did in Black Panther.
But if GLAAD really wants studios to increase LGBT representation in film, it will have to deal with this reality: Studios often exclude LGBTQ characters from films for fear of being censored or banned in anti-LGBTQ countries like China and Russia, depriving them of millions of dollars in foreign markets.
Studios will begin including more quality queer characters if they can do so without fear of taking a financial hit abroad, and that’s a hard reality to contend with. Though one wonders if Hollywood could help shift culture abroad if its star-studded blockbusters unapologetically included LGBTQ characters and left Asian audiences hungry to see them, despite the government’s censorious wishes.