This is a guest article by Frankie Wallace.
We have a problem. In 2015, 7 per cent of millennials identified as bisexual, gay, lesbian, or transgender, yet the on-screen representation percentage is below half a per cent. Additionally, think of how many (or how few) transgender characters you’ve seen, then compare that to the approximately 1.5 million Americans who identify as transgender. Furthermore, LGBTQ characters are more white than anything else–84 per cent versus a mere 16 per cent for other, underrepresented ethnic backgrounds. It goes without saying that on-screen representation of LGBTQ characters is vastly different from real life.
Why is the LGBTQ Community Underrepresented in the Film Industry?
It’s not entirely clear why there aren’t more LGBTQ characters in film. LGBTQ individuals are accepted in real life more than before. Television doesn’t seem to share this problem, at least not as drastically. Several hit TV shows, like True Blood and Orange is the New Black have had LGBTQ lead characters, yet movies continue to lean toward non-LGBTQ characters. LGBTQ characters are represented on reality TV shows, too, with individuals taking prominent roles on shows like Vanderpump Rules.
It’s possible that movie makers are worried about international box office numbers. LGBTQ characters may be disliked or not accepted by stricter cultures, or the films could be heavily censored in places like China and the Middle East. However, this doesn’t always hold true–The Imitation Game, which focuses on the true story of Alan Turing, a gay mathematician, grossed more abroad than it did domestically. The Favourite, which won a number of Academy Awards in 2019, featured LGBTQ characters in leading roles. Unfortunately, the trend isn’t on the upswing yet. The number of LGBTQ characters in major studio films dropped from 2016 to 2017, going from 23 to 14 –the “high” number of 23 is dismal to begin with, and 14 is even more depressing. Moreover, 2017 didn’t see even one transgender character in a major studio film.
The Importance of Positive LGBTQ Film Representation
Even when LGBTQ characters are represented, they’re not often depicted as being in a healthy, committed relationship. Some are also shown to hide their identity or sexuality. If an authentic, real-life relationship is part of the character’s story, it’s sometimes revealed quickly, never becoming part of the main story. For example, in Alien: Covenant, there was a quick reveal of a romantic relationship between two men, but it came as one of them was dying, leaving no room for the relationship to be explored by viewers.
Other times, these scenes are cut out of the movie entirely, like in Thor: Ragnarok–the movie originally had a scene that clarified Valkyrie’s sexual orientation. While her bisexuality was subtly referred to in another part of the movie, subtext isn’t enough. If sexual orientation is part of the character, then it should be put into context, just like other elements of the character are. The more negative attitudes there are toward LGBTQ characters in film, the more those attitudes can bleed into real life. Social stigma is affected by what we see in the entertainment world. If LGBTQ individuals are impacted by that social stigma, they may be less likely to get the testing and treatments they need for an assortment of health risks. If there’s a situation where the individual would have to talk about their sexuality, they may avoid the situation overall. That doesn’t mean that the world can’t make positive decisions regarding the LGBTQ community. For example, the safety of LGBTQ students is being prioritized in colleges across the country regardless of film representation. Overall, though, the film industry hasn’t caught up to the real world yet.
How to Depict LGBTQ Characters Authentically
More movie characters should pass the Vito Russo Test, which means that a character is identifiable as being LGBTQ but without being defined by that identity. The character also has to play a major or important role in the movie’s plot. Some movies get this right, and movie makers would be smart to follow suit.
For example, Battle of the Sexes, which Fox Searchlight released, shows the story of tennis player Billie Jean King. While married to her husband and still closeted, the film portrayed King’s reality of accepting her true self and starting a relationship with a woman. In The Shape of Water, also a Searchlight film, Richard Jenkins plays a gay man, his sexual orientation not overpowering the character but not hiding, either.
The portrayal of two gay characters in Call Me By Your Name is particularly affecting. The chemistry and love between the characters is what guides the story, but the fact that they’re gay isn’t as focused on as the fact that they’re in a relationship–a casual one, but a touching one, too. There are slight reactions to the main character being gay, but his parents and best friend (who is also his girlfriend) are supportive and accepting, not shocked. Ultimately, the fact that the characters are gay isn’t something that’s gawked at in the film.
Showing authentic, real LGBTQ characters in film can have positive effects for all people, LGBTQ or not, in real life. Additionally, better and increased representation may help LGBTQ individuals handle mental health challenges better. This issue is prominent amongst LGBTQ youth and may be due to the unique problems they face due to their sexual and gender identities. While independent films are becoming increasingly better at showcasing LGBTQ characters, it’s time for major movie houses to follow suit.