Rainbow flag, © Martin Strachoň; Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA

Visibility matters

Or: Why Hollywood needs to stop ignoring us LGBT+ types and give us more screen time


This summer, GLAAD released their first annual Studio Responsibility Index, which “maps the quantity, quality and diversity of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in films released by six major motion picture studios”.

To anyone in the LGBT+ community, the results won’t be much of a surprise:

Out of the 101 film releases by the major studios in the 2012 calendar year, only 14 films contained characters identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual. There were no films containing transgender characters.

On growing up gay

Movie poster for The Celluloid Closet (1995)

Before we look at this in more detail, let’s go back a little way. In 1981, Vito Russo, an activist in New York who subsequently co-founded GLAAD, published a book called The Celluloid Closet, from which a documentary film was made 15 years later. Russo examined the portrayal of LGBT+ people in film — from sissies to the Hays Code, from the coded gay characters and cruel stereotypes to the changes made in the early 1990s as tolerance became more common in Western society.

The 1980s were not a great time for the LGBT+ community; while social acceptance of alternative lifestyles had been improving since the late 1960s, alternative sexualities were still frowned upon — the American Psychiatric Association only stopped considering us mentally ill in 1973 — and the arrival of Aids onto the scene did nothing to help destigmatise a vulnerable community who were routinely discrim­i­nated against. In 1986, the US Supreme Court upheld Georgia’s sodomy law, dismissing the notion of constitutional protection for homosexuality as “at best, facetious”, a position not reversed until nearly 20 years later.

Hollywood has never been at the vanguard of positive depictions of sexual minorities, however. While I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, the main depiction of homosexuality I remember on-screen was this:

The Blue Oyster bar from Police Academy (1984). All gays are from Finland and exist for the lols.

Even in mainstream, teen-oriented films, such as Teen Wolf (1985), Fame (1980) and Heathers (1988), the words “fag” and “queer” are thrown around frequently — in a way that racial slurs would never be used. As Barry Sandler points out in The Celluloid Closet, the only times the word “nigger” is used in film are either between two black men, to show camaraderie, or by a stereotypical Southern sheriff, as a means of pointing to his bigotry. Whilst things still suck for people of colour — not least that there’s truth behind the trope that “the black dude dies first”, for example — we have at least started to see protagonists who just happen not to be white.

It wasn’t until after I came out that I remember seeing anything that could be described as a positive role model on screen. And even then, they weren’t exactly encouraging tales — My Own Private Idaho (1991), where the gay character is abandoned by his love; Torch Song Trilogy (1988), where the one true love of the protagonist (a drag queen) is killed by queerbashing; Philadelphia (1993), where the protagonist dies of Aids. These are all amazing, wonderful films — classics of cinema, let alone of specifically queer cinema — but they’re not exactly an inspiration to a teenager who’s only recently accepted that his desire is not intrinsically Wrong™.

The nearest I got to those positive depictions of homosexuality were The Wedding Banquet (1993), featuring a gay man’s green-card marriage as the major plot setting; Mrs Doubtfire (1993), where the gay char­acters are fleeting and specialise in wardrobe and make-up; and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), two drag queens and a transwoman touring Australia with their drag show, suffering homophobic violence en route. It wasn’t until Beautiful Thing (1996) and the TV series Queer as Folk (1999) that I remember seeing an unambiguously positive depiction of homosexuality in a primary character — and characters to which I could even begin to relate to.

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain (2005)

The reason why all these films became cult phenomena is because we had no other role models at all. But these were all niche films; most non-LGBT audiences won’t even be aware of their existence. Mainstream films that spring to mind are Billy Elliot (2000), with his best friend being gay, and Brokeback Mountain (2005) — finally some protagonists, but maybe not the most well-rounded or confident in their sexuality.

And, even so,I was fortunate, young gay people a generation my senior had to grow up with films showing only sissy gay men and neurotic lesbians, who generally died in the last reel. The Boys in the Band (1970) and Cabaret (1972) were some of the first films that didn’t show us dying in shame, an object for the audience’s pity.

So why do role models matter anyway?

Increased visibility serves two purposes — both telling LGBT+ kids they’re neither alone nor abnormal and helping make sexuality be less of a target for bullying.

Expectations

Who could be a lovelier, more-hetero­norm­ative couple than Ginnifer Goodwin and Josh Dallas as Snow White and Prince Charming in Once Upon a Time (2011‒ ) ?

The default expectation we have of people, as a society, is of hetero­sexuality. Almost every character in every TV show and film is straight; children grow up knowing what is expected of them as heterosexuals. The princess meets her prince. But, even as an intelligent, educated young man, it took me a long time to accept that liking guys was ok and that I wasn’t “the only one”. Having depictions of who we are and who we might become is vital to our social and emotional development — both as children and as adults. Being able to identify with the characters we see, hear and read about in fiction is also important.

As Stonewall put it, “it’s much harder to be what you can’t see”. As Harvey Fierstein explained when interviewed for The Celluloid Closet:

There are lots of needs for art, and the greatest one is the mirror of our own lives and our own existence. And that hunger I felt as a kid looking for gay images was to not be alone.
Ringil from Richard Morgan’s A Land Fit For Heroes trilogy and Eon from Alison Goodman’s Eon trilogy are rare examples of LGBT+ protagonists — both of them arse-kicking fantasy leads.

With very few — and often clichéd — exceptions, the media do not tell our stories. As my friend Milena Popova put it, when writing about the portrayal of women in film, stories do two things — they tell us how the world is and they tell us how the world should be. To be fair to Hollywood, the number of LGBT+ protagonists in TV or literature is universally poor, with some very few and notable exceptions. But gay young people need to be able to picture themselves in society — as heroes and heroines would be great, but even just as individuals rather than simply as background colour.

Bullying

According to Stonewall’s 2012 School Report, over half of all LGBT schoolchildren in the UK have direct experience of homophobic bullying. Of those, a third change their future educational plans because of it and 60% say it impacts directly on their school work. Almost half have attempted or considered suicide because of bullying and the same number say that they self-harm due to bullying.

Reporting of and intervention in LGBT-related bullying in American schools, 2011

The problem is significantly worse in the USA. From the GLSEN 2011 National School Climate Survey, almost all LGBT schoolkids had experienced verbal abuse in the previous year, with over a third having been physically harassed. Fully 60% of those students did not report it to staff, mainly believing that no action would result or that doing so would aggravate the problem. Over half have experienced cyberbullying and almost half of LGB youths have attempted suicide, compared with only 8% of straight kids.

Five-year trends of LGBT depiction in US TV, up to the 2013–14 season, by minority group

The situation is a little better on television. Since 2005, GLAAD have published a yearly report called Where we are on TV. Their most recent report, published in October 2013, estimates that LGBT characters represent 3.3% of all scripted series regulars on the five main US broadcast TV networks. Surveys suggest we make up around 5–10% of the population; while the numbers on television may still seem low, they are at least approaching being represen­tative of society — even if the report highlights a fall from the previous year’s report (which counted 4.4% of characters) and is skewed towards gay men and very much away from transgendered characters, as can be seen from the graphs here.

Gay men and lesbians at least have those few role models; bisexual and transgendered people suffer from near-complete invisibility — from the mainstream media and the gay community both, and portrayals of bisexuality are often glossed over or treated as unusual behaviour in an otherwise straight (or gay) character. The 2010 Stonewall report Unseen on Screen found that, out of over 120 hours of British television popular with young people, over 16 weeks, precisely 5 minutes and 9 seconds involved the portrayal of bisexuals, of which two minutes were the discussion of media reports into the sexuality of a reality show contestant. A 2010 BBC report, Portrayal of LGB people on the BBC, determined that:

Bisexual people particularly wanted helpful portrayal of bisexual people that goes beyond simply representing bisexual behaviour, in ways that address negative perceptions of their bisexual identity.

Stereotypes

There are many stereotypes of bisexuals — pervasive throughout the gay community as well as the heterosexual mainstream. While the media are getting better at not presenting gay men as the sissies from the 1930s/40s and lesbians are decreasingly seen as butch or neurotic, characters having sex with both males and females are often portrayed as changing between hetero- and homo-sexuality, rather than realising their bisexuality. When we see — in fiction or in the news — married men have an affair with another man, for example, they are often described as being outed as gay; think to Brokeback Mountain, where both characters are married to women, or Priscilla, where Hugo Weaving’s character is father to a young boy, as well as a drag queen.

Chasing Amy (1997), a film effectively about bisexuality, yet which manages to avoid using the word.

The Kids are All Right (2010) centres around a lesbian couple; when one has an affair with a man, she needs to deny ‘turning straight’ and the question of her identity is never addressed, leaving the impli­ca­tion of the ‘cheating bisexual’ stereotype. Similarly, in Chasing Amy (1997), when the protagonist enters a relationship with a man, her lesbian friends ostracise her, implying that Alyssa can either be straight or gay, but cannot inhabit both worlds simultaneously. Even positively-portrayed characters are often shown as promiscuous and amoral, such as Capt Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood. Still, erasure may well be better than psychopathy, such as Sharon Stone’s character in Basic Instinct (1992), which led Roger Ebert to comment:

There is a point to be made about Hollywood’s unremitting insistence on typecasting homosexuals — particularly lesbians — as twisted and evil.
Buffalo Bill, a nicely well-rounded trans character from The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

As is evidenced even just from some of the wording I’ve used here myself, the idea of binary gender is pretty engrained in our culture, even among some LGB people. Transphobia is prevalent and often still considered acceptable, even where homophobia might not be. While films such as The Crying Game (1992) show a transgendered char­acter in what is at least broadly a non-negative light, more-main­stream productions like The Silence of the Lambs (1991) continued a tradition of showing LGBT+ characters as psychopaths. Priscilla and Transamerica (2005) are rather more positive, at least, with fucked up characters finding redemption and happiness.

Exporting tolerance

Of course, it’s not all just about Middle England and Smalltown, USA. As GLAAD’s open letter explains:

Hollywood films are one of our most prolific cultural exports, and they can inspire others around the world. In countries where LGBT people face danger from oppressive laws and public persecution, your films can have a great impact simply by depicting LGBT characters as people worthy of dignity and respect.
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty broadcast regions in March 2009

Since abandoning isolationism in the first half of the 20th century, the United States have long considered their cultural exports as a part of their foreign policy — particularly during the Cold War, an outright global battle of ideo­logies. This has been both overt — such as with Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty broadcasting to Communist Europe and unfree states across Asia — and less obviously so, such as with the international release of Hollywood films embody­ing liberal American values, such as freedom of expression, women’s rights, protection of children and opposition to tyranny.

It helps that “American values of heroism, individualism and romantic self-fulfilment are well-suited for the large screen”, to quote Prof Tyler Cowen of George Mason University, who further points out that:

American cinema … has been a synthetic, polyglot product from the beginning. Hollywood was developed largely by foreigners — Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe — and was geared towards entertaining American urban audiences, which were drawn from around the world.
“The Battle of the Anthems” scene from Casablanca (1942); émigré-American Rick does not sympathise with the Nazis.

All this means that Hollywood’s output is more easily consumed by an international audience than vice versa. And America has long been aware of the propaganda value of its film output, with World War II era films like Casablanca (1942) promoting the idea of a benevolent, neutral America as a friend of freedom or The Great Dictator (1940) ridiculing the European dictators. More recently, films like Pearl Harbor (2001) and The Pianist (2002) emphasised the aggression of the Axis forces in that war, Argo (2012) lionised the CIA’s exploits during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis and many perceived that Zero Dark Thirty (2012) sought to justify the CIA’s use of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

But it’s not only America’s military aims and exploits that can be dramatised in this fashion — Hollywood has been criticised in the past for dissemi­nating liberal, American views on sex, violence and alcohol to subvert more-traditional conservatism around the globe. By the turn of the millennium, the Indian film industry in Bombay had started more-openly addressing themes involving sex, romance and female sexuality. Quoting Reuters in 2004:

Daring young actors and actresses have thrown caution, and their clothes, to the wind to play amorous characters such as prostitutes, adulterers, play­boys and husband swappers that Bollywood rarely touched in the past.

But, while the reception of such liberal ideas is not universally supported, this has played an important part in increasing opportu­nities for women in emerging societies. Hollywood movies are already used (deliberately or otherwise) as a vehicle for the transmission of tolerant, liberal values. And the bottom line, as Leah Reich wrote just the other day, is that tokenism works — it’s partly a numbers game and it’s partly a culture game; the culture is still one of the dominant category.

So… where do we go from here?

Fixing this problem isn’t exactly difficult: Hollywood simply needs to include LGBT+ characters as more than just wallpaper. The screen­writers in the industry don’t even need to look far for help — while they too have room for improvement, their colleagues writing for TV are already doing a better job that those writing for the big screen. And big-screen writers are already accomplished at writing nuanced, realistic characters; they just need to make some of those characters not be heterosexual.

We don’t want those characters to be front and centre all the time —though a few protagonists might be nice, of course. Just real characters that we can see ourselves in; characters who can provide young LGBT people with an idea of who they can become.

Just reassurance that our feelings are normal and that we’re not alone.


Image credits

Rainbow flag image is by Martin Strachoň, licensed under a CC BY-SA licence and taken from the Wikimedia Commons. The RFE/RL broadcast regions map is my own work, which I am hereby releasing into the public domain; it is a derivative work of two images from the Wikimedia Commons: RFE Broadcast Regions.jpg and BlankMap-World-large.png, both themselves public domain images.

The copyrights of film and TV images are owned by the appropriate studios, book cover images are copyrighted by the publishers and the copyright for graphs from GLSEN and GLAAD belongs to those organi­sations. These images are used without permission, ostensibly for the purpose of criticism and review under section 30(1) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the author’s belief that this constitutes fair use by way of criticism and comment in the meanings of 17 USC §107.