Despite Progressive Rep, Part of Hollywood Is Stuck in the Dark Ages When It Comes to LGBT Roles

Television is experiencing a golden age of LGBT-friendly programming, but the silver screen is lagging.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jul 25, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Hayley Fox is a regular contributor to TakePart who has covered breaking news and the occasional animal story for public radio station KPCC in Los Angeles.

When seeking refuge in an air-conditioned movie theater to see a summer blockbuster, the options to watch superhero sequels, sci-fi adventures, and action flicks seem endless. Last year alone the major movie studios released 43 such movies, but only four of them contained any LGBT characters, according to a study released by GLAAD this week.

Most LGBT characters appeared in comedies and typically only got a few minutes—or seconds—of screen time. When they were brought on, it was usually to make a joke, often at their expense.

“In terms of mainstream Hollywood films...LGBT people are invisible,” said GLAAD national spokesman Wilson Cruz.

Of the 102 big studio films that came out last year, only 17 included characters identified as gay, lesbian, transgender, or bisexual, according to GLAAD's Studio Responsibility Index.

Five researchers combed through all the 2013 films released by the biggest movie studios, including 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate, Paramount Pictures, Sony Columbia Pictures, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, and Warner Bros. Multiple aspects of the film were considered for LGBT inclusiveness, such as how LGBT characters were used in the film (if at all) and if there was anti-LGBT humor.

It’s not enough for a film to include a gay or lesbian character, said Cruz. This person must be integral to the narrative and not be solely defined by the character's sexuality. One example of a “really tiresome” don’t is in Universal Pictures' Riddick, said Cruz. This sci-fi flick starring Vin Diesel includes a “gruff” female sniper named Dahl whose dialogue makes it apparent that she’s a lesbian, according to GLAAD. In the course of the movie, Dahl is called a “whore” and then a “lesbo,” and, apparently, the combination of that sweet talk and Vin Diesel’s machismo is too magnetic for her to resist.

"The implication is quite clear that the hyper-masculine Riddick was too much for even a professed lesbian to resist, thereby validating one of the most egregious and stereotypical 'straight-guy' fantasies, and treating her character with profound misogyny in the process," according to GLAAD’s report.

Even when there is inclusion of LGBT characters, it's often limited to white gay men. What's worse, transgender roles are nearly nonexistent, except for the occasional inclusion as a prostitute or a rude punch line.

“There should be more women; there should be more people of color; there should be more trans people in films. It can only go up from here,” said Cruz.

Although Paramount and Warner Bros. got failing grades in LGBT representation, and most others received “adequate” marks, this is only the second year GLAAD has conducted the study. As time goes on and more studios are “called out,” Cruz said, there will be motivation for improvement.

This system seems to have worked in the television market. GLAAD can't take credit for the popularity of shows and characters that feature LGBT characters, but it has been conducting a survey on TV’s representation of LGBT characters for the past 10 years. When the organization first started that study there was little good news there either, said Cruz.

Now, after years of work with the television networks, there has been an outburst of profitable LGBT-inclusive shows, ushering in a new golden age of television.

“The most successful shows on TV are the most inclusive shows on TV,” said Cruz. “We’re saying it’s not a risk to be more diverse in your storytelling.

He points to mainstream sitcom Modern Family as a prime example of a successful show that also features realistic, meaningful LGBT characters. Forbes named the show one of TV’s top moneymakers, raking in more than $2 million per half hour in ad revenue alone—and it not only is popular when it plays live but also is one of the most recorded shows on television.

In addition to Cam and Mitchell—the gay couple with the adopted Vietnamese daughter—Modern Family demonstrates its diversity with Colombian star Sofia Vergara. Yes, she’s beautiful and curvy and a fast-talker, but she’s also funny and smart and was named the top-earning actress on television in 2013, making $30 million in one year owing largely to her bilingual endorsement deals.

So although studio executives may say producing LGBT-inclusive material is a financial risk, the success of diverse shows on television says otherwise, according to Cruz. Just look at Orange Is the New Black. This award-winning Netflix sensation features female convicts of every race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, including transgender actor Laverne Cox, who plays a trans inmate.

This is an almost unheard of rarity in Hollywood film and a nearly nonexistent presence in last year’s films, said Cox.

“If you thought LGBT people were invisible—if there’s a step below LGBT people—that’s where trans were,” he said.

If the influential U.S. film industry can start producing more LGBT-inclusive films, it has the capacity to change the way the world looks at gay and transgender people. Multiple studies have shown that in addition to having a personal relationship with someone who is gay, the portrayal of gays and lesbians in television, film, and the news are major influences in the way the public views the LGBT community.