GLAAD’s Latest Study Shows LGBTQ People Were Nearly Invisible in Hollywood in 2016
Last year, I wrote the following headline for GLAAD’s annual study of LGBTQ representation in mainstream movies in 2015: “GLAAD Study Finds LGBT Representation In Hollywood Isn’t Getting Any Better.” I was hoping this year’s headline would reflect some improvement, yet almost nothing has changed.
But wasn’t 2016 a milestone year for LGBTQ representation? Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight became the first LGBTQ movie to win a Best Picture Oscar. Last year also gave us The Handmaiden and Other People, among other notable indie additions to the queer canon. But while those films are worthy of recognition, they don’t reflect mainstream cinema. Each year GLAAD looks at the films released by Hollywood’s seven major studios – Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount, Disney, Sony, Lionsgate, and 20th Century Fox. In the organization’s fifth annual Studio Responsibility Index, GLAAD found that of the 125 films released by those studios in 2016, only 23 movies (18.5 percent) included lesbian, gay, bixsexual, or transgender characters. That percentage is a one percent increase from 2015, and if you look even closer at what those numbers reflect, it shows how little has changed. As GLAAD’s press release from this morning claims, their report shows “LGBTQ people are nearly invisible or outdated punchlines in big Hollywood movies.”
Of the 18.5 percent of inclusive movies from last year, the overwhelming majority of those characters were gay men (83 percent) or white (69 percent). For the second consecutive year, the racial diversity LGBTQ characters in film has dropped year over year. Only 20 percent of last year’s depictions of queer or trans characters were people of color – nine were black, four were Asian/Pacific Islander, and one was Latinx.
And trans representation? It’s hasn’t improved one bit. Of the 125 releases analyzed by GLAAD, only one 2016 movie from a major studio featured a character within the trans community. That was Benedict Cumberbatch’s All in Zoolander 2, a character whose non-binary identity was used as a punchline and to mock gender-neutral pronouns. In 2015, the one trans character in a major release (Warner Bros.’ Hot Pursuit) was also used as a punchline.
Each year, GLAAD rates each studio after reviewing their films under the Vito Russo Test, which, like the Bechdel Test, analyzes how LGBTQ characters are represented on screen. The test determines if a character is identifiably LGBTQ, how predominately they’re featured, and their significance to the plot. This year GLAAD changed their four-point rating system to five; it now includes ‘Excellent,’ ‘Good,’ ‘Insufficient,’ ‘Poor,’ and ‘Failing.’ Universal got the highest rating of all seven studios, an ‘Insufficient,’ namely for the pleasant surprise of openly gay characters in Neighbors 2 and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2. While Paramount featured an openly gay Sulu in Star Trek Beyond, one of the biggest achievements of the year praised by GLAAD, the studio (which also released Zoolander 2) received a ‘Poor’ rating along with Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox. Disney, Sony, and Lionsgate all got ‘Failing’ ratings on the Vito Russo Test.
There’s a lot of information to parse out in GLAAD’s latest findings, and for more specifics on each film’s characters, it’s worth digging into the report yourself. The general consensus is clear though: it’s not just about quantity, but most importantly, quality. 2016 may have featured 23 mainstream movies with a total of 70 LGBTQ characters, but the majority of those characters were exploited for the sake of humor, or had little to no substance or dialogue. 14 of those 70 characters were from Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’s “Equal Rights” scene, and multiple other movies featured trans panic jokes (Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates) and anti-gay jokes (Dirty Grandpa).
As GLAAD CEO Sarah Kate Ellis wrote in a letter in the report, including LGBTQ characters as punchlines and in negative portrayals sends “a dangerous message which keeps old prejudices alive both here in the U.S. and around the world.” The more Hollywood represents the LGBTQ community poorly onscreen, the more audiences will carry those notions with them outside of the movie theater. As Ray Bradford, the head of Entertainment Media at GLAAD, told ScreenCrush last year, “There is an absolute connection between the images we see on the screen and either hindering or accelerating acceptance of our LGBT community in its rich diversity.” Ellis notes that Hollywood is still far behind the progressive moves made on TV, from Sense8 to Orange Is the New Black and Steven Universe. “If film wants to remain relevant and retain an audience that has more options for entertainment than ever before,” Ellis wrote, “the industry must catch up in reflecting the full diversity of this country.”
In small ways, 2017 is beginning to make some progress. We technically got an “exclusively gay moment” in Beauty and the Beast and Power Rangers featured a (very loose) reference to the Yellow Ranger’s queer sexuality. Yet ambiguous nods at a character’s possible queerness aren’t enough. As GLAAD’s report suggests, studios shouldn’t just write more LGBTQ characters, but ones who hold a significant role in the plot, who aren’t just dudes, and aren’t just white. The report suggests studios use comedy to not offend marginalized identities with jokes that can perpetuate violence or hatred, but to instead challenge existing norms. (A great example is Neighbors 2, a movie that showed a straight guy and a gay guy can be best friends without it being “weird” or “gross.”)
Surely if a small budget movie about a queer black boy can make it all the way to the Best Picture stage, Hollywood can afford to take some risks and represent LGBTQ people as they deserve to be shown.