In Defense of Marginal Gay Representation in Movies

Hollywood is including more gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters in movies than ever before, but is there a catch?

Lately, heterosexual media has picked up on the fact that while there are more LGBT characters overall in film, for major tentpoles and anticipated blockbusters Hollywood has taken a less than forward-leaning approach. Director Paul Feig had to literally smile and nod wordlessly in response to a question as to whether “Ghostbusters” character Jillian Holtzmann was lesbian because of a studio prohibition on addressing the issue directly.

Before the release of “Beauty and the Beast,” press reported extensively that Gaston’s short, fat sidekick LeFou would be gay, but his gayness was in not actually manifest in the movie. And most recently, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” screenwriter Jonathan Kasdan asserted that Lando Calrissian is pansexual, although this is not evident in the movie, just as Dumbledore, who author J.K. Rowling reported was gay after all the Harry Potter books were published and movies released, will not be portrayed as obviously gay in the upcoming prequel “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.” In short, Hollywood is in some cases using a “gay, but only offscreen” approach to appeasing calls for diversity.

According to Tricia Ennis of Syfy Wire, “the sexuality of these characters is being used for marketing and not much else…throwaway moments that only served to affirm the headlines. They made no statements, offered no commentary and had no relevance to the rest of the story or the arcs of the characters themselves.” Ennis concludes, “Characters who happen to be gay have become a new brand of tokenism…they do not exist because [their] creators think representation is important or meaningful.”

“Characters who happen to be gay have become a new brand of tokenism…they do not exist because [their] creators think representation is important or meaningful.”

This sentiment is echoed by Scott Mendelson who writes in Forbes, “This whole ‘Gee, I wish we could have more LGBT characters and maybe next time!’ thing isn’t helping and it’s making you look foolish. Either make Dumbledore gay or don’t, but don’t out him after the fact for extra credit…this should be simple. If you don’t show a character as being gay onscreen, be it through dialogue, action or explicit interaction, you can’t them claim after the fact that the character was a member of the LGBTQIA community. If you want credit for pushing the envelope, you have to push the envelope. The deleted scenes reel isn’t good enough, nor is furthering the stereotype that a man can’t be kind to another man without sexual connotations.”

Megan Farokhmanesh of The Verge agrees, saying that “this act of retroactively making characters queer off-screen—which we’ll call the Rowling Rule—panders to audiences without actually offering real change. It’s a tiresome pattern in which fans are teased (the popular term here is “queerbaiting”) rather than rewarded with concrete representation…Real representation means crafting considered, nuanced characters whose sexuality is treated as respectfully on-screen as it is off. If creators want to do right by LGBT fans, they can start by picking them up off of the cutting-room floor.” ( “Thor: Ragnarok” deleted a scene confirming Valkyrie’s bisexuality and “Black Panther” didn’t use a scene from a pre-release sizzle reel that had Danai Gurira and Florence Kasumba apparently flirting with each other.)

While we shouldn’t beg for crumbs, we should recognize the progress made.

Their points are absolutely valid and should be used to force Hollywood to look introspectively at its own approach to representation. However, there is a counter-argument to be made, which is as follows: is it better to have no representation on screen and no mention of non-heterosexuality off-screen, or to have a “blink and you miss it scene” like Trini the Yellow Ranger’s admission of non-heterosexuality in the Power Rangers movie, or a discussion off-screen of Vice Admiral Amily Holdo’s canonical pansexuality in the “Star Wars” literature en route to more widespread representation?

It’s not that the LGBT community should be happy for crumbs (by no means!), but rather a recognition that we’ve come a long way in the last few years alone and we are likely to see great progress in the next few years. Instead of a total cop-out, can we see these things as first steps to more widespread representation?

Instead of a total cop-out, can we see these things as first steps to more widespread representation?

“Love, Simon,” for example, was the first film by a major Hollywood studio to feature a gay teenage romance. “Every Day,” also a teen movie, had a transgender character and a same-sex kiss as part of a larger point that love transcends gender. In “Blockers,” one of the main characters is a teenager coming to terms with her sexual orientation. And now in “Deadpool 2,” Teenage Negasonic Warhead gets a girlfriend. All of these movies came out in 2018. So while it’s fair to point out the injustice of the straight-washing of Valkyrie, it’s also important to point out places in which progress has been made. Exhibit A: “Atomic Blonde” (2017), which features a bisexual lead action hero (played by Charlize Theron, no less) who has a sex scene with her main love interest: another woman.

Would we have seen this any year before and would it have raked in $95.8 million worldwide, making it #75 in the top 100 performing movies of the year? It’s not that we should condone Hollywood’s cowardice in retrospectively calling Lando Calrissian pansexual, but perhaps this is Hollywood’s toe in the water year(s) for slowly starting to introduce sexual diversity into its characters. Elsa can’t have a girlfriend yet, but LeFou is a start. Maybe in the next Disney movie, there’s an openly gay minor character, and eventually, Elsa does get a girlfriend.

Studios currently view themselves as limited by the impact of LGBT representation on their box office. According to Meldelson, for major films like “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” studios are planning on overseas sales to account for approximately two-thirds of the film’s total profits. Adding LGBT content would severely erode these profits because countries like China and Russia would likely ban the movie. Films like “Love, Simon,” “Blockers,” and even “Deadpool 2” can afford to have LGBT content because they’re assuming that most of the box office will come domestically.

So what does it mean? Studios have a few options: 1) publicize LeFou’s gayness without showing it so that they can nod to the importance of representation without having to take a hit financially, 2) add in short LGBT scenes that can be edited out in the worldwide release version, or 3) bite the bullet and take the financial hit by going full rainbow. Right now, Hollywood seems to be following track #1, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Hollywood is cynically tokenizing homosexuality to lure in gay viewers without actually believing in representation.

Hollywood, which is peopled by an extremely diverse population, is changing, pressured by audiences clamoring for more representation and diversity. If Mendelson is right, we should expect to see more LGBT content in movies that believe the bulk of their profit will come from domestic viewership. As to whether we’ll see a lesbian Elsa on screen anytime soon, it’s unlikely, but if Disney were to announce Elsa is lesbian without showing it on screen, isn’t that improvement from denying any potential at all for Elsa to be lesbian? It’s not the ideal, and it’s not brave, but it’s a start.