LGBT Representation in Modern Cinema

Carl Eden
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Already it’s clear that the 2010s will be seen as an important time for LGBT rights, and media attention is currently firmly fixed on the LGBT world; legalisation of gay marriage here and in the ‘States dominates the news, reports of the atrocities being committed in Russia, debates over treatment of gay athletes at Sochi, and criticism of people and places with homophobic ideals – Orson Scott Card and Arizona, for example. More and more celebrities are coming out too – Tom Daley, Ellen Page – and generally these days, there seems to be far more attention given to the LGBT community, with a real push for equality, acceptance and primarily, normality.

Yet despite this, cinema remains somewhat stuck in the past, the current news push seemingly having little bearing on best movies, and mainstream feature films remain remarkably gay-free. Yes, there are great recent movies with queer characters, dealing with queer issues – Alain Guiraudie’s taunt, semi-Hitchcockian thriller Stranger by the Lake, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or-winning Blue is the Warmest Colour, and Andrew Haigh’s heartbreaking Weekend – but these movies are French, French, and British Indie. Foreign and indie movies are always going to be more daring than those produced in California. When it comes to Hollywood itself, representation gets a little dry, and sadly, it’s really Hollywood that shapes the culture. So why does Hollywood remain so rigidly anti-LGBT, in an age which seems to be embracing it?

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There’s a few reasons. The first lies with money and not homophobia. Mainstream American studios are famously cautious, and the risk that an LGBT movie wouldn’t make as much money as a ‘straight one’ is something which will flash through every studio exec’s mind when faced with a new gay script. Debates over marriage prove not everyone is happy with equality just yet, and straight people make for a bigger demographic; why include queer elements in a movie if that will potentially isolate anyone in that group? Keep elements as broad as possible to hit the biggest audience.

The typical solution is to separate LGBT fiction into a ‘genre’ – which can then cluster on the same shelf in a small section of a movie store or website – and this is seen as a means of drawing gays to gay fiction and selling it them as a separate product. Execs are simply unwilling to mix these demographics in case it fudges business, and occasionally, when an LGBT movie crosses over – your Brokeback Mountains – it’s seen as a surprising fluke and not a trend to be continued, though arguably, and utterly unrealistically, this would all change if an LGBT movie made as much money as Twilight or The Hunger Games. This is cynical, but then Hollywood is cynical, and money matters.

The second issue which keeps Hollywood movies free of queer representation relates to narrative and agenda. Movies are constructs and every element of them is created by the writer or director, which means everything in the movies was put there for a reason, at least in terms of narrative. So essentially, if you’re including a gay character in your script, there has to be a reason why on a dramatic or thematic level. Why is this character gay? What does this add to the story, to the characters, to the themes?

When you think of the biggest ‘LGBT’ movies, those with the most prominent gay characters – Philadelphia, Rent, Dallas Buyers Club, Milk, and even Brokeback Mountain – you’ll find all these movies are about ‘gay issues,’ such as coming out, oppression, or HIV. That’s because those are the acceptable queer narratives in which to include queer characters. When it comes to the girls, you’ll find more lesbians in mainstream movies (think Black Swan), but cynically yet again, it’s because girls kissing girls is easier to sell to the public than boys kissing boys; it’s exploitative, and execs see this as an asset when faced with a male-dominated audience.

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The problem is, that whilst the writer may have the best intentions in including a gay character, it’s difficult to justify the inclusion without coming across as having an agenda. If the character isn’t there for narrative reasons then the writer has consciously made that character gay, and some execs and audiences will see this as problematic. Russell T Davies ran into this issue on Doctor Who – fans of his run will notice the casual amount of queer characters dropped into the show. Obviously, this is because Davies wants to raise awareness and build representation of the queer community to an audience (younger viewers and sci-fi fans) who don’t often see that sort of thing in their shows. Intentions here are great, but do a quick Google search on this and no doubt you’ll find people criticising Davies for forcing his ideals into the show, or for having an agenda.

It’s very rare to see a gay character in a narrative not about sexuality, though there have been some great recent movies which did this well, such as Paranorman and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Paranorman plays against gay stereotypes by revealing at the end that the dump jock character Mitch is actually gay; it’s a punchline, but not at Mitch’s expense, and the casual nature of this reveal – that being gay is no issue – is refreshing. Scott Pilgrim’s Wallace Wells is one of the gang, hilarious, and happens to be gay without it ever being a thing. Gays on Game of Thrones (and Buffy, back in the day) are also given the same non-treatment; there’s no focus on sexuality or issues, and it’s these kinds of movies and programs which are progressive.

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However, there can still be issues with this casual approach. If you have got queer characters in your movie there’s the question of how to treat them. Take HBO’s Looking, a recent TV show which aims to show the ordinary lives of your average gay man. The pitch is to portray gay men as they are, and not the way they’re portrayed on say, Will and Grace – basically, camp, loud, and defined by being queer. These are guys who just happen to be gay without it being part of their personality; homosexuality is separate from identity, and some audiences find this refreshing. Yet the show has drawn criticism on this same front; with some audiences finding it offensive that more masculine and less overt gays are more ‘normal’ or realistic than those more flamboyant; a notion which plays into negative superiority and segregation within the gay community itself. Looking is a good example of the difficulties LGBT stories, if actually released, can face; it’s hard to represent your whole community at once.

There’s too much stacked against the mainstream media: issues with marketing, narrative, how to include queer characters in stories not about queer issues, and even then, how to portray them if you do. Progress is being made, slowly, but it’s unlikely that LGBT representation in modern cinema will improve anytime soon, despite the current state of world affairs. Let us know what you think in the comments. And on a similar note, be sure to check out LGBT Representation in the Modern Horror Film.

About Carl Eden

An English Lit graduate with a love of movies and words, currently living and working in Manchester. I'm an aspiring 20-something film journalist far too involved in pop culture. Big on TV, books, coffee-abuse, The Smiths, Buffy, David Lynch and I consume a lot of Haribo. Follow @cedenuk or check out my blog