Toronto Diary
4 min

Why isn’t there more LGBT representation in film?

It’s that time of year again. The time when GLAAD combs through film and television to see how well the LGBT community is being represented in media and works of filmed fiction.

The good news this year is that, once again, LGBT representation in TV is steadily rising. Yay!

The bad news is that, according to the Independent, representation in major motion pictures produced by the Big Six (Disney, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Sony Colombia, Warner Brothers and Universal) isn’t great . . .

GLAAD’s inaugural report found that while television has become increasingly inclusive (it notes a record high percentage of LGBT characters in the 2012-2013 broadcast season) the film industry is lagging badly behind.

It found that comedy is the most diverse genre (nine of the 24 comedies released in 2012 featured a gay or bisexual character) and that films classed as “genre films” (including big budget action, sci-fi and fantasy films), which made up majority of 2012 releases, were the least diverse, with just three out of 34 films featuring an LGBT character.

Only one of 21 dramas (4.7 per cent) and one of four documentaries (25 per cent) were found to be inclusive, while there were no LGBT characters in any animated or family-oriented films from the “Big Six” studios.

So what gives? Why are LGBT characters on television booming while they’re practically non-existent in films? Well, the short answer is that there is no short answer. This is a complex issue that can’t be solved with simplistic answers. So consider these theories as just a few of the many problems facing LGBT characterization . . .

#1: Movie studios don’t like to take chances

QUICK! Off the top of your head, name one major summer blockbuster that came out this year not based on a previous work. (ie sequels, remakes, adaptations). Yeah, pretty much just Pacific Rim, and that’s about it. The thing is, movies are predicated on perceived “safe bets.” The average movie budget has skyrocketed over the past decade, and that means studios are going to toe the line as much as possible.

Hollywood bets that people are going to flock to movies that provide familiarity, so they bank on movies we’ve seen before and try to ensure that they throw as few curveballs as possible. The problem is that prepackaged characters, universes and mythoi don’t offer many entry points for new, queer characters, and since they don’t want to challenge their audience too much, that means few openly LGBT characters will be introduced where they can be. 

#2: TV shows have more room to change; movies less so

As it said in the article above, TV good, movie bad. Why? Think about the limitations of both media: TV is segmented. Episodes can shift from one message to another, swap characters in or out, and course-correct depending on feedback. In short, it’s more adaptable, and weaker elements can be easily forgotten while good bits rise to the top.

With film, you have one shot. One window of opportunity to tell a single story in a 90-minute frame, which must include the plot, the moral, characterizations, location . . . You get the idea. You need to fit as much information as you can into a short period of time. Films are encouraged to be as concise as possible, and that usually means simplifying everything and leaving certain bits on the cutting-room floor. Television has multiple episodes within multiple seasons to build world and character, which means more time to get an audience acquainted with queer characters. Movies get two hours at best, so characters are either reduced down or thrown out entirely.

#3: Films need to cast the widest net possible

Let’s say you get it: you’ve got a studio backing, your movie has a release date, and your baby has been perfected! Except not really. Did you know that Disney’s Tangled was originally named Rapunzel? And that most of the focus was placed on the titular princess? That’s how it was until Disney realized they needed to cast a wider net, so they moved away from their female protagonist to bring in more boys.

Studios don’t want to alienate anyone, so they make their movies as inoffensive and general as possible, even if that means painting all their characters with the same basic palette. Why wouldn’t they diversify their protagonists so that they’re not all straight white males? Because they’re used to being the primary audience, and when they’re not the central marketing focus, they tend to freak out. Which brings us to my next point . . .

#4: Straight white males are still the biggest target market

Fun fact: I was once told by a professional comedian and standup teacher that I had to retool my act because I didn’t appeal to the straight men in the audience. For the record, this was a room made up of equal parts women and men. My bits killed with women and gay guys, and I managed to get a decent amount of straight guys, but apparently I turned off two of those precious SWM and that was a deal-breaker.

The problem isn’t that SWM are treated as an important audience; they’re treated as the ONLY audience. It doesn’t matter if you have a good support base of non-whites, women or queer people; you need the SWM. Because apparently, no one’s ever heard of Bridesmaids, Spike Lee or RuPaul’s Drag Race.

#5: Writers just don’t know how to write LGBT characters

If you’ve never read Tina Fey’s Bossypants, there’s a great example of her having to work around the male members of SNL’s writing staff because they don’t know how tampons and pads work. I’ve also talked to plenty of gay writers who’ve had to deal with straight writers who just didn’t understand LGBT life or how to write sexual minority characters. This inevitably leads to them either writing the same gay character over and over again, or just not writing them at all.

What can you do? Write them yourself. Encourage writers to diversify their characterizations and avoid easy tropes that marginalize minorities. (Feminist Frequency is a must for this.) Support gay characters by going to see films and shows featuring queer characters and encourage others to do so, too. The media won’t change unless audiences are willing to change with them.