Thursday is National Coming Out Day. While this annual recognition of LGBT civil awareness on the anniversary of the 1987 Lesbian and Gay Rights March on Washington marks an important milestone each and every year, it seems particularly important within today’s heated political climate. The tide of support for equal rights for LGBT-identified persons has shifted dramatically since the previous election year, when the inauguration of the first African-American President occurred on the same day that the 2nd most populous state in our country voted to take away the rights of same-sex couples to marry. But subsequent the passing of new hate crimes legislation, the repeal of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, and the first declaration by a sitting US President in support of same-sex marriage, it seems that support for equal rights is no longer the social boogeyman on the national scale that it once was; in fact, at least generationally, the polarization of anti-gay/pro-gay has reversed. Social politics are changing in favor of progress, and at a dramatic rate. It is now politically beneficial to be for equal rights.
2012 is also the year that has seen more LGBT characters on television than ever before. According to a recent study by GLAAD (and neatly summarized by Buzzfeed), 4.4% of all regular characters featured on scripted network television are LGBT-indentified. And with the popularity of shows like Glee, Modern Family, and The New Normal (and popular cable shows like HBO’s True Blood), the presence of LGBT characters resonates further outside what the single-digit number suggests.
But while LGBT persons, representations, and issues have become foregrounded in mass culture through the institutions of politics, television, and music, movies – or, at least, studio movies – are woefully out-of-the-loop. In 2012 of all years, why is Hollywood still hesitant to represent out-LGBT characters onscreen?
Who Is Onscreen?
When one examines the annual list of highest-grossing films, memorable LGBT characters are nearly absent. However, on lists of recent major awards nominees and winners, films with prominent LGBT characters are more present. Films like The Kids Are All Right, Milk, and Brokeback Mountain no doubt became part of the cultural conversation even if they weren’t packing houses once they went wide.
But within these films are two notable trends: 1) straight actors playing gay characters, and 2) already-perceived limitations to the audiences that such films could attract. Both of these trends suggest a fear on behalf of studios and exhibitors (the three films mentioned were all released by subsidiary studios in a platform style) that LGBT-themed films suggest an exclusive appeal to LGBT audiences. But this logic seems deeply misguided in 2012. Of the top 15 highest-grossing films of the year so far, two action/sci-fi and adventure/fantasy films (hardly the genres studios market primarily to women) feature powerful female lead protagonists (The Hunger Games, Brave, Prometheus, and yes, even Snow White and the Huntsman). None of these films – especially Hunger Games and Prometheus – would have been as successful if it weren’t for male ticket-buyers. If that’s the case, why is it perceived that heterosexuals will not watch movies with LGBT characters?
Part of the problem is that films starring LGBT characters are situated as their own genre or category. Brokeback Mountain is not a “gay Western” – its 1950s setting already subverted the Western genre even without taking into account the sexual orientation of its characters – it is a “gay film.” By situating films starring LGBT characters as a category on their own, it becomes difficult to perceive LGBT persons as major characters in other types of films. Our movie screens have enjoyed a few non-male, non-white superheroes, for instance, but I can’t think of a single one that isn’t indisputably straight. Of course, the genres that dominate Hollywood right now are also the most heteronormative (action sequels, superhero franchises, and children’s films), and under these categories is exactly where the glass ceiling of LGBT representation is located. Sure, Dumbledore was pronounced gay, but only after the Harry Potter franchise was more than halfway through its run.
Hollywood is also deeply invested in its own consumerist ideology. I’ve often criticized the conspiracy of Hollywood as a liberal institution, and nowhere does this theory evidence its flaws more than the studio system’s lack of diversity in their front-and-center characters. Hollywood’s consumerist ideology is most evident in its use of formula, and the guy getting the girl is one of the formula’s most sacrosanct components. Nearly every Hollywood film has romantic coupling as a minor if not major plot point.
Thus, bringing LGBT characters into the picture anywhere outside the periphery stands as a fundamental challenge to the cyclical internal logic of Hollywood. But then again, when we see movie stars kiss, is the appeal that they’re each of a different gender, or that they’re movie stars kissing? Sure, it’d be great to see Zachary Quinto kiss Neil Patrick Harris at the end of Garry Marshall’s next movie, and mainstream cinema needs to stop keeping all the great gay and lesbian roles from gay and lesbian actors, but doesn’t the fact that Hollywood has yet to pair up some same-sex movie stars signal a significant oversight in terms of possibilities? It’s time to shake things up.
How Did We Get to This Point?
LGBT characters haven’t been absent from mainstream cinema forever. Though early Hollywood history displayed surprising progressivism, the representation if LGBT characters has mostly fallen into three categories: victims, villains, and comic relief. The gay stereotypes discussed in part of The Celluloid Closet have become common knowledge. Also, insinuating closeted homosexuality is a remnant of the Hays Code, The Master excepted. So what can Hollywood do in this “enlightened” moment where they can no longer demonize, make fun of, marginalize, or render sympathetic-but-never-empathetic LGBT characters? The answer, evidence suggests, is to hardly represent them at all. Hollywood, it seems, has no idea what to do with anything beyond assumed straightness.
There’s certainly an argument to be made that representation isn’t a given positive. Total invisibility might be better than the perpetuation of ugly, harmful, negative stereotypes. And it’s not as if television and politics are, by contrast, a utopian space for exploring non-normative ideas about sexuality that Hollywood is missing out on. In politics, it seems impossible to have a conversation about tolerance for the complexities of adult relationships and desires outside of marriage and the right to participate in the military-industrial complex. And network television hardly provides a radically diverse spectrum of human sexuality, self-identification, or definitions of family: the most celebrated LGBT network characters are white, upper-middle class, monogamous, and heavily invested in procreation. Meanwhile, the “B” and “T” categories of LGBT remain near invisible. The spectrum is simply too small.
But network television also has an immediacy to it that gives it a unique power: viewers can “stumble across” representations of individuals in their own home that they may not encounter in real life, and can potentially have their assumptions challenged as a result. With movies, meanwhile, people are expected to leave their home and pay money. And Hollywood thinks we won’t go out of our way for gay.
Independents clearly think otherwise. Not only has the independent sphere been the space for queer filmmaking pioneers like Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, and John Cameron Mitchell, but some of the most recent abuzz films have been about intimate same-sex relationships. Weekend was one of the best films of last year, and the recently released Keep the Lights On looks like it may make a similar impact. And there are no doubt queer filmmakers who have zero interest in what mainstream cinematic representations of non-normative sexuality would offer. After all, the greatest “praise” awarded to Brokeback Mountain and The Kids Are All Right by some critics and general audiences was that the characters seemed just like straight people. Who in such a context would be seriously invested in the ways that Hollywood might represent the spectrum of sexuality when a viable alternative means of expression is available?
But LGBT persons are an important part of the daily lives of each and every one of us. So why isn’t the same true with our fictional friends onscreen?