LGBTQ+ Pride Month

For Representation To Improve, Hollywood Has To Stop Leaving LGBTQ Characters In The Closet

Talking about it off screen isn't enough.

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.

It's clear that mainstream Hollywood movies have plenty of room for improvement when it comes to LGBTQ representation. A recent GLAAD study found that inclusion of LGBTQ characters in 2017's biggest releases was at its lowest since 2012, and the organization's suggestions for improvement speak to a troubling trend.

GLAAD urged filmmakers not to leave characters' sexual orientations up to subtext, and to stop erasing characters' canonically LGBTQ identities from comic book adaptations. "Our stories deserve to be seen on screen just as much as everyone else's, not hidden away or left to guesswork, but boldly and fully shown," wrote Megan Townsend, director of Entertainment Research & Analysis.

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Several recent blockbusters demonstrate the various ways filmmakers and studios avoid onscreen representation of same-sex romance or attraction — from leaving it out of the final cut to only addressing it off screen.

One example that made headlines last year was Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok, which starred Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, a female warrior who has a relationship with a woman in the original comics. Thompson told Rolling Stone that she encouraged director Taika Waititi to depict Valkyrie as bisexual. A moment was filmed in which a woman is seen emerging from Valkyrie's room, but it was ultimately edited out of the final cut.

According to Rolling Stone, the deleted moment "distracted from the scene's vital exposition." Instead, Thompson says there were elements which were "allowed to exist in the characterization, but maybe not be explicit in the film," including a flashback in which Valkyrie is seen "falling back from one of my sisters who's just been slain." As Thompson explained, "In my mind, that was my lover."

However, this still leaves the character's onscreen identity up for interpretation. As Marykate Jasper wrote for The Mary Sue, "mainstream media is becoming more and more comfortable with queer representation — but only as long as it's implied or off-screen."

Another recent example of a superhero film which left representation on the cutting room floor is Black Panther. Last year, Vanity Fair reported that the film would include a scene in which Ayo (Florence Kasumba), who canonically has a relationship with another woman, flirts with Okoye (Danai Gurira). Marvel quickly denied a romance, and the moment didn't appear in the final cut, but co-writer Joe Robert Cole and actress Florence Kasumba both seemed to confirm that it existed. Kasumba argued it was "too soon" address Ayo's sexuality, as "the focus is somewhere else."

It's an issue that goes as far back as 2007, when Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling told fans that she thought of the wizard Dumbledore as gay — after the final book in the series was released, and with no reference to his sexuality in the text. The topic came up again earlier this year in discussions about the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them sequel, in which Jude Law will play a younger Dumbledore.

According to Rowling, "Dumbledore fell in love with Grindelwald," who is portrayed in the film by Johnny Depp. The Crimes of Grindelwald director David Yates told Entertainment Weekly in January that the film will "not explicitly" address Dumbledore's sexuality, adding, "But I think all the fans are aware of that. He had a very intense relationship with Grindelwald when they were young men. They fell in love with each other's ideas, and ideology and each other."

The comment caused quite a bit of fan backlash, as once again a major movie opted to consign same-sex romance to subtext and behind-the-scenes confirmation. As many fans wondered, why pass up the opportunity to honestly portray a beloved character's LGBTQ identity on screen? Rowling, who wrote the screenplay, responded by muting users who sent her "abuse" about Yates' comments, reminding fans that there are more movies to come in the series.

Another much-discussed example is Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story. One of the film's writers, Jonathan Kasdan, told the Huffington Post that the iconic character, played in the new installment by Donald Glover, is pansexual. 

"I would have loved to have gotten a more explicitly LGBT character into this movie," Kasdan said. "I think it's time, certainly, for that, and I love the fluidity ― sort of the spectrum of sexuality that Donald appeals to and that droids are a part of."

However, many fans and critics don't believe this should count as inclusion, as Lando's sexuality is, by Kasdan's own admission, never made explicit in the film. "It's not representation, it's queerbaiting and playing both sides of the fence," Ira Madison III wrote of Lando's pansexuality for The Daily Beast. "No one will actually admit that they're worried what including a queer character might mean to fans or international sales."

The term "queerbaiting" refers to instances in which a piece of media hints at a same-sex relationship to win over gay fans, without explicitly depicting it. Writer Carli Velocci coined another term, "Dumbledore's Wardrobe," for "when a creator says a character is canonically queer but there's no evidence in the material itself," thereby effectively leaving the character in the closet.

The "close but no cigar" approach to LGBTQ representation isn't only a recent phenomenon. In 1994, Fox failed to show a same-sex kiss on Melrose Place that had been teased before the episode aired. In 2003, Love Actually edited out its only same-sex romance, with director Richard Curtis saying he was "really sorry to lose" it. 

This seems to be a common sentiment from filmmakers when discussing failed representation ― that they're "sorry" or "would have loved" to include more. But when it happens again and again, the excuses and regrets appear weaker and weaker as LGBTQ viewers wait for real representation.

As anyone who has ever witnessed a romantic subplot or gratuitous sex scene in a major blockbuster will know, mainstream media rarely shies away from confirming a character's straightness. When it comes to LGBTQ characters, however, filmmakers continue to hem and haw. To expect credit for representation without any of the risks only adds insult to injury.

Writer Erika Ashley recently told the BBC, "As an LGBT person, if there's a fairly large LGBT storyline in any form of media, it's frustrating to see it cut, watered down or reduced to a very small part of the storyline when that's an endemic part of who the character is." She added that discussing Lando's sexuality off-screen is "progress," but said, "we need to do more than that." 

On the bright side, many fans continue to speak out against their favorite franchises' problematic choices, calling for unambiguous representation and equal treatment for same-sex couples. On the small screen, this outcry has, in some cases, shown results.

When Riverdale cut a duet between a lesbian couple in a recent musical episode, shippers spoke out on social media, and the show ultimately released the deleted footage. In 2016, when a gay kiss was cut from an airing of How to Get Away With Murder in the Philippines, fans spoke out, and the network included the scene in an encore showing.

It also helps if actors are willing to fight for their characters. Tessa Thompson's support of Valkyrie's sexuality is admirable, even if her proposed moment didn't make it into the film. In 2015, Kid Cudi also shared his disappointment that a same-sex kiss he filmed for the indie movie James White was left out of the final cut.

As examples of erasure continue to pile up, filmmakers' claims that these inclusive moments distract from the plot come across as disingenuous. It's time for Hollywood to move past merely talking about representation and, as Twitter user Brian Larsen put it, "do the thing."

A Plus reached out to a film professor for comment on this piece.

Cover image via Marvel Studios

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