We’re Here, We’re Queer

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Last month, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite made history when it received 10 Academy Award nominations for the portrayal of Queen Anne’s sordid lesbian affairs with the Ladies of the 19th Century. Including Best Picture, Best Actress, and two nods for Best Supporting Actress, this was the most Oscar accreditation received for any queer female film ever – tying with Cabaret (1973) for most nominations for a LGBTQ+ film. Though in the past few years alone, it is no challenge to think of other LGBTQ+ pieces that have received similar critical acclaim in Hollywood – notably Call Me By Your Name (2017), Moonlight (2016), and Carol (2015) – the figures in GLAAD’s 2018 report show a disheartening decline in representation hitting the big screen in recent years. Down from 18.4% in the year previous, queer characters littered only 12.8% of the 109 movies released by major studios last year.

When looking at the demographics of these characters the figures become direr, with no look-in for a single queer Asian or transgender character recorded in any of these films. In the few LGBTQ+ stories that the industry so rarely exhibits, the customary white, able-bodied, middle-class individual is not the only voice that should be heard or considered necessary to appeal to the wider, straight audience. With this, and GLAAD’s proposed outline to see 50% of movies include LGBTQ+ roles by 2024 in mind, how can Hollywood embrace the queer community as more than just an inclusion quota to reach – and do so with diversity, substance, and nuanced characters?

Why is representation so important?

Although representation within media seems like a superficial aspect of the queer experience, every LGBTQ+ person I know attributes at least one notable gay character/show/person to their being comfortable within their sexual orientation. My housemate claims his nightly, tear-filled watching of Justin’s coming out episode in Ugly Betty inspired his own awakening – the other 90% of my queer female friends attributed theirs solely to the very relatable reality of fancying Natasha Lyonne in But I’m a Cheerleader. From my personal experience, it was the introduction to lesbian storylines in movies and books by other members of the community that allowed me to put a finger on the identity I had struggled with for years.

Without the ability to open any page or turn on any screen to see a realistic portrayal of my feelings, something straight people are privileged enough to see in droves, I never would have realised how important and formative that representation was to my sense of self. The reality that many minorities within the LGBTQ+ community remain unrepresented does a disservice to the young questioning people who need this guidance more than ever.

What are the problems with how LGBTQ+ stories are currently being portrayed?

Even as a show that revolutionised the conversation and placed queer issues at the forefront of progressive media, The L Word was the epitome of the elite, white lesbian experience. Though it is important to remember the cultural context, the show was released in the early 00’s, it was the lack of other LGBTQ+ outlets that upheld the exclusivity and downright tone deafness that rang through the show’s trans and bisexual characterisations. Between the lack of awareness of the cis-het dominated production industry, and the effect that prior censorship (such as the Hayes Code) had on the depiction of homosexuality on screen, these ham-fisted attempts of representation have led to harmful stereotypes becoming commonplace in the few queer interpretations there are.

Though a majority of these tropes are little more than lazy and annoying, e.g. All Gays love Theatre or Lesbian Death Syndrome (gay characters being killed off or treated as disposable), it’s the branding of LGBTQ+ characters as predatory, violent, and paedophilic that poses the most threat to the community. It is the negative connotations developed from this harmful and uninformed writing that allows for both societal and internalised homophobia to thrive. Though these tropes are certainly less existent in more contempory cinema, this is not to say that any queer film in recent years is not guilty to conforming to the traditional interpretations of LGBTQ+ stories. Bohemian Rhapsody, for example, also tipped for multiple wins at this month’s Academy Awards, and has been under intense scrutiny for the demonization and passive vilification of Freddy Mercury’s alleged queerness.

If it’s not taking queer characterisations to stereotypical extremes, it is the contrary. In the worry of risking backlash, or money-loss at the hands of conservative audiences, Hollywood would rather see their pockets lined than entertain a realistic and varied depiction of the queer population. It is not just our wishful thinking to blame for Hollywood’s sex symbols playing these roles, namely Rachel Weisz ‘playing gay’ in two major productions last year. By marketing a more ‘palatable’ version of the LGBTQ+ experience, it is guaranteed that it will still entice a wider audience at the death knell of a true portrayal of LGBTQ+ politics and history. Viewed with the same contempt is multi-ethnic and female-centric film, though a report shows that in recent years both of these categories report better in the box office than their counterparts.

How can representation improve?

Of 4000 films tested, 50% of male created films failed the Bechdel test, whereas the 7 created entirely by women passed with flying colours – showing the diversity problem starts in the writer’s room. As well as being able to call out the obvious tropes, the hiring of LGBTQ+ creators of all identities and walks of life is an obvious step to producing queer stories in all their multitudes. Though over the last couple of decades the production of homogeneous, queer stories has risen, it is no longer enough for production companies to call themselves allies without the basic aknowledgement of the diversity of queer experiences. As the aforementioned The L Word prepares to reboot this coming year, the rumours of potential writers such as Lena Waite and Roxane Gay only sparks hope that the future of the show becomes a greater depiction of the full spectrum of the community.

Just as negative estimations of ethnic and gender charged movies have been negated, this same fear by creators of losing discriminatory viewership needs to stop being viewed as a hinderance to creating progressive cinema. These are crucial conversations we need to normalise, and the continued portrayal of a wide range of identity and uniqueness can only make this struggle for equality a swifter one. What can be one minor inconvenience to an intolerant or bigoted individual, may be a beacon of light and hope for a young person – or any questioning individual – who is yet to see themselves reflected in the arts.

Holly James

Image credit: Hollywoodreporter.com