Of all the major film studios, Universal Pictures is the oldest, having been officially founded in 1912. In 2004, Universal Studios merged with NBC becoming NBC Universal, which was itself acquired by Comcast starting in 2009. Having long focused on mass appeal films, many of Universal’s most classic films came from collaborations with director Steven Spielberg, and include Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, and Schindler’s List.
Because of that focus on mass appeal, perhaps it’s not surprising that it wasn’t until the 1990s that any LGBT content whatsoever began showing up in Universal films. Unfortunately the 1991 adaptation of Fried Green Tomatoes removed nearly all traces of the novel’s lesbian content, but the 1994 comedic drama Reality Bites did feature a prominent gay character. Universal’s other inclusive films have also been a mixture of highs and lows, and include To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), Mulholland Drive (2001), I Now Pronounce you Chuck and Larry (2007), Bruno (2009), and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010).
The first Kick-Ass, about a high school student turned “real world” superhero, contained a plot point about the main character being mistaken for gay and bullied because of it, but no actual LGBT characters. However, last year’s sequel actually did. Among the many everyday superheroes inspired by Kickass’ antics is Insect Man, who introduces himself by saying a lifetime of being bullied for being gay made him want to stand up for the defenseless, adding that he doesn’t wear a mask because it’s too much like being back in the closet. Aside from the team leader joking, “As long as your heart is in the right place, we don’t care what you put in your mouth,” Insect Man is as fairly depicted as any other minor hero character in the film. Though he doesn’t have any real bearing on the film’s plot and vanishes during the climactic battle, he still has a few moments to shine during two group fight scenes.
The third film starring the titular sci-fi anti-hero played by Vin Diesel finds Riddick marooned on an alien world where he is hunted by both strange creatures and two bands of mercenaries. One of those mercenaries is Dahl, a gruff sniper played by Katee Sackhoff, who after being called a “whore” by the rival band’s leader, knocks him to the floor and says, “I don’t f-ck guys. Occasionally I f-ck ‘em up if they need it.” Later on, Dahl is disparagingly called a “lesbo” by the same man. Unfortunately, what could have been one of the better LGBT characters in a Hollywood action film recently is subverted by the film and protagonist’s treatment of her. It’s sadly not that surprising that the only significant female character is also the only one to get a nude shower scene, and is the subject of a failed rape attempt. But the film also implies that Dahl becomes attracted to Riddick, who at one point promises that he’s going to “go balls deep into” her “but only after you ask me to, sweet-like.” Sure enough, when she returns to rescue him at the film’s climax, she coos “Lemme ask ya something. Sweet-like,” and when finally leaving, Riddick says “Tell Dahl to keep it warm for me.” The implication is quite clear that the hyper-masculine Riddick was too much for even a professed lesbian to resist, thereby validating one of the most egregious and stereotypical “straight-guy” fantasies, and treating her character with profound misogyny in the process. Dahl’s dialogue is enough for the audience to recognize her as an out lesbian character for the duration of the film, but this is sadly another instance where we wish they hadn’t.
A man learns he has inherited time-travel abilities from his father in this romantic comedy that sees him skipping backwards along the time stream to get a second chance in awkward or bad situations. One of those situations is a conversation with his ex-girlfriend and her companion who he first mistakes as a couple, only to learn afterwards that her companion is in fact a lesbian. There is nothing problematic about the way the character is depicted, though she does simply exist to provide humorous miscommunication for the protagonist to try and rectify. She isn’t a character in her own right.
Of the three inclusive films Universal released this year, Riddick actually featured the most significant LGBT character Universal has featured in the last two years. The fact then that the film’s treatment of her also marks a low point is all the more disappointing. Riddick is a film that is transparently designed to appeal to a straight male audience, but Universal (and frankly all the studios) must recognize that going after one audience doesn’t have to mean denigrating and alienating others. As we’ve said before, we must see more LGBT characters in genre films, and there’s no reason those depictions should be compromised to make them “fit.” Kick-Ass 2 is actually a good example of that, despite that character’s very minor role.