GLAAD has worked with numerous LGBT advocates from places like the Middle East and Asia who repeatedly have told us that Hollywood film has a strong influence in their home countries, and how rare depictions of LGBT people remain there. These are often countries where misconceptions and discrimination remain culturally ingrained, and simply being out as LGBT can put one at risk. The films we export should not reinforce the status quo in places like these.
This marks the third year that GLAAD has tracked the quality and quantity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) representations in mainstream Hollywood film, and sadly things have not markedly improved during that time. Of the 114 films GLAAD tracked this year, only 20 (17.5%) included depictions of LGBT characters, and some of those would have been better left on the cutting room floor.
Most depictions of LGBT people in these films tend to be minor, both in terms of substance and screen-time, and occasionally still rely on outdated and even defamatory stereotypes. Meanwhile, one of cinema’s biggest competitors has completely lapped the industry in this regard. The characters being depicted on television, everywhere from broadcast networks to streaming services, make those found in film appear shockingly outdated.
This isn’t hyperbole. In fact, for the first time this year, GLAAD extended the number of nominees in the GLAAD Media Awards television series categories from five to ten, in recognition of the sheer number of well-crafted LGBT characters we now see in regular and recurring roles. By comparison, of the 114 films from the seven biggest Hollywood studios GLAAD tracked for this report, only one was good enough to earn a GLAAD Media Award nomination.
Conventional wisdom has long dictated that if you want to find films that better represent LGBT people, you must look at independent and art-house cinema. Several studios were happy to point this out in response to our previous reports, and so this year we also tracked the films released under the “art house” film wings of the parent studios we have previously spotlighted. While it is true that better depictions of LGBT people could be found here, they were also surprisingly less common. Only 10.6% of the 47 films GLAAD tracked from Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, Roadside Attractions, and Sony Pictures Classics contained LGBT characters.
Despite the prevalence of headlines bemoaning the decline of the film industry, the truth is that films very much do still matter, both in the United States and abroad. The medium remains respected and popular, and continues to wield remarkable earning potential and cultural relevance. If anything, any lethargy in the film market should prompt the mainstream studios to get with the times and innovate. Increasingly, the kinds of films that become massive box office hits often seem to take executives by surprise.
So as film remains very much a viable industry, what studios choose to portray still matters as well. Mainstream Hollywood film has never been particularly nuanced or empathetic when depicting LGBT people, but the fact that film has remained clumsy and inconsistent as so many other mediums have evolved for the better makes them seem more out of touch with every passing year. That’s not a smart place to be when trying to turn younger generations into reliable moviegoers, and it unfortunately helps keep old prejudices against LGBT people alive in our culture.
Fair and accurate representations are especially critical when considering the implications these depictions can have in other countries, where Hollywood film often has a greater presence than any other form of American-produced media. Film remains one of our country’s biggest cultural exports, and significant depictions of LGBT people in movies can have a powerful and positive effect in sparking dialogue and understanding.
And we don’t have to guess at this. GLAAD has worked with numerous LGBT advocates from places like the Middle East and Asia who repeatedly have told us that Hollywood film has a strong influence in their home countries, and how rare depictions of LGBT people remain there. These are often countries where misconceptions and discrimination remain culturally ingrained, and simply being out as LGBT can put one at risk. The films we export should not reinforce the status quo in places like these.
Still, the stories films tell also have the potential to do a lot of good. Studies have repeatedly shown that in absence of someone knowing an LGBT person in real life, programs and films with LGBT characters can help foster understanding and acceptance*, particularly in places where LGBT people still don’t feel safe enough to live openly.
Given the long amount of time that often passes between a film’s conception to its release, it’s perhaps understandable that the film industry would lag a bit behind more quickly-produced television programs, but that’s only a minor allowance when one considers how far film ultimately has to go. By all appearances, Hollywood still takes too long to learn its lessons and progress, but we hope they’ve made note of the remarkable success one film released this year has achieved.
If you had told most Hollywood executives in 2013 that a period biopic about a gay mathematician would make more than $200 million dollars in worldwide box office receipts, it’s safe to say they likely wouldn’t have believed you. Yet, The Weinstein Company’s The Imitation Game has done just that, winning quite a few awards in the process. The film is readily described as a “crowd-pleaser” by critics, and demonstrates there is a market for well-made films that show audiences stories they haven’t seen before, including those about LGBT people. Hollywood should be paying attention.
As GLAAD’s recent Accelerating Acceptance report demonstrates, despite all the legislative and policy victories the LGBT community has experienced in recent years, there are still many parts of this country and others where we are not accepted.* The struggle must extend from the ballot box, the legislative chamber, and the courtroom directly to the hearts and minds of those who still harbor anti-LGBT prejudice. It’s precisely those hearts and minds that popular media like film has a unique power to touch, which is why GLAAD will continue to hold Hollywood accountable for how it represents us and our lives to the rest of the world.