Last year, GLAAD introduced the first annual Studio Responsibility Index (SRI); a new report examining the quantity and quality of LGBT representation in mainstream Hollywood film, and the results were quite surprising. Despite consistent conservative labeling of Hollywood as a liberal propaganda machine, GLAAD found that LGBT representations in contemporary Hollywood films tend to be far more scarce and regressive than those on television.
Sadly, little changed in the following year. Out of the 102 releases GLAAD counted from the major studios in 2013, 17 of them (16.7%) contained characters or impressions identified as either lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. In most cases, these characters received only minutes – or even seconds – of screen time, and were often offensive portrayals.
This was a depressing realization, particularly when one considers the cultural currency these films still carry and their popularity with audiences on a global scale. Studies have repeatedly shown* that seeing an LGBT story in the media can foster understanding and acceptance of LGBT people, but the images present in contemporary Hollywood film are rarely significant enough to leave much of an impact. In many cases, they may even be doing more harm than good.
In countries like Russia or Uganda, recent discriminatory laws based on misinformation, dangerous stereotypes, and old-world prejudice are making it increasingly difficult for LGBT people to live free and happy lives. Hollywood has the chance to encourage greater understanding with the films they export, but at the very least, they must stop producing representations that could validate misconceptions and fears about LGBT people. Anything less is dangerously irresponsible.
In response to last year’s unfortunate findings, the most common question we heard was “Why does mainstream film seem to be so far behind the times?” Through meetings with film professionals following the release of the Studio Responsibility Index, we got the chance to directly ask the question. From Hollywood executives, we repeatedly heard “We’re not getting scripts with LGBT characters,” while screenwriters told us, “The studios don’t want to make films with LGBT characters.” The truth is probably somewhere between these two accusations, but if one thing is certain, it’s that nothing will change until there are significant cultural shifts within the industry itself. And the impetus for that may lie in the second most common question we heard: “Why is television doing so much better?”
As most of its viewing audience can tell you, TV seems to have entered another golden age, where the programming is not only incredibly thematically diverse (and prolific), but is also fertile ground for creators to tell truly unique and innovative stories. Not by accident, it’s also the best place in popular culture to find complex and resonant representations of LGBT people that connect with a mainstream audience. There are a few lessons to be gleaned from TV’s increasing audience domination that would also help the state of LGBT representation in mainstream film.
The word “fatigue” is frequently used when writing about the state ofHollywood film to explain poor audience reception and box office returns. It’s indicative of the fact that innovation and original ideas are in short supply. For the industry to thrive and evolve, it must produce groundbreaking and sometimes “risky” stories that set themselves apart. That also means letting go of old assumptions about what sort of characters an audience will embrace. The current economics of film aren’t always “risk-friendly,” but the runaway success of female-driven films like The Hunger Games and Frozen prove that outdated conservative formulas are worth breaking.
Taking those risks will bring in new audiences, and if the Hollywood film industry wants to remain viable long-term, the number one audience they should be chasing is young people. As networks like MTV and ABC Family have realized, the world these young audiences know is a diverse one. They are far more likely to have peers or friends who are openly LGBT than their parents were, and the TV shows depicting their world often reflect that. The competition for the attention of young consumers is certainly fiercer than it’s ever been, but film won’t win it by relying on old formulas and creating worlds they don’t relate to.
Change certainly doesn’t come easy to some Hollywood studios who have long relied on mass-appeal products, but TV has demonstrated that mainstream audiences will fully embrace LGBT characters and stories. Yes, some of the most groundbreaking shows in recent years have been inclusive, but so have some of the safest bets. You don’t need to look any further than Modern Family as evidence; a warm-hearted, intergenerational family comedy series that prominently features a gay couple with an adopted daughter. And for five years, it’s been a hit with liberal and conservative audiences alike, demonstrating that American viewers are much more accepting and forward thinking than they are often given credit for.
Film does still matter. It was one of the first ways our country could share cultural experiences on a mass scale, crossing the boundaries of location, education, and class. To this day, that is still largely true; Hollywood film reflects much about who we are as a society, and expresses our values to a global audience as one of our biggest cultural exports. But it’s rarely a complete picture. It is important that Hollywood also reflect our nation’s full diversity rather than shy away from it. Not just for society’s sake, but for the sake of Hollywood’s own relevance and longevity.
For this report, GLAAD focused its quantitative analysis on the seven film studios that had the highest theatrical grosses from films released in 2013, as reported by the box office database, Box Office Mojo. Those seven studios were 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate Entertainment, Paramount Pictures, Sony Columbia,Universal Pictures, The Walt Disney Studios, andWarner Brothers. This is the first year GLAAD has tracked the films of Lionsgate Entertainment.
This report examines films that were released theatrically during the 2013 calendar year (January 1 to December 31) under the official studio banners and imprints. Films released by officially separate studio divisions (such as Fox Searchlight) are acknowledged, but were not part of the final tally, as these specialty films are typically distributed and marketed to a much smaller audience than their major studio counterparts. These distinctions were informed in part by the box office reporting of Box Office Mojo and other entertainment industry databases. The total number of films that fell within the research parameters is 102.
Each film was researched and reviewed for the presence of LGBT characters. The total number of LGBT characters was recorded for each film, as well as the characters’ race/ethnicity and sexual orientation/gender identity. The films were also reviewed for the presence of general LGBT content and anti-LGBT language or humor, though because such content must be considered in context, the language was not quantified for this report.
Additionally, each film was assigned to one of five genre categories: comedy, drama, family, fantasy/science fiction, and documentary. The family category included animated and children’s films, rated PG and under. The category of fantasy/science fiction also included horror films and action films not rooted in reality rated PG-13 and up. In the case of films which clearly straddled genre lines, categories were assigned based on the predominant genre suggested by both the film and its marketing campaigns.
Overview of Findings
Out of the 102 releases GLAAD counted from the major studios in 2013, 17 of them (16.7%) contained characters identified as either lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Last year, GLAAD counted 14 inclusive films, however this is also the first year that Lionsgate Entertainment was included in the tally. Lionsgate released 3 inclusive films in 2013.*
More than half of those inclusive films (64.7%) featured gay male characters, while another 23.5% featured lesbian characters, 17.7% contained bisexual characters, and 11.8% contained transgender female characters (better described as impressions). Male LGBT characters outnumbered female characters 64% to 36%.
Of the 25 different characters counted (many of whom were onscreen for no more than a few seconds), 19 were white (76%) while only 3 were Black/African American (12%), 2 were Asian/ Pacific Islander (8%), and 1 was Latino (4%).
Once again, the most common place to find LGBT characters in the major studios’ 2013 releases were in comedies, where 8 of the 19 total comedies GLAAD counted (42.1%) were inclusive. By comparison, 43 genre films (action, sci-fi, fantasy, etc) made up the majority of the 2013 releases, though only 4 (9.3%) of those contained any LGBT characters. Additionally, 5 of 28 dramas (17.9%) were inclusive, while there were no LGBT characters in any animated or family-oriented films or documentaries from the seven studios GLAAD tracked.
The Vito Russo Test
Taking inspiration from the “Bechdel Test,” which examines the way female characters are portrayed and situated within a narrative, GLAAD developed its own set of criteria to analyze how LGBT characters are included within a film. The “Vito Russo Test” takes its name from celebrated film historian and GLAAD co-founder Vito Russo, whose book The Celluloid Closet remains a foundational analysis of LGBT portrayals in Hollywood film. These criteria can help guide filmmakers to create more multidimensional characters, while also providing a barometer for representation on a wide scale. This test represents a standard GLAAD would like to see a greater number of mainstream Hollywood films reach in the future.
To pass the Vito Russo Test, the following must be true:
The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.
That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity. I.E. they are made up of the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate straight characters from one another.
The LGBT character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect. Meaning they are not there to simply provide colorful commentary, paint urban authenticity, or (perhaps most commonly) set up a punchline. The character should “matter.”
Less than half (7) of the 17 major studio films GLAAD counted LGBT characters in managed to pass the Vito Russo Test this year, compared to 6 out of 14 inclusive films released in 2012. Clearly there is a lot of room for improvement in Hollywood film. With this annual report, GLAAD will continue to track the industry’s progress.
Seeing more films pass the Vito Russo Test would be a great start, but as several of the films GLAAD tracked in 2013 prove, passing that test in no way guarantees a film won’t also be problematic or offensive in its portrayal of LGBT people. Here are some additional recommendations GLAAD has for Hollywood film to both improve depictions of LGBT people and stop repeating the same defamatory mistakes.
Genre films like comic-book adaptations and action franchises are the areas where Hollywood film studios seem to commit the majority of their capital and promotional resources nowadays, but LGBT characters are still rarely seen in them. Especially given their global popularity, these films must become more diverse and inclusive.
None of the LGBT characters that GLAAD counted in 2013 releases are considered “lead” characters, and there were only a few that had substantial supporting roles. In fact, many of these appearances were no more than a few seconds long, or just enough time to get to a punchline. As is still often said of Hollywood’s treatment of other marginalized groups, there need to be more substantial LGBT roles in film.
Diversity in LGBT images continues to be an issue in nearly all forms of media, and film is no different. Not only should there be a greater number of substantial LGBT roles, those characters should be more gender-balanced, racially diverse, and from many backgrounds.
There were no transgender characters in the 2012 releases GLAAD tracked, but the two found in the 2013 releases were hardly an improvement. One was a trans woman very briefly depicted in a jail cell, while the other was an outright defamatory depiction included purely to give the audience something to laugh at. Media representation of transgender people has long remained decades behind that of gay and lesbian people, and images like these continue to marginalize the community. However, recent media attention around trans issues and people like actress Laverne Cox demonstrates that times are changing, and Hollywood should as well.
Anti-gay slurs are less common in film now than they were 20 years ago, but they are by no means extinct, and some are still used by characters the audience is meant to be rooting for. Perhaps even more prevalent are anti-transgender slurs, which in 2013 were used by main characters in films like Anchor Man 2 and Identity Thief for no reason other than to make a joke. With few exceptions, these words should be left on the cutting room floor.
For this report, GLAAD focused its quantitative analysis on the seven film studios that had the highest theatrical grosses from films released in 2013, as reported by the box office database, Box Office Mojo. Click below for more information on each studio.
Additional Film Distributors
Established in 1985, Wolfe Releasing is the oldest distributor in North America to solely focus on LGBT-inclusive cinema. The company focuses on the distribution of independent films that tell the stories of the LGBT community. Although the company has an impressive roster of films, a few are particularly noteworthy. The 2004 drama Brother to Brother is about an interracial gay couple that meets an older gay man in Harlem, who tells them about gay life during the Harlem Renaissance. The French drama Tomboy (2001) follows a gender non-conforming child who decides to live as a boy after moving to a new neighborhood, and Undertow (2009) is a Peruvian film about a fisherman who has an affair with a male painter. Last year, Wolfe released Reaching for the Moon, a biographical film about the relationship between Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop. Wolfe also released Five Dances, a film about a Midwestern ballet dancer moving to New York City. Additional films include Petunia, White Frog, and Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean.
When Strand Releasing was founded in 1989, its primary focus was the distribution of LGBT-inclusive films. In recent years the independent distributor has branched out, releasing non-LGBT films as well, while maintaining a focus on foreign films. Some of the highlights among the many inclusive films released by Strand are The Living End (1992) about a gay movie critic and a drifter who go on a dangerous road trip;Stonewall (1995), a fictionalization of the Stonewall riots; and Yossi and Jagger (2002) about two Israeli army officers who have to hide their love for each other. In 2013, the company released a sequel to Yossi and Jagger simply called Yossi, in which the titular character finds his sense of life and love rekindled when he meets a young soldier.
BREAKING GLASS PICTURES
Breaking Glass Pictures was founded in 2009 as a distributor of global independent films. The company has released several significant LGBT films and documentaries to DVD and On Demand in the past, and last year upped its distribution of LGBT-inclusive films to theaters. Among those are I Do, a drama about the immigration struggles faced by same-sex binational couples; Out in the Dark, a film about the relationship between an Israeli and a Palestinian gay man; and Geography Club, a teenage comedy about a high school gay-straight alliance. Breaking Glass Pictures’ other releases featuring LGBT storylines in 2013 includeLaurence Anyways and Bob’s New Suit.
THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY
Founded in 2005 by brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, The Weinstein Company produces and distributes films, and creates content for television. One of their most significant inclusive films to date is Transamerica(2005, released in conjunction with IFC Films), in which a transgender woman discovers she has a long-lost son. Other significant films include the 2008 Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona about a relationship between two women and a man. Also released by The Weinstein Company was A Single Man (2009) about a gay professor who loses his life partner. The Weinstein Company’s most visible LGBT-inclusive release this past year was the Academy Award-nominated Philomena, which follows an Irish woman’s search for her long-lost son, whom she learns was a closeted gay man who passed away after contracting AIDS. In September 2013, the company launched RADiUS-TWC, an arm of The Weinstein Company focused on releasing films through a multitude of platforms. Under this umbrella, the company released the lesbian drama Concussion, about a bored suburban housewife who becomes an escort. Both of the aforementioned films also won GLAAD Media Awards.
IFC FILMS AND SUNDANCE SELECTS
Under the AMC Networks umbrella, IFC Films distributes independent films and documentaries, while its IFC Midnights arm releases films in the horror and thriller genre. Another AMC Networks property, Sundance Selects, focuses on the distribution of independent films, documentaries and foreign films. One of their most successful and critically acclaimed films was the 2011 drama Weekend, about two men who begin a relationship shortly before one of them has to leave the country. In 2013, the company released the controversial but critically acclaimed French lesbian coming-of-age drama Blue is the Warmest Color. Other inclusive theater releases in 2013 include Breaking the Girls, Una Noche, The Canyons, Contracted,Dealin’ with Idiots and The Jeffrey Dahmer Files.