By Raina Deerwater, Entertainment Research & Analysis Manager GLAAD.org | December 15, 2022
GLAAD today released its tenth annual Studio Responsibility Index, a study that maps the quantity, quality, and diversity of LGBTQ characters in films released by the seven film studio distributors that had the highest theatrical grosses from films released in the 2021 calendar year (January 1, 2021 – December 31, 2021) as reported by the box office database Box Office Mojo. These studios are Lionsgate, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, United Artists Releasing, Universal Pictures, The Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros.
GLAAD found that of the 77 films theatrically released by the seven major studios in 2021, 16 (20.8 percent) contained LGBTQ characters, including films such as Our Ladies, Licorice Pizza, Dear Evan Hansen, Eternals, West Side Story, and In the Heights. This is an increase of six films, but a decrease of 1.9 percent from last year’s 22.7 percent (10 out of 44). The previous year’s report included a very limited number of theatrically released films as theaters had been largely closed in 2020 due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
When grading studio distributors, GLAAD examined the quantity, quality, and diversity of LGBTQ characters in the year’s slate, as well as actions from the studios and parent companies that either supported or harmed the LGBTQ community. Of the seven studios tracked, none received a grade of “Good” or “Excellent.” Sony Pictures, United Artists Releasing, Universal Pictures, and The Walt Disney Studios received a grade of “Insufficient,” Warner Bros. received a grade of “Poor,” and Lionsgate and Paramount pictures both received a grade of “Failing,” for not containing any LGBTQ characters in their films.
There were 28 LGBTQ characters counted in theatrical releases in 2021, an increase of eight characters from last year’s report. Of those 28 characters, 19 are men and nine are women. Last year was the first year that LGBTQ women outnumbered LGBTQ men, yet this year LGBTQ men more than double LGBTQ women.
For the first time in five years, GLAAD counted a transgender character in a major studio theatrical release. That character is Anybodys from Walt Disney’s West Side Story, a transgender man, in a timely update from the original play and film. There are still no trans women or non-binary characters counted in this year’s report.
The racial diversity of LGBTQ characters dropped slightly year over year to 39 percent (11 of 28) of LGBTQ characters being characters of color. This is a decrease of one percent, but an increase of three characters. This still falls far short of 2017’s record high of 57 percent characters of color. Of the 28 LGBTQ characters, 17 were white (61 percent), five were Black (18 percent), two were Latinx (seven percent), two were Asian/Pacific Islander (seven percent), one was multiracial (four percent), and one was Middle Eastern (four percent).
This report saw a decrease in lesbian representation and continues to fall behind with bisexual representation. Of the 16 LGBTQ-inclusive films released in 2021, 11 (69 percent) included gay male characters, up from 60 percent last year, four (25 percent) included lesbian characters, a strong decrease from last year’s 50 percent, two (13 percent) included a bisexual character, up from 10 percent, and one (six percent) included a transgender character, up from last year’s zero.
There was a significant decrease in screen time for LGBTQ characters in the 2021 studio films. Only seven of the 28 LGBTQ characters counted in 2021 clocked over 10 minutes of screentime, with the majority (17 out of 28) falling under five minutes of screentime, with six of those characters falling under one minute. This growing separation of near equal numbers of characters hitting under one minute and over ten minutes, with few characters falling in between, demonstrates the opportunity for more LGBTQ characters to be included in ensemble and lead roles.
For the second year in a row, of the 28 LGBTQ characters counted, GLAAD found zero LGBTQ characters with a disability and zero living with HIV. This remains a part of the LGBTQ community that is severely underrepresented.
“At a time when the LGBTQ community is under unprecedented attacks, it is more important than ever to hold studios and corporations accountable as businesses remain the most trusted entity in the U.S.,” said GLAAD CEO & President Sarah Kate Ellis. “This new addition to our methodology tracking corporate actions makes it clear that entertainment and media companies need to expand beyond onscreen representation. LGBTQ people deserve to have positive representation reflected in cinemas around the world, and to know that the people and companies who make and market LGBTQ-inclusive films unequivocally stand up for LGBTQ folks.”
In this year’s report, GLAAD included new evaluations of key areas of action with regards to the studio distributor and their parent company’s support or harm to the LGBTQ community. These four areas include:
Donations made by a studio or the studio’s parent company (if applicable) to anti-LGBTQ elected officials, defined as those who sponsor or co-sponsor anti-LGBTQ legislation that harms LGBTQ people, sign into law – or refuse to veto – anti-LGBTQ legislation, vote “yes” on anti-LGBTQ legislation, speak out against the LGBTQ community including the use of anti-LGBTQ slurs, support for anti-LGBTQ legislation, or otherwise giving a platform to anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.
- Public advocacy efforts by a studio or the studio’s parent company (if applicable), including PACs of those entities, around pro-LGBTQ or anti-LGBTQ legislation.
- LGBTQ-inclusive public communications by a studio or the studio’s parent company (if applicable).
- Actions taken by a studio or the studio’s parent company (if applicable) to support LGBTQ-inclusive titles domestically and internationally.
GLAAD’s 11th annual Studio Responsibility Index will be released in 2023 and include discussion on 2022 films including Universal’s Bros, Disney’s Strange World, and Disney’s Lightyear.
“After a decade of this report, we’ve seen exponential growth in LGBTQ representation in film driven by our study. Yet there still remains so much work to be done in Hollywood,” said Megan Townsend, GLAAD’s Director of Entertainment Research and Analysis. “There are so many parts of our community – bisexual+ people, those living with HIV, LGBTQ characters with disabilities, and transgender people, to name a few – that have yet to see themselves fully reflected on the big screen. As we look to the next ten years, these stories must become a priority if studios want younger and more diverse generations to continue to support and engage with their storytelling. Our GLAAD Media Institute is working as a partner to studios every day to advance these meaningful narratives which change culture.”
The Studio Responsibility Index evaluates LGBTQ stories in films based on GLAAD’s Vito Russo Test. Taking inspiration from the Bechdel Test and from celebrated film historian and GLAAD co-founder Vito Russo, these criteria can help filmmakers create more multi-dimensional characters while providing a barometer for LGBTQ film representation. However, as several past tracked films prove, simply including significant LGBTQ characters does not guarantee that a film is free of problems or tropes and inoffensive in its portrayals. As GLAAD has seen the industry change in recent years with more LGBTQ characters appearing on screen, it is clear that it is time for this test to be updated as well. This year GLAAD has introduced a fourth point in the Vito Russo Test.
For a film to pass the Vito Russo Test, the following must be true:
- The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer.
- That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity (i.e. they are comprised of the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate straight/cisgender characters from one another).
- The LGBTQ character must be tied to the plot in such a way that the character’s removal would have a significant effect, meaning the character is not there to simply provide colorful commentary, paint urban authenticity, or set up a punchline. The character must matter.
- The LGBTQ character’s story must not be outwardly offensive (avoids defaulting to well-known tropes or stereotypes with no further development). In films with multiple LGBTQ characters, at least one character must pass this point for the film to pass the test.
Of the 16 LGBTQ-inclusive films released by the seven major studios in 2021, GLAAD found that 9 of them passed the Vito Russo test, resulting in 56 percent of LGBTQ-inclusive films or 12 percent of total films passing this test. This is a marked percentage decrease from last year’s 90 percent (9 out of 10 LGBTQ inclusive films). This decrease emphasizes the need for more significant and meaningful LGBTQ content in major studio films. The Vito Russo Test represents an expectation and minimum standard, and provides a roadmap for a greater number of mainstream Hollywood films to reach and ultimately exceed.
One way for Hollywood to quickly improve this metric and release more films which pass the Vito Russo Test is to acquire and release the outstanding LGBTQ projects named to GLAAD’s most recent GLAAD List, an annual curated list from GLAAD and The Black List of the most promising unmade LGBTQ-inclusive scripts in Hollywood.