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Things are getting worse, not better, for complex representation of queer and genderqueer characters on the silver screen.
Bad news for queer and genderqueer cinema lovers: The film industry still isn’t ready to love you back, at least not according to GLAAD’s recently released annual survey on GLBTQ representation in Hollywood.
The latest version of the Studio Responsibility Index focused on the seven film studios with the highest theatrical grosses last year. The survey reveals that of the 102 films these studios released in 2013, only 17 of them had queer or genderqueer characters—and most of the portrayals were offensive.
No studio mustered better than a 20 percent inclusivity rating using GLAAD’s baseline criteria for queer representation. The “best” studio out of the lot was Sony Columbia, which only turned in two films with positive representation (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and Battle of the Year).
The vast majority of this representation was of white gay men, while at the bottom rung were transgender men, who failed to make an appearance in any film from a major studio.
GLAAD also smartly observed that of the two films on the list that portrayed transgender women as characters, they were “better described as ‘impressions,'” because none of the women were played by real transgender women but rather by cisgender men in drag, ala Jared Leto‘s Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyer’s Club.
In order to quantify its metric, GLAAD introduced the Vito Russo test, patterned after the Bechdel Test and named for the author of the seminal work on Hollywood queer representation, The Celluloid Closet. The Vito Russo test breaks down effective or complex queer representation into three components. The film must have:
- A character who is “identifiably” gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender
- Who is not “solely or predominantly defined” by their sexual or gender identity—that is, it’s not the only thing you know about them
- Whose presence actually has a purpose within the plot of the story.
Applying the Vito Russo Test to the number of films released gives an even bleaker picture of the state of GLBTQ representation in Hollywood, as the majority of the films which included queer or genderqueer representation only featured characters for a few seconds, and often purely as the brunt of a gay joke, a source of “gay panic,” or other offensive humor. Still, there were some bright spots, notably Lionsgate’s Peeples, which presented a positive queer relationship to a predominantly African-American viewership, and Sony’s The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, which introduced a fandom favorite in the queer romance of Magnus/Alec, which will hopefully get more screentime as the series continues.
Here’s the studio-by-studio breakdown.
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Number of Inclusive Films: 1 out of 14.
Titles: Broken City, which passed the Vito Russo Test.
Difference from last year: With one film, Fox actually improved its metric from 2012.
Studio: Lionsgate Number of Inclusive Films: 3 out of 21.
Titles: Tyler Perry’s Peeples and the Spanish-language Instructions Not Included both have notably positive representations of queer characters; however, the studio lost positive karmic points for its played-for-laughs portrayal of a bisexual matriarch in The Big Wedding, and an infinite number for producing Ender’s Game, from the notoriously homophobic Orson Scott Card.
Difference from last year: This is the first year Lionsgate has been included in the survey, though GLAAD noted that in the past the studio has produced a number of landmark films in the annals of positive queer representation in Hollywood, including Gods and Monsters and But I’m a Cheerleader!
Number of Inclusive Films: 2 out of 9 films. Neither of these passed the Vito Russo test.
Titles: Pain & Gain and The Wolf of Wall Street.
Difference from last year: Paramount is failing compared to 2012, when its representation was “Adequate” according to GLAAD. Still, the org hastened to note that Paramount is a perennial champion of mainstream and groundbreaking films featuring queer characters.
Studio: Sony Columbia Pictures
Number of Inclusive Films: 3 out of 15, two of which passed the Vito Russo Test.
Titles: Grown-Ups 2, which had “needlessly offensive” humor, as well as more positive representations in Battle of the Year and Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. This was the only film on the entire list that was also nominated for a GLAAD media award for its portrayal of the fandom favorite romance between minor characters Alec and Magnus Bane.
Difference from last year: This is a marked improvement from 2012.
Number of Inclusive Films: 3 out of 15. Only one of these passed the Vito Russo test.
Titles: Kick-Ass 2, Riddick, and About Time. Although Riddick technically passes the Vito Russo test, it also evinces a wealth of misogyny, and undermines actress Katee Sackhoff’s character by implying that her lesbian identity is only a phase until she finds a guy who’s manly enough to win her over.
Difference from last year: Despite, or perhaps because, of being the oldest studio on the list, Universal is perennially one of the poorest performers when it comes to representation. Its rating remained adequate from the previous year.
Studio: Walt Disney
Number of Inclusive Films: 2 out of 10, neither of which passed the Vito Russo test.
Titles: Iron Man 3 gets a pass for including a 2-second “impression” of real-life MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts, along with the comedy Delivery Man.
Difference from last year: Disney gets an “Adequate” rating over a failing rating from last year.
Studio: Warner Bros.
Number of Inclusive Films: 3 out of 18, only 1 of which passed the Vito Russo test.
Titles: We’re the Millers, The Hangover Part III, and Grudge Match.
Difference from last year: Despite being a powerhouse of landmark queer and genderqueer films over the years, the WB dropped from an “adequate” rating to failing this year for films with negative and stereotyped references to GLBTQ characters.
Given that many of these studios have a history of risk-taking with certain queer and genderqueer-centric films, it’s not a wayward hope that next year will see more positive representation from the list. GLAAD also noted that numerous subsidiary studios like Focus Features and distributors like the Weinsteins had positive track records as well.
Still, it cautioned that “the images present in contemporary Hollywood film are rarely significant enough to leave much of an impact,” and that “[i]n many cases, they may even be doing more harm than good.”
At least we know that examining and identifying the problem is a major step toward providing a solution—and, hopefully, getting Hollywood to listen.
Download the full GLAAD report here.
Magnus/Alec fanart from The Mortal Instruments by far-eviler/deviantART
Aja Romano is a geek culture reporter and fandom expert. Their reporting at the Daily Dot covered everything from Harry Potter and anime to Tumblr and Gamergate. Romano joined Vox as a staff reporter in 2016.