‘Power Rangers,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast’ prove LGBTQ people will pay to see ourselves on-screen

Screengrab via Lionsgate Movies/YouTube

LGBTQ audiences are hungry for more. Is Hollywood ready to give it to them?

Saban’s Power Rangers was go-go at the box office this weekend. The reboot of the long-running children’s show, which first received the big-screen treatment in 1995, took in a better-than-expected $40 million. That’s $2 million more than its predecessor earned during its entire run in theaters.

Power Rangers generated major buzz on the internet when the film’s trailer dropped in October, showcasing a more thoughtful take on the cheesy cult program about a Saved by the Bell-like troupe fighting off evil just in time for gym. Elizabeth Banks keeps its camp underpinnings alive as Rita Repulsa, an extraterrestrial witch hunting for gold, but the 2017 edition attempts to ground itself in the trials and tribulations of being a teenager. These kids aren’t all right.

Kimberly (Naomi Scott) is a recovering high-school bully, while Jason (Dacre Montgomery) is on house arrest. Zack (Ludi Lin) lives in a trailer park with his sick mother, and Billy (RJ Cyler, a standout) has Asperger’s, which has made him an outcast at Angel Grove High.

Focusing on its characters’ shared traumas often makes Power Rangers feel like an extended session of group therapy, but one moment stands out as small but groundbreaking. Trini (Becky G) confesses to her fellow Rangers that she doesn’t like her parents involved in her relationships. “Boyfriend problems?” Zack asks, pausing before he cautiously adds: “Girlfriend problems?” Trini, not the chatty type, claims she doesn’t like labeling.

What’s notable is that the reveal has generated almost no backlash, despite news that Russian distributors would be slapping an 18+ rating on the film for violating its “gay propaganda” laws. (One executive even called Power Rangers “fascist ideology.”) Arguably the film’s overtures to queer audiences are a big reason behind its surprise success. LGBTQ audiences are hungry for greater inclusion, and news that Power Rangers would feature the first queer superhero helped get butts in seats. Wired’s Angela Watercutter claimed that headlines about the film’s “gay moment” got her to line up on Thursday for a movie she would have otherwise had no interest in. (Full disclosure: This writer bought an opening-night ticket right along with her.)

Power Rangers’ blockbuster opening is a testament to something that should have already been obvious by now: Movies with LGBTQ characters make money. In recent years, Hollywood has largely shut out queer viewers in a quest to make as many superhero movies as possible starring white, straight men named Chris, but the recent success of inclusive cinema shows that major revenue is being left on the table. LGBTQ audiences are here, we’re queer, and we’re willing to pay to see ourselves on-screen.

Beauty and the Beast broke box-office records this month following reports that the film would feature Disney’s first “exclusively gay moment.” In the 1991 cartoon on which the movie is based, Le Fou—a dim-witted villager in desperate need of dental care—is Gaston’s sidekick. He’s a buffoon, someone you’re supposed to laugh at. The remake, though, gives the character a makeover: Le Fou, as played by Frozen’s Josh Gad, is hopelessly in love with his pectorally gifted best friend (Luke Evans) but doesn’t realize it. He goes on a journey of awakening when he realizes that his BFF is a violent narcissist who literally sucks eggs.

Le Fou doesn’t quite have his big coming out, but in the film’s final moments, he gets his man. During a grand ball, Le Fou is paired up with a male dancing partner. The viewer is left to fill in the rest.

Russia, true to form, threatened to ban Beauty and the Beast in protest of Le Fou’s sexuality, and a drive-in theater in Alabama declined to screen it. Christian leaders further have urged a boycott of Disney. Evangelical pastor Franklin Graham (son to Billy) posted on Facebook that the Mouse House is attempting to “normalize” and “push the LGBT agenda into the hearts and minds of… children.” An online petition has called for the studio to stop promoting a “harmful sexual political agenda.” A mommy blogger even cancelled her trip to Disney World over two seconds of dancing.

The conservative protest, which amounted to free publicity, had the opposite intended effect.

Beauty and the Beast outperformed even its most optimistic expectations to gross $228 million during its first seven days in theaters. The film’s record-smashing run ranks as the sixth-best opening week of all time, ahead of cultural phenomenons like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and The Dark Knight Rises. Beauty and the Beast doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. The film earned an estimated $88 million during its second weekend, down just 49 percent from the previous frame. That’s a better sophomore weekend than The Dark Knight.

Even more impressively, Beauty and the Beast has already raked in $690 million worldwide, performing well in countries that are less than friendly to LGBTQ people. Lithuania has an anti-LGBTQ propaganda law similar to Russia’s, and homosexual acts remain illegal in India decades after British colonists introduced them. The film opened at No. 1 both nations anyway.

Despite the restricted rating, Beauty and the Beast also topped the charts in Russia.

These numbers are a reminder that the public has come a long way when it comes to the acceptance of LGBTQ people. Pew Research polls from 2016 showed that just 28 percent of Americans felt that homosexuality was immoral and should be openly discouraged—with even conservatives showing high numbers of LGBTQ support. Fifty-five percent of moderate Republicans claimed to support marriage equality, while 71 percent said that LGBTQ people should be accepted in society. Support of same-sex unions among all U.S. citizens ticked up 20 percentage points from 2006, when just 35 percent of the public opposed equal marriage.

Many countries are still catching up when it comes to LGBTQ tolerance, but that didn’t keep them from screening the film. Pew polls from 2013 showed that 86 percent of Malaysians felt society shouldn’t support homosexuality, but Beauty and the Beast will debut there later this month. The country’s censorship board initially asked for cuts, but Disney refused.

A Variety report from Brent Lang argued that studios have hesitated about putting LGBT characters in major tentpoles because of fear about alienating foreign audiences, and this has shown in recent years. A 2016 report from GLAAD found that the number of queer and transgender characters in studio films had flatlined in recent years—with 17.5 percent of major releases featuring LGBTQ characters. A majority of these appearances were relatively minor, with queer people receiving just seconds of screentime. Even worse, movies like Exodus: Gods and Kings and Horrible Bosses 2 depicted the LGBTQ community in a mocking or defamatory manner.

Hashtag campaigns like #GiveElsaAGirlfriend and #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend have lobbied to amend this erasure by portraying same-sex relationships in a positive light, and studios should listen. If executives aren’t moved by Disney’s victory over censorship in Malaysia and Russia, the bottom line speaks for itself.

The most recent survey from Gallup showed that there are 10 million LGBT people living in the United States, a population which boasts a massive buying power. In 2017, the average movie ticket price is $8.65. A single admission to Power Rangers in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago—cities with larger-than-average LGBTQ populations—will likely set you back more than 15 bucks. If every queer or transgender person in America purchased a ticket to see Trini question her sexuality, that’s at least $86 million in additional revenue. A movie that might have grossed $100 million domestically without an LGBTQ character could make almost twice that.

That measure might appear optimistic, but it’s not. A 2016 report found that the LGBTQ community boasts a yearly disposable income of nearly $1 trillion, and that’s just in the U.S.

Two decades ago, popular comedies like The Birdcage and In & Out proved that queer audiences would turn out in droves to see their lives and stories represented on-screen. Mike Nichols’ 1997 comedy starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as a gay couple pretending to be straight to impress their soon-to-be daughter-in-law’s conservative parents (Dianne Wiest and Gene Hackman) grossed $124 million domestically. The Birdcage even took in more than $60 million abroad.

LGBTQ movies have struggled at the box office in the decades since, but a major reason for that is because studios have largely stopped making them. In the past decade, just two movies with a queer lead have played in more than 2,000 locations: Brüno and The Imitation Game. Despite massive acclaim for indies like Moonlight, Carol, and The Kids Are All Right, most of America didn’t have the chance to see them during their theatrical runs.

Queer viewers are unlikely to see a mid-budget renaissance of the kind that produced studio hits like Philadelphia, The Crying Game, and To Wong Foo, but executives should take greater chances on LGBT inclusivity in the kinds of movies they are making. The demand is certainly there. Last year, Ryan Reynolds voiced his support for giving Wade Wilson, who is portrayed as pansexual in the original comics, a male love interest in Deadpool 2. The response wasn’t reactionary pearl-clutching—it was applause.

It’s perhaps a sign of the times that after Power Rangers debuted, audiences weren’t outraged that Trini was reimagined as a queer Latina. They were disappointed that the movie didn’t do more. BuzzFeed’s Alison Wilmore argued that the seconds of screentime devoted to the Trini’s sexuality were “incredibly unsatisfactory.” Referring to Disney’s history of villains who are coded as queer, Wilmore writes that the “token visibility” offered to audiences in Power Rangers and Beauty and the Beast doesn’t do right by them.

LGBTQ audiences are hungry for more. Is Hollywood ready to give it to them?

Nico Lang

Nico Lang

Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.