Hollywood’s LGBT Representation Numbers Are Depressing — But GLAAD Is Wrong About How to Fix Them

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Well here we are again, have a seat, put your feet up; there’s a new study on diversity in Hollywood and, unsurprisingly, it’s really fucking terrible. GLAAD has released its second annual Studio Responsibility Index, which “maps the quantity, quality and diversity of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in films released by seven major motion picture studios during the 2013 calendar year.” The results are about what you’d expect: Of the 102 feature films released by major studios in 2013, exactly 17 of them so much as included an LGBT character. And less than half of those were characters with more than a single (often defamatory) dimension. It’d be pretty depressing if it weren’t so terribly predictable!

The GLAAD SRI comes on the heels of UCLA’s study on racial diversity (guess what: minority characters are almost as underrepresented on screen as they are behind the scenes), and as we’re still absorbing last year’s USC study on female representation in mainstream cinema (Over 50 percent of the population = 28 percent of speaking roles). But the GLAAD report paints an even grimmer picture — particularly when you take a closer look at the Magic 17 Movies Who Dared to Include An LGBT Character. Those films include: Grown-Ups 2 (a yoga instructor turns out to be gay, to the disappointment of The Wives), Grudge Match (the protagonists have a jail encounter with a trans woman), The Hangover III (yes, Ken Jeong’s Mr. Chow, somehow), and Iron Man 3, which makes the list — I swear to God, I’m not making this up — because out MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts makes a cameo as himself. Yes, those are the kind of straws they had to grasp at.

GLAAD also measures films by the Bechdel-inspired “Vito Russo Test,” which is comprised of the following metrics:

  • The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender (LGBT).
  • 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 punch line. The character should “matter.”

Less than half of those 17 films pass the Russo Test — seven of them, to be exact. They include such applause-worthy titles as The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and Peeples; Hangover III also passes that test, so hey, it’s not an exact science. But they’re clearly the exceptions to the exceptions to the rule.

You don’t need an abacus to do the math on this stuff: it is an industry where the vast majority of decision makers are straight white men, so the bulk of the films they produce are made by straight white men, about straight white men. This is not a knock on straight white men (hell, I’m one). But it’s important to recognize that those who get to kick on the green light for major motion pictures have a rather startling, and (let’s say it) damaging tendency to stick only to the most direct reflections of their own experience, and not much interest in appealing to anyone outside their very narrow bubble.

There’s a disturbing homogeneity to the way the majors are doing business these days, and I’m not just talking about representation. We’ve spent a lot of space on these pages discussing, and despairing of, a motion picture industry that is relying more and more intensely on remaking the same movies, superhero epics and mindless big-budget action blockbusters, increasingly devoting their energies to making a few of those as big-risk, big-reward, brass-ring pictures, and leaving little money or energy for the kind of mid-budget dramas and grown-up movies that used to be their bread and butter. They leave those to the independents (not represented in the GLAAD numbers, and presumably much more inclusive). And when they’re pulling the trigger on those $200-plus million investments, studio honchos play it as safe as possible, by filling them with people who look and act exactly like them.

So what’s the solution? GLAAD encourages studios to take greater pains to include well-rounded LGBT characters in genre films and superhero epics, but that’s not the solution; hell, the straight characters who currently populate those films seldom transcend one-dimensional caricature themselves, and the idea of Michael Bay trying to shoehorn a Russo-test-passing LGBT character into his next shiny-things-blowing-up-fest is more painful than not seeing one at all. (The Rock: never forget.) Representation is an important thing, but — and go with me on this — it’s not the only thing, and every film can’t, and shouldn’t, try to be all things to all people. Some movies are mostly going to appeal to a certain section of the movie-going audience, period, and that’s actually kind of fine; people write what they know, and write to the audience they know. The problem, now and ever, is that the proportions are all out of whack.

So the answer, as it is when mulling over the depressing percentages on female and minority representation, is not more variety in the characters of the shitty films Hollywood has settled on replicating, but more variety in the process of choosing which movies to make in the first place. People of all sexes, races, and sexual orientations are clamoring to see their stories in popular entertainment — it’s why television and streaming (with shows as varied as Orange Is the New Black, True Blood, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and even comfy old Modern Family) is kicking cinema’s ass, representation-wise. But it’s not just a matter of serving those audiences — the rest of us are also interested in the experiences of people who aren’t exactly fucking like us. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, Hollywood; after all, the most avid summer moviegoers are Hispanic women, who certainly aren’t seeing themselves up on the screen. Is it so much to ask that those who pull the levers occasionally share that same curiosity?