GLAAD Unveils First Studio Ranking of Gay Characters in Film

"Rock of Ages"
"Rock of Ages"
 Warner Bros.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When it comes to presenting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters, the six major film studios are lagging far behind their counterparts in TV. Watchdog group GLAAD, in its first survey of the movie industry, found that of the 101 studio releases in 2012, only 14 contained LGBT characters. While Universal led the list with a record judged adequate, Disney and Fox got failing grades.

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"Film is in many ways quite behind the curve," says Matt Kane, GLAAD's associate director of entertainment media. If anything, GLAAD's survey was generous. It included any suggestion of an LGBT character in a given film. Some were quite fleeting -- like openly gay news anchor Thomas Roberts playing himself for a few seconds in Disney/Marvel's The Avengers. And others weren't necessarily positive -- such as Javier Bardem's bisexual villain Silva in Sony/MGM's Skyfall. The report notes his character "plays into some old cinematic cliches of bisexual people being duplicitous or unbalanced."

GLAAD then applied a more rigorous standard, what it calls its Vito Russo Test, named for the author of the groundbreaking study The Celluloid Closet, to determine whether an LGBT character was defined by more than sexual orientation and had a significant role. By that reckoning, only six of the 14 films passed the test, with some of the best marks going to Ben Whishaw's 1930s composer in Warner Bros.' Cloud Atlas (co-directed by transgender Lana Wachowski) and Ester Dean's a cappella singer in Universal's Pitch Perfect. The report looked as well at how gay characters were treated, observing that while Rock of Ages got laughs from Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand's characters falling in love, that was in "keeping with the film's campy tone." On the other hand, Seth MacFarlane's Ted drew criticism for using the words "gay" and "homos" "in a derogatory manner."

In addition to Pitch Perfect and Ted, LGBT characters also appeared in Universal's The Five-Year Engagement and American Reunion. With four of its 16 releases featuring some form of LGBT representation, Universal scored 25 percent, which GLAAD deemed adequate. Adequate ratings were also awarded to Paramount (3 of 14 releases, 21.4 percent), Sony (4 of 19 releases, 21.1 percent) and Warners (2 of 24 releases, 8.3 percent). Disney (The Avengers was the only one of its 13 releases to include a gay person, which resulted in a 7.7 percent figure) and Fox (with no LGBT presence in any of its 15 releases) were both branded as failing.

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The report also looked at the gender and ethnicity of LGBT characters appearing on screen in 2012. None were transgender characters. More than half of the films (55.6 percent) featured gay male characters, while another 33 percent featured lesbian characters, while 11 percent had bisexual characters. Male characters outnumbered female characters 63 percent to 37 percent.

Of the 31 different characters tracked -- some of which were on screen for just a few moments -- 26 were white (83.9 percent) while only four were black (12.9 percent) and one was Latino (3.2 percent.)

In addition to calling for a greater LGBT presence, GLAAD is also suggesting that such characters should represent the full diversity of the community. "We are giving studios the opportunity to see where they are now and how to improve by not only creating more significant roles, but a greater diversity of roles and genres," says Wilson Cruz, GLAAD spokesperson. He adds, "Throughout my experience in the entertainment field and here at GLAAD, I know that whether it's LGBT or a person of color, we want to see ourselves on the screen. When we don't see ourselves in films, there's an underlying message that we are not part of the world."

While GLAAD is planning educational meetings with the studios, getting the movie industry to change its ways won't be easy. For one thing, as studios cut back on midrange dramas and comedies, there are often fewer recognizable human beings on screen of any sexual orientation. GLAAD found that gay characters currently most frequently appear in comedies -- nine of 24 comedies released in 2012 were inclusive -- and are less likely to appear in action, sci-fi or fantasy movies. Of 34 genre films surveyed, only three (8.8 percent) contained any LGBT characters. However, GLAAD argues that represents a missed opportunity for the film industry if it hopes to speak to a younger generation much more accepting of sexual difference. 

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"Studios need to expand their thinking," says Kane, pointing to Skyfall and Cloud Atlas as genre pictures that did acknowledge LGBT persons. "There have been a number of sci-fi shows on TV that have had LGBT characters, and certain comic books are much more inclusive." 

Another potential hurdle: Unlike the proliferation of scripted TV shows, fewer movies are being produced. "We had a hard time getting Milk made, but I think we'd have an even harder time today," says Dan Jinks, a producer of the Oscar winner. "What happened in TV is that powerful writers who were gay used that power to write gay characters. Gay writers and directors in the movies need to say, 'This is important for me, and these are the stories we want to tell.' "

Cruz adds a further note of urgency, saying, "So many countries are putting draconian anti-gay laws on the books. Films are one of our country's biggest cultural exports, and we want to show the world that LGBT people are part of the fabric of society.”

GLAAD is making the full report available online at GLAAD.org/sri and is also posting an open letter to the film industry asking for more LGBT inclusion that it is inviting supporters to sign. 

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