As culture skirmishes over inclusion and representation in America continue to heat up, there was a mixed bag of news from Hollywood films at GLAAD’s second annual Studio Responsibility Index summit Thursday at the offices of William Morris Endeavor, but the conversation continued to brim with hope for improvement.
Kevin Iwashina, senior associate at Endeavor Content, opened the company’s screening room where GLAAD formally unveiled the results of its survey of 110 films released by major studios in 2018, which featured results both encouraging (inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer characters had increased by 5.4 percent to 18.2 percent over the previous year’s all-time low; gay men and lesbian women were featured in equal proportion for the first time in the report’s seven-year history) and dismaying (bisexual representation remained historically low; transgender and nonbinary characters were significantly absent; racial diversity among LGBTQ roles decreased by 15 percent, and one studio — the Walt Disney Company — failed to include LGBTQ characters in any of its 2018 output).
“One year does not make for a trend or a movement — it’s a snapshot,” GLAAD’s CEO and president Sara Kate Ellis told The Hollywood Reporter. “We need to see this year over year over year over year, and then we’ll know that we’ve made substantial, substantive difference and it’s not just a blip. Bu right now it’s a blip — it’s a positive blip. I’ll ride that wave. But what I want people to do is use that enthusiasm, how well these films, these diverse films, at every level did in the box office, from Black Panther to Wonder Woman, to encourage them to continue down the road of being inclusive.”
After a review of the report’s results, GLAAD assembled a panel to engage in a lively dialogue about the pluses and minuses that had been revealed. Ellis was joined by actress Jaime Clayton (Sense 8, Designated Survivor), EXILE Content chair and founder Isaac Lee and The Black List founder Franklin Leonard, and she stressed how important Hollywood storytelling was for modeling audience behavior and re-shaping attitudes at a time when she said LGBTQ rights in general are increasingly endangered politically. “It’s more important than ever that we put our foot on the gas pedal for what we can control here in Hollywood,” Ellis said.
“It’s sad not to see myself, as a woman of trans experience,” admitted Clayton, who said she was frustrated not only by the lack of trans representation overall, but how infrequently actors like herself are considered for roles that are not specifically trans. “I think that trans people are still so misunderstood. Society as a whole has an issue with seeing trans women as women and trans men as men — we’re not allowed to be sexually desirable. There’s all of these taboos that come along with that.
“Movies and television are how we invite people into our living rooms and into our homes, it’s how we experience other cultures, races and genders — it’s why Sense 8 was so popular,” said Clayton. “If trans people were represented more in film in general, I think it would help people not be so uncomfortable.”
“I come from a place where we have historically done a terrible job in dealing with this, and it’s starting to change, in a dramatic, vast way,” said Lee of his long experience as a provider of content to Latin American countries, though he noted that real-world murders of trans people remain startlingly high in countries like Brazil and Mexico. “We have a huge responsibility, and this is not an easy one to tackle. … The work has to double down.”
Leonard said that while the entertainment industry likes to congratulate itself for its inclusionary ethos, “we too often fail to back up those supposed progressive values in our substantive work, and I think it’s our obligation to do that because the way the world interprets the world is in a large part based on the images that we project around the world. And if we don’t project it into the world as it actually is, as most of us live it, we’re failing not only the world, we’re failing ourselves, both morally and financially.”
To underscore his point, Leonard also pointed to the report’s revelation that LGBTQ film audiences are also high-value consumers, with high rates of repeat theatrical viewings and subsequent home video purchases. “Ideally pushing for this stuff comes from the heart – it’s just what you’re supposed to do,” he said. “But let’s say you can’t get there. [Then] do it because you want to make money.”
After the panel, Clayton said she felt enlightened by the exchange, and less on her own in her pursuit of greater opportunities for herself and her community. “To hear the actual hard numbers and the thinking from all the hard work that GLAAD is doing kind of puts it into perspective, for me — I don’t feel so isolated now,” she told THR. “I don’t feel so alone, which is really great.”
Clayton said that the key to pushing inclusion forward lies in “being open, having empathy. Everyone in this room today was willing to learn — that’s why they were here. They were open and willing to learn and grow ad have some empathy to the things that are going on around them. I think that that’s what needs to work its way into the board rooms and with the executives. Those kinds of people need to start having a little more empathy and start wanting to learn and grow. … I learned so much today just by listening. It’s all we have to do, is listen.”
“It all clicked into place for me when Jamie said, ‘There are no trans bankers,'” said Ellis. “And it’s like, so why are we pigeonholing people? Let’s rethink about this and how we’re approaching this. How do you identify and be proud and out about who you are, but not have it weaponized against you. Those are big hairy problems that can be solved, but we have to put our heads together. And I think talking together on this panel was really great, because we were of trying to work them out, in real time, these issues in the right room.”
Added Ellis, “Hollywood is stepping up into this moment and taking it seriously, and it’s not just hot air and fanfare, it’s substantive. Not only are they hitting the streets and protesting in real time, but they’re also, through their work, using that as a means to shape culture in a positive way, and I think that’s more important now than ever.”