“Don’t tell me it’s a sin to be in love with her instead of him.”
2021 is here and Hollywood has still not been able to go queer! You might come and vehemently refute my claims by citing the measly examples in which a supporting actor has possibly kissed a random person of the same sex (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, is that you?), but that’s about it. With studies from GLAAD showing how under-represented the LGBTQ+ community is in Hollywood, the alarming question regarding diversity and representation remain — and the difference is stark, vivid, ugly and undeniable.
While apologists might come rushing in with examples of films such as Bohemian Rhapsody, Call Me By Your Name, Deadpool 2, Crazy Rich Asians and others, it is pertinent to take note of the screentime for those characters as well as the roles they played. Why are none of the superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe openly gay? It is only in October 2021 that Marvel will finally introduce its first gay superhero in Phastos, a role played by Brian Tyree Henry in the upcoming Chloé Zhao film The Eternals. Besides, movies such as Bohemian Rhapsody have been criticised for trying to sideline Freddie Mercury’s romantic entanglements. Star Wars, in what appears to be its attempt to be ‘woke’ and ‘inclusive’, featured a short kiss, while Jude Law’s Dumbledore, in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, pines wordlessly for Johnny Depp’s Grindelwald without making a move.
Most of the films that are diverse in their representation come from the independent films sector. For example, Moonlight, a gay Black film by Barry Jenkins, took the Academy by storm, avenging the previous insult of its predecessor Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain losing at the Oscars due to the prejudices of the conservative Academy board. At the same time, popular TV shows like Friends have been criticised for lack of representation in forms of openly gay characters, or people of colour and their problematic gags about the LGBTQ+ community. However, series like The Big Bang Theory have featured Jim Parsons, a gay male actor, in the lead. While recent projects like Schitt’s Creek have championed the cause by casting Daniel Levy as the pansexual dramatic brother, David, in the show, it is important to note that all these characters predominantly check off the pre-requisites. While some of the characters indeed identify themselves as queer, they are usually white men playing the characters.
The problem is too deep-rooted and cannot be changed overnight. Cultural conservatism and homophobia are important sociological aspects that have directly impacted the film industry whose beliefs stem from catering to the audience’s likes. We inculcate heteronormativity from a very nascent stage. Heterosexuality is the only possible way to be, and even textbooks lack gender fluid representation. We are assigned pronouns like he/him and she/her, while other pronouns like they/them are never taken into consideration. This leaves the queer community confused and disillusioned regarding their identity and feel alienated, while those who identify as heterosexuals remain ignorant and uneducated about their peers’ problems. It is a societal evil and needs to be combated with real consideration. Children imbibe values portrayed in cartoons and derive inspiration from such characters. The lack of LGBTQ+ representation in Disney films and the like is not very favourable. When Toy Story 4 featured a very short scene depicting a same-sex couple, there was an outrage. It is challenging to encounter conservatism, but if not now, then when?
Cis-het white males playing gay characters is quite a common phenomenon in Hollywood. This might leave the young members of the LGBTQ+ community frustrated when they see their favourite gay character grace the red carpets with their wife. They are possibly left under the impression that the lines between reel and real are blurred; one can probably only be gay on-screen, but in real life, heterosexuality is the way out. Similar problems arose when quite recently when Harry Styles graced the cover of Vogue dressed in gender fluid clothing. Styles has previously attended the MetGala event dressed in gender-fluid clothing, pearl earrings and black heels; he was stunning and ethereal. He has been attacked vehemently by angry, intolerant right-wingers. Surprisingly enough, his fanbase, which includes young teens, have rushed to his support. While Styles has been lauded for his bravado, we are left wondering, would the reception be same for a queer woman of colour?
Recently, Ellen Page came out of the closet as Elliot Page and has received nothing but love and support. This redirects our attention to the lack of trans characters in Hollywood. By incorporating bisexual and lesbian characters in teen dramas, trans characters still remain marginalised. Sure, we have come a long way, but a lot more needs to be done. Employing people of the LGBTQ+ community to be a part of the crew is also an important step. They must not be shunned away from due to their non-normative preferences. Employment must be granted to all irrespective of what sexuality or gender they identify with if at all any.
It appears that a large proportion of the film production houses remain unwilling to take the chance. The posts during Pride month and seeing the directors and actors extending support to the community somehow feels phoney. Why do it if you don’t mean it? Homosexuality seems to be restricted within the bounds of fanfiction. Teenage girls write queer erotica in the darkness of their bedrooms and upload it to sites that are incorrectly labelled as taboo. Why can we not normalise these relationships? Years ago, people of colour, irrespective of their sexuality, were marginalised. Now, the hierarchy seems to be present in the community where white men gain the upper hand over others. To produce a film like that of Portrait of a Lady on Fire or Matthias and Maxime, Hollywood has to shed its conservative ideals and transphobia which they perpetrate under a fake masquerade of allyship. To be a true ally, provide economic support, not mere Instagram posts.
Moreover, why not provide support to them in reality by employing more people from the community which would render them financial independence? Understandably, a large portion of film houses are concerned about censorship. Many countries have been known to ban and/or delete scenes that explicitly portray homoeroticism. Normalising homosexuality is prevented by religious fanaticism, irrational dogmatic beliefs as well as lack of acceptance. They despise the other. Films represent society and similarly Hollywood, too, plays its fair share in discrimination. Remember how Ellen DeGeneres faced backlash in her initial days? Remember how Neil Patrick Harris did not move past playing his fair share in TV roles? Why did Jim Parsons not get to play a gay Sheldon?
Society is not monolithic; it has various sides and facets to it, where a diverse kind of people exist. Shattering gender norms and stereotypes are extremely important as it helps create a safe space for non-binary individuals. Gender is a social construct; sexual independence is a basic human right. By introducing characters who are queer and non-normative, Hollywood will not only help individuals find a role model to identify themselves with but also promote inclusivity and recognition of various kinds of sexuality. Lack of education regarding this subject often leads to people using slurs that are hurtful and entirely unnecessary. Quite a number of films use “gay” as an insult, whenever they are bullying a weaker character. Other derogatory insults are often used mindlessly without taking note of the repercussions they could have. Ignorance and lack of empathy as well as the stubbornness to not steer from one’s prejudices often lead to such mishaps. Screenwriters need to be careful regarding the kind of words they choose as insults. What was funny and politically correct a decade back might not be anymore. It is of utmost importance to learn and unlearn the decade-old notions that have been passed down for generations.
For a generation which considers themselves to be ‘woke’, we are admittedly at fault in certain cases. However, if there is one such thing we should all be proud of, it is how inclusive we are. There still seems to be hope as LGBTQ+ relationships have been decriminalised; very recently, Biden, after assuming his role as the POTUS, rejected Trump’s ban on the trans community being able to join the military. The world is trying to be a better place, and it is only fair that Hollywood follow suit. Reinforcing stereotypes by refusing to represent anything that is beyond their definition of normative would only ingrain these prejudices in the minds of the young viewers who would grow up to be equally intolerant, bigoted and uncompromising. Sure, one can have their own opinions, but gender and sexuality should transcend their narrow-minded opinionated self.
The Academy is still homophobic, giant production companies are still dismissive, and the actors often stay hidden, afraid of being bombarded by unsettling questions by the paparazzi. Hollywood’s megalomania is farcical, its ‘wokeness’ a facade and the flagbearers are still bigots. Challenging the hydra of public conservatism is a long-drawn process. Hollywood has the power of visual media to alter lives by portraying the myriad of sexualities that exist. To be a true ally, not only can they extend economic and cultural acceptance but also help prevent perpetuating ‘otherness’. Now is the best time to question the choice of films and characters, to question why and how the marginalised communities can be brought to the forefront. The goal is to strive for an inclusive, diverse, well-represented future.
“Love has no gender. Take whoever loves you.”