Not a single transgender character was depicted in any of the movies released by the major studios last year for the fourth year in a row, according to a new report from GLAAD. The LGBTQ rights organization’s report found that “this remains one of the more glaring ways mainstream studios continue to lag behind other forms of entertainment media.” It also found “a complete absence” of storylines about LGBTQ characters living with HIV – or with any disabilities at all – in any of the films surveyed, while only one of the studios’ animated films featured an LGBTQ character.
Even so, the 20 LGBTQ characters who were featured in last year’s crop of 10 LGBTQ-inclusive films were more diverse, saw a significant increase in screen time and were featured in a higher percentage of films than in 2019. And nine of those 10 films got a passing grade from GLAAD – a record high 90%.
“This is a critical time of transformation for Hollywood – challenged to redefine business lines and practices during a global pandemic, driven by an increased demand from consumers hungry for new content, and rocked by the rightful reckoning and pressure for these studios to create more meaningful substantive change in representing and investing in marginalized communities,” said GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis. “This transformation represents a great opportunity to swiftly accelerate acceptance of LGBTQ stories, break new ground, and invest in queer and trans talent and stories that audiences are eager to watch. Hollywood and the business of storytelling must be more nimble, more creative, more open than ever before.”
See the full report here.
Last year, 22.7% of the 44 films distributed by the majors featured LGBTQ characters, up from 18.6% in 2019, according to the report. GLAAD noted, however, that “this must be taken with a grain of salt within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic severely impacting theatrical distribution, as there were only 44 films released as opposed to the previous report’s 118 from the same studios. While this record-high percentage is exciting, there must be consistent growth as the number of films theatrically released by the studios begins to rise again.”
The report, GLAAD’s ninth annual “Studio Responsibility Index,” also found “a significant increase” in screen time for LGBTQ characters last year. Of the 10 LGBTQ-inclusive films released, eight (80%) featured LGBTQ characters with more than 10 minutes of screen time. “This is a noteworthy increase from the previous two reports where more than half of LGBTQ characters clocked less than three minutes of screen time,” the report says, while 30% of those characters received less than one minute of screen time.
The percentage of LGBTQ characters of color also increased last year, though GLAAD noted, as it does throughout the report, that this must be viewed in the context of the limited pool of films released because of the pandemic, and that there were only 20 LGBTQ characters in the 2020 releases, compared with 50 LGBTQ characters in 2019.
Of those 20 characters, 40% (eight) were characters of color and 11 were white, while one LGBTQ character “was non-human in appearance.” Fifteen percent of the LGBTQ characters were Asian/Pacific Islanders, 10% were Black, 10% Latinx and 5% Indigenous.
This year’s report also found an increase in the percentage of lesbians in the LGBTQ-inclusive films surveyed, but a decrease in the representation of bisexuals and gay men.
And for the fourth year in a row, GLAAD didn’t find any transgender or non-binary characters in any theatrical releases from the major studios.
“Factually, that is zero transgender characters across a total of almost 400 film releases tracked by this report since January 2017,” the report found. “The last transgender character GLAAD counted was an offensive caricature in the 2016 film Zoolander 2, a non-binary model named All portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch.” The report found that in that same time frame, “TV has seen amazing progress in telling transgender stories and empowering trans writers and actors to lead those efforts, with FX’s history-making Pose, television’s first trans superhero on The CW’s Supergirl, Brian Michael Smith’s historic casting on Fox’s 9-1-1: Lone Star, and more.”
“While recent years did include transgender and/or non-binary actors in a handful of major releases,” the report says, “none of those films established those characters as transgender or non-binary within the film’s world. For this report, GLAAD did not count those characters in its tally based on what was on screen, in the same way that LGB characters are not tallied unless their story is made clear on screen. We are pleased to see trans actors being cast in roles that are not explicitly written as transgender and hope to see this continue. We also hope to see more films which explicitly tell the stories of transgender characters, representation that is crucial to understanding discrimination and liberating trans people.”
Because so few films were released during the pandemic, GLAAD dispensed with its usual practice of grading each studio based on the overall quantity, quality and diversity of LGBTQ characters in their slate of films, but notes that “Walt Disney Studios has a weak history when it comes to LGBTQ inclusion compared to other studios tracked in this report.”
Ellis noted that GLAAD’s last report “projected at least ten films scheduled for a 2020 theatrical release which were confirmed to include LGBTQ characters, storylines, and themes. Of those ten, and because of forced theater closure, only three films were theatrically distributed in 2020 in the U.S. – The New Mutants (Walt Disney Studios), Birds of Prey (Warner Bros.), and The Broken Hearts Gallery (Sony Pictures). Then the distribution strategy got creative. Other films were sold to and distributed by streaming services – Happiest Season on Hulu, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie coming this summer to Amazon Prime, were delayed to 2021 or later (Chaos Walking, In the Heights, Eternals, Jungle Cruise), or were released in 2020 through video on demand (The Craft: Legacy) rather than theatrically. Given the publicly confirmed details about inclusive LGBTQ characters, it is clear that 2020 was set to be a game changing year for a variety of queer stories at the box office. And then, Covid closures, delays, and increased expenses happened to the world and to the industry.”
The report also provided a rundown of the percentage of films with LGBTQ characters from each studio. (GLAAD noted that in last year’s study it “expanded its quantified tally of major studios to include STX Films and United Artists Releasing.”)
One of two movies released last year by STX Films were LGBTQ-inclusive (50%); followed by two of five films from The Walt Disney Studios (40%); two of six films from Paramount Pictures (33%); one of four films from United Artists Releasing (25%); two of 10 films from Sony Pictures Entertainment (20%); one of 10 films from Universal Pictures (10%), and none of the three films released by Lionsgate (0%). The report noted, however, that Lionsgate has released a dozen LGBTQ-inclusive films since its founding in 1997.
The report gave passing marks to nine of the 10 studio films that were LGBTQ-inclusive, based on its Vito Russo Test, which is named after the film historian and GLAAD co-founder, whose book The Celluloid Closet remains a cornerstone for the analysis of early LGBTQ portrayals in Hollywood.
For a film to pass that test, GLAAD says it must depict a character who is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer; LGBTQ characters must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity, and they 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 punchline. The character must matter.”
The percentage of studio films that have passed the test has been steadily on the rise in recent years. Last year, it was 90%; in 2019 it was 73%, which was up from 65% in 2018; 64% in 2017; 39% in 2016, and just 36% in 2015.
The report, however, said that “passing the Vito Russo Test is a first step, rather than the finish line,” noting that several films that have passed the test over the years also included storylines that were “objectionable,” including Zoolander 2, Hazlo Como Hombre (Do It Like an Hombre), CHiPS and this year’s The Gentlemen.
In the report’s observations and recommendations, GLAAD said that it has repeatedly called on the studios to provide more screen time for LGBTQ characters in mainstream movies. And while their screen time increased significantly last year, the report noted that “While some films like The New Mutants, Freaky, Fantasy Island, and The Broken Hearts Gallery used that expanded screen time to tell more developed or nuanced queer stories, often with more than one queer character, more time did not equate to quality across the board.
“While it was a welcome change to finally have canon confirmation of Harley Quinn’s bisexuality in Birds of Prey, the confirmation moment was incredibly quick and there were no further allusions in the rest of the film – a missed opportunity, as a good chunk of her story was focused on her life after breaking up with long-term boyfriend, The Joker. The Gentlemen and Buddy Games both clocked more than ten minutes but were entirely offensive in their handling of their gay characters. There remains a huge opportunity existing in the spectrum between these models for meaningful LGBTQ storytelling – and for unambiguously marketing and promoting those movies.”
GLAAD also counted only one inclusive film in the animated and family film genre – Pixar’s Onward – which was down from two films in 2019. “Queer content in this category lags behind the boom happening in all-ages television in recent years,” the report says. “In a finding consistent with the previous year, their screen time was very minor. Onward’s Officer Spector (voiced by out actress Lena Waithe) clocked under two minutes of screen time, though the character did notably set up the penultimate police chase of the two leads. Though this was a nice moment of casual inclusion, as the character made a nod to her girlfriend affirming that queer ‘people’ exist in all families and all worlds, studios should learn from the successes of queer and trans representation in television with LGBTQ characters in significant roles on series including Arthur [on PBS], She-Ra and The Princesses of Power and Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts on Netflix, Steven Universe on Cartoon Network, Disney’s The Owl House and more.”
GLAAD recently introduced a second GLAAD Media Awards category in the Kids and Family genre to recognize inclusive content for younger audiences. “LGBTQ families and parents are part of the world and should be integral to movies they see with their families,” the report says. “And LGBTQ youth, who are coming out at younger ages as cultural acceptance continues to grow, deserve to see age-appropriate, positive, affirming, and truthful representations of themselves in film. The small moments seen in studio films must become bigger, significant moments with meaningful LGBTQ characters and stories.”
Said GLAAD’s Ellis: “As national and international theatrical markets continue to revive and as we experience shifts towards a world with Covid-19 vaccinations rolling out across the globe, no one can be certain just how the theatrical model may change and how those changes may impact the industry long-term. What is certain is film and TV content remain America’s widest cultural export – reflecting our culture while also shaping culture through nuanced and inclusive storytelling – and that entertainment must deliver stories which reflect the audience watching, including LGBTQ people.”
Added Megan Townsend, director of entertainment research and analysis at the GLAAD Media Institute: “Telling meaningful LGBTQ stories is not just the right thing to do, it’s also just smart business,” Nielsen reports that LGBTQ audiences are key box office drivers, heavy streaming users, and set the social conversation. As the industry looks towards a changing future, it is clear that LGBTQ characters need to be part of stories across all platforms of distribution, and prioritizing offering fan engagement experiences provides even greater opportunity for representation and inclusion. Sincerely engaging LGBTQ audiences can only benefit the studio’s bottom lines.” She added that “Our roadmap to success is found in the numbers. LGBTQ people are a significant audience.”
Separately, the report analyzed 21 other films released under four smaller studio imprints, but they aren’t included in the report’s data on the major studios, although they are generally in line with its other findings. Focus Features released 10 films, two of which were LGBTQ-inclusive (20%); Sony Pictures Classics and Roadside Attractions each released four films, and each had one film featuring LGBTQ characters (25%), while Searchlight Pictures released three films without any LGBTQ characters. The report noted, however, that Searchlight has been responsible for the release of several high-profile LGBTQ-inclusive films over the years, including Boys Don’t Cry (1999), Kinsey (2004), Battle of the Sexes (2017), The Shape of Water (2017) and Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018).
Looking at “Opportunities Ahead,” the report also previewed numerous upcoming films from each of the studios that will prominently feature LGBTQ characters, including Universal’s gay romantic comedy Bros and the Rock Hudson biopic All That Heaven Allows.
Explaining the report’s methodology, GLAAD said that “Due to the unique disruption to theatrical releases in the U.S. in 2020 caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, GLAAD chose to center its analysis on the eight film studios that had the highest theatrical grosses from films released in 2019 as the last standard full year,” as reported by the box office database Box Office Mojo.