LGBT representation is a key problem in today’s film industry. While it’s true for the huge mainstream companies who get accused of being too timid about it, it definitely is true on our independent end of the industry as well. That problem is current and crucial for any minority that struggles to be represented.
Now is as good a time as any to focus on the particular dynamics of the LGBT+ community: June is Pride month, in memory of the landmark Stonewall uprising, and the past year has seen the “current events” section include homophobes being elected in the White House, the British Prime Minister recently allying with notorious homophobes, a genocide in Chechnya, a gay policeman being assassinated in Paris, and this week the first anniversary of the terrorist attack on Pulse in Orlando, Florida, which claimed the lives of 49 people and injured many more.
In a nutshell: a more enlightened, more complex or simply a better LGBT representation is much necessary. There are a few ways to go about it.
One of the most crucial aspects of LGBT representing a minority on the screen (or in any other medium) is reclaiming the pages of the history books. This is also happening in the feminist movement, as we’re seeing more and more stories of women in History being told – recent example for this being Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest, about a female screenwriter working for the British Ministry of Propaganda- as well as an initiative for a Women’s History Museum to be built in Washington, D.C.
Specifically, with regards to gay rights, some seminal works are activist and writer Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which was brought into the home of millions when it was turned into a TV movie by Ryan Murphy in 2014, and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Both chronicle the lives and throes of the gay community in New York City during the beginning of the AIDS crisis from the point of view of gay men, who were the first concerned, as opposed to the mainstream view. The original review for Angels in America described it as: “an idiosyncratically revisionist view of recent American political history”. Read: it changed points of view about well-known facts.
While those examples are masterworks of sizeable breadth and ambition, another, smaller example is British indie Pride. Made on a small budget but with a huge heart and an incredible story of friendship and alliance, this highlighted a little-known fact and made a huge impact in dusting off the hidden pages of gay history.
While the state of LGBT representation in the “current events” leaves something to be desired, as I mentioned above, the past year has also seen representation take centre stage in a more profound way, which in itself is an improvement -even though it also opens the door to both great and terrible comments.
This was also a year when the behemoth Disney engineered LGBT representation in its tentpole movie, Beauty and the Beast, in the relationship between Gaston and his sidekick, LeFou. It should be applauded both for the sheer fact that it’s there, as well as for not being an entire cliché. (It was echoing the trope of the gay guy whose love for the straight guy goes unrequited, except that Gaston was a character exclusively defined by his self-absorption more than anything or anyone else.)
Avoiding the clichés of LGBT representation
A recent article tackled the idea of characters who are “gay, incidentally”, i.e. the gay characters whose sexual orientation isn’t either a plot point or only marginally relevant to the spine of the story. The representation that we’re used to is going to be the gay sidekick to a fabulous blond female lead (see Bridget Jones’s Diary) who appears to help the main character have an epiphany or the hard-partying lost soul, or the melancholy hopeful who’s love for a dreamy straight man goes unrequited…
There is no wrong in itself with those facts as long as they are not the sole characteristic of a character -just like they shouldn’t be the sole trait of a person in real life. The trend has moved towards and needs to be more comprehensive representation.
For instance, what has been so groundbreaking about Netflix’s Grace & Frankie is not just that it’s been giving a cultural face to older people, older women and older gay men in particular. When it comes to the gay men played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, it’s been incredible to see that their narrative arc was mainly about them wanting to live their love, as any couple would. (And once that had been established, season 3 spent a good number of episodes tackling the topic of homophobic abuse -which is clearly specific to the gay demographic- and in a very upfront way.)
Embracing the new
In that respect, Netflix has given a great opportunity for representation. They’ve also released a series inspired by the groundbreaking feature Dear White People. (They’ve also cancelled Sense8 and I don’t know how I feel about it.) In general, the Internet has given a new opportunity for filmmakers to find audiences and flattened what used to be very hierarchical social dynamics. Therefore a well-targeted film (or “content”) that goes viral will be seen by tens of millions within hours. This is an unprecedented chance for representation. This is all the truer at a time when audiences are craving documentaries and issue-based films.
Embracing the new also means new ways of thinking about LGBT representation. I’ve mentioned examples of positive representation, but we should also learn from misfires: Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall, which was supposed to be the groundbreaking, go-to encyclopaedic film if you wanted to know anything about the 1969 uprising was destroyed publicly as it hadn’t embraced the intersectional reality of those times, and the contemporary need for intersectional representation.
Anything less than the truth was pinkwashing. Anything less than full, complex, real characters will be cheating.