In my last article about the future of queer women on screen, I asked whether queer “visibility” would be an issue in the future, citing GLAAD’s 2016 Studio Responsibility Index report that about 4% of all characters in major motion picture releases in 2015 were queer women. I trusted and used GLAAD’s statistics because GLAAD has for decades presented itself as the unquestioned authority on all things queer on screen. And while that statistic stands, perhaps GLAAD should have done a bit more qualitative analysis. Here’s what I mean: every year, the University of Southern California Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative produces an analytical report about demographic representations on screen and behind the camera for the 100 top grossing US fictional films. This annual report is the most comprehensive and rigorous intersectional analysis of characters in popular movie content.
Reading the Annenberg report is like stumbling into a crime scene. The crime, of course, is Hollywood’s rampant and persistent biases; specifically, sexism, ageism, racism, and homophobia. How bad is the problem? Of the 4,370 speaking or named characters identified for the report, just 9 were queer women. That’s a mere 0.2% of the characters in the top 100 movies. And of course, two of the women were a lesbian couple, which feels like it should count as just one character. To put that number into context, if we assume that approximately 2% of the female population is queer, we are underrepresented on screen by 90%. The report goes on to stick the knife in deeper: 72.9% of the LGBT characters were coded as “inconsequential to the plot,” with the rest in supporting roles. That means that only about three queer female characters had any real role in their movie. That’s 0.07% of all characters in the top 100 movies. Ouch.
Although researchers ranked the “underservicing” of LGBT people as #4 behind women, people with disabilities, and Hispanics/Latinos, this math is slightly problematic because it doesn’t take into account proportionality. For example, women are 50.8% of the US population but only 31.4% of speaking roles, a difference of -19.4%. However, when seen proportionally women in general were only underrepresented by about 40%…compared with 90% for queer women. If recalculated proportionally, the biggest losers would be LGBT people, people with disabilities, Hispanics/Latinos, women, Asians, and African Americans. As the study repeatedly notes, 82 of the 100 highest grossing films had no LGBT characters at all. The next closest was Asians, who were not in 49 films. This isn’t a competition, but I think we’re losing nevertheless.
So was GLAAD totally off base in its own assessment of LGBT representation in 2015 and the problem is worse than I suggested in my last article? After all, the titles of these two articles seem completely contradictory. Yes and no. The key is that the Annenberg study looks only at the top 100 grossing films in a year. That means films like “Jurassic World,” “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “American Sniper” and “Ant-Man.” “Carol,” which also came out in 2015, ranked 165th, putting it well out of the range of the Annenberg study but making the GLAAD survey pool (as we all know, movies with LGBT characters tend to be independent films, which don’t gross huge box offices). So the difference in the two assessments comes from having different base data. When lower grossing films are considered, queer women may well be 2% of all movie characters, hence how the GLAAD and Annenberg studies can appear to differ by a magnitude of ten.
Perhaps a more accurate implication of the Annenberg study isn’t, therefore, that queer women are underrepresented among movie characters, but that Hollywood has so far done an inadequate job of consciously showing queer women in certain genres. The top 20 movies of the 100, for example, were largely composed of two genres: action and animated family movies, and there were no LGBT characters in either of those genres. Animated films in particular are adamantly against any queer content, as the “Finding Dory” “lesbian couple” controversy showed. Then again, one could logically counter argue that many characters in those films could have been queer; who’s to say that Rey from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” isn’t queer–regardless of whether she eventually kisses Finn–or that one of the Minions isn’t named Ellen and has three cats and a penchant for home renovations? Homosexuality is, after all, an “invisible minority.”
The recommendation of the Annenberg study was twofold: first, every movie in the top 100 should add 5 female speaking characters to achieve gender representational parity. Second, actors should add riders to their contracts demanding greater equality in casting roles. While these measures seem palliative rather than an organic way to institutionalize better representation, it’s a first step. For the LGBT community, however, a demand to add a certain number of LGBT characters to the top 100 movies is probably unrealistic. If 2% of every movie’s speaking characters were queer women, that would mean there would be a lesbian in almost every single movie, which seems unrealistic. After all, how would all these queer female characters be flagged for viewers in a way that wasn’t offensively stereotypical like a large Lilith Fair cd collection?
The only answer that I have so far is that we need queer main characters in top box office films. Make Scarlett Witch or Black Widow in the “Avengers” movies queer, for example. We can’t have a lesbian in every single movie, but we have to start adding them to some of the big blockbusters. If we start with high profile characters, the numbers throughout other movies destined to be box office hits will eventually grow as studios become more comfortable with regularly adding LGBT characters. But to make that happen means we need allies. We can’t do it alone, as relatively stagnant numbers show. It turns out we DO need actors and directors putting riders into their contracts if that’s what it takes. So come on, A Listers, help us out!