Statistics prove Hollywood is careless with lesbian/bi characters on the big and small screen

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The end of April was like the first time it’s warm enough to sit outside in the sun after a long winter. You take a deep breath and think, “Oh this is nice. Can’t it always be like this?” I refer first and foremost to the unveiling of the LGBT Fans Deserve Better Pledge, also called #TheLexaPledge. As we briefly mentioned in Morning Brew, the pledge was created by writer and co-executive producer of Saving Hope Noelle Carbone, Saving Hope producer Sonai Hosko, Leskru Fundraiser Creator Gina Tass, and producer, director, and writer Michelle Mama. It contains seven points for the compassionate treatment of queer TV characters in light of the “Bury Your Gays” trope:

1) We will ensure that any significant or recurring LGBTQ characters we introduce, to a new or pre-existing series, will have significant storylines with meaningful arcs.

2) When creating arcs for these significant or recurring characters we will consult sources within the LGBTQ community, like queer writers or producers on staff, or members of queer advocacy groups like GLAAD, the Trevor Project, It Gets Better, Egale, The 519, etc.

3) We recognize that the LGBTQ community is underrepresented on television and, as such, that the deaths of queer characters have deep psychosocial ramifications.

4) We refuse to kill off a queer character solely to further the plot of a straight one.

5) We acknowledge that the Bury Your Gays trope is harmful to the greater LGBTQ community, especially to queer youth. As such, we will avoid making story choices that perpetuate that toxic trope.

6) We promise never to bait or mislead fans via social media or any other outlet.

7) We know there is a long road ahead of us to ensure that the queer community is properly and fairly represented on tv. We pledge to begin that journey today.

pledgebanner2-1via lgbtfansdeservebetter.com

It’s sensitive, sincere, and displays a conscientious understanding of the historical treatment of queer characters on TV. Moreover, it’s just the sort of proactive initiative we want our allies in Hollywood to take. 15 TV showrunners and writers have signed the pledge, including the co-executive producer of The Catch and the co-creator and writers and producers from Saving Hope and Rookie Blue.

Even if signing the pledge doesn’t catch on in the rest of Hollywood (I hope it does, but I’m a natural skeptic, and no new signatures have posted to the site since April 26th), it’s still a huge, symbolic step forward. The Catch co-executive producer Sherry White posted a statement after she signed #TheLexaPledge apologizing for the death of bisexual character Felicity on the show and noted that had she known about the “Bury Your Gays” trope, she would have fought to keep the character alive. Saving Hope’s writers reported that understanding the trope had led them to keep alive a recurring lesbian character they had been planning on killing to create dramatic impact. That’s clear, tangible impact during a time in which approximately 12 additional queer female characters have been killed on TV since Lexa’s death two months ago.

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In addition, because the #LexaPledge has been reported in the media, any show in the future considering whether to kill a queer character or keep her alive—whether crewmembers signed the pledge or not—is likely to now do so with the understanding the show will face intense social media scrutiny if it decides to kill the character, and is liable to be accused of furthering the “Bury Your Gays” trope. Although this does not mean that no queer character can ever again be killed, now and forever, it is likely to give shows pause to consider whether the death of a character is to further the plotline of straight characters, or whether it is essential to the show itself. This will require a more introspective mindset and a commitment to social responsibility not necessarily formerly required of shows, which in itself is a positive development.  

In other fantastic April news, the BBC announced it is mandating that 8% of its television characters, on-air personalities, and executives be LGBT, 15% racial minorities, and 8% disabled by 2020. In addition, half the roles will be filled by women. This employee demographics overhaul of the world’s largest and oldest broadcasting station is set to be done in an ambitious three-year timeframe. As of 2014, the BBC had 35,402 employees, meaning that by my math, the station will need to fill approximately 2,832 LGBT slots (1,676 if only full-time staff is counted). The BBC’s commitment to fair representation of minorities in its workforce is astounding in scope, and will represent a pivotal turning point on minority representation among media outlets if other international broadcasting stations follow suit. 

For example, if Twenty-First Century Fox—which includes the 20th Century Fox slate of movie studios, the Fox News Group, the Fox Television Group, FX Networks, Fox Sports Media Group, and the National Geographic Channels—followed suit, that would be 1,640 of its approximately 20,500 (in 2015) jobs going to LGBT individuals. Moreover, we would see major shifts in representation in movies and on tv because of Fox’s pervasive influence in Hollywood. Imagine a world in which 8% of the characters in the X-Men series or How I Met Your Mother were queer. Although it seems like an impossible shift for Americans, it will soon be a reality for residents of the UK.

Unfortunately, progress on the small screen—albeit ad hoc and slow, given it will take time for #TheLexaPledge and other efforts to influence current storylines and episodes in production —has nowhere near translated to inclusivity on the big screen. We previously noted the doubling in the number of lesbian characters in movies in 2016 compared to 2015 (23% to 10%) per GLAAD’s 2016 Studio Responsibility Index and lamented that most of these characters only filled bit parts. Numbers don’t lie. Of the 22 major studio releases (out of 114 that GLAAD assessed) that had any queer characters, only eight passed the Vito Russo Test. To pass the Vito Russo Test, the following must be true:

  • The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.
  • That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity (i.e. they are comprised of the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate straight/non-transgender characters from one another).
  • The LGBT character 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 failure of almost 2/3 of the movies with queer characters to pass the Vito Russo Test is at least in part because of the 22 films, 16 (73%) include less than ten minutes of screen time for LGBT characters, with 12 of the 16 clocking in at less than five minutes. This means that in all major Hollywood studio movie releases in 2015, only 5% had a queer character present for more than 10 minutes on-screen. The other queer characters were either slapstick jokes or background characters.

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Hollywood is the poster child for capitalism: it pursues what it thinks will sell and ignores what it thinks won’t. Hollywood has traditionally viewed small “art house” or independent films as the best avenue for queer-themed movies (Carol, for example, isn’t in GLAAD’s report because it wasn’t released by a major studio), because “niche” movies are unlikely to make the same sort of money as blockbusters like Avatar (the #2 highest grossing movie of all time behind Gone With the Wind when adjusted for inflation). This is indisputably true, but doesn’t explain why there can’t be queer characters in Avatar. The character of Deadpool, for example, is pansexual, per both Deadpool director Tim Miller and lead actor Ryan Reynolds, and the movie is the highest grossing R-rated movie of all time.  

If television is gradually improving its treatment and representation of the queer community, movies must follow as well, even if that means that we have to use a financial argument rather than one of social responsibility. And if we’re going to be stuck with comic book action movies for the next 10 years, then dear Flying Spaghetti Monster, please let at least one of the women be a strong, confident superhero lesbian who doesn’t die, go straight, or fit into insensitive lesbian stereotypes.     

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