ne-dimensional uber-camp clowns, storylines centred on “being gay”, potential sexual menaces who want to get into the pants of straight men, lesbians whose sexuality makes them a challenge for men to turn: here are how LGBT characters often appear on our screens. But that’s if they even appear at all. According to a new study by Glaad – which campaigns for LGBT representation in the media – there has been a small increase in films with LGBT characters, but from a low base. Out of 114 films they looked at, released in 2014, 17.5% featured non-straight characters, up from 16.7% the year before. Many of these depictions were problematic, with only just over half passing the “Vito Russo test”, which measures the quality of the representations. (A film only passes the Vito Russo test if it includes a LGBT character, where they are not entirely defined by their sexual orientation or gender, and they have a significant impact on the plot.)
Take Get Hard, the new so-called “comedy” starring Will Ferrell, which taps into the revulsion of some straight men at the very idea of gay sex. The release of such films is a salutary experience for many LGBT people. Look how far we have come, we often rightly think: the overturning of anti-LGBT laws across the western world, the transformation of once overwhelmingly hostile public opinions. And then, in 2015, it is still acceptable to release a film that taps into the very much still present fears and prejudices that many have about LGBT people.
With trans people, the situation is even worse. Attitudes towards trans people are stuck roughly where they were for gay men back in the 1980s: a toxic rhetoric of disgust abounds, with a frightening prejudice that trans people are sexual predators who will somehow trick the unassuming into having sex with them. As well as facing violence – sometimes murder – there are still legislative attempts to oppress and stigmatise them, like a bill submitted by a rightwing Miami Republican to ban trans people from using public toilets. And according to Glaad, there are all too few films featuring trans people. The need to show the reality of life for trans people is surely desperately needed.
Let’s face it: representation of LGBT people on our screens is comparable to how it was for those one-dimensional, insulting portrayals of black people that used to be so widespread in mainstream popular culture. Not that I’m saying that battle has been won either: Lenny Henry has been leading a campaign to tackle the lack of black and minority people in the entire media industry. The entertainment industry remains institutionally racist. But many gay writers have suggested that the portrayal of gay characters is sometimes analogous to those old minstrel shows, which are now rightly seen as unacceptable. Silly, cardboard cut-out gay men, comically mincing around for our general amusement.
Both TV and film reflect society’s general attitudes, but they also help reinforce them. More nuanced and complex takes on LGBT life are all too often ghettoised with shows such as Cucumber and Banana. A character being gay is often a storyline in and of itself: surely we need characters who simply happen to be gay, rather than being defined by it. Yes, some men are camp – loudly and proudly so – and all of us need to get over that. But others are football-obsessed, or metalheads, or any other repudiation of the pervasive stereotypes that exist. Some are bisexuals, facing prejudice from all sides and airbrushed out of existence. Orange is the New Black, with its mostly lesbian characters, has rightly won accolades and awards, but how often are lesbians otherwise portrayed on our screens?
LGBT people are as complex and varied as anybody else. They are still all too often invisible on our screens, and portrayed simplistically and problematically when they do appear. That will only change when we overcome the general prejudices in society that still exist. But that’s not an excuse. The films and TV shows of today will surely provoke bafflement in the future: “Where are all the realistic gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people?” they will ask. It will be a good question.
For decades Hollywood’s record of portraying gay characters on screen has been far from admirable, often falling into toxic stereotypes. But if that pattern appeared to have been altered by films such as Brokeback Mountain, Milk and Dallas Buyers Club, the industry has this week been accused of taking a step backwards with a blockbuster comedy described by some as an “ugly” example of homophobia.
Get Hard, a comedy starring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart and released in UK cinemas on Saturday, follows a disgraced investment banker who is headed to prison in 30 days and enlists the help of a car-washer to help him prepare. What follows is 90 minutes of farcical comedy, built mainly around Ferrell’s fear of being raped while in prison and a general disgust at the concept of gay sex. During one scene, where Ferrell is taken to a “gay brunch spot”, Hart declares it will be easy to approach a gay stranger for sex, because “that’s what they do”.
It is a movie that has prompted a wave of disgust from critics, who have accused the pervasive derogatory stereotypes of both sexuality and race as crossing the line from controversial humour to simply being offensive. Variety called it “the ugliest gay-panic humour to befoul a studio release in recent memory” while the Guardian’s Alex Needham wrote “I suspect that in years to come, media studies students will watch this film and be astonished that such a negative portrayal of homosexuality persisted in the mainstream in 2015.”
While the balanced treatment of sexuality in Hollywood is still considered be well behind that of both race and gender, recent moves in the industry have been perceived as a slow turning of the tide. Independence Day 2, which is due out next year, will feature a gay couple - an unusual move for a blockbuster. Speaking about the film director Roland Emmerich said: “We don’t make a big deal out of it. You start small and then you get bigger and bigger and bigger, and one day you have a gay character as the lead and nobody will wonder at it any more. But we’re not there yet.”
Recent research into Hollywood’s portrayal of gay characters found that only 17 of the 102 movies from major studios in 2013 featured lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters and, of those 17, the majority were offensive and defamatory portrayals. The statistics, compiled by campaigning organisation GLAAD, suggested that large Hollywood studios may still be doing more harm than good when it comes to worldwide understanding of the LGBT community. Not a single film released by the major studios that year had gay character in the lead role.
Speaking to the Guardian, Telegraph film critic Tim Robey, who himself is gay, said that Get Hard proved the industry had not moved on from its troubling and derogatory past.
“What’s troubling isn’t the premise that a straight man might be stricken by rape-anxiety before going to jail, but the crass and bludgeoning way it’s handled,” he said. “It’s very specifically presented as the Ferrell character’s fear of being raped by black men, for starters. But the joke curdles really badly when the film tries to bring gay characters on screen to back it up. The sequence at the ‘flirty’ brunch hangout, a low point in the whole movie, feels horribly backward, like the kind of thing you might expect to find in the 1980 Al Pacino film Cruising.”
He added: “There are ways to use homophobia in comic contexts which riff and evolve and wind up transcending it... Get Hard doesn’t dare get anywhere near this territory – it keeps pummelling you with the most regressive and fearful view of gay sex possible.”
The criticisms have prompted the cast and crew of Get Hard this week to jump to the defence of the film.
“The truth was that this was a really delicate balance. We wanted to think about stereotypes but not go too far,” the director Etan Cohen said earlier this month.
Both Hart and Ferrell have also said that pushing boundaries with comedy is a way to challenge people’s prejudices. “The trick to keeping it funny is not being afraid to push the envelope,” Hart told the Associated Press. “At the end of the day, stereotyping is a situation a lot of people are guilty of, including myself. Until you know someone, it’s unfair to judge that book by its cover.”
“We provoke. We prod. We also show a mirror to what’s already existing out there,” added Ferrell. “We’re playing fictitious characters who are articulating some of the attitudes and misconceptions that already exist.”
However Richard Barrios, author of Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood, said that the film showed that Hollywood would continue to pander to the lowest common denominator as long as the industry can get away with it. Despite the critical reviews, the film is expected to take $40m at the US box office alone.
“I’m sadly very familiar with the aesthetic that drives this film,” Burrios said. “Hollywood will always pay lip service to the gay community but when it comes down to the bottom line, they are still going to dredge up those old derogatory tropes and stereotypes. Gay panic is one thing and rape jokes are another and to put these two things together is especially pathetic on the part of the studio. This takes us back to the days of Eddie Murphy and those were not happy days as far as homophobic jokes were concerned.”
He added: “They can’t do it so much with racial jokes or gender roles or demeaning women because they will get called on that, but they still feel they can get away with it where sexuality is concerned. I think a long time ago television passed up movies in terms of a reasonable and balanced portrayal of gay characters. Things have got a little bit better but in a big budget, R rated film with a younger target audience, that will be the last bastion of homophobia. As long as they can get away with it they will do it. It’s really sad but completely unsurprising.”
LGBT charity Stonewall also condemned the content in films such as Get Hard as damaging. “Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic language is endemic in Britain, particularly within our schools,” it said in a statement. “This kind of ‘banter’ that people see in Hollywood films and on-screen perpetuates the idea that this kind of language is acceptable.”
However Dr Andrew Moor, who specialises in the relationship between Hollywood and homosexuality, was unconvinced Get Hard offered any lasting damage. “Sure, it peddles lazy clichés about homosexuality and has tired old stereotypes, and yes that can be offensive,” he said. “LGBT culture has campaigned against toxic representation for so so long now, and it’s still important....I’m not sure a piece of throwaway pop like this is worthy of any big campaign though.”
Key moments for LGBT cinema
- The Boys in the Band: Adapted from the play, this critically acclaimed 1970 film is set at a party in New York and was one of the first pieces of cinema to revolve around gay characters.
- Parting Glances: Shot in 1984 , it examines urban gay life during the Reagan era. The plot revolves around a gay couple and was one of the first films to address the HIV/Aids pandemic.
- Philadelphia: This 1993 film is seen as a turning point for Hollywood’s portrayal of Aids and the gay community. The film starred Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks, who played a gay lawyer suffering from Aids.
- Brokeback Mountain: Ang Lee’s moving drama about a two-decade love affair between cowboys won three Oscars in 2006 and was widely praised for its unique portrayal of a gay relationship.
- Milk: Sean Penn won the Oscar in 2008 for his portrayal of Harvey Milk in this biopic of the first openly gay politician in California who campaigned for gay rights and was assassinated in 1978.
- Dallas Buyers Club: Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both won Oscars in 2014 for their portrayals of a homophobic Texan cowboy and a drug-addicted trans woman who develop a friendship after they contract Aids.
- Hannah Ellis-PetersenBenjamin Lee
- The Guardian