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Going to the movies, or choosing something to watch in the pleasure of your home with On Demand, is often just a chance to escape and experience whatever world a movie can offer you. But, those movies we pluck down dollars to watch are reflections of our world whether we like it or not. So, what happens when the overt and subtle messages are not positive or, in fact, so far off the mark you wonder how somebody didn’t say, “Hey, you realize we’re sending a not-so-great message, right?”
While we don’t know the inner workings at the movie studios releasing these films, GLAAD keeps an eye on the output and the content and, earlier this week, released its annual Studio Responsibility Index (SRI). This year’s SRI, according to the GLAAD website, is “a report that maps the quantity, quality, and diversity of images of LGBT people in films released by the seven largest studios during the 2015 calendar year. After an improvement in our previous report, we found that racial diversity of LGBT characters drastically decreased and there remains a lack of substantial LGBT characters in mainstream films.”
While independent films often are the place to go for positive LGBT representation and inclusion, the bigger movie studios are the ones with the broader and longer reach to audiences, so they should be taken to task when they’re not being responsible in their depictions of our community, right?
As the report states, “GLAAD found that of the 126 releases from the major studios in 2015, 22 of them (17.5%) included characters identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender. This is no change from the 17.5% of films (20 of 114) found to be inclusive last year. Transgender representation is shockingly low with only one character in the mainstream releases of 2015—whose brief appearance served as a punchline to laugh at when her identity is revealed. The majority of LGBT characters GLAAD found in films from the seven biggest studios in 2015 were minor characters—in substance and screen time—or even just cameos. Of the 22 inclusive films, almost three quarters (73%) include less than 10 minutes of screen time for LGBT characters. This lack of substantive characters is reflected in the historically low percentage of inclusive films (36%) which passed the Vito Russo Test.”
“Hollywood’s films lag far behind any other form of media when it comes to portrayals of LGBT characters,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, GLAAD President & CEO. “Too often, the few LGBT characters that make it to the big screen are the target of a punchline or token characters. The film industry must embrace new and inclusive stories if it wants to remain competitive and relevant.”
It seems shocking and surprising that in 2016, none of the studios looked at received a “good” rating for their releases last year. The report states, “20th Century Fox, Lionsgate Entertainment, Sony Columbia Pictures, and Universal Pictures all received ratings of ‘adequate,’ while Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, and Warner Brothers all received a ‘failing’ grade for their portrayals of LGBT people. Beginning next year, GLAAD’s SRI will implement a new grading system to more accurately report on LGBT representation in Hollywood. Instead of a four-grade system, GLAAD will implement a five-star scale, from one star (‘failing’) to five stars (‘excellent’).”
GLAAD also examined releases from smaller studios like Focus Features, Fox Searchlight, Roadside Attractions, and Sony Pictures Classics to see how they measured up compared to content of the mainstream studios and “art house” divisions. “Of the 46 films released under those studios’ imprints in 2015, GLAAD found 10 (22%) to be LGBT-inclusive,” the report explains. “This is an increase from the 10.6% (5 of 47) of films from the same divisions in 2014, and a notably higher percentage of inclusive releases than the mainstream studios.”
The aforementioned Vito Russo Test measures releases in a few different ways to come up with a score for the studio. Per the report, “The Vito Russo Test criteria:
1. The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender (LGBT).
2. That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity (i.e. the character is comprised of the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate straight characters from one another).
3. 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 should matter.
Only 8 of the 22 (36%) major studio films that featured an LGBT character passed the Vito Russo Test in 2015, the lowest percentage in this study’s history.”
Here are a few films that rose to the occasion with LGBT representation…
“Grandma” (Sony Pictures Classic): The story of a lesbian grandmother, Elle, (Golden Globe nominee Lily Tomlin) helping her teenage granddaughter (Julia Garner) raise money for an abortion while also working on her relationship with her daughter (Marcia Gay Harden) and even a past lover (Sam Elliott). This is no coming-out story, and Elle is both deeply caring and fiercely vocal and combative with other people.
“Freeheld” (Lionsgate): One of the few movies to have lesbian characters in lead roles, and the majority of the film is their story. While the film, starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, did not gain much momentum at the box office and is the only film distributed by a major studio last year to be nominated for a GLAAD Media Award, it’s a step in the right direction and an example of what films can achieve.
…and a few that failed miserably.
“Get Hard” (Warner Brothers) and “The Wedding Ringer” (Sony): If you’re looking for positive portrayals, best to steer clear of films featuring Kevin Hart. Hart starred in not one but two films that GLAAD pointed out as negative representations of LGBT people. The fact that each film was with a different studio is a further example of big studios not being too concerned about falling on stereotypical jokes and portrayals.
“Hot Tub Time Machine 2” (Paramount): Gay panic and homophobia are still lazy, tired tropes that films (usually aimed at young men) fall back on all too frequently with no regard for the subtle message they’re sending. With this sequel released in nearly 3,000 theaters, it mined cheap laughs instead of making an attempt at being responsible. Boo.
While it may seem that we’re making slow progress, let’s hope bringing the issues to light with the studios will help them adjust story lines and representation in the future.
For more on GLAAD and to read the entire SRI, visit the website