As I sit here eating an M&S LGBT Sandwich, Rainbow Starbucks mug, and a bank opposite with rainbow logos, it became clear that this is Pride Month – time for many in the LGBT community to feel as accepted as we do commercialized.
The “rainbow company logo” commodification has received some ire from certain members because … well, decades of suffering and discrimination has translated to a limited edition rainbow tote bag.
Then again, we live in a world where everything from experiences, to religion, to culture is brought and sold. So, I guess (in a way) there’s nothing more accepting than being commodified like everybody else. Equality?
Instead, I’m going to look more at LGBT representation in current franchises, and the surprising hurdles that studios consider when it comes to their properties.
For a focus point, I’m going to look at the superhero genre. Not because I’m just … a superhero fan, but because it’s the most popular genre globally. After all, the world went nuts over Avengers: Endgame, and with so many characters they are bound to have some LGBT character … right?
A BASIC OVERVIEW OF REPRESENTATION
When dealing with gay characters in blockbusters, often the way to go about it was coding.
As a genre, superheroes were (for the longest time) focused on straight, red-blooded American power fantasies. Being stronger, faster, getting the girl, saying a magic word and becoming a superhero, or just beating up Hitler and supporting the troops. The only one that raised an eyebrow was Batman, addressed more in Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954). But even then, it was all subtext.
But once Marvel came onto the scene, realism and social issues began to be addressed more in the medium. Puberty, social issues, awkwardness, and anxiety took the place of impossible power fantasy – this was where more was done to address LGBT topics in the medium.
X-Men is probably the best franchise of superheroes being coded gay – their powers develop around puberty, they experience prejudice from the outside world. We even have Iceman “come out” as a mutant by saying “You didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell,” in X2: X-Men United.
Then we have Deadpool who is pansexual, but this isn’t really a focus of his movies. He does flirt with Colossus and use sexual innuendo, but it’s more-often-than-not played for comedy. It’s fine for what it is – I don’t think we really want a “Call Me By Your Name” for Deadpool.
The CW streaming service has a whole host of LGBT super-characters: The Ray, Constantantine, White Canary, Captain Cold, Supergirl has … a surprising amount of representation for a TV series.
On top of that, we’ve recently had a trailer for Batwoman – a lesbian cousin to Bruce Wayne, who breaks into the Batcave with heavy PC overtones, and lines like “I’m not going to let a man take credit for a woman’s work” … despite her wearing his suit, and using his gear.
It’s problematic – and has received major backlash. Now, I don’t think this is due to unfounded prejudice, but more an approach of over-politicising a character.
I wrote a post a while back on the dangers of politicking your character … in this case, the trailer has been disliked more than Ghostbusters 2016 – currently at 374k!
As good as representation is, I don’t think overt socio-politics is going to win people over and change minds.
Larry Trainor is an All-American hero pilot in the 60s. He has a wife, kids, and a secret gay relationship. His “power” – the negative spirit, disfigures him, and compels him to confront his past and leaves his body to fight any threat.
But this year, my personal favourite openly-gay superhero is Negative Man from the phenomenal DC Universe Doom Patrol.
It doesn’t feel like it’s pushing an agenda and has an amazing Rotten Tomatoes score.
For me Doom Patrol is a great case study in doing diversity right, and I think this scene is one of the most perfect things ever.
He is a superhero who happens to be gay. He is well-developed. His anxieties are realised. It is amazingly well executed, and I highly recommend it on DC’s streaming service.
Outside of the Superhero Genre, we’ve seen LGBT films getting more attention. Call Me By Your Name did well in festivals, Bohemian Rhapsody left with four Oscars, and now we have the recently-released Rocketman which has done very well. Films that directly deal with LGBT topics … and they’re all independent.
A very special group indeed.
But what does this mean for blockbusters and your typical American action movie. Why haven’t we seen an openly gay superhero on the silver screen? Why haven’t we seen a lesbian action hero?
And what does this have to do with global film markets?
THE “OFF-SCREEN” LGBT CHARACTER
You may have noticed a pattern in the platforms I mentioned. Every LGBT superhero exists on a streaming service. On film, they are at best “coded” Gay – or, in Iceman’s case, openly gay in supplementary material like the comics.
But why? Evidently these studios are happy to include LGBT representation in their properties.
This is most apparent with DC – a ton of characters on their streaming services. But for the films … there’s really not a lot. We get an off-screen “Wonder Woman might be …”, but that’s really how this is handled for blockbusters.
So, why more LGBT on TV than film? Is there a platform barrier? Kinda.
I don’t think any major studio in the US doesn’t want to be diverse. Often we hear about characters who were “really gay all along”.
Marvel’s Valkyrie – Bisexual.
Wonder Woman – Bisexual (I guess).
Dumbledore and Grindlewald – “Intense” off-screen relationship.
We never actually get anything on screen, despite the screenwriters easily being able to write them in.
So why didn’t they just give Valkyrie a girlfriend in New Asgard?
Why haven’t we seen any of this?
The answer: The Global Film Market – mainly China.
THE GLASS PLATFORM OF THE GLOBAL FILM MARKET
Bet you didn’t think we would go into Global Economics and Film Markets, did you? Surely, we can just add more gay characters in major films, right? Wrong – and wrong not out of Western prejudices, but because of money.
For the first time, China has overtaken the US as the world’s largest film-market. When considering what’s going to sell, studios will always factor in China when developing a property.
In this market, there is something called SAPPRFT – State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television. (Or just SAFT when referring to the Film and TV).
Essentially, there are guidelines for what is and isn’t allowed to be shown in China. They are a government body responsible for censoring material deemed unsuitable for the Chinese filmgoer.
Without going through the whole list, this includes stuff like:
- Standard stuff: Excessive gore, violence, etc.
- Political stuff. (Defamation of revolutionary leaders, the people’s liberation army … you get it.)
- Pornography, prostitution, homosexuality, one-night-stands … etc.
- Ghosts (freakin’ ghosts?), Witchcraft, Pseudoscience, Spiritual Possession.
Yes, Ghosts and Supernatural … stuff. It actually hampers the box office more times than you might think.
But the focus here is on homosexuality – and how it’s a big red line in Chinese theatrical releases.
Unsurprisingly, this is why Freddie Mercury was dubbed “Very Special Man.”
Taking this into consideration, only 34 major foreign releases are allowed in China each year. Of these 34 these will mostly go to Disney, Warner Bros., Paramount, and other major studio, or critically-acclaimed pictures – for Bohemian Rhapsody heavily edited.
But of these western films, they can be big money in China.
This is what I call it “The Glass Platform.” It isn’t that Disney, Marvel, and DC aren’t willing to do more for diversity, it’s that the monetary incentive is working against them in international markets.
For the global film market, monetary recoupment disincentivises LGBT representation.
The closest we can have are Western streaming services that offer a greater character variety.
So, if you’re wondering why there’s far more gay on TV, but not necessarily in big blockbuster hits, I imagine it’s to do with studios looking at a global appeal.
It looks like Pride and Money are intrinsically linked. That may sound depressing, but it
We have already made huge progress in representation in media, and I can’t see that going away soon.
In the global economy however, we often see films have as much “worldwide” appeal as possible – even if that does mean scaling back on the diversity out of monetary necessity.
But I think that’s a negative way to look at things. It’s far more positive to think of all platforms coinciding to larger narratives and representation.
Sure, we may not have an internationally-acclaimed Gay action movie anytime soon, but we live in an age where streaming services are able to more-than make up for the homogenised content of the silver screen – currently consisting of superheroes, remakes, and horror.
Internationally, we have seen progress. This year Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalise gay marriage, and if other markets follow suit in the Far East, then there’s far greater scope to explore more diverse content.
So, whether it’s buying a rainbow tote bag, liking a company change its logo, eating an LGBT sandwich, or watching DC’s phenomenal Doom Patrol, have a great month and take Pride in your multi-platform diversity.