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LGBT Film: Still Suffering From Baby-Step Syndrome

After marriage equality, LGBTQ cinema is in flux—and Hollywood has been slow to adapt.
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Roland Emmerich's 'Stonewall'

Roland Emmerich's Stonewall was made for straight people to watch. (Photo: Roadside Attractions)

Last September, GLAAD, the organization that “tackles tough issues” among the LGBTQ community, discontinued its annual Network Responsibility Index after nearly a decade. The report’s role was to examine and quantify the presence and visibility of LGBTQ characters on television, and, with networks like ABC Family and Fox having garnered excellent reports (A&E and History did not fare as well), the focus of GLAAD’s efforts in the entertainment industry has shifted from quantity to quality. GLAAD’s chief executive said in a statement, “This milestone [ending the NRI] highlights real change across the media landscape.”

That’s true—but only really in television. In contrast, the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism published a report revealing that, across the 100 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2014, LGBT visibility was, well, barely visible, with a total of 19 lesbian, gay, or bisexual characters in major films over that period.

To be fair, the Annenberg scale depends on the very narrow selection of movies that actually get produced and distributed on a wide platform. Few explicitly LGBTQ films have enjoyed such distribution, and, when they do, they often falter among both critics and the queer community. Five or so high-profile queer films were released in 2015—Stonewall, Freeheld, About Ray, Carol, and The Danish Girl—and all of them, with the exception of Carol, catalyzed a dialogue about the state of “Hollywood LGBT cinema.” Critics Jon Frosch and David Rooney have gone back and forth over “Hollywood’s Big Queer Year That Wasn’t,” noting that these films have either disappointed the queer community with dated tropes as crutches, or failed to make an impression at the box office—think Stonewall, which grossed just over $185,000.

Is this one effect of a “post-marriage equality world”? Even in an atmosphere of widening acceptance, stories of LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups often still play a game of respectability politics—that is, remaining unthreatening to a wide audience. A character in Andrew Haigh’s 2011 British film Weekend half jokes, “We mustn’t scare the straights!” Sad to say, this defensive mentality has turned high-profile projects into well-meaning but palatable films that too often sell out the communities that these films ostensibly want to represent. In other words, “gay” films are very rarely being made with the gay community in mind. Uncomfortable about cultural blowback to a grittier portrayal of homosexuality, these films suffer from “Baby Step Syndrome.”

It is immensely frustrating that we should still be adhering so closely to the old method of queer-visibility-by-stereotype at the cost of good filmmaking.

Not all high-profile queer films are in this vein, certainly. Brokeback Mountain, Milk, and The Kids Are All Right became popular and commanded a degree of visibility that few queer films achieve. But these films—despite what you’ll hear from Frosch and Rooney and others—are not the rule, but, rather, the exception.

The place to look for truly bold gay cinema is the indie or art-house scene: Last year, we saw the arrival of Sean Baker’s Tangerine, Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm, Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood, Paul Weitz’s Grandma, and Sebastian Silva’s Nasty Baby. What do these films have in common? They don’t pander. The problem with films like Stonewall and The Danish Girl is their desperation to straddle a line between respectability politics and honest, human portrayals. It isn’t just that the queer community called Stonewall a whitewashed, revisionist account of historical events or that, in spite of the awards buzz, The Danish Girl is fetishistic in its portrayal of trans identity; it’s that these films suffer from what amounts to “Baby Step Syndrome,” relying heavily on clichéd conventions.

The documentary based on Vito Russo’s book The Celluloid Closet—which details various (lazy) queer cinematic archetypes and codes like the sissy, the murderous gay, the tragic lesbian—was released 20 years ago. It is immensely frustrating that we should still be adhering so closely to the old method of queer-visibility-by-stereotype, at the cost of good filmmaking and considerate representation, when there is an abundance of interesting LGBTQ media available for consumption, especially when it feels like television is leaving Hollywood movies in the dust with Looking, Transparent, and Empire.

What could be in the future for Hollywood LGBT film? With directors like Dolan, Sciamma, Desiree Akhavan (who wrote and directed Appropriate Behavior), true queer cinema—untouched by overly squeamish producers—is as on the ball about the complexity of representation as it is about the complexity of storytelling. That Hollywood is decidedly not ready to produce provocations like Nasty Baby or even raw sweetness like The Way He Looks shouldn’t be a surprise. In an effort to cater to the status quo (read: straight white people, generally men), when has Hollywood not told stories of marginalized people that relied heavily either on a regressive archetype or some sort of savior?

While many of these directors are queer themselves—a consideration that certainly affects their filmmaking—it’s no guarantee of a richness in queer realism: Emmerich is gay, but—because of his own personal wishes, pressure from producers, or both—he flubbed the marketing on Stonewall, simultaneously focusing on a white, masculine character to appeal to a wide audience, but also placing advertisements in specialty outlets like Out magazine and on the dating/hook-up application Grindr. This presents a mixed message—the film is indecisive in its tone and approach in terms of what kind of audience it wants, and to whom it will pander. (The rest of Emmerich’s well-known filmography is pretty devoid of queer subtext, beyond attractive male cast members.)

The Sundance Film Festival boasted five queer films in its main competition (As You Are, Lovesong, Other People, Spa Night, and The Intervention); in fact, nearly all of the films mentioned in this piece premiered at festivals, from Sundance to Venice to Toronto, and most of them had been shopped around Hollywood before being made. Which is to say, when it comes to LGBTQ films, it’s important that the film industry learn how to represent the complexity of human experience beyond a majority.

There are two potential solutions, one of which sounds ridiculous and improbable: The first is that Hollywood keep its hands off queer films, or films about marginalized people in general, until it can tell a story without pandering to a majority audience. The second is that we, the audience, push the industry—producers, executives, et al.—to become as inclusive and diverse as the stories they want to exhibit. It is no secret that mainstream film output is kind of monolithic, and Hollywood is naturally prone to baby steps with non-queer minority demographics as well. In the simplest terms, we need the executives who green-light these stories to be as representative and varied as the stories themselves. And we need audiences to demand more—not to be spoon-fed anymore.

There’s no shortage of great, fascinating, even groundbreaking queer cinema. Dolan has one (or two?) new films on the way, and both TIFF gem Closet Monster and Pedro Almodovar’s Silencio are set to premiere in 2016. But those are technically on the outskirts of the Hollywood system. I’m fine with a queer film not being at the forefront of Oscar buzz, but I’m not really fine with other people being OK with lazy or boring storytelling or filmmaking. It’s time for adult steps.