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The Wrought Landscape of LGBTQ+ Cinema in Hollywood and Beyond

The Wrought Landscape of LGBTQ+ Cinema in Hollywood and Beyond

While LGBTQ+ and transgender individuals have always contributed greatly to independent and avant-garde art scenes, throughout the early 21st century we have seen tectonic shifts ushering in an entirely new space for such communities in the mainstream. While this has occurred across the board, for this article let’s keep our lens focused on popular film and television.

While LGBTQ+ and transgender individuals have always contributed greatly to independent and avant-garde art scenes, throughout the early 21st century we have seen tectonic shifts ushering in an entirely new space for such communities in the mainstream. While this has occurred across the board, for this article let’s keep our lens focused on popular film and television.

Even just within the last few years, we have seen giants like Disney introducing characters with various identities, long-standing series like Star Trek: Discovery” carving out space for non-binary and transgender characters and platforms as colossal as Netflix giving much needed exhibition space explorations of identity. The most recent of which, “Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen”, providing a probing look behind the curtain.

However, to look at this progression and to call these issues resolved would be to miss the point. As although the ideology of embracing all identities may be moving through Hollywood like a wildfire, that is not to say there are not concerns to be flagged up both in the US and abroad.

Residual Representations

In 1985, Alison Bechdel drew up a now iconic comic strip in her series titled “Dykes to Watch Out For”. The strip, itself titled The Rule lay out the foundations of what would become the Bechdel test—a measure to identify male-centric female characters through cinema. To pass the test a film would need to (1) have at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something other than a man.

Although the test is obviously misunderstood as identifying feminist films—which is does not necessarily do—the incredibly overwhelming failure of Hollywood films to include these three simple factors was a stark measure of Hollywood’s warped representation of women.

Taking inspiration from the Bechdel test, GLAAD co-founder Vito Russo penned the Vito Russo test to shine a light on LGBTQ+ representation. Here for films needed to (1) contain a character that identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, (2) who does not solely define themselves by their sexual orientation while (3) being tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect.

While such a metric may be doomed to fail in today’s industry en masse, the test found only 64% of LGBTQ-inclusive studio films passed the test themselves. While such a result could be read in a number of ways, it’s clear that the crux of LGBTQ+ representation is yet to reach its conclusion.

However, we cannot ignore the overwhelming increase in inclusion. GLAAD noted in 2018 that 18.2% of all major studio releases included LGBTQ+ characters. Similarly, 8.8% of all regular characters in primetime scripted broadcast TV shows aired between 2018 and 2019 identified as LGBTQ, setting a new yearly record.

But Lumping all identities into the easy to classify label of LGBTQ+ also has its problems. The numbers above may suggest an overwhelming push for all identities, but this is clearly not the case. Laverne Cox, the transgender actress and activist, stated in an interview with Variety that there are particularly few transgender actors in film; explaining “many studio executives privately admit they are worried that casting gay or transgender actors could hurt the bottom line of a film in international territories — especially China — that are less tolerant of LGBTQ+ rights.”

Cox further explains that this reluctance for inclusion becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy similar to that of Hollywood’s prior reluctance to cast those of non-white races—a notion torn apart by the recent international success of films like Black Panther among many others.


Colette has been produced in Hungary. The story of French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette is that of many women throughout history: she did something great, and someone else took credit for it. Not long married and struggling for money, Colette’s (Keira Knightley) husband Willy (Dominic West) convinces her to pen a semi-autobiographical novel. It’s a hit, and so she is pressured to write several sequels, watching her stories spread like wildfire around Paris and her husband be congratulated for it. After expressing an interest in women, Colette embarks on several affairs – they include American dilletante Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson), and Missy (Denise Gough), a suit-wearing Marquis with he/him pronouns who she stayed with long after her marriage ended. Though told through fairly conventional methods, Colette’s story is fascinating, and Knightley’s spiky, rebellious performance is one of her very best.

A Global Concern

It goes without saying that LGBTQ+ rights and representation are a concern that stretches far beyond Hollywood and the US. However, as per Cox’s aforementioned comments, it is not often seen this way by the American industry. With studio films and executives pandering to the needs of international market censorship standards, these representations often get side-lined, damaged or cut altogether.

To cite a well-known example, at the climax of “Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker”, as the rebels celebrate their victory, two female rebels share a joyful kiss. While this marked the first show of same-sex affection within the, then, 42 year old series it also sparked much debate when the moment was cut from the Singaporean release.

Similar cuts, exclusions or creative wariness can be seen when exporting American films across the globe. Be it in the second largest market, China, where every released film must first be approved by censors or in smaller nations like Singapore and the UAE among countless others. While some territories, like Russia, have rife anti-gay legislation the issue often seems to transcend legal boundaries being passed on a case-by-case basis which often places transgender representations and male homosexuality at the bottom of the barrel.

But, in my opinion, some of the issues regarding the US export of LGBTQ+ acceptance through media taps into a larger disconnect between the USA and its historical and political opponents. Resulting a similar reaction in such nations to when historically communist ideals are introduced or suggested to take seed within the US system. In short, few competitors will ever want to bow down to the ideology of an opponent—regardless of whether it is right or not.

Outside of the world of film, throughout the early 2010s the American government embarked on an ambitious campaign to expand rights for the LGBTQ+ community across the globe. While over $700 million was earmarked for such support, many of the nations who received the US’s moralistic finger-point exclaimed that such outside influence didn’t help the situation.

One example from Nigeria, who reported to the New York Times, explained that “The U.S. support is making matters worse… There’s more resistance now. It’s triggered people’s defence mechanism.” Of course, such teething issues are inevitable with any social change—however these responses may suggest such an approach is not ideal.

Supernova (2020)

“It’s rare to see a cinematic drama executed with such consistent care as Supernova, written and directed by Harry Macqueen and starring Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci. And here, that care pays off to devastating effect.”New York Times

Behind the Camera

While representations continue to change in front of the camera, it is in the interest of many to ensure that such changes are reflected in the creative crew working behind the scenes.

Again, inspired by Bechdel, there have been several tests suggested to help raise awareness of the ongoing gender and representational imbalances within film crews. The Uphold Test simply asks whether 50% of the crew are female, while the Waithe test investigates the inclusion of African Americans working behind the camera.

To my knowledge, there are yet to be any widespread tests exploring LGBTQ+ representation within film crews.

Through this all, it is clear that Hollywood and the global film industry is shifting towards accepting LGBTQ+ representation—with different nations moving at expectedly different paces. Yet many claim even the US’s approach is “the bare minimum” for an array of reasons. Foremost of which may be the fact that some of the newfound representations may be somewhat disingenuous, given the fact that queer people, especially white queer people, are a significant marketing demographic. This makes simply catering to those communities (without engaging in the ideological discourse) a favourable approach to many within a capitalist system.

That said, with the ever strengthening presence of pragmatic and theoretical institutions, from GLAAD to the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, it is clear that those fighting for representation form the true backbone of LGBTQ+ representations in cinema, not the Hollywood Studios.

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