LBGT representation: is it changing?

Ysabela Golden

On Thursday, Jan. 31, actress Ellen Page gave a powerful interview on The Late Show with Steven Colbert about the harmful effects of hateful leadership in our country and around the globe. Page hadn’t been on the show since shortly after coming out as a lesbian in 2014, and though ostensibly she was there to promote her new Netflix show The Umbrella Academy, interviewer Stephen Colbert’s questions jumped almost immediately to the challenges still facing the LGBT community even in today’s “more accepting” America.

Though the interview quickly escalated to discussion of the recent assault of actor Jussie Smollett and the legislative homophobia of Vice President Mike Pence, it started with an interesting question about Hollywood progressiveness. Though Page said that though Hollywood has changed — even in just the five years since she’s been publicly out — it hasn’t changed nearly enough.

She doesn’t go into too much detail (Colbert has many questions and it’s a short interview) but she touched on an important point. Sure, it’s wonderful that we in 2019 have mainstream gay representation in the media, including Orange is the New Black, Riverdale and what have you, but the mere existence of gay representation is hardly an invention of the past five years. Love, Simon (2018), for example, got a lot of hype and press as a film that prominently featured both gay characters and gay issues. It certainly wasn’t the first to do so – The Birdcage (1996) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) were both comedy/dramas with gay themes (and arguably better writing) that came out over twenty years ago. The progressiveness of Love, Simon wasn’t just that it had a gay protagonist — that’s been done — but that it was an all-ages family film with a gay protagonist.

Hollywood and television networks alike are reluctant to put LGBT representation into media that isn’t marketed as “adult.” If creators have already jumped into the realm of mature audiences with sex and violence, they’re freer to have characters in same-sex relationships or (even less likely) transgender characters. But in media intended for children, any representation is an uphill battle that risks torches and pitchforks in response. 

In 2018 the kid’s cartoon Steven Universe featured the first same-sex marriage proposal to ever appear in the medium, a taxing achievement that took showrunner Rebecca Sugar years of fighting and negotiations that started with the two characters being unable to so much as kiss onscreen. Even once she won permission for hand-holding and cheek kisses in 2014, she was faced with the barrier of censorship in other countries, which resulted in many scenes being edited or cut entirely. 

The issue of foreign censorship has the same effect on Hollywood as it does to international TV networks. In the modern era of cinema, counting on domestic audiences to make a blockbuster is a risky experiment few executives are willing to make. But including openly LGBT characters in a movie mean domestic audiences are pretty much all you’re going to get, thanks to censors in countries like Russia and China that otherwise bring in the big bucks for American movie makers. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018) avoided the subject of Dumbledore’s sexuality for exactly that reason. Beauty and the Beast (2017) narrowly avoided being censored in Russia for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of two men dancing that was hardly even considered representation in the U.S.

It’s wonderful that adults in the LGBT community have representation in the media (to some extent, at least). But networks restraining that representation to “mature” media is at best no help to younger audiences struggling with their identities, and at worst actively associates the LGBT community with graphic, inappropriate material. Unless Hollywood stops banking on foreign markets to inflate their fortunes, even that representation won’t be making it to the summer blockbusters anytime soon.