Just a few days ago, GLAAD released their 2014 Studio Responsibility Index, an annual survey inaugurated last year to grade major Hollywood studios on their representation of LGBTQ+ characters. Sadly, the results aren’t pretty:
Out of the 102 releases GLAAD counted from the major studios in 2013, 17 of them (16.7%) contained characters or impressions identified as either lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. In most cases, these characters received only minutes – or even seconds – of screen time, and were often offensive portrayals.
Ouch! Those are some low numbers. And the surveyors weren’t content with stopping there—they asked film professionals why this might be happening, but got differing answers from each side of the problem. As their introduction says: “From Hollywood executives, we repeatedly heard ‘We’re not getting scripts with LGBT characters,’ while screenwriters told us, ‘The studios don’t want to make films with LGBT characters.'” Some blame can probably be assigned to both parties, but while Hollywood is entrenched in its struggle over whether or not it’s profitable to produce stories with well-written queer characters, television is far outstripping its silver screen cousin.
To pass the Vito Russo Test, the following must be true:
1) The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.
2) That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity. I.E. they are made up 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.”
Under the criteria of this test, it’s easy to see why so many Hollywood films failed to provide adequate representation. And sadly, many TV examples—such as Doctor Who’s jokey Fat Thin Gay Anglican Soldiers or Supernatural’s dead gay intern—would fail as well. Of course, television isn’t perfect, but there are some excellent representations of queer characters to be found on television.
When I first thought of this topic, Orphan Black’s Cosima Niehaus was the first character to pop into my head. One of a number of clones, Cosima is the only one of them to have gone into science. She calls herself the “geek monkey” and uses her skills to infiltrate the Dyad Institute and investigate the creation of herself and her sisters. She’s obviously intelligent, but the show never makes her one-dimensional: she’s also witty, fashionable, and passionate. And a total stoner. In light of all this, her relationship with Delphine is possibly the least important thing about her, yet the show balances romance and plot well: in one Season 1 episode, she’s arguing with fellow clone Sarah over what direction to take their investigation in, while simultaneously trying on dresses for a date with Delphine. She’s both important to the plot and is identifiably queer, and she’s become a fan favorite in a series filled with incredible female characters. Additionally, she and Delphine (“Cophine”) are the show’s flagship ship. If only all queer characters could be like this.
Although this next show isn’t particularly geeky, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk about Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Raymond Holt. Holt is chief of Brooklyn’s fictional 99th precinct, and, Detective Peralta’s poor detective skills aside, it’s clearly stated in the very first episode that Holt is gay. Holt is deadpan and serious, yet has better people skills than Peralta and knows exactly how his team ticks and how to best guide them. Brooklyn Nine-Nine doesn’t stop there: Holt is Black and his husband is white, and the show wholeheartedly embraces the topics of homophobia and discrimination, using them effectively to fuel several episodes’ worth of conflict and to further Holt’s development as a character. In one episode, Peralta punches out a crime journalist he idolizes because said journalist calls Holt by a slur; in another episode, Holt (rather grudgingly) welcomes another Black, gay cop after Gina points out that Holt’s fight against discrimination has paved the path for others to not have to fight quite so hard. Holt’s queerness is not a punchline or a joke; the show treats it respectfully, and the audience can still laugh at the absurdity of Holt and his husband having an argument while Peralta, Amy, and Terry are trapped in the adjoining bathroom with a couple of corgis.
And then there’s Captain Jack Harkness, of Doctor Who and Torchwood fame. Jack is a roguish thief turned capable leader. As head of Torchwood 3 and a time-traveling person himself, Jack protects the Earth while the Doctor is off doing timey-wimey things with his current pretty female companion. Jack was meant to be pansexual, but the first writer to touch his story in Doctor Who was Steven Moffat, a writer not known for his nuance with queer characters. According to Doctor Who Confidential and other interviews, showrunner Russell T. Davies wanted Jack to openly flirt with the male-bodied Doctor, but Moffat decided to have Jack flirt with the female Rose, first, as a way of “disguising his interest” in the Doctor. Fortunately, Davies later took Jack to his own spinoff series, Torchwood, in which dear Captain Harkness did not hide his attraction to Ianto Jones (or to anyone else) in the least. Although there are still issues with his portrayal of pansexuality, Jack is identifiably queer, certainly matters to the plot as he’s Torchwood’s protagonist, and I’d argue that he’s far more notable for his actions at the end of “Children of Earth” than for his significant others.
These are just a few of my faves, not to discount other great queer characters on TV like Modern Family’s Mitch and Cam or Elementary’s Ms. Hudson. The most important thing is that all these characters are characters—when you think of them, you don’t think “gay” or “lesbian” first, you think scientist or cop or adventurer. And Hollywood could easily have characters like this, if they weren’t so committed to their love of white, cishet male protagonists. Fortunately, female-led films like Frozen, Divergent, Twilight, and The Hunger Games have shown that female-led films are profitable. Hopefully it won’t be long before a film with a queer protagonist follows suit.