Roundtable: Queer Character Hype: Much Ado About Nothing?

In the second of our ongoing roundtable series about issues surrounding positive LGBTQ+ representation, we gathered a group of volunteers to discuss the “hype” that now seems to surround any kind of minority representation, however minimal, in many mainstream movies. There are quite a few recent examples where shows and movies have promoted LGBTQ+ rep that wasn’t necessarily noticeable on screen without creators, studios, or the entertainment media using those characters and storylines as promotional hooks. For instance, Beauty and the Beast, Power Rangers, and the Marvel franchise had big stories about including queer moments just in the past few months, and it’s easy to recall the dustups surrounding questionable rep in Finding Dory, Sulu in Star Trek, and the lack of acknowledgement of a clearly queer character in Ghostbusters last year.

Joining moderator Jess from LGBT Fans Deserve Better is JMP (Director of Content & Volunteer management, LGBTFDB) as well as volunteer contributors Puffy and Centauri2002 as they give their impressions as fans and consumers on this issue. A lightly edited version of the discussion is below.

Jess: Let’s start off: we’re hearing all about these “queer-coded” moments in film lately that may have always been included, but now the media and creators are acknowledging, promoting, and often searching for praise in of their efforts in inclusion. And yet, as we can see from the latest Glaad Studio Responsibility Index, the stats say representation in films is as poor as ever and LGBTQ+ fans report still being disappointed. Why do you think this kind of thing is happening now?

JMP: I think it’s quite a complex situation and we can’t just point to one reason for this. The fact that the industry slowly is starting to realize that diverse films do sell and attract an audience is certainly part of it (we get more and more female fronted movies lately for example). On top of that there is so much content created that movies need to create a buzz so it almost feels like they are copying the TV sweeps strategy: let’s make sure people talk about it and get them to the theater. That feels like the main point, not necessarily that they want to cater to the LGBT audience.

Centauri2002: I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that, but from my perspective, it seems to be a cumulation of several factors in the recent past. Recently, we’ve had consumer-side hype regarding ambiguous moments in movies, such as the highly debated, “blink and you miss it” sauna moment in Frozen, where it appears there is a male couple with two children enjoying a family activity together. This was all over social media and the internet, which may have spurred Disney and others into introducing other such moments.

Another factor, is the prominence of social media, such as Tumblr and Twitter in promotion, which are made up of predominantly young people, with a heavy queer presence. The promotional heavy lifting is done by the consumer and not the studios and I think the studios are becoming savvy to its potential.

Puffy: I agree, it’s really not a simple answer. I think Hollywood is defiantly starting to feel the pressure to include LGBT representation thanks to real world changes, such as gay marriage becoming legal in the US. At the same time, places like China – which isn’t quite as open to queer content as even the American market – make up ever-larger portions of the paying audience especially with films in say, the Marvel franchise, so the actual content the studios are willing to include is minimal to say the least. I think Cent makes a good point, studios are noticing how good the audience is at promoting for them.

Centauri2002: Also, stepping outside the realm of the creator for the moment, I think it’s worthwhile to look at the entertainment media. I don’t think the studios are entirely to blame here. Often, websites who focus on film and TV will take a flicker of a story that they think will resonate with their readership and run with it. If we look at the Beauty and the Beast example, the director said that the coverage (of the gay moment) was quite disproportionate to the comment.

JMP: I agree with Puffy that the want from studios to have films do well in the international market makes it seem that they won’t ever go very far with pushing for representation. However, if they then market it around that moment that would be counter productive, the only reason they would do that and risk losing more conservative markets is so they get attention on the film.

I think for Beauty and the Beast they wanted to spark a little interest and people ran away with it. Though I have to say, I noticed that the hype was mostly contained to entertainment media and the general audience. When I look at the LGBT community, I felt most people were really holding back, in a “wait and see” manner.

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast
Image: Disney

Puffy: Everyone seemed to run with it, but I wonder if the coverage would have been so big if he hadn’t made the comment to begin with and just let the audience pick up on it as it happened.

Centauri2002: I’m not taking the blame away from the studios and content creators, but I do feel that the entertainment media is complicit in the overhype.

Puffy: Oh, most definitely.

Centauri2002: I’d also like to touch on the genres this has mostly happened in. It seems to be in films with sci-fi, fantasy and action elements. Why these genres specifically? And why specifically nostalgic reboots, like Power Rangers, Ghostbusters, and Beauty and the Beast? To me, it seems like a cynical attempt to lure in older LGBT viewers who were never really represented when they were younger, while attracting a younger, more open-minded audience.

JMP: Oh yes, I agree with that entertainment media point wholeheartedly. It makes for great click bait as despite it all, the subject matter is still controversial so people want to know what is going on. While I think the entertainment media should be more critical towards such things, I still think the studios are at fault here, they consciously use the fact there is a cry for representation to grab more money while doing the least they can to commit. Again I see a big overlap with the sweeps tactic TV networks use.

Cent, I do see where you are coming from, though I think the issue lies more with the huge amount of blockbusters coming out and how they want to separate themselves from the pack.

Jess: On that note, I’ll jump back in and ask a follow-up. Maybe for big studios it is a bit of trying to have their cake and eat it too, as JMP said, as TV has been doing for a long time – teasing queer moments for those who want to see them, plausible deniability for those who don’t, or for more conservative or international audiences. However, for LGBTQ+ audiences, this seems to be an ongoing problem that the representation doesn’t get better but now the noise around it has increased. Do you think this tokenism of the actual rep vs this promotional hype backfires? I found it interesting in some of our discussions earlier it was mentioned it was turning several of you off wanting to see things you were otherwise excited to see. Why is that?

JMP: Is it? I don’t think it’s backfiring at all. At least for the people making them, they get the attention and are on people’s minds right when they need to be, which will likely get more people to go see it. For the LGBT audience though, it is a lose lose situation, because we want to support those movies, even if it’s a small step we want it because it’s better than nothing, however that would leave the impression that the minimum is enough. On the other hand not going means the signal is sent that queer characters deter audiences. There is no winning there. I think most LGBT people are skeptical by now of such things as we’ve seen it done before and therefore are a little more reserved. On the whole though, I don’t think it’s backfiring for those movies.

To add to that, what I’m very pleased to see is that the entertainment media did step up and call out the behavior there. I think that’s a sign that things are moving in the right direction.

Puffy: This happened to me recently with the Power Rangers film. I grew up in the 90’s, so I was super excited to see they were making a new reboot film. Then the news broke that my favourite ranger, Trini, was going to have a queer story line… Warning bells started going off for me immediately. The Lexa situation had already taught me just how far studios and marketing departments can go to overhype a storyline. Then word started to come out that this LGBT storyline that they were hyping up was just a single sentence.

I was disappointed to say the least, and I went from being super excited about seeing the film, to just not wanting to see it at all.

Power Rangers

Power Rangers
Image: Lionsgate

Centauri2002: It certainly seems to have backfired on a number of fronts. The LGBT audience is generally going to be disappointed in token representation, while more conservative viewers voice outrage. I can’t really see the tactic in it, to be honest. Of course, some people will fall for the hype and see the movie in the first days, but they will, of course, report back to the community and let people know how overhyped it was. This will lead people to perhaps not seeing the movie at all. Personally, I wasn’t all that interested in seeing Power Rangers, for instance, because I wasn’t a fan when I was younger. When it was announced that there was going to be this groundbreaking queer hero, I felt like I should go see it to support it. But then the truth came out and I decided not to watch it. I’m sure that was the case for others too. That said, as JMP stated, the studios don’t seem to be suffering financially from this tactic. But I do think it erodes trust.

I think, more importantly though, is how it backfires for the state of LGBT representation in general. With token rep, we don’t get fully fleshed out stories, stories that the general audience can relate to. I’m sure all of us have seen those people who shout about how the gay agenda is being shoved down their throats on every TV show and in every movie, which the stats clearly show is wrong. However, when you do what these movies are doing, you’re not changing the narrative. You’re not getting our stories out there. You’re just playing into that view.

JMP: I agree with both of you there, people that will see the movie for the representation will stay home, maybe even so in protest. On the other hand I really don’t believe we are the target audience for this trick. I believe the trick lies in making sure it’s talked about everywhere (like Beauty and the Beast was) and getting the movie a buzz/awareness for the general audience. The people that won’t show for whatever reason won’t counter the vast amount of people that don’t care for the queer storyline but are suddenly conscious of the movie being in theaters. That is incredibly disturbing to me because essentially the LGBT community is used to get another couple of dollars extra and hey, if the community itself wants to throw some money at them who would they be to  deny it, right, a nice bonus?

Puffy: In terms of the general audience, I don’t think it’s backfiring, it is bringing them attention and in turn a bigger audience… As for the actual LGBT audience? I think we’re going to see more and more of the community turning on the films that are over-promising.

For example, there’s a fairly large following on tumblr for Power Rangers that’s trying to push for a sequel on the promise of more representation… If they do get the sequel and the studio either forgets the storyline altogether or give another barely there attempt, I think that’s going to cause a lot more push back.

Centauri2002: I have to wonder if they’ll even care about that pushback, though. As has been said, they don’t really make these movies for us. They’re just using us for buzz amongst the general audience. So, if there’s pushback, will that make any difference? I guess it really comes down to demographics and money. I know it’s a cynical outlook, but in the end, minorities always lose out.

JMP: I think the LGBT audience being very clear about what they want and what works and doesn’t work, is really going to help in the long run. There are people that do listen to minorities and will adjust their stance, slow and steady wins the race.

Jess: Following on that, if the situation is – like we’ve discussed above – a convergence of different factors in the increasing hype of minimal LGBTQ+ content that is still resulting in queer fans being disappointed, what would you like to see moving forward?

Centauri2002: First and foremost, I’d like to see positive and meaningful representation, in all genres, not just in indie movies or dramas. I’d also like to see studios dropping this tactic of hyping momentary and ambiguous LGBT scenes. Just include them anyway. Help to normalise it for the general audience. The viewers will come without them pushing it.

I’d also like to note that directors, writers and actors have a responsibility to critically analyse what they’re putting out there to potential viewers. What consequences will their words have? The entertainment media should also consider this.

JMP: Well, what I want to see and what is a realistic trajectory of what I want to see are different things. So I’ll answer this with what is realistic in the near future, as I said before, slow and steady wins the race – though I’d love to see sprints and leaps! I’m encouraged by the entertainment media putting attention on the problem as it happened, so for them I hope they will show a little more restraint when reporting on these issues and be a little more critical. For studios I hope to see them commit to queer characters and make them integral to the plot, flesh them out a little more but above all that they read up and are informed on the issue. For the LGBT audience, it’s a difficult position, but I hope the community will continue to support what they think is right, to ask for and explain what they need/want in terms of positive representation, and most importantly, to keep the pressure on for those changes to be made!

Centauri2002: Finally, I’d like to see studios reaching out to minority groups for more input in the creative process, but also the marketing process.

JMP: I agree with all of that Cent, ethical responsibility needs to be a theme that is discussed in the industry more often.

Puffy: Like Cent, I would like to see studios stop using LGBT storylines/scenes as marketing fodder. Entertainment media does seem to be picking up on this trend, and there were multiple reports questioning the studios tactics with both Beauty and the Beast and the Power Rangers. I would also like to see the bigger studio’s being braver with their representation. Marvel(/Disney) in particular is very disappointing right now, they’ve said they might include queer rep in the cinematic universe in the next decade… That’s really not good enough. Black Panther was an incredible opportunity for them to include a canon w|w couple, instead they’ve passed over the opportunity.

I agree with Cent’s final point too. Studios need to be reaching out for more minority input, or even better, becoming more diverse behind the scenes.

Black Panther

Black Panther
Image: Vanity Fair

JMP: Yes, more minority input would be amazing.

Centauri2002: Absolutely, Puffy, diversity behind the scenes is a huge issue, from those behind the camera right up to the executive level. Addressing that would certainly help. However, in the realms of what I think is realistic, as Hollywood has always been slow to change, if they could just include representative groups in their decision processes, I think that may be helpful.

JMP: For studios to stop using minority characters as a marketing tools would be an easy step in showing more respect for those people. While studios are slow to change things, this is one aspect they can do rather easily as they change marketing strategies even throughout the process of promoting a movie.

Jess: Wrapping up, I want to say thanks so much for joining me to discuss this today, great points made and a lot to consider about how LGBTQ+ representation can and should be improved across the board, and the role that creators, the media, and we as consumers can play in making change.. Any final thoughts?

Centauri2002: I would implore the major movie studios to stop using us as marketing fodder, to consider the consequences, and to respect our stories. I think they’ll find our stories resonate just as much with the general audience as any other… And if they can’t do that, just get in touch with us, and we’ll point them in the right direction!

JMP: I may seem really skeptical, which I often am but I have a rather positive outlook on the future of this issue. We’ve seen and learned from the sweeps tactic used on TV and how that is not as effective as it was before. So be patient and be conscious of what you are supporting and talking about. Together we hold quite some sway so let’s be vocal about what works and doesn’t work.

Centauri2002: I agree, JMP. Hollywood has always been a jump and leap behind television. I think we’ll see a similar “awakening” from them in the not-too-distant future.

Puffy: I would like to see the entertainment media continue to call out studios who are using overhyped minority storylines to sell tickets. I would also like to see more behind the camera diversification, I think that will be a great step towards getting the storylines we deserve on the big screen. I think Hollywood will get there eventually, but until then, we as a community can continue applying pressure where necessary and supporting the few movies that do provide the LGBT community with rare, but quality representation.

Centauri2002: And one more thing, to LGBT and minority viewers: keep speaking out! It might seem like you’re shouting into the void, but there’s always someone listening. Make your voices heard!

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