2018 was the biggest year in LGBTQ-inclusive cinema. From “Love, Simon” to “Boy Erased,” 2018 saw an unprecedented bounty of high-profile LGBTQ films—many of which are up for awards.
Multiple actors have been nominated for Golden Globes for their portrayals as queer characters, including Melissa McCarthy for her work as the lesbian writer Lee Israel in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” Rami Malek for his portrayal as renowned gay musician Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Lucas Hedges for his representation of Jared Eaamons, a gay son who is pressured into attending a conversion therapy program, in “Boy Erased.”
It’s not just queer leading characters who are up for awards, either. Both Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are nominated for the “Best Actress in Supporting Role” category for “The Favourite” and Mahershala Ali and Richard E. Grant are nominated for the “Best Actor in Supporting Role” category for “Green Book” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?" Each of these actors played queer characters, though admittedly sexuality was a marginal aspect of Ali’s portrayal of jazz pianist Jon Shirley.
While neither GLAAD nor the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative have released their annual surveys listing the exact amount of 2018’s LGBTQ-inclusive films, Zeke Stokes, vice president of programs at GLAAD, said 2018 marks “a tremendous jump in the number of films which include LGBTQ characters on screen, particularly in films from major studios that open around the country and around the world." It's the first time there has been "real growth" from major studios, according to Stokes.
Marie Lyn Bernard (also known as Riese), the editor-in-chief of Autostraddle, said the year was particularly “huge for representation for lesbian and bisexual women on film.” It’s a remarkable change, given that 64 percent of the 12 LGBT-inclusive films that GLAAD’s Studio Responsibility Index identified last year featured gay male characters.
Bernard and other critics cited “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” “The Favourite,” “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” and “Duck Butter” as some of the many films featuring one or more lesbian or bisexual characters in the main cast.
Stokes said that “Deadpool 2” became another milestone film when Negasonic Teenage Warhead and Yukio clearly stated they were girlfriends. “For a genre that has often sidelined LGBTQ characters queer identities on screen, this was a notable step forward and should send a message to other studios,” he said.
“Colette,” a biographical drama that chronicles real-life author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s foray into novel-writing, was a favorite among critics as well.
“Colette is unabashedly queer and I love that it features two trans actors in non-trans roles,” said Oliver Whitney, a Brooklyn-based film critic.
Given that GLAAD did not count any transgender-inclusive films from the major studios last year, “Colette” may be cited as a watershed moment.
Critics expressed more mixed opinions of “Love, Simon,” the coming-of-age film about a gay teenage boy who develops an online relationship with an anonymous closeted gay classmate.
“I’m not going to begrudge ‘Love, Simon’’s existence, but you won’t see me championing it over any of the amazing queer films we got this year,” said Manuel Betancourt, a New York-based film critic. Betancourt found the film to be saccharine and too clichéd. In his view, the film was a banality, a gay experience made digestible for reluctant audiences.
He thought that “We the Animals” provided a worthwhile and more subtle alternative as a coming-of-age film about a boy coming to terms with his sexuality.
“The film’s not ostensibly gay, even though it’s based on a book by an out gay author and it does touch upon coming out,” Betancourt said. “The focus of the film is him as a young child figuring himself out and I think images of children struggling with their sexuality is not something we see often.”
Tyler Coates, senior culture editor of Esquire, had a more favorable view of “Love, Simon,” and said that when he was younger, a teen romantic comedy featuring a gay male lead would have been “unheard of.” He thinks the movie does represent some people who might not have seen themselves represented before.
Still, like Betancourt, he much preferred other movies like “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” where Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy’s characters’ queerness was an element, but “not the driving force of the plot. Their identity was important to who they were but it wasn’t the foundation of the story told,” Coates said.
"There's still an effort to downplay what we're asking for"
While the quantity of LGBTQ-inclusive films greatly increased in 2018, many LGBT critics say that the quality of the films could use some improvement.
“I think we’ve seen a lot of progress, but at the same time, there’s still an effort to downplay what we’re asking for,” said Trish Bendix, Managing Editor of Into.
Bendix specifically takes issue with the film “Girl,” a Belgian drama starring Victor Polster as a trans girl as she pursues a career as a ballerina. The film was positively reviewed by many cisgender critics and was subsequently nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Language film. But it was snubbed in the Oscars’ shortlist amid backlash from the LGBT community regarding its depictions of gender dysphoria and self-harm.
“It’s really an anti-trans film. It’s being called trans trauma porn,” Bendix said. “That’s what happens when cisgender straight directors tell stories that are not about their lives, if they don’t employ other LGBT people to be highly involved.”
Another thing that happens when LGBTQ actors, producers or writers are not involved in film projects is the perpetuation of the “gay for pay” phenomenon — where straight actors are cast more often for LGBT roles than queer actors.
In the last 25 years, multiple straight actors have even gone on to win Oscars for their portrayals of queer characters, including Sean Pean, who won the Academy Award in 2009 for his representation of gay rights activist Harvey Milk in “Milk.”
On a related note, no openly gay actor has ever won the Oscar for Best Actor.
“Why aren’t queer women playing queer women?” Alicia Eler, visual art critic at the Star Tribune and author of “The Selfie Generation,” asked rhetorically.
Unsurprisingly, it comes down to money, she said.
“It’s hard to say ‘Hey, I’m going to produce a queer film and get a huge budget.’ Usually, you have to have some star lead,” Eler said. “With Boy Erased, the lead [Lucas Hedges] isn’t well known, but you have Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe in it. So of course that film gets produced.”
Though most of the critics surveyed stated that they didn’t agree that straight actors could never portray gay characters, they did acknowledge that the argument boils down to a lack of opportunity.
“If we lived in a perfect world, then yes, everyone could play everyone. But if straight actors are the only ones getting casting calls and roles, if they're the only ones being able to green light these pictures, then all we're doing is perpetuating a system that excludes LGBT creatives from film,” Whitney said.
The lack of representation of LGBTQ POC
Although the number of lesbian and bisexual characters has significantly increased from just three years ago, there are limits to this representation when, as Barnard states, “nearly all of this representation was white women, so that’s a big area in deep need of improvement.”
“Rafiki,” a film about two Kenyan women who fall is love, was the main exception to the dearth of stories about LGBTQ people of color.
Sekiya Dorsett, a filmmaker who recently produced a film titled “The Revival: Women and the Word,” which played at the Brooklyn Museum during Pride said, “It’s sad that ‘Rafiki’ is the one black lesbian film of the year. I’ve seen all the lesbian films of Netflix — twice — and they don’t feature women of color.”
Dorsett lamented how difficult it was for her to make her most recent short; she said it’s the same for other creative women of color.
“I was struggling to make the film. There was no support,” she said. “The only people that showed up were my community.”
Hope for 2019?
Even when films tell holistic and meaningful stories of LGBTQ characters, they’re not always properly marketed.
Bernard thinks this was the case for Blockers, “a feminist, sex-positive, lesbian-inclusive film that marketed itself as a bro-ish sex romp," she said. "That’s so tragic. It was one of my favorite films of the year, and everybody I recommend it to is taken aback because the marketing did not reveal any of that.”
The LGBTQ community clearly still faces myriad obstacles that prevents it from achieving equal and meaningful representation in mainstream film, but critics’ standards for good movies remain minimal.
“The perfect queer film is something that shows the joy of queerness, but doesn’t sugarcoat it,” Coates said. “I want films that reflect the full story, that show that self-acceptance is so full and rewarding.”
Critics nonetheless have hope for the upcoming year.
“So many people are getting money,” Dorsett said. “Ava DuVernay, Issa Rae, Lena Waithe … and they want to push people forward, give people a chance and not the same group of people either.”
Though film will take a while to catch up to the more diverse representation on television, Dorsett will be satisfied if “Pose,” a show that features the largest cast of transgender actors in series regular roles, sweeps every award it’s up for.
“If nothing else happens, I hope “Pose” wins. Those women are amazing.”