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Nearly one in five studio films had LGBTQ characters in 2018, report finds

"Love, Simon," "The Favourite" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" are among the films GLAAD counted in its “Studio Responsibility Index."
Image: Love, Simon
Nick Robinson as Simon in the movie "Love, Simon."20th Century Fox

Last year, the box office hit “Love, Simon” made history as the first major studio release to focus on a gay teen romance. The film, based on the novel by Becky Albertalli, follows a closeted high school student as he navigates being blackmailed, attempting to find love and being confident enough to assert who he is. “Love, Simon” has been lauded — not only for centering a gay character, but for including other characters that represent the racial diversity of the LGBTQ community (two other gay roles are portrayed by queer black actors).

The film garnered nearly $67 million worldwide and was so well-received that it inspired a spinoff series, to the great excitement of fans.

Though it was among the most successful LGBTQ-inclusive films of 2018, “Love, Simon” was far from the only one, according to the LGBTQ media advocacy organization GLAAD. GLAAD’s annual “Studio Responsibility Index,” released Thursday, revealed that out of 110 releases from the seven major studios last year, 18.2 percent included LGBTQ characters.

In the seven-year history of the index, 2018 has the second-highest percentage of inclusive films — a number made all the more significant given that 2017 marked an all-time low. And for the first time since the report’s existence, there were an equal number of films that included both gay and lesbian characters.

“The success and number of LGBTQ-inclusive films shows the demand of these stories,” Megan Townsend, GLAAD’s director of entertainment research and analysis, told NBC News. “It shows that inclusion is the right thing to do and that it’s also good for the bottom line.”

While representation is increasing, it remains limited. For the second year in a row, GLAAD did not count a single transgender character in a major studio film — even as transgender representation in television continues to increase. That same year, trans actors and creatives brought visibility to trans lives on the groundbreaking FX show “Pose.” “Supergirl,” a CW show, also made history by giving viewers their first trans superhero.

The lack of trans characters in major studio film reflects the divide between movies and television, said Townsend.

“We’ve had these huge television moments, partly because of streaming services that bring opportunities for inclusion and new shows,” she said. “As these platforms produce original content, they are looking to tell stories they haven’t previously told ... Hopefully we’ll start seeing some of this impact in film.”

The report also found that even when LGBTQ characters are featured in films, they still have less visibility than their straight counterparts. Of the 20 LGBTQ-inclusive films in 2018, GLAAD determined that only half feature more than 10 minutes of screen time for queer characters.

GLAAD noted the racial diversity of LGBTQ-inclusive films was lacking, with a 15-percentage point decrease in the number of queer people of color from 2017. There was a “notable improvement,” however, when it came to the representation of Asian-Pacific Islander (API) LGBTQ people. Whereas the group had no representation in major studio films the year before, queer API characters composed 13 percent of LGBTQ characters in 2018.

Beyond representation, there’s another issue to tackle: the nuance of queer characterization, or lack thereof.

“I’d like to see more stories with bisexual characters, which are routinely the least represented, even though bi people make up the majority of the LGBTQ community,” Townsend said.

She said that while “The Favourite” was heralded for its bisexual representation, it might also be interpreted as including the stereotype of a “transactional relationship,” since the motives and feelings of some of the characters aren’t clear.

GLAAD encourages studios to move beyond stereotypes and tropes by providing them with specific information about the films its features in its report. After determining which films are LGBTQ-inclusive, the organization further analyzes them using its “Vito Russo Test,” named after GLAAD co-founder and film historian Vito Russo. The criteria for the Vito Russo test is as follows: the film must contains a character that identifies as LGBTQ, but is not “solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity.” The character must also be essential to the plot “in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect” on the story.

Using this criteria, GLAAD found that 65 percent of LGBTQ-inclusive films released in 2018 passed the Vito Russo Test, which is the highest percentage recorded in the report’s history.

When GLAAD released its 2018 index, it called on the seven major studios to ensure 20 percent of its annual releases include LGBTQ characters by 2021, and that 50 percent include LGBTQ characters by 2024. Slowly but surely, the film landscape is transforming to meet those challenges.

“The way to keep the conversation moving forward and to move the needle so there’s greater representation is to keep it in the forefront,” Townsend explained. “That’s why it’s valuable to have these data points that are outlined in the report but to highlight the impact of that representation, representation that can change lives.”