LGBTQ & The Media

By the day, our world seems to grow smaller and smaller. Global communications technology has connected nearly every single human being on the planet, and media entertainment sources continue to thrive with what many would call rich diversity of film, music and television programming.

But not everyone would call it that.

A recent column on Variety.com has again brought to light the unfortunate and somewhat alarming truth about under-representation or even misrepresentation of certain groups in the world, specifically the politically-charged-particularly-as-of-recent-years LGBTQ community.

In fact, as of 2012, the representation of the LGBTQ community had been so poor on the silver screen that GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) brought about a standard for grading films to determine their representation and inclusion of the LGBTQ population: the Vito Russo Test, a measure included as part of the Studio Responsibility Index. In order for a film to pass the Vito Russo Test, the following must be true:

  • The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender.
  • The character cannot be defined or portrayed predominantly through their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • The character must matter to the story in that their removal would have a significant effect on plot progression. This means the character cannot be present for the sole purpose of color commentary or to set up a punchline.

According to a poll that included films as recent as 2016, the authentic and realistic representation of LGBTQ characters has been alarmingly low. Out of 125 major films released, only 23 of them contained any character that identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender – a staggering 18.4%. And of those 23 films that actually portrayed a character who identified within the LGBTQ community, only nine of those films actually passed the Vito Russo test – 39%. The real sad part was that this statistic was a “bounce back” year from the previous, which scored 36% of films passing the test, down from 55% the year before.

39% out of 18.4%. I’m not necessarily saying that every single film needs to have clear-cut gender- or sexuality-identifying characters. But, when the final tally of well-represented characters from the LGBTQ community in all major films across the entire year equates to 7.2%, there is most certainly a problem with representation.

Unfortunately, as Monica Trasandes wrote for Variety.com, the bottom line is money and “inclusion is good for the bottom line.” This is not to say that all platforms are failing in this regard. Trasandes points out examples such as “Orange is the New Black” and the ever-popular “Will and Grace,” which is recently seeing a revival on network television, and streaming platforms such as Netflix are putting in effort with more shows.

What is unfortunate is that, despite younger crowds being the target audience for most of these media entertainment outlets, their inclusion into this entertainment is often being put to the wayside. Trasandes notes that research from Harris Poll and GLAAD concluded that 20% of those surveyed between the ages of 18 and 34 did not identify as heterosexual.

One fifth of everyone surveyed did not identify as heterosexual. And yet Hollywood cannot get even half of their films that portray a character within the LGBTQ community to represent them well. GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis said in 2016, “Leaving LGBT people out of the picture – or including them only as a punchline – keeps old prejudices alive and creates an unsafe environment, not only here in America, but around the world where most audiences see these depictions.”

If inclusion is good for the bottom line, then the major motion picture industry might want to get its act together rather quickly.