By Raina Deerwater, Entertainment Research & Analysis Associate
GLAAD released its eighth annual Studio Responsibility Index (SRI) today, a report that maps the quantity, quality, and diversity of LGBTQ characters in films released by the eight film studios that had the highest theatrical grosses from films released in the 2019 calendar year and four of their subsidiaries as reported by box office database Box Office Mojo. These studios were Lionsgate, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, STX Films, United Artists Releasing, Universal Pictures, The Walt Disney Studios, and Warner Bros.
READ THE FULL 2020 STUDIO RESPONSIBILITY INDEX HERE.
GLAAD found that of the 118 films released from major studios in 2019, 22 (18.6%) included characters that were lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer (LGBTQ). This represents a slight increase from the previous year’s report (18.2%, 20 out of 110 films) and the highest percentage of inclusive films found in the eight-year history of the report.
GLAAD noted a concerning continuation of a downward trend in terms of racial diversity of LGBTQ characters in this year’s report. There was a significant decrease in racial diversity of LGBTQ characters for the third consecutive year. In 2019, just 34 percent of LGBTQ characters were people of color (17 of 50), down from 42 percent in the previous report and a decrease of twenty-three percentage points from the 57 percent of LGBTQ characters of color in 2017. GLAAD is calling on the studios to ensure that within two years at least half of their LGBTQ characters are people of color.
This year’s report also shows a decrease in lesbian and bisexual representation compared to gay men. Gay men appear in 68 percent (15) of inclusive films, an increase from last year’s 55 percent. Lesbian representation has decreased significantly, down to 36 percent (8) of inclusive films. Bisexual representation slightly decreased to 14 percent, with only three films featuring bi characters, an equal number of films to the previous year.For the third year in a row, transgender characters were entirely absent from major studio releases.For the first time in the report’s history, GLAAD also tallied LGBTQ characters with disabilities. This year, there was only one character with a disability in major releases (Poe, Lionsgate’s Five Feet Apart). Subsidiary releases from art house studios counted two LGBTQ characters with disabilities, both from Sony Pictures Classics.
In 2018’s Studio Responsibility Index, GLAAD called on the major film studios to ensure that 20 percent of annual releases include LGBTQ characters by 2021 and 50 percent be inclusive by 2024. Four of the eight studios hit this 20 percent goal individually – Paramount Pictures at 33 percent (up from 20% last year), United Artists Releasing at 29 percent, Lionsgate at 25 percent, and Walt Disney Studios at 21 percent.
Film has the power to educate, enlighten, and entertain audiences around the world and, in today’s divisive political and cultural climate, we must prioritize telling LGBTQ stories and the stories of all marginalized people,” said GLAAD President and CEO, Sarah Kate Ellis. “Despite seeing a record high percentage of LGBTQ-inclusive films this year, the industry still has a long way to go in terms of fairly and accurately representing the LGBTQ community. If film studios want to stay relevant to today’s audiences and compete in an industry that is emphasizing diversity and inclusion, then they must urgently reverse course on the diminishing representation of LGBTQ women and people of color, as well as the complete absence of trans characters.
GLAAD’s 2020 Studio Responsibility Index offers the following recommendations on how studios can both improve depictions of LGBTQ characters and avoid critical mistakes and setbacks:
- A repeated problem found across several films in 2019: LGBTQ characters are too often featured in major blockbuster films in moments so small many audiences could have easily missed them. Of the 22 LGBTQ-inclusive films GLAAD counted from the eight studios tracked, only nine included an LGBTQ character who had more than ten minutes of screen time. More than half of LGBTQ characters (28 of 50, 56 percent) received less than three minutes of total screen time for the second year in a row, with 21 of those appearing for less than one minute. Several LGBTQ characters were so minor that they were not given names. The huge waves of press garnered when announcements were made about blockbuster films including LGBTQ characters proves the passion and power of LGBTQ audiences anxious to support – and buy tickets to – these films. Hollywood must feel encouraged and empowered to leverage that interest and buying power by delivering movies that include substantial LGBTQ characters and by unambiguously marketing and promoting those movies.
- In 2019, mainstream films significantly regressed in representing the full diversity of the LGBTQ community. For the second year in a row, the racial diversity of LGBTQ characters decreased considerably with only 34 percent (17) of LGBTQ characters being people of color (POC) in 2019. This is after a fifteen-percentage point drop the previous year, going from 57 percent in 2017 to 42 percent LGBTQ POC in 2018. Of the 17 LGBTQ characters of color counted this year, only four characters counted more than three minutes of screen time, with just one character appearing for more than ten minutes (Pepe, Lionsgate’s Perfect Strangers). Of the 50 LGBTQ characters in major releases, one (two percent) was a character with a disability and he ultimately died (Poe, Lionsgate’s Five Feet Apart). GLAAD challenges Hollywood to prioritize authentic and meaningful LGBTQ characters, and stories highlighting the full community and LGBTQ characters living at the intersection of multiple identities.
- For the second year in a row, only three major studio releases counted in GLAAD’s report included bisexual+ characters – despite bi+ people making up the majority of the community. Those films are Bombshell and Anna from Lionsgate, and Good Boys from Universal. One positive finding is that this year’s bisexual+ characters avoided the transactional trope we’ve seen too much of before – that is, women characters only engaging in a romance with another woman to gain something they need (often information or access) rather than out of any genuine interest. Unfortunately, there is zero representation of bisexual+ men this year. This erasure has a real impact on bisexual+ people who are less likely to be out of the closet than gays or lesbians, and report higher levels of minority stresses. Hollywood has an opportunity to lead and drive cultural change by telling compelling stories about fully developed bisexual+ characters.
- GLAAD recorded zero transgender characters in the 118 major studio films released in 2019, a finding consistent with the previous two years. Disappointingly, film continues to lag behind other media as a third straight year passes with zero transgender characters in major releases. Meanwhile, the same time period on TV has seen the premiere of FX’s history making Pose, television’s first transgender superhero on The CW’s Supergirl, and transgender men stepping into series regular roles on FOX’s 9-1-1: Lone Star, and Showtime’s The L Word and Work in Progress. Yet, major studio films continue to leave trans characters out of the story. While the year did include four transgender and/or non-binary actors in major releases, none of those films established those characters as transgender or non-binary within the film’s world. While we are pleased to see trans actors being cast in roles that are not explicitly written as transgender, for this report, GLAAD did not count those characters in its tally based on what was on screen.
- This year, GLAAD counted two inclusive animated and family films, after having seen zero in the previous year’s report. Yet still, the category lags behind the programming boom happening in television for all-ages. In our previous report, for the first time in five years, GLAAD did not count a single inclusive film in the animated/family film genre released in 2018. In 2019, there were two inclusive films in this genre, though the moments are incredibly minor (two dads dropping their child off to camp in Paramount’s Wonder Park, and two moms escorting their child to school in Disney’s Toy Story 4). While these are nice moments of casual inclusion, affirming that LGBTQ people exist in all families of every kind, film should look to the boom and success of queer and trans representation in kids and family programming happening on TV. LGBTQ families and parents are part of the world experienced by kids, and should be part of the movies they see with their families. LGBTQ youth, who are coming out at younger ages as cultural acceptance grows, deserve to see age-appropriate, positive and truthful representations of themselves in film. These small moments seen these past few years need to progress to more significant characters and stories appearing more regularly.
Telling meaningful LGBTQ stories is not just the right thing to do, it’s also just smart business. LGBTQ people are a significant audience who are supporting LGBTQ-inclusive films with our dollars and digital attention. Nielsen found LGBTQ audiences are more likely to see a new theatrical release more than once compared to straight audiences, and continue to stay engaged consumers, with higher levels of purchasing a digital copy, subscription service, and spreading the word online,” said Megan Townsend, GLAAD’s Director of Entertainment Research & Analysis. “Studios should recognize the power of LGBTQ audiences and the desire for stories that reflect our lives, by delivering and unambiguously marketing films and franchises that include nuanced and authentic LGBTQ characters.
GLAAD’s Studio Responsibility Index employs GLAAD’s “Vito Russo Test,” a set of criteria analyzing how LGBTQ characters are situated in a narrative. Named after GLAAD co-founder and celebrated film historian Vito Russo, and partly inspired by the “Bechdel Test,” these criteria represent an expectation and standard, providing a roadmap for a greater number of mainstream Hollywood films to reach and surpass. However, as several films tracked prove, passing this test does not guarantee that a film is free of problems, offensive in its portrayals or tropes in films where an LGBTQ character may be tied to the film’s plot, but whose stories were objectionable. Passing the Vito Russo Test is a first step, rather than the finish line. For a film to pass:
- The film must contain a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ).
- That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity (i.e. the character is comprised of the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate straight or non-transgender characters from one another).
- The LGBTQ 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.
GLAAD’s 2020 Studio Responsibility Index found that 73 percent of LGBTQ-inclusive films (16 of 22) released in 2019 passed the Vito Russo Test, which is the highest percentage recorded in the report’s history. However, in the wider context, those 16 films represent only 14% of the total 118 films released.