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Que(e)ries: Was 2012 a Good Year For LGBT Representation in American Film?

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire December 17, 2012 at 1:29PM

Of the top 25 grossing films at the U.S. box office in 2012 (so far, at least), there are actually three more films that feature Channing Tatum as a lead actor than feature anyone as an openly LGBT character with more than a couple lines. And there's three Channing Tatum films in that top 25.
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Gay Skyfall

Of the top 25 grossing films at the U.S. box office in 2012 (so far, at least), there are actually three more films that feature Channing Tatum as a lead actor than feature anyone as an openly LGBT character with more than a couple lines. And there's three Tatum films in that top 25 (including "Magic Mike," which is notably the closest thing to gay porn to ever gross over $100 million -- though it does not actually feature an openly gay character).

Now, if we're a bit more flexible with the definition, one can certainly make queer readings of a few major characters in those 25 films. And in a grand Hollywood tradition, they are all effeminate villains. There's Giovanni Ribisi's Donny in "Ted," Sam Spruell's Finn in "Snow White and the Huntsman," Alan Tudyk's King Candy in "Wreck-It-Ralph" and, of course, Javier Bardem's Silva in "Skyfall," who is certainly the most explicit (and most interesting -- especially since you could also queer James Bond himself in the process) example. While this entire column could be devoted to critically delving further into those characters (as this excellent piece over at The Playlist already did), I will instead focus on more unequivocal, seemingly well-intentioned examples and see how they fit into what has truly been a landmark year for LGBT representation in the overall mainstream culture of the United States. 

But first let's consider why and how 2012 was such a big year for American queers overall.

In politics, Barack Obama became the first sitting President to come out in support of same-sex marriage, and he was re-elected after the fact; Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin became the first openly gay U.S. senator; Kyrsten Sinema became the first openly bisexual U.S. Congresswoman; and all four states -- Minnesota, Maine, Washington and Maryland -- with measures regarding same-sex marriage on the ballot voted in favor.

In sports, former NFL player Wade Davis became one of only a handful of football players to come out, becoming an LGBT surrogate for Obama and a member of the GLSEN sport advisory board in the process; Puerto Rican boxer Orlando Cruz -- currently ranked at No. 4 among featherweights by the World Boxing Organization (whatever that means) -- became the first openly gay professional boxer; and Kevin McClatchy -- former owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates -- came out after 30 years in the closet.

In music, Frank Ocean came out via Tumblr, and not only did the hip hop community (mostly) embrace him, he went on to find huge critical and commercial success with the album he released shortly after; another hip hop artist, Azealia Banks, came out as bisexual and no one seemed to even flinch (though female bisexuality is definitely much less taboo in hip hop than its male equivalent); and various other people associated with hip hop -- including Russell Simons, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, T.I. and Ice Cube -- publicly declared their support of same-sex marriage, basically unheard of just a year ago.

Ben Whishaw played an openly gay character in "Cloud Atlas."
Ben Whishaw played an openly gay character in "Cloud Atlas."

All these examples fall into realms where homophobia has historically been rampant. That's what makes them so transgressive, despite feeling so obvious to anyone lucky enough to live in a bubble where homophobia, is rare.

Movies, on the other hand, represent an area of American culture that has been pioneering by comparison. The examples given above with respect to politics, sports and hip hop are all generally first steps in one form or another -- coming out stories or examples of straight people openly supporting the basic rights and/or professional capabilities of LGBT people. It's been a good decade or two since the equivalent of these sorts of narratives felt even mildly revolutionary inside a film.

So then what are 2012's cinematic contributions to LGBT representation? Well, there's certainly no 2012 cinematic equivalent of Frank Ocean. No film that focused primarily on LGBT characters or issues was part of any big pop cultural conversation. When the Oscar nominations come out next month, the closest thing we could possibly have to an actor portraying a queer character is, oddly enough, if Javier Bardem ends up making the cut for "Skyfall" (though we will very likely have as consolation an openly gay adapted screenplay Oscar winner in "Lincoln"'s Tony Kushner). There was no "Brokeback Mountain," no "The Kids Are All Right," no "Milk."

There was "Pitch Perfect," an incredibly entertaining minor box office hit directed by openly gay Jason Moore and featuring Ester Dean as an openly lesbian (supporting) character. There was "ParaNorman," which -- even if it was a very minor plot point -- offered the first explicitly gay character in a mainstream animated film in a very positive way. And there was "Cloud Atlas," which is definitely and admirably the first $100 million budgeted sci-fi epic to feature the romantic relationship between two men as one of its central love stories (even if -- spoiler alert -- their relationship is tragic and ill-fated while their heterosexual cinematic counterparts live much more happily ever after). But these aren't primarily "LGBT films," not that there's anything wrong with that.

This article is related to: Queer Cinema, Queer Issues





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