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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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On a notable aside, "Atlas" directly related to what was perhaps the closest thing the film world had to a Frank Ocean. The film's co-director, Lana Wachowski, decided to speak publicly about being transgendered for the first time leading up to the film's release. The incredibly powerful, well-articulated and widely distributed video of the speech she delivered at an Human Rights Campaign event was a milestone for the visibility of transgendered people (watch it here). But that wasn't in movie theaters.

In movie theaters, the vast majority of respectable, prominent representations of LGBT people came from filmmakers working largely independently and thus creating films that did not -- to varying degrees, at least -- make it into the mainstream conversation. Certainly there has always been much more quality LGBT-themed film coming from outside the studio system, but the gap has widened in the past decade or so. 

Since 2000, forty-one films with perhaps arguably central LGBT-themes have grossed over $1 million at the domestic box office, only three of which came out since 2010. Very significant is that fact that, in the 1990s, fifty LGBT-related films grossed over $1,000,000, including five films ("The Birdcage," "In & Out," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Philadelphia" and "The Crying Game") which grossed over $50 million (and that number jumps to seven if you adjust for inflation). Only two did in the 12 years to follow -- "Brokeback Mountain" and "Bruno" (the latter of which some considered to actually be downright homophobic).

"Bruno"
"Bruno"

This is not to say all of these films are great examples of LGBT films (some of them have quite questionable representations, see "Bruno"), but the point is that no matter the quality, the quantity of LGBT films in mainstream American cinema has declined despite the fact that "general acceptance" of LGBT people has significantly increased in society as a whole.

This is a drastically different situation than television, where comparatively remarkable inroads have occurred with respect to LGBT inclusivity in popular media that far exceeds film. This past fall's new television season saw a record number of LGBT characters. Between the five broadcast networks, a truly impressive 4.4 percent of regular TV characters identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (up from 2.9 percent last season, as per this GLAAD study). Add this to a sizeable presence on cable (regular LGBT characters on scripted cable television rose this year from 29 to from 35), and these numbers are pretty impressive (now, this too begs a quality vs. quantity discuss, but considering that a) I'm no television connoisseur and b) the primary topic of this column has derailed itself enough already, I'll direct you to this imperative read about one extraordinarily problematic issue regarding some of the noted TV examples and move on).

So why has mainstream film lagged behind not just television but its former self? Perhaps the 1990s simply represented a time when it was new and trendy (and, optimistically, "important") to release "gay films." Now, as LGBT people come more of an established minority within both culture and media, films focusing on LGBT people have simply become as disproportionate in the studio system as films focusing on women or racial minorities. Which one could peg as a consequence of the greater economics involved in making studio films (compared to TV or indie films) and that its "safer" to make films built to attract vast audiences, particularly young, white, straight males (though as far as I'm concerned that's a bullshit excuse disproven time and time again with regard to women, racial minorities and LGBT folks).

But whatever the case, we thankfully still have independent film, which has always been far better at telling queer stories anyway (namely because the stories are often unapologetically told both by and for LGBT people). And 2012 was no exception. Building off a year that saw extraordinary voices in queer cinema emerge with Andrew Haigh's "Weekend" (which is admittedly British, but premiered at SXSW and is just too good -- and likely influential -- not to mention), Rashaad Ernesto Green's "Gun Hill Road" and Dee Rees' "Pariah," the past twelve months continued a burgeoning new wave.

This article is related to: Queer Cinema, Queer Issues





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