By Maria Rotelli
In the age of instant streaming, people still are going to see movies in theaters. But movies starring LGBTQ+ characters are not a genre that will typically make it to the big screen, because they do not sell well.
According to the website Boxofficemojo, the all-time highest-grossing film that features LGBTQ+ characters as main protagonists is “The Birdcage” in 1996, which only grossed $124,060,553 in its lifetime.
The No. 1 highest-grossing movie of all time is still “Avatar,” directed by James Cameron and released in 2009. In its lifetime, “Avatar” made $2,787,965,087 and is followed by “Titanic” and other big, franchise films. None of them have any explicitly queer characters.
When an LGBTQ+ character is shown in a film, they tend to fall into certain archetypes: clown, villain, and tragic hero, because just by looking at the numbers, these are the movies that sell the best.
Critically-acclaimed films like “Moonlight” and, “Love, Simon” certainly set a precedent for future writers and directors to try and take more risks and be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ characters. But despite the awards and fame these movies won, they still did not make nearly as much money in the box office as a film that came out 12 years ago.
Jonathan Katz, the United States’ first tenured professor of Queer Studies, said that throughout history queer rights groups have tried to “use humor to tell truths to power, and that has long been a kind of gay role, to challenge power directly will respond violently, so you go at it sideways,” he said.
As well as getting profits from ticket sales, “The Birdcage” was also well-liked by critics and was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe. The film didn’t win either of these awards but did snag the Screen Actors Guild Award for “Outstanding Performance by a Cast” in 1997.
A poll on the popular crowdsourced voting/opinion website Ranker asked fans to decide the Top 50 funniest people who have ever lived. Robin Williams, who portrayed one of the two gay, middle-aged, drag-club-owning dads in “The Birdcage” ranks No.1. From pop culture fans’ point of view; Williams is considered the best of the best, and so it is no surprise that people bought tickets to see whatever movie he was in.
Katz said “The Birdcage'” box office numbers make perfect sense, not just because of the big names, but because it checked off all the boxes to make a queer movie that non-queer audiences would enjoy.
“It was non-threatening in its constructs,” Katz explained, referring to the fact that the gay protagonists weren’t villains who aggressively prey on straight men. Robin Williams and Nathan Lane’s characters were much more femme, which we have seen with gay male protagonists before. That stereotype makes straight people feel safe, and more importantly, they can be laughed at, Katz explained.
“Sometimes you can make your point more easily with comedy than with drama. It goes down more smoothly,” Nathan Lane once said, explaining why “The Birdcage” is still so successful and iconic. Like Katz said, it was safe, and “non-threatening.”
“Queers have long been past masters of this,” Katz said in regards to comedy. “Drag is one example of exactly this mode. It is, in part, a satirization of the over-determined divide between male and female. And the degree to which our notions of gender are far from the “natural” is in fact, a social construct,” Katz said.
Even though the film made their gay characters seem more “natural” as Katz put it, it did include a few stereotypes about gay men. For example, the main couple owning a drag club and acting more feminine played into the trope of the “sassy gay guy” who is friendly and non-threatening to broader audiences.
“They played to the stereotypes and did all the things it needed to do, but nonetheless, had a good heart,” Katz said.
While Robin Williams and Nathan Lane played a happy couple who were also supportive parents, other media interpretations for LGBTQ+ people are not all that positive or even humanized.
Gordene MacKenzie, department chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies department at Merrimack College and author of “Transgender Nation, The Gender Movement in the USA” said television is able to be more progressive than film, because film depends more on what she calls “formulaic stereotypes.” Her research is primarily in transgender studies, and she notes that one of the main changes she has noticed in LGBTQ+ characters in film is that they are not as often used in the horror genre.
“I think there has been a seismic shift,” said MacKenzie. “We have moved in some cases from portraying queer people as homicidal maniacs that need to be exterminated, although that stereotype rears its head.”
She notes that straight, cisgender audiences’ fear of difference or the unknown causes writers to “villainize” rather than understand transgender perspectives.
“I think of the transgender killer in ‘Silence of Lambs,’ Norman Bates in the original ‘Psycho,’ and the film ‘Dressed to Kill,’“ said MacKenzie, “None of them are from a trans person’s perspective and they make transgender people out to be monsters; primarily transwomen. They erase the reality that trans women are more likely to be the victims of violence, rather than the person who commits violence.”
Katz recalls when “Basic Instinct,” a film whose murderous femme fatale was bisexual, and the outrage it caused in the 1990s. “We used that film precisely in order to push back against Hollywood stereotyping,” he said.
“We used it to audition the continuing trope of the murderous lesbian, the man-hating lesbian, who is eventually imprisoned or killed,” Katz said. We see it less often [now], but still, very often we do, and those I think are actually harmful stereotypes.”
Katz said that nowadays “Basic Instinct” is watched by LGBTQ+ movie buffs as a cult classic to be made fun of, akin to “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” But at the time it was made, these stereotypes were still dominating the conversation about not-straight, non-cisgender characters as villains.
Gordene MacKenzie also said that the “queer villain” archetype does a lot of harm. “[These portrayals are] very harmful because if you do not know a transgender or queer person media is the only place you learn about them,” said MacKenzie. “It is particularly dangerous in this fascist government where transgender people have been targeted, no doubt by (Vice President) Mike Pence in his bigoted quest to eliminate difference. By making transgender people objects of scorn or a joke, you declare open season on them.”
This brings up another problematic part of the top-grossing, critically-acclaimed LGBTQ+ movies, which is that they tend to end tragically for the protagonist.
In the top 15 highest-grossing films alone, 60 percent of the films feature the death of at least one queer person, which is often violent and tragic.
FBI data from 2016-2017 shows killings of LGBTQ+ people have increased with the top victims being transwomen of color. On social media and in a few studies, LGBTQ+ people have reported feeling that what they are seeing on screen equates with the same kinds of real-world dangers.
No matter how harmful these stereotypes are, according to studies and queer theorists, queer tragedy and horror make money in film and on TV.
A Different Stream
A key place that audiences will find a compelling, queer narrative on screen will be through independent film, which often end up on streaming services. Amara Cash, director of the film, “Daddy Issues” explained that her team at “Under 1 Roof Productions,” decided to make, “Daddy Issues” themselves and not try to pitch the concept to a bigger movie studio. She said they knew what kind of film they wanted to make and wanted to have the freedom to make it, so they funded it using marketing and advertising.
As for how Cash wrote her leading ladies to be different from other stereotypical “lesbian” or “bisexual” characters, she explained that her character-building approach was more grounded in her real life than what she had seen in movies.
“I get inspiration from people around me, from real people I know. I don’t really get that much inspiration from other characters I’ve seen before in film. It’s more of different sides of myself and different people I know,” she explained.
She also talked a little bit about how she found inspiration for her lead character, the pink-haired manic pixie dream lesbian, Maya, in a different sort of place.
“For Maya, I got a lot of inspiration from young kids on Instagram that we’re into this type of pastel, emo, anime vibe. So, I like to get very specific with who I think the character is and how they, they dress and their colors and all of those things,” she said.
A television series also has the ability to move quickly and show more content than films, explaining why diversity on television is so much quicker than in movies. But Cash noted she prefers the intimacy and care that can go into the creation of a film.
“Everything’s a bit different for a TV show once you pitch it and it gets picked up. You have a whole machine behind you. Whereas an independent filmmaker, it’s kind of just you and no one’s ever going to care about your project as much as you do,” she said.
The international film market also plays a role in determining what movies get more money and attention. Even if American audiences are more accepting of LGBTQ+ characters on their screens, these franchise films try to market themselves to the rest of the world. Places like China and countries in the Middle East would be unable to air these movies because of their strict censoring of LGBTQ+ content, meaning the movie studio will not make as much money.
“Here we can keep using our freedom of speech and use it as much as we can, kind of loud as we can. I mean that’s what we have, that’s just what we have to do,” said Cash.
But Cash, and some queer scholars have hope for the future of LGBTQ+ inclusive films.
“I think that the more people we get in the industry and interested in some that come from different backgrounds but more varied our stories will be,” said Cash. “But in terms of everyone catching up, yeah, I believe we are definitely going in that direction. I think it just always feels slower than we want it to be.”