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Why Studios Fear Putting Gay Characters in Movies Like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Avengers’

If the Star Wars universe is really as expansive as Disney hoped it would be when it shelled out $4 billion to buy the rights to the Wookies, Ewoks, and droids that populate the far reaches of space, then at some point the Millennium Falcon should stumble across a gay person. Even a gay alien would be a welcome sign of social progress.

But why stop there? There could be gay Avengers, a transgender animation protagonist, and a lesbian MI-6 spy. And if James Bond is really so good in bed, why is he so square when it comes to sexual exploration?

At a time when every weekend brings a new sequel or superhero film, adding gay characters might even be a way to inject fresh life into tired franchises. It could also expand the audiences, making it a smart financial decision, not just a boon for diversity.

Gay people have become more visible in every facet of life — from politics to music to Silicon Valley — and yet they continue to be whitewashed out of major American films, as evident from Monday’s GLAAD report. It’s not just that they aren’t piloting the Starship Enterprise. Onscreen, they’re not even manning the counter at bodegas.

The absence of gay people in lead or supporting roles is odd given that television and popular music have so completely embraced them. Moreover, young people — the bread and butter of the movie industry — are overwhelmingly less homophobic and more supportive of gay rights than previous generations.

The reason, pure and simple, is fear. It’s not that the movie business is anti-gay. It’s not. Many of the people behind and in front of the camera are gay, as are numerous studio executives. They’re supportive of gay rights — often with their time and their checkbooks. But they are also scared and what scares them the most about films with gay characters is the prospect of marketing them to foreign audiences. It’s one thing for a studio executive to support gay marriage. It’s another to risk $200 million on a movie with a gay protagonist that needs to play in China and Russia, countries where LGBT citizens face discrimination, legal challenges, and violence.

That’s a shame. As GLAAD CEO Sarah Kate Ellis noted in its recent survey of gay portrayals on film, the failure to include more gay characters in films “keeps old prejudices alive and creates an unsafe environment, not only here in America, but around the world where most audiences see these depictions.”

So far, Hollywood has not been heeding the call. The GLAAD report makes clear that Star Wars is just the tip of the iceberg. The group would probably settle for not being the punchline in a Kevin Hart comedy. Of the 126 major studio releases last year, only 22 of them — or 17.5% — featured LGBT characters. That was roughly the same percentage of characters that appeared in films in 2014.

It wasn’t always that way. Studios do deserve some credit for providing affirmative portraits of gay life with ’90s films like “The Birdcage,” “In and Out,” “As Good as it Gets,” and “Philadelphia.” Some of the LGBT figures seem camp or stereotypical in retrospect, but they were a huge step forward from the cross-dressing murderers that populated “Dressed to Kill” and “Silence of the Lambs.”

But several of those movies were mid-budget films, the kind that studios don’t make anymore. Instead, their financial focus is on comic book movies and science-fiction fantasies that command budgets in excess of $100 million. With budgets that huge, a film has to be popular all across the globe to make a profit. Studio executives are loath to risk alienating any of the major foreign markets that shun gay people.

The enormous strides that American society made towards greater tolerance for gays and lesbians probably has more to do with the personal connections that people have in their own lives — the knowledge that their neighbors, friends, and family members may be attracted to members of the same sex changed minds.

Some movie stars, at least, seem opening to journeying along the Kinsey scale, but expect them to meet opposition. Andrew Garfield once mused that there was no reason that Spider-Man couldn’t be gay. However, emails unearthed in the Sony hack show that as part of a licensing agreement with Marvel, Spider-Man must be heterosexual and Caucasian. Likewise, Ryan Reynolds told reporters he thought it would be “nice” for Deadpool to have a boyfriend in future installments.

“I certainly wouldn’t be the guy standing in the way of that,” Reynolds said. “That would be great.”

Having a gay person don a costume to fight crime would be a step forward, but the issues extend beyond superhero-land. The big screen pales in comparison to the small when it comes to offering up different kinds of LGBT characters. A look at some of the best that television has had to offer shows how far film has yet to travel. “Game of Thrones” has given viewers Oberyn Martell, a lusty bisexual swordsman. “Shameless” has Mickey Milkovich, the gay thug from the wrong side of the tracks. “Orange is the New Black” and “Girls” are notable for the sexual fluidity of their characters. And “Transparent” is grounded by Maura Pfefferman, whose journey through gender identity is dramatized in a sensitive, compelling, often ragged fashion. They represent a fuller spectrum of human experience, one rooted in vastly different social and economic settings.

As the television audience becomes more fractured, and consumers access content in different ways, over a myriad of devices, it has allowed programming that would have once been considered too niche to get a greenlight, to thrive. If the film industry eventually cracks along similar fault lines, one benefit could be the rise of more diverse kinds of characters, both people of color and LGBT figures.

So, yes, “Star Wars” should have a gay, bisexual, lesbian, or transgender character, but in the meantime, LGBT moviegoers would be happy to just see their own lives reflected on the big screen. The creative community gets that. During his press tour for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” J.J. Abrams made the point that he wanted the new franchise to be more inclusive.

“It’s important people see themselves represented in film,” Abrams told a crowd at Comic-Con.

True to his word, “The Force Awakens” features an ass-kicking female protagonist and a heroic black storm trooper, an improvement for a series that has historically been dominated by white males. But diversity doesn’t stop there. A galaxy far, far away should have room for gay people too.

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