Myth of ‘Liberal Hollywood’: TV Makes Strides in LGBT World, But What About Film?

The LGBT World and Hollywood: TV
Noma Bar for Variety

Major-studio comedies like “The Hangover” and “Get Hard” feature anti-gay jokes, and LGBT characters are chronically missing from summer tentpoles.

Is Hollywood homophobic?

Kelly Bush Novak, ID-PR founder and CEO, says there is a distinct split when talking about the entertainment industry. “I can’t think of a time when I’ve seen homophobia on television. But I see it in movies all the time. In an industry so well-populated by gay and lesbian filmmakers and producers, we can do better.”

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA chief operating officer and general counsel, says discrimination can happen not just in on-camera depictions, but behind the scenes as well. “The industry has made a big impact in the broader world, but hasn’t done enough to take care of LGBT people here at home, in the industry,” he says. Stars remain in the closet (see story, page 40), and Crabtree-Ireland says the mood affects working performers at all levels. “LGBT actors are discriminated against, and many of them feel uncomfortable being out professionally because of the risk to their career prospects. That needs to change, and to make that happen, we need the commitment and support of people across the industry. This is not an effort that performers should have to undertake on their own.”

That sentiment applies to members of other guilds, including below-the-line crew members.

If LGBT people feel invisible or stereotyped in films, they’re in good company. This year has seen renewed attacks on the film industry’s lack of diversity, in terms of hiring and depicting women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, Native Americans, Asians, people with disabilities and others. To put it simply, the film biz isn’t necessarily homophobic; maybe it’s simply phobic.

And, as with everything in the entertainment business, much is due to economics.

Steven J. Ross, who wrote the book “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics,” stresses that Hollywood consists of two distinct parts — “and the creative side is far more liberal than the corporate side.” But it’s the latter that controls the purse strings.

With so much money at stake, movie studios are fearful of alienating even a portion of the audience. Executives too often make decisions based on a preponderance of past success; the mantra seems to be “If it isn’t what usually works, let’s not try it.” It’s a mind-set that becomes self-perpetuating, and even global hits like “Brokeback Mountain” ($178 million worldwide) are written off as flukes.

By contrast, TV covers a wide spectrum of the gay world, says GLAAD president-CEO Sarah Kate Ellis.

“Over the past few years, we’ve seen LGBT representation on TV evolve to more accurately reflect its audience and our culture, with diverse programs like ‘Empire’ and ‘How to Get Away With Murder’ also becoming some of TV’s biggest hits,” Ellis says. “The film industry, on the other hand, lags years behind — and must improve its track record on diverse representations if it is to stay relevant to a wide audience.”

TV has gotten bolder due to channel growth and the need for more content. “TV has evolved more quickly than we expected,” says Stephen Tropiano, author of “The Prime Time Closet” and a professor at Ithaca College. Tropiano points out that “in the post-Ellen era, there are many LGBT characters in all genres — comedy, drama, reality.”

GLAAD backs that up, with studies showing a healthy cross-section in primetime scripted shows.

But film results are poor. GLAAD tracked 114 features. Of the 20 featuring LGBT characters, half of them had only 30 seconds to five minutes of screen time. Two-thirds of those characters were white men. And many were mocked — ID-PR’s Bush says: “I’d like to stop seeing movies with gratuitous jokes. It’s time to consider the teenager in the Midwest who may be the victim of violence or get kicked out of his home as a result.”

Another problem in film is the general absence of gay characters, and how that impacts global images. “Films live beyond U.S. borders,” says Matt Kane, GLAAD program director of entertainment media. “The Hollywood brand carries a lot of cachet in other countries. And when there are no representations of LGBTQ characters, or negative ones, that can affect people’s perceptions within their own country or community.”

For those who choose to see the glass as half-full, there are reasons for optimism. The studios’ specialty divisions — Focus Features, Sony Classics, Fox Searchlight — have shown wide diversity, as have indies like the Weinstein Co., IFC and Lionsgate.

And the younger generation is far more accepting of people with different attitudes. Moreover, there’s a substantial diversity in works made
for the Internet, with a wide range of artists showing less discrimination in terms of gender, race or sexual identity.

As the slogan from the 1970s said, you’ve come a long way baby — but you’ve still got a long way to go.