lgbt representation at the oscars
The Academy Awards work in strange and unjust ways. The award ceremony’s continuing whiteness—the 20 nominees for acting don’t include a single person of color for the second year in a row—has sparked both a hashtag and a conversation about diversity in media. It’s long been known that the Oscars have a gender bias as well, originating from their predominantly male membership and manifesting in a paucity of female director nominations. But absent from the nomination list for Best Picture this year was a different kind of representation. “Carol, ” a film about two women’s budding relationship in the 1950s that picked up six other nominations, was not nominated for Best Picture. “The Danish Girl,” about a transgender artist in the 1920s, also garnered little recognition. For an industry considered so liberal, there’s a surprising lack of representation of LGBTQ people and stories.
Ian McKellen recently raised the fact that no openly gay man had ever won Best Actor in an interview, wondering out loud whether it was “prejudice or chance.” When Sam Smith quoted this line after his win for original song this year, it was quickly noted online that openly gay screenwriters, supporting actors, and singers had won Oscars— they’re just missing from the top category. McKellen also noted that many straight actors have won Oscars for playing gay men. If Hollywood has an obvious history of whitewashing roles, it also has an emergent problem of “de-queering” the few stories it dares to tell. “Brokeback Mountain,” perhaps the most critically acclaimed movie about men loving men, featured two very straight actors; “Dallas Buyers Club” took home awards for a cisgender man playing a transgender woman and a straight man playing a bisexual man (conveniently and retroactively written as straight for narrative purposes). “Carol” and “The Danish Girl” are no exceptions: the former stars two straight actresses, and the latter’s title role is played by Eddie Redmayne, a straight and cis actor. Even if the roles are there, they’re made carefully bland or aren’t filled by queer actors.
Nowhere was this more clear than last year’s “Stonewall,” which portrayed the real-life story of the 1969 Greenwich Village riots considered to be the turning point in LGBT rights. Though the riots were sparked by trans women of color, the movie replaced these heroes with a fictional white gay man. For a movie about a historical moment, it was remarkably unconcerned with history, a blatant attempt to make a radically queer event more palatable. The movie’s financial failure, making back under 1 percent of its budget, as well as its critical panning, speaks to how badly this situation was misread. Though this may seem like an extreme example, this change in storyline is nothing new. For example, “Milk,” the biopic of the first openly gay elected official in California, used real riot footage but glossed over its subject’s polyamorous relationships, perceiving them to be contrary to his image as a respectable politician.
Hollywood’s failure to represent LGBTQ people can be blamed on either on the demand side or the supply side. On the former, it’s estimated that just under 4 percent of the United States identifies under the acronym umbrella, which might scare off movie executives thinking of these stories as niche. But audiences have proven that they’re interested in queer actors and plots. “Modern Family,” though very sanitized, has been showing gay as the new normal for seven seasons. “Orange Is The New Black,” which highlights a range of sexualities and gender expressions and pushes an ensemble cast of color (despite its white-knight heroine), has been one of Netflix’s biggest success stories. Queer people are increasingly visible on the smaller screen, which suggests that movies highlighting LGBTQ issues and performers should be flourishing.
The supply side is a little more complicated. There are more “out” creators and actors than ever as homophobia becomes less acceptable, and the endless and free platforms of the Internet means that more of these voices are able to get their message out there on YouTube, Vimeo, and the like. But this rush of queerness isn’t being absorbed by Hollywood’s power players. Transgender and gender nonconforming actors are only considered for stereotyped roles, or not at all. Screenplays about sexuality or gender don’t get optioned; movies about them don’t get distributed. If they somehow do, they’re filled by already-famous white and straight actors, as with “Carol” and “The Danish Girl.” The organizations that give out awards don’t see those movies, or see them and don’t care. Homophobia and transphobia aren’t just acts of violence; they also manifest in the subtle ways that people and markets push down deviant representations.
Cate Blanchett, one of the leads in “Carol,” recently responded to questions about her interest in women (or lack thereof) with, “In 2015, the point should be: who cares?” Rooney Mara, its other star, spoke similarly agnostically: “Gay or straight, you can relate to this movie because it is just a love story.” On one hand, this is true: there’s a universality to movies that can defy labels and move people. There’s a reason why people who are not gay men cry when they watch “Brokeback Mountain.” Maybe the strength of the story is such that straight actors can still convince us of their power. But on the other hand, it’s peculiar that a movie about gay men can be written, acted, produced, and profited off of by straight people.
The answer to these problems isn’t obvious. Even if we all at once decide to put our money where our mouth is and support marginalized voices, we can’t show up at the movies tomorrow and see a non-problematic, fully representational film, because those films aren’t being produced. As society becomes more tolerant and queerness more mainstream, those stories may start to show up in theaters and on nomination lists. This absence may also become less of a problem as what tops the box office and the Academy’s list matters less. It’s a long journey that can’t just be solved through consumer activism. But hey, you should go see “Carol.” It’s a shame it wasn’t nominated for the Oscar.