“It’s no secret that the film industry has a diversity problem,” ran the lead in an item on the parody news site Clickhole. (Warning: The piece contains language that might offend the sensitive and ideas that might bother the humorless.) “Movie producers just aren’t willing to cast minority actors in lead roles. That’s why it’s so refreshing to hear that the upcoming ‘The Incredibles’ porn parody ‘The Incredibangers’ just cast an Asian-American actor in the lead role of Mr. Incredible. Take note, movie studios: This is representation done right!”
The piece is a wickedly funny satire of a particular dynamic between Hollywood and the entertainment press, one in which the former makes tiny, frequently inconsequential steps toward being more genuinely representative, and culture sites rake in traffic by cheering an ephemeral win (or decrying a misstep or particularly dense decision). And it also comes at a moment when the organizations that monitor pop cultural production and press the industry to be more inclusive in any number of ways are trying to raise their standards for what counts as progress.
“Our previous reporting made it clear that what was once termed ‘Adequate’ is not at all,” GLAAD president and chief executive Sarah Kate Ellis wrote in the introduction to the LGBT advocacy group’s annual “Studio Responsibility Index” report.
2016 may have been the year that finally produced a Best Picture Oscar winner with a gay main character, Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight.” But of the 125 movies the major studios put out, just 18.4 percent of them included LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) characters. In 43 percent of those films, the characters in question had less than a minute of screen time. And just nine of the 23 movies with LGBT characters passed what the organization is promoting as the “Vito Russo Test,” in honor of the pioneering film historian. That test, a riff on the Bechdel Test, which measures whether movies have two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man, measures whether movies have LGBT characters whose sexual orientation or gender identity is not the only pertinent thing about them, and who are genuinely important to the film’s central plot.
Take Disney-Pixar’s “Finding Dory,” which was hyped with a trailer that premiered on “Ellen” and that included a shot of a lesbian couple at an aquarium. The trailer did what it was supposed to do: It sold the idea that the movie was some sort of significant first and that Disney-Pixar was progressive for taking this step. When “Finding Dory,” which deserves credit in other ways for its treatment of disability, actually hit theaters, the hype seemed awfully silly. The footage of the couple in the trailer was essentially the entirety of their role in the movie, and it was so abbreviated that if you dropped your bucket of popcorn during their on-screen moment, you wouldn’t even have known it was there.
But however ephemeral these moments are, pushing them has resulted in plenty of advance good press for studio, and plenty of ready-made content for culture sites. Take director Bill Condon’s declaration that his live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast” was going to have an “exclusively gay moment.” Condon’s announcement made for one set of stories. The prospect that Malaysia might censor the movie as a result provided grist for another cycle, as did the country’s ultimately decision to back off. Condon eventually declared that the whole thing had been hyped out of proportion, producing another opportunity to write about this element of the film. And when audiences finally got to see the darn thing, publications wrung another set of stories about the fact that said “exclusively gay moment” was fairly ephemeral.
This is an awful lot of weight — journalistic, emotional and otherwise — to dump on a few seconds, or even a few minutes, of film.
And as a result, GLAAD is planning to start scrutinizing the studios’ output on a movie-by-movie basis, releasing data about representation as films hit theaters rather than at the end of the year. That’s a strategy that could produce a different set of headlines about what a movie is hyping relative to what it actually has to offer. And it would be a healthy thing, both for the culture journalism ecosystem, for moviegoers themselves, and for the conversation about diversity and inclusion. If a studio can garner weeks of supportive press with tidbits, that leaves the entertainment industry with few incentives to take actual risks, whether that means making superhero movies with Asian leads, or telling stories intended for mainstream audiences with gay people at the center.
I don’t mind that over the past few years, studios have learned that there’s a hunger for characters who aren’t exclusively white, straight and male. But if the movement for inclusion in Hollywood is going to make real and lasting progress, the industry will have to learn that you can’t sate that hunger with crumbs.