Inclusivity in films, TV, literature and even games is something we all want to see in 2019. So why do some creators still seem reluctant to include LGBTQ+ characters/storylines in their work? There has been a worrying trend of authors and filmmakers claiming characters in their work are LGBTQ+ sometimes long after publication/release. Can we read this as a genuine attempt at diversity or simply quota filling or a problematic ploy to engage a wider audience after-the-fact?
A key example of this is the treatment of the character of Dumbledore in the more recent Fantastic Beasts films, the latest installment in the Harry Potter Franchise. Author JK Rowling has said in recent years that she considered the character to be gay despite it never being referenced in the novels. The novels were published in the late 90s/early 00s so it is possible she felt unable to make it canon then. Section 28 was enacted by the Government in 1988, only a couple of years before Rowling started writing. The act made it illegal for local authorities to “intentionally promote homosexuality”. While this was aimed at schools, the sentiment is a clear representation of attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community in Britain at the time.
However, the Fantastic Beasts films were released in 2016 and 2018 and yet there is no explicit mention of Dumbledore’s sexuality. For a franchise which is loved globally by fans of all ages this would have been an important step for representation, one which everyone involved elected to avoid. Fans were therefore disappointed that not only was the Dumbledore/Grindelwald romance ignored in the film but that gay subtext was presented in a negative and even predatory manner.
Other examples include Disney’s Frozen. If you didn’t spot the gay couple I don’t blame you. In the scene a shopkeeper waves to his family behind him: several children and a man. The scene lasts seconds and was supposedly only made clear after the film’s release when filmmakers confirmed that he was the character’s husband. There is also the issue of the manner in which creators reveal gay characters. In 2015 gamemakers for the popular game Overwatch teased that several of their characters were LGBTQ but some fans complained that the game makers had no real intention of revealing these characters and it was something of a marketing ploy.
It is probably unfair to place blame completely on authors or writers as we know there are numerous people involved in the process of getting a story into cinemas or into book shops. There has been evidence in the United States of authors such as Jessica Verday being told by publishers that her characters were too blatantly homosexual and therefore not publishable.
The issue of representation is of course a wider issue. A study done in 2016 for films released in the USA uncovered a shocking statistic that less than 20% of released films had characters who identified as LGBTQ+. Furthermore, the issue of ‘Queerbaiting’ has become prevalent. This is when TV or filmmakers create plotlines with a substantial amount of gay subtext. The effect being that they can attract a wider range of audiences as they are offering a vague amount of representation whilst not losing less accepting audiences with a more explicitly LGBT plotline. It’s a dishonest and cowardly tactic which sends a damaging message, especially to young people.
Films such as Rafiki, a story about a lesbian relationship in Kenya, a country where homosexuality is a punishable offence, and Love, Simon, a film following a closeted American high school student, gained critical acclaim in 2018. From this it is clear that vividly represented LGBTQ+ characters and storylines are something audiences are wanting to see. At the start of January Netflix released Sex Education, a series following a group of sixth formers in England navigating their first sexual experiences, which has been praised for its commitment to diversity and the representation of queer characters. We can only hope that shows like this will set the standard for the TV, film and literature we’ll be seeing in 2019.