What Defines the Line Between Inclusivity and Queerbaiting?

by Michael Abernethy

19 April 2017

It was the year of the African American, not the LGBTQ, at the Academy Awards -- we can't have both. Perhaps the new hashtag should be #Oscarsoblackandwhite.
Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) and Chiron (Ashton Sanders) 

While this year’s Oscar ceremony may have ended with one of the biggest goofs in awards history, Academy members could still walk away feeling good about themselves. After all, any trace of #Oscarsowhite had been erased, with the gold statuette deservedly going to Viola Davis (Supporting Actress), Mahershali Ali (Supporting Actor), and Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney (Adapted Screenplay), as well as a win in the Best Picture category for Moonlight. Four other African Americans received acting nominations. What’s more, four of the five Best Documentary nominees were produced and directed by African Americans, and African Americans also scored noms for Directing, Film Editing, Cinematography, and a second nomination for Adapted Screenplay, all warranted. Yep, the Oscars were so diverse… if you define diversity as being black or white.

Although India’s Dev Patel scored a bid for supporting actor this year, an Asian actor hasn’t won an acting Oscar since Haing S. Ngor in 1984 (for The Killing Fields). The last Hispanic American to win an acting Oscar was Benicio Del Toro, who won 17 years ago for Traffic. John Geilgud was the only LGBT actor who was out when he won an Oscar, 37 years ago for Arthur. (Other Oscar winners have come out post-Oscar win, such as Jodie Foster and Joel Grey.)

Perhaps the new hashtag should be #Oscarsoblackandwhite. In the hoopla to celebrate the Best Picture win of a black film, what was frequently overlooked was that Moonlight is the first film with an LGBT central character to claim the top award. Naturally, the LGBT+ press picked up on the significance of the win, but the mainstream media largely overlooked it. This really isn’t surprising, however, as Moonlight falls into a new category of LGBT+ films: The Gay Film that Isn’t. This category is one of three in which LGBT media seem to fall these days: the aforementioned, The Big LGBT Event, and The Straight Film that’s Gay. This, of course, precludes those small independent films about LGBT individuals made by LGBT individuals, with money borrowed from their LGBT hairdressers, aimed at LGBT individuals who are bored on a Saturday evening and watching Netflix.

The Gay Film That Isn’t includes those films that feature prominent LGBT+ characters whose stories are integral to the primary story arc. Yet, these films don’t promote themselves as LGBT+ cinema, nor are they perceived to fit that genre by the larger public. Moonlight‘s story of Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) is the portrait of a kid in America as he grows into a man. His race, socio-economic class, and drug-addicted mother are as important in shaping him into the man he becomes as is his sexual orientation; none can be separated from the others. Thus, for some viewers, Chiron’s coming to terms with his sexuality will speak loudest, while others will connect most with the struggles of a shy black kid in the inner city.

Jesse Plemons in Other People (2016)

Jesse Plemons in Other People (2016)

Another 2016 LGBT+ film that falls into the Isn’t category is Other People, Chris Kelly’s autobiographical tale of a floundering TV writer, David (Jesse Plemons), who returns home to visit his cancer-ridden mother (Molly Shannon). Neither the capsule description of the film on Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB mention that David’s family has struggled with his sexual orientation and that it’s his mother’s death that helps heal old wounds. (There’s no spoiler in revealing the mother’s death, as it’s shown in the opening sequence of the film.)

Part of what drives David home is the end of his five-year relationship with his boyfriend, yet the film is more the story of a son and mother coming to terms than an account of a young gay man struggling through a failing adult life. Largely, that’s due to the career-defining performance of Shannon, in a role originally slated to be played by Sissy Spacek. Shannon’s work earned her an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress, as well as nominations from several other groups, but, alas, no love from Oscar. After all, it was the year of the African American, not the LGBT, at the Academy Awards—we can’t have both.

Austin P. McKenzie as Young Cleve Jones in When We Rise

Austin P. McKenzie as Young Cleve Jones in When We Rise

Coming right on the heels of Moonlight and Other People was When We Rise, the latest entry into the Big LGBT Event category, those films that are aimed at the LGBT+ community, but with the larger intent of informing the public as a whole about who we are. Films such as 1982’s Personal Best and Making Love, 2005’s Brokeback Mountain and 2008’s Milk, which was written by Rise creator and writer, Dustin Lance Black, all fit into this category. When We Rise is ABC’s four night TV event chronicling the fight for gay and lesbian rights, from the Stonewall Riots in 1969 to the historic Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage in 2015. (TV series are finally getting Oscars recognition, as O.J.: Made in America, 2016, was the first TV series to win an Oscar.)

When We Rise focuses on the lives of four real individuals—Cleve (Austin P. Mckenzie and Guy Pearce),  Roma (Emily Skeggs and Mary-Louise Parker), Ken (Jonathan Majors and Michael Kenneth Williams), and Diane (Fiona Dourif and Rachel Griffiths)—as they move through the birth of the LGBT rights movement, the pandemic of AIDS, and the argument over marriage rights, all while dealing with the personal struggles that came with being a gay man or lesbian in a society that openly rejected homosexual culture and all those that represented it.

While other films have focused more on the personal battles of LGBT+ individuals, When We Rise captures the spirit of a movement. It’s the most accurate representation of what it was like to be LGBT in the recent past that I’ve seen, a past that’s too easily overlooked by those who weren’t there but reap the benefits of those fights (a point made by Cleve late in the series). Scenes of gay-bashing in the film aren’t hyperbole or presented for dramatic development; they were common occurrences, and those of us who were fortunate not to experience that then knew too many people who did. Similarly, the devastation of the plague, AIDS—the disease ravaged the gay population and sent too many of us to too many funerals—seems lost on a generation that has PreP and HIV cocktails.

Still, it isn’t just the series’ historical importance that makes it a Big LGBT Event, it’s also the show’s star power. Not only does When We Rise feature a huge cast of well-known actors in supporting and cameo roles, it’s also one of the largest collections of LGBT+ actors assembled in one production. David Hyde Pierce, T R Knight, and Rosie O’Donnell are among them, but the rising star is Ivory Aquino, a trans woman who plays Ken’s closest friend.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Big LGBT Event is The Straight Film That’s Gay, those media events that seek to appeal to the LGBT audience by throwing a passing LGBT reference into a decidedly straight piece of work. In her article in the 29 March, 2017 edition of USA Today, Kelly Lawler discusses Hollywood’s recent spate of queerbating films, pointing specifically to Beauty and the Beast and Power Rangers as examples. Disney made headlines when news broke that one of the characters in Beauty and the Beast showed homosexual feelings for the macho villain of the story, while Power Rangers’ ambiguity about one of the character’s sexual orientation had viewers wondering if there’s a lesbian Power Ranger, something certainly not addressed in the TV series that inspired the film. Lawler also goes on to point out criticisms of queerbating for TV shows Supernatural, Rizzoli and Isles, and Sherlock. Perhaps no show was more guilty of queerbating than Xena: Warrior Princess, which loved to tease viewers with the sexual tension between its two straight lead characters, Xena and Gabrielle.

These nods to the LGBT+ community—sometimes subtle but increasingly more obvious—are nothing new, as discussed previously in this column in articles about marketing to the LGBT community and the “lesbian for an episode” trend, popular in the past. Yet, they raise the question, What is the line between inclusivity and queerbaiting? Of course, LGBT+ individuals are a part of society, so excluding them from reflections of that society would be erroneous and misleading. We expect to see ourselves in films and literature and on TV, and sometimes our stories are significant enough to warrant a Big LGBT Event.

Josh Gad as LeFou in Beauty and the Beast

Josh Gad as LeFou in Beauty and the Beast

However, if our presence is merely intended to be a ploy to increase revenue, then the artists aren’t truly interested in telling our stories so much as raking in our cash. The fact that LeFou (Josh Gad) in Beauty and the Beast is gay is “historic” only in the sense that it’s a first for Disney, but it’s a throw-away storyline. Disney will really be making ground when it finally explores the life of an LGBT character in one of its family-friendly films.

In any form, though, the end result is that LGBT stories and characters are appearing in new ways before audiences, in blockbusters and award-winners. They show that the lives of the LGBT+ are full of hardship, and not all of it has to do with being LGBT+. Our mothers die and we mourn them, we argue with our spouses about the same things that straight couples do, and our home lives can suck for reasons other than judgmental family. Yet, these portrayals also show the joy of our lives—we can find love and have stable nuclear families, we can change the world through our collective voices, and apparently, some of us have superhero powers. Ultimately, that’s a pretty good way for the world to see us, for a change.

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