What do Straight People Mean When they Say a Character Won’t be ‘Explicitly’ Gay?
A few months ago, the director of the next installment in the Harry Potter universe, The Crimes of Grindelwald, stated that Albus Dumbledore would not be ‘explicitly’ gay. But what does that actually mean?
(2020 update: I have all levels of regret for holding onto any hope that anything JK Rowling touched could be anything greater than heartless when it came to LGBT+ representation. When I originally wrote this, I still wasn’t ready to accept that someone I’d looked up to for so long could be so horrible. Well, in the years since, I’ve done a lot of growing, and JK herself has made it very easy to recognize that there was always a monster beneath her mask.)
I admit, when director David Yates said that Dumbledore wouldn’t be ‘explicitly’ gay, my mind immediately conjured up a room of straight men imagining strip-drag shows and dramatic coming out stories and how those two options definitely don’t fit Albus Dumbledore, sage mentor of the Boy Who Lived. Now, I would like to give both Yates and JK Rowling (who wrote the screenplay) the benefit of the doubt and assume they are at least a bit more aware than that, the greater depiction of gayness in movies kept this question rolling in my mind ever since.
What do straight people think when they think of something as ‘explicitly’ gay? Specifically straight people, since they are, overwhelmingly, still the ones telling these stories so the depictions of gayness hinges entirely on their understanding of it.
In the case of The Crimes of Grindelwald, just going off of what is shown in the trailer (much of which might yet be changed or cut before the final film is released), Dumbledore might not even interact directly with Grindelwald in this film. He specifically mentions that he ‘can’t move against Grindelwald’ when faced with Ministry of Magic officials. That could be a subtle hint that he can’t face his past at this time, or it could simply be a political statement to help him keep his job and social standing. After all, the Ministry also seems to be against confronting Grindelwald altogether. JK Rowling’s response also seemed to imply that the future movies might do more. Of course, given her history, I’ll believe that when it’s a reality.
For me, it is a bit too soon to completely pass judgement on this specific movie, but it’s also important to remember that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Just in the last year, we’ve had a lesbian in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom who’s line regarding her lesbianism was cut from the final product, Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarok was said to be bi by the film’s creators but whose scene clarifying this was cut form the final film, and Daniel Glover let us know that Lando is pansexual, though the actual results in the final film could easily be handwaved away. There’s also Wonder Woman, who is bi in the comics but not in her movies, and Deadpool who’s pan, but the parts of the movies that can be construed that way can just as easily be brushed off as mere shock-value jokes.
That’s not even delving into the more subtle moments of erasure, such as Okoye, who seemingly was going to have her own gay-ish moment in Black Panther before Marvel shut that one down. There was also the subtext Loki and the Grandmaster were given in Thor: Ragnarok, but there has neither been confirmation nor a denial to the validity of this one. Loki in the coimcs has never really been pinned down, though there have also been instances of him changing genders and kissing men while in a female form, and he has also been confirmed as pansexual and genderfluid for an upcoming MCU spin-off book. However, as far as Ragnarok goes, it could have all just been a happy accident.
For a taste of what we missed out on, just look at the ‘explicitly gay’ line that was cut from Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom:
“It’s me and Chris Pratt and we are in a military vehicle with all of these mercenaries,” [ Daniella Pineda] told the outlet. “I look at Chris and am like, ‘Yeah. Square jaw. Good bone structure. Tall. Muscles. I don’t date men, but if I did, it would be you. It would gross me out, but I would do it.’”
The only way to describe it is ‘straight men failing to write a gay woman.’
Then there’s our bi and pan characters:
Lando and Deadpool are an extension of the promiscuous bisexual trope, only now we’re including non-humans in the mix, though without actually showing them being too into the non-humans that are coded to be of a similar sex to themselves. At least in Deadpool 2 he got to show a bit of interest in Colossus, even if it was played for laughs. The screenwriter for Deadpool had noted that they wanted to honor his roots in subtle ways, and the producer for Deadpool 2 admitted to veiled references.
With Valkyrie, a scene of a woman leaving her bedroom was shot but didn’t make it to the final product. Both Valkyrie’s actress, Tessa Thompson (who had originally suggested the scene and has also stated that she is bisexual), and director Taika Waititi had wanted to keep it in to make her sexuality clear, but the scene was ultimately cut. It doesn’t even seem like it was a studio level decision as much as a choice to trim down the movie’s length. Her scene was just extra, and they didn’t have room for that extra.
For characters that straight creators feel were sufficiently explicitly gay in the final product, let’s take a look at another Disney property:
The actual ‘moment’ in question was a big let down, but we can learn a lot from it. First, the director openly said LeFou was going to be gay and going to get a gay scene in the movie. Not that there were nods or that they wanted to do it, but that they were doing it. In addition to that one scene, it’s clear that Josh Gad was trying very hard to make LeFou very unmistakably gay, and it doesn’t seem to just be in the stereotypes he dipped into either. Just watch the way he looks at Gaston. The partner from his ‘gay moment’ is also pictured above, fashion scarf and all. We know he’s gay because he doesn’t mind it when the wardrobe puts him in a dress.
This is what was explicit enough to get backlash. There were a couple of petitions against the movie, one Alabama theater refused to show it, Malaysia wanted the scene cut altogether, and Russia rated the movie for audiences age 16 and older. Not even China got mad about this one, which is interesting, given that China is often given as a reason why movies won’t include gay scenes. It doesn’t take much to be banned in China, and they’re the second biggest movie market in the world, and they were ok with the scene.
Still, there is a huge, glaring issue with this: Both characters are formed deep in gay stereotypes. They’re not exactly great representation. While I am grateful that Disney took a chance, and I’m also grateful that Disney refused to cut the scene just to appease a loud (though, ultimately, rather small) crowd of dissenters. It was three seconds — it would’ve been so easy to do as they did with Valkyrie and just ‘trim the fat.’ They stood by that scene and their choice to put some representation up on the big screen.
But it’s 2018. Disney, and everyone else for that matter, should be doing better than this. So —
How can we work towards good LGBT+ representation?
It’s funny how some of the best, or at least most well-regarded, representation came about by accident. Take Li Shang, bisexual icon — sure, it’s partly due to a lack of actual healthy bi representation, but it’s mostly due to the way he looked at Mulan before he knew she was not a man. He wasn’t a stereotype, he was just a guy who was drawn in such a way that it looked like he was developing feelings for one of his soldiers.
I also think Ragnarok’s representation was accidental, at least to some extent. Of course, that wink was on purpose, but that really could’ve just been a jokey-moment. Yet the Grandmaster also keeps him close (he is, after all, the only other person allowed to sit on the Grandmaster’s couch) and Loki knows the codes to the orgy ship (technically, since he’s Loki, there are many other ways he could’ve gotten those codes, but having an invitation to be on that ship is the easiest answer).
When creators actively try to create ‘explicit’ moments, we get awkward and clunky dialogue and blatant stereotypes. When they try to go for veiled nods, we get Deadpool rubbing one out with a unicorn plushie and maybe-maybe-not sexually harassing Colossus.
Mostly, it seems, we get vague platitudes and “we’d like to do more.” Kevin Feigie has even indicated that there should be more LGBT+ representation heading our way in the coming Marvel movies, but that can be taken with a bottle of salt until it’s actually seen. We definitely should be past this by now, but the fact of the matter is that we aren’t.
I would certainly like to grant some leniency — maybe the goal is to try and create well formed characters that fit into the stories. The problem with that theory is that quality story-telling is rarely a hindrance when it comes to throwing in a straight romance.
Now, I don’t want movie makers to suddenly start trying to shove in gay romances at the cost to the story, but I do sometimes wish they’d treat straight romance with the caution that they give to gay romance —Will it detract from the story? Yes? Maybe we shouldn’t do it. That’s not to say the inserted love interest shouldn’t exist as a character at all, but if the romance part of that existence feels tacked on or unnecessary, maybe the characters can do something else besides smash their faces together for no reason. Some writers and directors are picking up on this — coincidentally, it also seems that many of these writers and directors are the same ones that are interested in including LGBT+ representation.
I’m glad that there’s an interest in quality storytelling and trying new things instead of just painting by the numbers. Still, I can easily think of simple ways to fix some of these scenarios. For example, with Valkyrie, she could’ve been flirting with a girl when Thor was trying to get her attention instead of just nursing more booze. Sure, it’s not integral to the plot, but it’s in an integral scene that would require a re-shoot for removal.
I know it can be hard to depict things that are unseen — If you want more racial diversity, cast racially diverse actors and you’ve already gotten a good start (there’s definitely a lot more to it than that, but casting alone is already a very visible step in this case). Want more diversity of sexual orientation? It has to be written in, it has to be acted out, it has to not be cut from the film. Don’t make their sexuality part of the trimmed fat. If you want to include representation, stop making it so easy to remove. Put your hints in scenes that are unlikely to be cut or handle it in ways that enrich the movie. If you aren’t sure how, then perhaps you need to reach out a bit more. Read a few more books, talk to more people.
There’s this great trend in literature as of late where authors have a sensitivity reader (or ten) check their book for harmful tropes and misrepresentation of certain cultures. It’s basically getting a second opinion from the people who’ve lived the experiences that you want to write about. The goal is to help widen audiences by actually including well rounded people in the story as opposed to just perpetuating harmful stereotypes. It’s the best kind of research we have available to us — first hand experience. It’s interesting that movies don’t really do the same. Sure, they’ll do test screenings, but it’s not the same as actually asking a gay person ‘hey, we want to depict a gay character, do you have any suggestions on how we can do it better?’ Sure, there are some people who will never be pleased, and you also can’t please all audiences. That’s why you get more than one opinion from the culture you’re looking to portray. That’s not to say you should go through 50 people until you find one that agrees with you. If the other 49 said there’s a problem, then there’s most likely a problem.
They could also make vast improvements and get a more diverse pool of opinions by just getting more LGBT+ people in front of and behind the camera. If they’re included in the actual making of a product that includes them, you’re already more likely to tell an authentic story that includes their identities. That doesn’t mean all gay characters need to be played by gay actors, just like all straight characters don’t need to be played by straight actors (it would actually be very bad if we mandated that). But at the very least if their sexuality is an important point, then they should definitely be played by someone who is of that sexuality. Sorry, Josh Gad.
Probably the biggest way to get better representation, though, would be to tell stories with LGBT+ protagonists. A huge reason why many of these characters are so easily erased or feel so awkward is because they’re side characters. Even Dumbledore, who is arguably more well known than the actual protagonist of the Fantastic Beasts films (Newt Scamander was just an answer to a trivia question before 2016), it just a side character. Yes, he was in love with the main antagonist, but his story isn’t the main focus of these movies. I can’t pretend that I would want it to be — I really like Newt, he’s a great protagonist — but other franchises have had more than ample opportunity to make LGBT+ leads. Marvel has a large glossary of untapped heroes that includes many bi, pan, and gay ones, Wonder Woman could be made clearly bi and Deadpool can actually state his interest in Colossus, and Star Wars brought in all new characters that had never existed before, not even in the books, comics, or cartoons. There’s even a strong fanbase rooting for their new male leads to end up together.
Getting better representation into films is going to take a lot of effort at first, especially for straight creators. It’s going to take an active interest and creators that are willing to push through. Eventually, including non-heterosexual characters in films that aren’t about coming out or what it’s like to be gay will become normal. But we need studios to actually show them first. Just saying they’re there is, well, a start, but it’s 2018. We should have moved past this at least three years ago.