Monday, May 21st, 2018
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Accepted VS. Exploited: Representations Of LGBT Characters In Hollywood

Much attention has been drawn to Hollywood of late, and several condemnations of its practises issued. While the recent #OscarsSoWhite kerfuffle is certainly indicative of a problem, I think the real issue stretches beyond race only. As a colleague here has pointed out in a recent article, we aren’t all fooled.

The Dressmaker LGBT

Much attention has been drawn to Hollywood of late, and several condemnations of its practises issued. While the recent #OscarsSoWhite kerfuffle is certainly indicative of a problem, I think the real issue stretches beyond race only. As a colleague here has pointed out in a recent article, we aren’t all fooled.

The Academy has a tendency to award actors for taking on what is seen as a “challenging” role. That generally translates to a role in which the actor had to undergo some form of transformation. Maybe he or she is a straight actor playing a gay character, or maybe there’s an element of (and don’t forget how often this is done) race switching!

Now, the issue I’d like to discuss isn’t casting. That’s been covered in the article linked above, and with the recent Joseph Fiennes/Michael Jackson scandal, you can bet you’ll see loads more like it. The real issue is how Hollywood defines, codifies, and presents characters who are not white, straight Americans.

Playing the Description Game

This is relatively easy to point out and it’s not just Hollywood’s issue. The likelihood is we all do it without even realising. It’s all in the descriptors. Describe Albert Einstein in three words. Now describe Alan Turing in three. Was one of those three words was “gay”? I’ll bet you could have a whole page of descriptors for Einstein and not a single one would be “straight”. You can play this game with all sorts of people, by the way. Oscar Wilde. Stephen Fry. Ian McKellen. The list goes on.

This is a tendency in our society to group people who don’t conform and label them by their difference. We do it with alternative sexuality, minority races, mental disorders. And Hollywood responds to this tendency by playing into it.

Allow me to illustrate my point. We all remember The Boondock Saints, right? You remember Willem Dafoe’s eccentric performance as the FBI agent Paul Smecker who’s conflicted about whether the two brothers’ gruesome murders of low-life scum is actually a good thing. Did I forget to mention he’s gay? Because the movie sure as hell doesn’t. For those who didn’t watch the link, the scene features Dafoe in bed with his boyfriend, who is trying to cuddle with him. Dafoe calls him a “fag” and walks away.

The Boondock Saints - Franchise Pictures (1999))

The Boondock Saints (1999) – source: Franchise Pictures

This scene doesn’t serve to establish the character’s sexuality (it’s already been stated earlier in the film). It’s a cheap shot, an attempt to get laughs, and when codified, shows Smecker as a homophobic homosexual. To be extremely clear – the issue I’m attempting to bring to light is not the sexuality of Dafoe’s character, but rather the portrayal of that sexuality by the filmmaker. It’s not merely accepted in the same way the film immediately accepts that the two brothers are straight, despite any real evidence. However, major attention is brought to Smecker’s sexuality, which is then mocked.

This sort of sexual exploitation is so extensively present in modern filmmaking that it’s actually more noticeable when a film or TV show treats an LGBT character as just another human. A couple great examples that have given depth to LGBT characters can be found in current television. Andre Braugher plays police Captain Ray Holt on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. While a modicum of attention is brought to the fact that Captain Holt is gay, largely to acknowledge the difficulty and discrimination his character endured as a gay, black cop in New York.

However, as the series continues, not only is Holt’s sexuality fully accepted by the officers at his command, he is respected and even loved by his team. But Jax, I hear you say, that’s just a 30-minute comedy. Fine, how about Jessica Jones? The Netflix series has done more ground-breaking that just being a stunningly accurate portrayal of abuse. The show features a wide variety of characters on various points of the sexuality spectrum. And each of them is presented to the audience exactly the same. The show doesn’t shy away from any sex, but neither does it exploit one sexuality over the other. Gay sex is shown, straight sex is shown. Sex is sex.

How The Press Handles It

Hollywood has done this by the way. Just last year, The Imitation Game was in the running for accolades from the Academy, with no fewer than eight nominations (it won for best adapted screenplay). Now, and this is a personal opinion, but I thought the film was bloody marvellous.

In fact, if you have Benedict Cumberbatch’s number, I am directing a short film soon and I want to cast him in it (no, seriously). I remember thinking how brilliantly the story of the film was laid out and, specifically, how well they handled the exploration of Turing’s sexuality. It’s quite explicitly stated, but never exploited. They toe a delicate and poignant line with which they explore the tragedy that befell him but the film never loses sight of its purpose – to tell the story of this amazing man and how he, and his team, saved thousands of lives. Then I saw this interview.

Aside from admiring the tact with which Cumberbatch completely verbally eviscerates this interviewer in the most polite and British way possible, I was so angered by her question – “Why was there no exploration of Turing’s sexuality?” Then I realised, that consumers are so used to a big bold line being drawn underneath any character of any alternate identity – gay, transgendered, black, Muslim, anything not white, not straight, not American – that when we’re presented with a completely objective perspective it’s actually bizarre to us.

The other way the press, or seemingly the American Press, deals with this is to ignore it entirely. This year a fantastic film came out featuring a heroic LGBT character who pushed boundaries in the community to fight for the right thing. No, I’m not talking about The Danish Girl.

You may not have seen Aussie dark comedy The Dressmaker starring Kate Winslet and co-starring Hugo Weaving, among others, and that is a downright shame. Despite rave reviews and awards in Australia, it’s yet to receive an American release. I am not suggesting that Hugo Weaving’s excellent turn as the cross-dressing town police sergeant is the reason (I have no idea why it’s not got a domestic release), but I will say it’s a shame because it’s such an excellent portrayal of an LGBT character.

It’s implied Weaving’s character is gay, though never explicitly stated, and it is clearly shown that he is a cross-dresser. Without getting too spoiler-y, Weaving’s character ends up being the biggest hero of the film, and not because of his sexuality, but because of the person he is. Crucially, and this is my point, his character doesn’t hinge on his sexuality, it’s not formed by it. He is a kind policeman who always strives to do the right thing. And that has nothing to do with his sexuality, gender identity, or clothing preference, and the film makes that very clear.

Current Controversy

An interesting current case study can be found in The Danish Girl. I don’t think I’ve heard more conflicting opinons on any other film. Despite nearly universal acceptance from the red carpet cathedral, the film has stirred up a lot of controversy in the community at large, in particular the trans community. The film concentrates heavily on Lili’s (Eddie Redmayne) gender identity, so much so that it becomes her character.

This seems to be a peculiar exception to the very rule I’m proposing, because the film is quite literally about the first woman to undergo gender reassignment surgery. It’s quite difficult not to concentrate heavily on that while unfolding the story. But does Lili get lost in the film’s quest? She certainly starts off as a well-rounded character, but once her transformation begins it consumes her. The film is based on a fictionalised telling of Lili Elbe’s very true life, and it is not for me to say whether that obsession is inaccurate or not, but merely to point out that it is not in balance.

Now, here’s the real struggle. Stories like this should be told. They must be told. It brings awareness to issues that people are still facing all across the globe, and ideally it inspires them and inspires those of us who aren’t facing those issues to be accepting of those who are. So an important question becomes ‘Was casting a cisgendered man in the role of a transgendered woman correct?’

Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl - Working Title Films (2015)

The Danish Girl (2015) – source: Focus Features

Certainly, there don’t seem to be many casting agents willingly handing roles to transgendered men and women. When a role quite literally ideal for transgendered casting goes to a cisgendered Hollywood star, it certainly raises an eyebrow. Transgendered actors are already discriminated against in castings, as they tend to be in general life. However, the reverse of this tricky coin is that an actor of both Redmayne’s experience and fame brings a level of exposure to a crucially important story that the film may not otherwise have gained.

Eddie Redmayne appears to have researched his role quite thoroughly and taken training from a trans icon in her own right, Vogue model April Ashley. For her part, Ashley appears to love the film despite having some definite criticisms, particularly seeming to feel that, in death, Lili was reverted to male from a filming perspective. Her conflicted feelings seem to be echoed in the trans community, for the reasons stated above, and I’m sure more personal reasons.

Why is Redmayne‘s portrayal of Lili Elbe more problematic than Cumberbatch’s turn as Turing or Weaving’s as Sergeant Farrat? In both, a straight man has taken on the role of a gay character. And in both, the sexuality of the character wasn’t exploited by the film, it was an accepted part of the character. In both The Imitation Game and The Dressmaker, it affected the character, but neither film defines the character solely by their sexuality. However, The Danish Girl does, regardless of the reasoning for it; Lili Elbe is a transgender person, and that is all there is to the character. And that is exploitative. If you’re going to exploit a people, it should be on their own terms. This is why blacksploitation by a white actor would be considered racist.


It must be acknowledged that the conversation is being held, which is huge. Eleven years ago, a film called Transamerica came out and was nominated for a two Oscars, including Best Actress to Felicity Huffman for playing pre-op MTF transgendered person, Bree. Now, and please, please, send me links if you have information otherwise, but I can’t seem to find any real condemnation of this casting until 2012, on BitchFlicks.

So, change is happening. The right questions are being asked. And some of Hollywood is starting to listen – Orange Is the New Black is another great example (TV seems to be ahead of the game). But until we, as viewers, start to demand equal representation in films and television for “minority” characters, we won’t get it. And that doesn’t mean that you start handing out roles using some form of Affirmative Action. It means we start blinding ourselves and treating these characters the same as we would treat any other. It’s sort of like how we’re supposed to be in real life, you know?

What’s the line between acceptance and exploitation? Should we even downplay sexuality of LGBT characters (like in The Imitation Game), when there’s still so much resistance and ignorance? Share your thoughts below!

And a big thank you to Ann Morgan, that crazy Welsh woman, for letting me pick her brain and sending me some great research. Please support her various causes!

Film Inquiry supports #TimesUp.

“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.

Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Jacqui is an American/British filmmaker/photographer who just thoroughly enjoys studying and writing about cinema. She's currently working on her PhD in film, focusing on American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. In her "spare time" she runs CameraShy, CIC which, among other things, organises the Drunken Film Festival and Doccy McDocFest.

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