The first queer character I ever saw on screen was Captain Jack Harkness in Doctor Who – a charismatic, brash, flirtatious rogue. I was 13 and I adored him. Not because of his good looks or charm, but because in watching him I was seeing a part of me I’d been keeping hidden, even from myself. At the time, the idea that a woman could fall for another woman was a slightly terrifying hypothetical that people only spoke about in awkward whispers. I desperately wanted to see something like this again – maybe I would in that High School Musical movie the Disney channel was about to release or in a funny CBBC show? I wanted the sweet crushes and innocent romances I saw so many straight characters get – but I couldn’t find any. So, the second time I saw a queer character on screen, I was 14 and I was watching an explicit gay sex scene in the opening episode of Queer As Folk instead.
Yesterday, a screenwriter on Solo: A Star Wars Story told an interviewer that fan favourite Lando Calrissian’s sexuality was “fluid”. An LGBTQ+ character in a major family-friendly franchise is a massive deal and, in theory, it’s everything I was hoping for when I was 13. I wish I could see this as a victory for queer representation, but announcing this during the press tour, and not presenting Calrissian’s fluidity in the film itself, seems at best a disappointing omission and at worst a calculated marketing strategy. What better way to ensure you get the power of queer fandom, starved of representation, to come out and root for your movie, while simultaneously not alienating more conservative audiences? It’s a move we’ve seen from filmmakers before; yesterday, I wrote a Twitter thread using previous examples and started the hashtag #PutItInTheMovieNotInThePressTour.
It’s depressing that it needs to be said, but it is only true representation if the target audience (for "family films”, that means kids, too) can tell the character is LGBTQ+ from the movie itself – without having heard the "this character will totally be gay" press-tour interviews. If it needs to be explained afterwards and comes as a surprise to audiences who have already seen it, Lando Calrissian’s appearance is not LGBTQ+ representation.
It seems we have a new kind of unofficial moral guideline in Hollywood – filmmakers should still refrain from having actual LGBTQ+ representation on screen, but they can claim it’s there anyway
But it’s hardly surprising. The lack of LGBTQ+ characters in film can be traced back to the inception of The Hays Code. A self-imposed set of “moral guidelines” in Hollywood, the code prohibited and restricted the depiction of everything, from criminal activity to a man and woman in bed together. Of course, homosexuality was strictly forbidden. It majority of the code’s rules lasted up until the late 1960s, but the proxy ban on depicting healthy and happy gay people continued beyond that. It wasn’t until the 70s that an even slightly sympathetic portrayal of a gay man was depicted on screen, in the teleplay That Certain Summer, but even then there was no physical affection allowed between the two men on screen. Britain would have to wait another decade to see a man kiss another man kiss on screen – on the forehead, of course.
Today, it seems we have a new kind of unofficial moral guideline sweeping Hollywood – filmmakers should still refrain from having actual LGBTQ+ representation on screen, but they can claim it’s there anyway. Putting little to no indication of a character's sexuality into a piece of work, and then retroactively telling the audience they were LGBTQ+ all along, isn’t necessarily new (Dumbledore, anyone?) but, worryingly, it seems to be increasing. Last year there was fevered press coverage and budding queer excitement at the news that the new Beauty And The Beast film would have a gay character in the form of Gaston’s sidekick, LeFou. An actual gay character, in an actual Disney movie, seen by actual kids and teens! This was the kind of character that could counter the taboo and open up the door to equal representation. And then we watched the film. The “gay moment” was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it background interaction that few adults – and certainly no children – watching would pick up on without having heard the press coverage. LeFou joined the ranks of similar characters in How To Train Your Dragon, Power Rangers, Star Trek and Thor movies that were “revealed” to be gay in interviews, but who never actually allowed to be “out” in the movie itself. When you’re aware of the press-tour announcements, and if you’re looking really closely, you might be able to interpret some ambiguous line or image that way. But that’s not what real, honest representation is about.
The hardest thing about this new form of “queerbaiting” (a long-standing tradition of writing queer romantic subtext between characters without actually making them LGBTQ+) is that we, as an audience, can never be completely sure of its intentions or who is responsible. Is a writer simply explaining the representation he wasn’t permitted to include in the script by orders of someone “higher up” in the process? Was it a deliberate choice to announce this to coincide with the hype around the film’s release and keep people talking? Or is it simply that including an LGBTQ+ character openly in a film like this didn’t even cross their minds as something that could, or should, be done? At the moment, we simply don’t know. But the more cynical among us might be inclined to point out that, in 2018, diversity is proving to be commercially lucrative, as underrepresented groups rally behind heros who represent them and their experiences. Bringing in that audience, while not putting off those more conservative viewers who would balk at an actual LGBTQ+ character, allows a film to have the best of both box offices.
There’s nothing inherently “adult” or “inappropriate” about LGBTQ+ people – there are, after all, children of all ages with gay parents or trans siblings. But that’s not the impression you’d get from looking at the film industry, even today. No Disney movie has ever had an explicitly LGBTQ+ character, and the suggestion they might has been met with protests – including comments on my own YouTube channel calling it “disgusting”, “inappropriate” and even “abusive”. We’ve had dozens of family-friendly superhero films across hundreds of characters and multiple franchises – and the only queer character so far has been in the 15-rated Deadpool 2, released this week.
Young people now are growing up just as underrepresented on screen, and feeling just as erased and alone, as I was over a decade ago.