For all its focus on sterilised glamour and the profit-making franchises, the film industry does take the time to tackle serious social issues. This is extremely important; as a highly visible and influential part of society, it is commendable when film-makers highlight topics that need to be discussed but are ignored, often intentionally. With the LGBTQ+ movement making huge strides over the past decade, it is no wonder then that films have begun to look at issues facing sexual minorities.
2013 saw three such films garner particular attention. Blue is the Warmest Colour, Behind the Candelabra and Dallas Buyers Club have been critical hits and, with their prominence during the awards season, are sure to remain part of the public consciousness for a while now. The first two raise serious questions about sexual identity and sexual awakening, while Jared Leto’s role in Dallas Buyers Club brings depth and agency to the trans* community, something that has been lacking in mainstream portrayals for a while now.
Other films over the last 12 months have focused on sexual minorities as well. Poland’s Floating Skyscrapers brings attention to how bisexuals are perceived as “undecided” rather than as individuals with a specific sexual orientation that deserve equal rights and respect. Thailand’s Angels takes a heart-breaking look at questions of parenthood faced by transsexuals. Meanwhile, the documentary Bridegroom reminds the world why the right to marry is so integral to the LGBTQ+ struggle, looking at the tragic story of how Shane Bitney Crone was deprived of legal protection following the death of his partner, Thomas Lee Bridegroom.
What these films succeed in doing is in creating genuine awareness for the range of issues facing the LGTBQ+ community. When Brokeback Mountain was released, the general message regarding sexual minorities had shifted from tolerance to acceptance, but portrayals, even positive ones, tended to focus on the romantic aspect of sexuality. While many films still have an inherent tilt towards that – after all, what better way to show a character’s sexuality than by showing who they love? – the picture is no longer so one dimensional. Characters are becoming complex. They have lives, with the same insecurities that plague us all. In short, the notion of heteronormativity is giving way to just normativity.
That being said, it has not completely given way just yet, and this is where the portrayals of sexual minorities become a little dicey. For starters, LGBTQ+ characters seem to fall into very specific characterisations. No matter how much diversification occurs with regards to motives and side-plots, the central focus remains tragedy. Consider Boys Don’t Cry and Dallas Buyers Club. Both have gained particular attention for portraying transsexual characters. The former, while affecting, took a more limiting viewpoint than the latter, with Brandon Teena being a Victim with a capital V. Yet, despite the evolution of such representations, the emphasis is very much on how sexual minorities continue to be victims. Not to mention that the very real issue of abuse is often downplayed once the euphoria of critical acclaim fades.
A few recent animations have taken a more open-minded approach to such characters. Both Paranorman and, fleetingly, Frozen, have minor characters who are homosexual but their sexuality has nothing to do with their arcs. It would be wonderful if more live action films, and more mainstream ones, follow this track. After all, heterosexuality has nothing to do with how a character develops, so why should any other type be so heightened in this day and age? More importantly, these characters need to come out of the background. Unless a LGBTQ+ character is the centre of a depressing plot, they are not given top billing. Barring films that focus on sexuality for a specific reason, such as The Matthew Shepard Story or Transamerica, there is a need for more characters who have meaningful arcs and who happen to not be heterosexual.
Portrayals of sexual minorities have come a long way in recent years. Gone are the days when degrading caricatures like Lieutenant Einhorn in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective are acceptable. Love is Strange, Lilting and 52 Tuesdays are just a few upcoming films that tackle LGBTQ+ issues and, hearteningly, they appear more nuanced than even the 2013 releases. Let us hope that this trend continues instead of stagnating.