Gender and Sexuality in Film – Have We Really “Come a Long Way?”
Recent campaigns for Frozen’s Elsa to have a girlfriend, the interest in Captain America having a boyfriend, and the excitement over potential queer couples in Frozen and Finding Dory have shown corporations like Disney that audiences are hoping for more. In many ways we’re still, as a society, stuck in the “we’ve come a long way” mode where so many think we’re “post” issues and don’t need to worry about making further progress. Yet, as the violence in Orlando shows, marriage equality has not eliminated violence or discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community, just as other forms of sexism and racism are still unfortunately prominent.
From tropes like the gay best friend (a sidekick or minor role) to the near invisibility of transgender characters, representation along the sex, gender, & orientation continuum is still not as it should be. In fact, has it really gotten better? Some would argue that it’s actually gotten worse despite the continued popularity of shows like Orange is the New Black and Transparent.
According to the 2015 GLAAD Studio Responsibility Index, Lionsgate had the highest rating among major studios because it included LGBT characters in 8 of its 24 films, three of which met the Vito Russo Test requirements. As fans have also noticed, Walt Disney Studios continues to have “the weakest historical record when it comes to LGBT-inclusive films.” Such a lack of films with LGBT representation was the same as in 2014, but even fewer passed the Vitto Russo Test in 2015. And although the number of characters in these films increased, diversity decreased. So even though some characters are showing up on screen, they are rarely given a substantial role. Plus, due to the trope of Bury Your Gays, such characters often do not last long.
Depictions of gender variety also seems to be stagnant at best. As a 90s kid, women “could have it all” by being masculine. Common (and understandable) complaints about passive, feminine characters led to an emphasis on physically strong characters who could fit in as “one of the guys”. This led to the popularity of the female or woman warrior-type character (although the term itself implies that males rather than females are naturally warriors) that has continued with popular children/young adult figures like Merida (Brave) and Katniss (Hunger Games). Some recent characters like Rey (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) appear well-rounded, with emotional depth as well as physical capabilities. However, characters like Katniss are also often depicted as needing to use physical strength (socially still attributed to males and masculinity) in order to achieve empowerment and self-sufficiency.
Proving you don’t need a male character to be successful is a beneficial way to move beyond the damsel-in-distress trope. However, if embodying traditionally masculine strength is the “only” way for success, it once again becomes a binary issue of what is the “right” or “wrong” way of being an empowered, successful woman. This emphasis on correction of good/bad behavior unrealistically divides what is “male” and “female” into old-fashioned, cis ideas of “masculine” and “feminine.”
Another assumption is that women can “play at” being a man but ultimately need to look and act like what is conventionally feminine. For example, Elsa, as a Disney princess, is expected to be biologically female (hips, breasts, etc.) as well as have a feminine appearance (dress, long hair, etc.) and behaviors. And even when such characters (who are usually white, straight, and cis) are given independence or choices, they’re still largely expected to change or conform to society’s assumptions of sex, gender, and heteronormative, monogamous relationships. So, in addition to this assumed correlation between Elsa’s sex and gender performance, she also probably escaped the pressure of a heterosexual relationship only because of her sister Anna’s prominent romances.
If boundaries between what is considered masculine and feminine can be eliminated, characters would have different options when it comes to attire, behaviors, and relationships. It’s then not about “playing at” being masculine, something that society has deemed better, but about accepting and showing behaviors and identities beyond binary norms. With choices, it’s not a right/wrong, good/bad portrayal, but becomes one example among a variety of ways to be and act. Additionally, validating relationships like giving Elsa a girlfriend normalizes the variety of real-life romance. The more these choices are normalized, the more they can contribute to a larger societal conversation of acceptance.
Characters and stories, especially those connected to popular works like Disney and Marvel, have the potential to push for progress within society at large, modeling the reality of people’s diverse ways of being. Challenging binary assumptions continues to be important because although marriage equality was a great step, homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, etc. are still obvious problems throughout America. As Geena Davis continues to state, “If she can see it, she can be it,” reminding us of the importance of role models and the ability to choose how we act and who we are.
As viewers, we can use the Vito Russo Test or #PrideTest when seeing LGBTQIA+ characters as well participate in the push for more representation in specific films like Frozen‘s sequel. And even though creating a character that dresses and acts outside of the gender binary or giving Elsa a girlfriend is just one, small step, it’s a shift in the right direction. It’s up to us to tell society to let bigotry go and that respect for choices is the new norm.
-By Sarah C.