I went to see Power Rangers last night. I hadn’t planned to do so; aside from some well-placed Kanye West in the film’s trailer, nothing about the movie spoke to me and I was never a fan of the TV show. But then I heard it had a queer superhero, and I got in line for the Thursday-night previews. The words “first” and “gay” have a Pavlovian effect on many queer fans of pop culture, and even more so for queer fans of superhero stuff. This could be big, I hoped.
It was big, albeit in a very small way. Despite the headlines, Power Rangers skips any dramatic “yep, I’m gay” admission, and instead opts for nonchalance. During a bit of squad bonding, Yellow Ranger Trini (Becky G) reveals that she doesn’t want her strait-laced family involved in her relationships. “Boyfriend problems?” Zack (Ludi Lin) inquires. She demurs. “Girlfriend problems?” he asks. She doesn’t respond fully, but does say she’s never talked about her identity with anyone. The moment is short, but genuine; she’s a teen, after all, and she’s still Figuring Stuff Out. As director Dean Israelite told The Hollywood Reporter, it’s a “pivotal” scene for the film. More importantly, it’s a step in the right direction, and one that provides Hollywood its own power boost.
The stats for LGBTQ representation in film are…not good. They never have been. A report last year from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) found that of 126 major studio releases in 2015 only 17.5 percent had characters that identified as LGBTQ—the same as the year before. Moreover, the LGBTQ characters that did appear in movies only got a scant few minutes of screen time. Queer protagonists are are even fewer and farther between in major tentpole movies, says GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis, because studios don’t want to miss out on a big opening weekend because of a anti-LGBTQ boycott or related controversy.
That’s beginning to change. In addition to the Yellow Ranger’s mighty moment, Disney—which received a “failing” rating from GLAAD in 2016 for its track record with LGBTQ characters—also included a gay character in last week’s record-setting Beauty and the Beast. Josh Gad’s character LeFou, according to director Bill Condon, featured in the studio’s first “exclusively gay moment,” a brief dance-floor twirl between LeFou and one of Gaston’s henchmen. For that to happen in a family Disney movie is unprecedented—and, like Trini’s revelation, it stakes out space for queer identities where they hadn’t traditionally existed. It also didn’t hurt the movie’s bottom line: Beauty and the Beast made more than $350 million worldwide in its opening weekend.
“It’s been a very long road, especially because there’s so much perceived risk for [the studios],” says Ellis. “Now they’re starting to dip their toe in it and they’re starting to see a positive reaction—both culturally, from people not boycotting or dismissing the film, and also at the box office.”
It’s been a very long road, especially because there’s so much perceived risk for the studios. Now they’re starting to dip their toe in it and they’re starting to see a positive reaction—both culturally, from people not boycotting or dismissing the film, and also at the box office. GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis
As soon as word got out about the Yellow Ranger, social media lit up—both with outcry and support, the latter in the form of Beyoncé images and Meryl Streep memes. Folks weren’t excited because there was a new LGBTQ character in a movie, they were excited because she was a major player in a big superhero franchise. And even better, it was presented in a matter-of-fact way. No fanfare, just reality.
The gay-moment momentum got another boost when both Beauty and the Beast and Power Rangers escaped censors’ censure abroad. Despite the urgings of Russian MP Vitaly Milonov, who cited the film’s “unscrupulous propaganda of sin and perverted sexual relations,” Russia ended up allowing Beauty and the Beast into theaters (with a 16+ rating). Officials in Malaysia also threatened to not allow the film to screen unless its gay scenes were cut, but later relented after Disney said it wouldn’t alter the film. (Make no mistake: That refusal to back down deserves just as much credit as including the LeFou dance scene.) There were similar fears that Power Rangers might not be able to screen in Malaysia, but as of this writing it’s still scheduled to open there on March 30.
Yet, while this recent surge in LGBTQ representation is positive for queer fans, it’s also bittersweet. LeFou and Trini mark big milestones culturally, but the actual time they spend representing the community onscreen is small; Ellis calls this “casual inclusion.” Writing for The Daily Beast, Kevin Fallon said, “the most exclusively gay moment in this new Beauty and the Beast is my dramatic eye roll after seeing the actual thing,” and even the Malaysian censors looking to make cuts to the movie acknowledged it may not have a been a big deal had director Condon not pointed the gay moment out. Similarly, fans who were thrilled about Trini’s coming out were less excited to hear she was questioning her sexuality, rather than being overtly lesbian. So while LGBTQ people can now see themselves reflected more in mainstream family fare, they don’t see it for very long.
Moving beyond casual inclusion should be Hollywood’s next step, says Ellis, adding that the movies’ “public praise and box-office success gives them a permission slip” for more LGBTQ representation—especially in superhero and tentpole movies. While LGBTQ characters have been appearing in mainstream superhero comics and, more recently, on superhero TV shows like Jessica Jones, they’re nowhere to be found in mainstream superhero movies. (Though the jury’s still out on Kitty Pryde in the X-Men films.) We have scads of Avengers and mutants on the big screen, but so far none of them have identified as LGBTQ, which in part led to last spring’s #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend campaign on Twitter. If Disney can learn anything from LeFou, it’s that a movie can have a queer character and be a runaway success.
That’s a lesson that could carry over to Disney’s other properties as well. Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams has said that LGBTQ characters are a must in the effort to make the galaxy far, far away more diverse, but so far one hasn’t surfaced. (Despite the rumors, Moff Mors never made it into Rogue One.) The Lucasfilm cinematic universe expands every day—but each time it does so without including a member of the LGBTQ community, a queer kid feels less worthy of wielding a lightsaber.
Meanwhile, in another far-away galaxy, last year’s Star Trek Beyond depicted Sulu as a gay man—an homage to original Sulu, George Takei, who came out in 2005. But again, his big gay moment is just a moment, a brief glimpse of Sulu with a man perceived to be his partner. There’s a lot to be said for films seeking to normalize LGBTQ life by treating queer relationships just like any other, but when the visibility is so brief—often just a few minutes or seconds—each of these instants feels like a studio saying “Look, we did it!” without doing much at all. It’s a step in the right direction, undoubtedly, but a very small one.
“It’s about looking at Star Wars and those other franchises and seeing where they can be more inclusive, and then there’s also building more dimensional storylines around LGBTQ people,” Ellis says. “That’s going to be really important.”
Sexuality isn’t Hollywood’s only diversity problem. Studio movies need more women, more people of color, and more LGBTQ people involved—both in front of and behind the camera. Better representation is needed in all aspects of cinema. But if the freakin’ Power Rangers can morph into a crew with a queer character, it’s time to realize the gay moment can be more than 15 minutes of fame.
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