“Queerbaiting” in Blockbuster Cinema
People who have seen recent major motion pictures like Avengers Endgame or Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker may or may not have noticed the LGBTQ representation in these films. In the first, this representation comes in the form of a side character’s anecdote, in which he uses the pronoun “he” when describing a recent date. The second consists of a two-second kiss between female background characters. These “blink and you’ll miss it” scenes, sometimes called “queerbaiting,” are popular among moviemakers who want to capitalize on the queer community’s desire to be seen without being too overt. In analyzing the lack of LGBTQ representation in major motion pictures, it becomes evident that there are multiple reasons for this phenomenon, including historical precedent, appeal to global markets, and internal biases of filmmakers due to their own backgrounds.
Filmmakers face little friction for queerbaiting since the historical precedent is no representation at all. It wasn’t until recently that major motion pictures were even allowed to portray queer characters in a positive light. Under Will Hayes, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) began to severely limit what could be depicted in film. The Motion Picture Production Code, enacted in the early 1930s, states: “sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden,” (“The Motion Picture Production Code” 1930, 3) refering to anything outside of the cisgender heterosexual norm. This code was strictly enforced for decades, rendering LGBTQ representation effectively impossible during the golden age of cinema. But as the code fell out of practice, lack of queer representation did not. While there were likely other factors involved, it’s not a stretch to say the code had already done its damage.
However, the foremost reason why LGBTQ representation is so limited in big budget cinema is the demographic makeup of creative decision makers themselves. According to a study from 2007 to 2017 (Dry 2017), 95.7% of film directors were male. While the same study had data on LGB representation within film, such as only 19 of the top 100 films in 2017 containing even one LGB character, there was no data available, in this study or any others I could find, that mentioned LGBTQ representation in director, writer, and producer roles. While out LGBTQ directors exist, they typically helm smaller films that don’t catch the public eye, like festival films. Meanwhile, mainstream cinema is dominated by cisgender, straight, white men, for whom LGBTQ representation is simply not as important as it is for those within the community.X
Most filmmakers are motivated by capturing profitable markets, historical precedent, and their own internal biases. At worst, this means no or negative representation. At best, it means tiny crumbs, hidden from the general audience. Ironically, by portraying LGBTQ people in nearly invisible roles, the films condemn the characters to the same fate as many of the viewers they’re meant to represent: erasure. When asked the underwhelming amount of queer representation in Avengers Endgame, Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, claimed that “[inclusivity is] coming and that there’s much more prominent LGBT heroes in the future.” Time will tell if the studio will follow through on this promise. Ultimately, widespread positive representation will not come until studios let members of the LGBTQ community into the creative process. That would mean a major ethical shift for studios, but it would also bring diverse perspectives and new narratives to big budget cinema, narratives that want to be told and heard.Read the full essay here