Why Aren’t There Any Gay Superheroes in Film and on TV?

With every film studio trying to get in on the Marvel Cinematic Universe game and a slew of new superhero televisions shows (most also courtesy of Marvel), the question of why there aren’t more gay superheroes in movies and on TV demands to be asked.

While it’s encouraging that we are somewhat beyond the point where we need to ask why there isn’t more LGBTQ representation on television as a whole—shows like Looking, Orange Is The New Black, Grey’s Anatomy, Orphan Black, Modern Family, and others being on the front lines of that particular cultural war—we’re still a long way from universal acceptance. From a world where all forms of sexuality are categorized under the banner of mere sexuality, with no sense of otherness or alternatives to the norm. Still, many shows only have one token gay character, or one gay character plus a revolving door of love interests. This is hardly progress.

In the case of Arrow and Revenge, homosexuality is represented by a bisexual character who switches sides depending on narrative convenience. The depiction of bisexuality is a pervasive problem on television, since writers don’t make characters bisexual in order to say something profound, but because that way, they don’t have to add a bunch of other gay characters to the show and they can still have the character in question hook up with the opposite gender. It’s the television equivalent of getting some ass and eating it, too.

In film, unfortunately, the situation is bad. I was chatting with a friend and challenged her to come up with a movie that was about a gay couple—or had gays as the lead characters in situations unrelated to romance—in a mainstream film since Brokeback Mountain. She could not. I could not, either. Everyone thought Brokeback Mountain would open a floodgate of films where gay characters took the lead, but not one film since has dared.

Now comes word that an animated children’s fantasy film, How To Train Your Dragon 2, has a gay character. Enfin, some progress! But is it the lead character? Of course not. An important secondary character? No, not really. The comic relief? Duh. Because if anyone of significance were to be gay, then there would have to be other LGBTQ characters to support that person. They might even have to make a whole, entire film with gay characters. Break out the fainting couches, the executives are looking a little pale!

The state of affairs in non-fantastical film and television, while not exactly dire, is far from ideal. But as an avowed geek, the lack of LGBTQ representation in sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book stories pains me all the more. The very nature of the genre is to explore new worlds and new ideas, to make us feel the humanity in the alien, to underline how people made to feel other are just like everybody else, to think as far outside the box as possible. To boldly go. These writers and creators dream up the most death-defying and time-bending scenarios for their characters, but they can’t manage to squeeze in a few who aren’t heterosexual?

It’s a little bit outrageous, when you think about it. Let’s break it down:
-Marvel (Disney styles) has Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy, Incredible Hulk, Agents of Z.Z.Z.Z.Z.Z, Agent Carter, and four—count ’em, four—new TV series set to be streamed on Netflix within the next two years. Total LGBTQ characters: 0 (Joss, I’m calling you out for this. This isn’t like you and it stinks.)

-Fox has the X-Men—a fricking allegory about people being ostracized for being different! Total LGBTQ characters: 0 (I won’t add to your woes, Bryan Singer, but check yourself)

-Sony has the Spider-Man series, old and new school, which they are hoping to spin off into an Evil League of Evil franchise (actual name: Sinister Six). Total LGBTQ characters: 0.

-Warner Brothers/DC has Nolan’s Batman films, Snyder’s Superman film, Batman vs. Superman (with a cast of thousands) leading into an eventual Justice League, not to mention Arrow, The Flash, Gotham, and Constantine on TV. Total LGBTQ characters: 1. (Bisexual, natch. Arrow is otherwise flawless.)

(Note: I may be forgetting someone here. A couple of these shows haven’t premiered yet, so TBD. Please feel free to correct me in the comments and I will update. Still, one or two additions do not a revolution make.)

This list isn’t depressing just because it confirms that the corporate overlords who control these movies and series have succeeded in whitewashing them (people of color being poorly represented to an almost laughable degree as well). It’s depressing because it shows just how much these talented filmmakers and showrunners are lacking in the imagination department. They pay lip service to themes of diversity, self-acceptance, and what being a true hero really means, but do nothing to push those boundaries in their own work.

It’s about past time, isn’t it, that we got a little action between Cap and Bucky? (Maybe women are a thing of the past for both of them.) That Batman takes Robin in because he pushes buttons that the cowled one can no longer ignore? That Rogue figures out the person she would most want to touch her is Kitty Pride, even if she’ll never be able to? That Loki admits once and for all just why he’s so obsessed with Thor?

In the immortal words of no less than Spider-Man himself, Andrew Garfield:

“I was like, ‘What if MJ is a dude?’ Why can’t we discover that Peter is exploring his sexuality? It’s hardly even groundbreaking!…So why can’t he be gay? Why can’t he be into boys?…I’ve been obsessed with Michael B. Jordan since The Wire. He’s so charismatic and talented. It’d be even better—we’d have interracial bisexuality!”

Now that is the kind of courage and imagination I like to see in my superheroes.

Of course, this entire post was written as an excuse to show just how amazing Mr. Garfield really is. Check him out in the new video by Montreal darlings Arcade Fire, for “We Exist”, a song about someone coming out to their parents and one of my current faves:

Cheers,
Selina

Gossip, Guys and Girls

Hello, my name is Selina, and I love gossip.

All kinds of gossip. Work gossip. Friend gossip. Family gossip. And yes… celebrity gossip. Last weekend, it was my privilege to meet the Queen of Canadian Gossip, Lainey Lui, at a signing for her book, . Ostensibly, we were all there to get our copy of the book signed and meet Lainey herself. She is, after all, a woman who has charted her own course in the Canadian media landscape, who works harder than the CEOs of many Fortune 500 companies, and who has become a kind of empire unto herself, with her , her co-hosting gigs on The Social and eTalk (Canada’s answers to The View and Access Hollywood, respectively), the charitable events she promotes, the junkets and premieres she attends, the authors she interviews, etc, etc. If that wasn’t enough, she’s also written a book!

And not just any book. Listen to the Squawking Chicken is her mother’s story, the story of a woman who spoke up at a time and in a culture that valued silence and docility in its women. Of a woman who to this day takes no prisoners, who is unafraid to say what she thinks, tell it to you like it is, and dole out some tough love when necessary. Much like Lainey herself, who started a gossip blog that is now read in dozens of countries, parlayed that into guest spots on entertainment news shows, and now has a seat on a daily talk show.

What I love about her is that she is unapologetic about what she does. She doesn’t think ‘entertainment news’ or ‘gossip’ are dirty words, that only bottom-feeders like that kind of thing. She believes in journalistic integrity, and thinks we should demand more of it from our entertainment journalists. She believes in promoting feminism and equality and multiculturalism, and doesn’t think that conflicts with having segments on fashion and beauty on her blog – she is the first one to slam the MiniVan Majority for their archaic views of what a women should be and can do. She is a voracious reader, and is just as likely to champion the latest literary masterpiece as she is the ‘new adult’ novels she reads for fun. I guarantee you her take on almost every gossip story of the day is more thoughtful, more nuanced, and more honest than the blow-smoke-up-your-ass pieces you read on any other site. She doesn’t just give you the gossip, she is straight-up about the inner-workings of the publicity machines and studio machinations behind the major stories of the day. She is almost academic in her deconstruction of what’s going on in entertainment news, so it’s no wonder that she keeps championing a hypothetical Faculty of Celebrity Studies, in which we would daily gather to dissect and analyze this strange phenomenon that has engulfed us all, the cult of celebrity.

So when I heard she was coming to town, I and other gossip-mongers in the area knew we couldn’t miss our chance. We were not disappointed. There was discussion of Ben Affleck and George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, and Lainey’s favorite, Gwyneth Paltrow. Blind items were confirmed. One of the longest-held questions I had about a certain superhero-playing actor’s sexuality was answered. It was but a sampling – an amuse bouche, one might say – of the multi-course meal that her annual Smut Soirees must be. Once a year, in Toronto, fans of her blog gather together to drink wine and gossip, and there the tea really gets spilled. I am not ashamed to say that it’s my ambition to attend one of these events one day.

Because, like it or not, we all traffic in gossip. It’s how you hear about that job opening, that friend who needs help, that political scandal, that company’s corruption, that shocking incident involving your favorite sports star/talk show host/actor/singer/governor/religious leader. What is history but gossip threaded together by dates and facts? That whole thing about being written by the victors means it’s basically a legit form of propaganda. And what’s propaganda at its heart? Gossip. To say you aren’t interested in gossip is to admit to being either a) a liar, or b) a sociopath. Whether the fact that Julius Caesar and Mark Antony both banged Cleopatra, Bill Clinton got tangled up by an intern in a blue dress, BP committed environmental atrocities, or James Franco perved on a 17-year-old fan turns your crank, it’s all a symptom of the same affliction. A species-wide addiction to gossip.

If you don’t believe me, spare a few minutes to listen to Lainey herself break it down for you in a TEDx talk she gave last year:

So, friends, go forth and gossip! Do your part for what really is the oldest profession in the world!

Cheers,
Selina

Buffy’s Daughters

Lately, I’ve been binge-watching the latest season of Teen Wolf (having sworn never to watch it again after the steaming turd that was Season 3A, but what can I say? The Olympics are giving my DVR an enema, cleaning out all the old shit I haven’t watched), which is going through its very own Dark Willow storyline in the form of trickster!Stiles. That, and the latest cover story in Entertainment Weekly, on the Veronica Mars movie, got me thinking about how many shows owe their existence and a huge debt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the blueprint for supernatural and occult-influenced fantasy horror shows. If you’ll indulge me in a little pop culture riffing, I’ll share.

***Please note that the following contains mild spoilers for a host of television series, notably the most recent season of Teen Wolf. If you haven’t seen them and want to, tread carefully.***

While not the first television show to explore things that go bump in the night, Buffy weaves together the strengths of its predecessors without outright copying any of their elements, spinning these disparate strands into a strong, original yarn. Even The X-Files owes more to Kolchak the Night Stalker and the Twilight Zone than Buffy does to… well, to no television show I can think of. Buffy is a unique mix of  action, horror, mythology, pathos, and humor, subverting archetypes and promoting girl power while resonant with emotion. Buffy, the cheerleader-turned-chosen one, is the nominal star, but she’s supported by a true ensemble. Unlike most eponymous characters, she’s not the loss-leader in that she’s just as interesting as everyone else. These qualities, along with the season-long big bad structure and the light flirtation with camp, would go on to be mirrored in every supernatural show that followed.

And some where the only demons are of the metaphoric variety. That EW article reminded me that Veronica Mars was, like Buffy before her, a mean girl forced to go good because she no longer fit in with the Plastics of the world. Like in Buffy, Veronica’s best cases of the week illuminate something about the emotional struggles of one of the characters, most often Veronica herself. But Veronica does Buffy one better in that she is much more capable, competent, and confident in her abilities where solving mysteries is concerned. Her love life is just as much of a train wreck, and the consequences of some of her bad decisions – like the show itself – are a bit more real, if no less visceral. Joss Whedon was an avowed fan of Veronica Mars, which is no surprise, because it’s basically a love letter to him.

It’s one thing, though, to be inspired by Buffy and create a whole new world as a consequence; it’s another to copy the format and approach wholesale, making only superficial changes. Like the gender of the lead character(s). Yes, kids, it’s time to play Buffy But With Boys, AKA Smallville, Supernatural, and Teen Wolf.

I can’t say I was ever an avid watcher of the first two, but I was persuaded (some might say peer-pressured) by my two long-time friends N. and A. to give Teen Wolf a try. Of course, they dangled the promise of slash in front of my nose like the proverbial carrot – how could I be expected to resist? Unfortunately, the slashy couple in question, nicknamed Sterek, wasn’t of particular interest to me, but I found myself entertained by the show all the same. It’s a fascinating case study, since the show gets at least as many things wrong as right in any given episode, but is still fun and watchable.

If anything, the writers might want to learn a few more things from Buffy, such as writing genuinely strong female characters with agency. They also have this frustrating tendency to manipulate their characters to fit the plots they have outlined, as opposed to letting the plots be inspired by their character’s inner struggles and shortcomings. The current Dark Willow ‘homage’ storyline is the perfect example. In Buffy, Willow went over to the dark side for a host of deeply emotional reasons: her irritation at not being allowed to explore her powers to the fullest, her resentment towards Buffy, her fear of how much magical potential was inside of her, and, most heartbreaking of all, the murder of her lover, Tara. On Teen Wolf, Stiles is possessed by a nihilistic trickster fox spirit, but I can’t think of one concrete emotional reason why this would happen to his character, other than to give the cast’s strongest actor, Dylan O’Brien, a chance to shine. Which he does. The storyline is fun, and thrilling, and engrossing by turns, but it’s all glossy artifice. On Buffy, the Dark Willow storyline hurt viewers where we lived.

To my mind, the true successor to Buffy’s throne is… wait for it… Fringe. Yes, it started off as an X-Files rip-off. I actually remember saying to someone that I’d stopped watching the first season after a few episodes because “I’ve seen The X-Files.” But then, at the end of that first season, something curious happened. Fringe learned how to go deep. It began to mine and mine and mine its characters, all the while bedazzling us with some diamond-quality mythology and sci-fi gems. Olivia Dunham out-Buffy’d Buffy in terms of emotional isolation and willingness to sacrifice herself to the cause. Her doomed romance with John Scott was like a mini-Angel situation, with Peter later cast as a gloomier, but no less sarcastic meld of Spike/Xander. With her very own Scooby Gang around her, each member so unique that that’s really where the direct comparison with the characters on Buffy ends, Olivia, like her mother slayer before her, came to understand that she was, in her own way, a chosen one. Then Fringe took some basic Whedon tropes psychedelic, and blew everyone’s mind, with its alternate universes, dopplegangers, and Observers.

While too derivative to be a blueprint in its own right, Fringe went where no sci-fi action show had gone before, while never losing its emotional core. Just saying certain characters’ names makes my heart sigh: Lincoln Lee, Astrid, September, Walter. Oh, Walter! I can cite Fringe episodes that moved me to tears the same way that I know the names of the Buffy episodes that cut deep: “White Tulip” and “The Bullet That Saved The World” in the former, “The Body” and “The Gift” from the latter. In spirit and execution, Fringe is Buffy’s spiritual daughter.

There are countless other shows whose creators undoubtedly double-dipped in the Buffy, er, dip – True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and Sleepy Hollow come to mind, and to a lesser degree Arrow. I keep hoping that one day an innovative showrunner will get the chance to bring his or her (preferably her) original spin on the action-horror genre to life, that someone will sketch a new blueprint for lesser shows to follow. Until then, I’m just grateful to have gotten in on the ground floor of Castle Whedonverse, when only the chosen few knew how special and how revolutionary their little show about a girl who slays vamps and saves the world a lot was.