Earlier this week, The Hollywood Reporter ran a story proclaiming that the new Power Rangers movie “breaks ground with [the] first queer big-screen superhero.” Which sounds like a huge deal — as dominant as the superhero genre has become, it’s been slow to open up in terms of LGBT inclusion, at least on the big screen. According to the THR piece, “there's a scene in which the titular heroes learn that the Yellow Ranger, Trini (Becky G.), is coming to terms with her sexual orientation." “Really she's questioning a lot about who she is," director Dean Israelite is quoted as saying of Trini. "She hasn't fully figured it out yet.”
So, here’s how the sequence actually goes: Trini and the other Rangers are sharing personal stories around a fire, and Trini explains how she's preferred to keep her family out of her day-to-day life and her relationships. “Boyfriend trouble?” Black Ranger Zack (Ludi Lin) asks. “Yeah, boyfriend trouble,” Trini says — maybe sarcastically? It’s hard to tell, as Becky G delivers 99% of her lines with a sardonic lilt. Zack squints, then asks, “Girlfriend trouble?” Trini doesn’t respond.
It’s a minimal beat that opens up the possibility that Trini has been romantically involved with a woman without providing concrete confirmation — if anything, it’s as notable for the way Zack doesn’t assume straightness as for Trini’s silence. She doesn’t say anything more about her sexuality and doesn’t have a romantic interest in the movie (none of the Rangers do, though there’s some Red-Pink flirtiness). But that half-minute exchange is all it took for a story to spread to dozens of outlets proclaiming Power Rangers as a landmark for representation in the genre. While, to be sure, even incremental progress should be celebrated — any forward movement is better than none — this is an incredibly unsatisfactory beat to go on to be widely disseminated as a breakthrough for inclusivity.
But then, so is the “exclusively gay” moment in Beauty and the Beast in which the Gaston-adoring sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) shares a two-second dance with another man in the movie’s finale. It's a scene, as Pop Culture Happy Hour panelist Glen Weldon put it when he tweeted, that's “exactly the kind of throwaway gay joke Hollywood's always churned out, just without the gay panic.” It wasn’t the only one either — LeFou’s dance partner is a character who, in an earlier scene, is shown being unexpectedly pleased with the women’s clothing he’d been forcefully clad in by a combative Madame Garderobe. Yet that was enough, apparently, to mark LeFou as Disney’s first openly gay character in a wave of coverage that director Bill Condon himself described as “overblown.”
Then there was last year's Star Trek Beyond, which, also before its release, made the reveal — one treated as a bigger deal in interviews than it ended up being onscreen — that its incarnation of Lt. Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) was gay. It did this by introducing a never-named-on-screen husband, played by screenwriter Doug Jung, who Sulu was shown pulling into an affectionate but not especially nonplatonic embrace during a visit as they strolled away with their daughter. “If you blinked, you missed it," said George Takei, who played Sulu on the original Star Trek television show. "There are others who are dealing with LGBT issues much more profoundly."
Which is inarguable. It’s not news that indie films like this year’s Best Picture winner, Moonlight, have always been leaps and bounds ahead of mainstream ones with regard to LGBT representation and storytelling. What is notable is the degree to which TV has also left blockbusters in the dust. And not just cable — in a world in which How to Get Away With Murder plunked a scene of implied rimming between Jack Falahee and Conrad Ricamora onto primetime network TV two years ago, it seems particularly eyerolly to give a studio movie a pat on the back for including a shot of two men with their arms around each other, in a totally gay way, they swear.
Tentpole pictures like Power Rangers, Beauty and the Beast, and Star Trek Beyond are in the uncomfortable position of wanting to address an American audience that’s been jostling insistently and vocally for change, while also being more dependent than ever on international markets in order to make a profit. And in some of those markets, LGBT themes mean the movie won’t be allowed to play, will be censored, or will face restrictive ratings. The last was the case in Russia, where Vladimir Putin passed a 2013 bill that banned giving information about homosexuality to children, and where Beauty and the Beast was slapped with an “unsuitable for children under 16” certificate after a failed attempt by one official to have it banned.
That lawmaker, Vitaly V. Milonov, admitted he hadn’t even seen the movie before proposing it be outlawed. But audiences in Kuwait have seen Beauty and the Beast, or at least have had a chance to: The live-action remake had been playing in theaters for a few days when the country’s Information Ministry halted ticket purchases, having presumably caught up with press coverage, and calling for a new cut to be submitted due to “concerns" over "a scene late in the movie involving the character LeFou,” according to the Kuwait Times. Which raises the question — how openly gay is the sequence if no one watching picked up on it until they read about it in interviews? And, more pressingly, if a scene is probably going to get snipped in less tolerant countries anyway, why be so timid with it in the first place?
It’s far from just studios at the core of this trend of disproportionate credit going to tiny examples of inclusivity, though the increased visibility it brings is probably pleasing from a marketing standpoint. The fault belongs, more than anything, to overenthusiastic media coverage from outlets searching for and spreading feel-good stories about representation. Historic moments make for good headlines, and audiences are thirsty for signs that acceptance can come from giant corporations that change direction as slowly as oil tankers (remember how that glimpse of two women with a stroller in the Finding Dory trailer led to furious speculation about the “the first lesbian couple in a Pixar film”?). But the result is movies that get loudly lauded in advance for developments that don’t merit the attention — these little gestures that would be better off left as subtle, welcome surprises.
These moments, anyway, feel especially wan when compared to the decades of subtext and signaling from characters who may not have been openly queer, but who are and have always been far more visible than a few frames of dude-on-dude dancing. There are, for instance, all the problematic but frequently fantastic gay-coded Disney villains, like confirmed bachelor Scar in The Lion King and Pocahontas's foppish Governor Ratcliffe and the Divine-inspired Ursula in The Little Mermaid — inevitably punished for their existence, but also funny and memorable in ways the milquetoast heroes aren’t. It was, for good reason, Maleficent that Angelina Jolie wanted to play when making a live-action Disney remake — and that same reasoning likely guided Elizabeth Banks to her maligned but enjoyable turn as Rita Repulsa in Power Rangers, a vampy, face-caressing stereotype of threatening othered sexuality right out of the Disney tradition (no self-congratulatory story there!).
And really, what's an invented and plot-inessential male partner for Sulu when there are several billion words of accumulated fanfiction interpreting the chemistry in Star Trek’s Kirk-Spock relationship as something romantic, sexual, or both? People have been highlighting submerged queer themes and characters onscreen forever, and for those to be acknowledged, reckoned with, and updated would be truly historic. Instead, there's the positioning of these recent, barely-there gestures as “firsts” in a way that ends up feeling weirdly dismissive of so many of the elements viewers felt were already there onscreen. These milestones of token visibility aren't just underwhelming — they don't do justice to what whole swaths of audience members assumed that, imperfect and complicated, had always been hidden in plain sight.
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Alison Willmore is a film critic for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Alison Willmore at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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