Manuel Betancourt

The COLORful Side of Pride

July 1, 2015 · in Film, Queer, TV

The COLORful Side of Pride

After over 180 tweets and 215 characters shared, a month-long project comes to an end.

Last year I compiled a supercut titled “A Place for Us: Gay Men on Screen” which traced the various common ways gay men are usually represented on screen, from the flamboyant sissy to the AIDS victim, from the queer villain to the homonormative couple. In compiling clips for the video, I returned again and again to “classic” representations that would be instantly recognizable for uninitiated viewers. That meant relying heavily on mainstream shows (Glee, Will & Grace, Queer as Folk, Angels in America) and hit movies (Rent, In & Out, The Birdcage, The Normal Heart). Indeed, looking over the over 90 shows and films included, there’s a surprising overlap with what the Bent blog has singled out as the Top 50 LGBT Shows and Films as voted by their readers; not only Ennis & Jack, Scotty & Kevin, and Angel & Collins, but Marshall Gregson, Mark Cohen, Marc St James, David Fisher and other recognizable faces made the centerpiece of the video.

Yet, even as I finished editing the supercut, I began to realize that it skewed very (how shall we say it?) white. I crunched the numbers in my initial post and while acknowledging the way this felt diagnostic of the very weak diverse numbers that GLAAD year in and year out tabulates when delivering their Studio Index and Network Reports (“as GLAAD notes, 76% of LGBT characters in mainstream films in 2013 were white, while of the 65 LGBT regular and recurring characters on broadcast networks in the 2013-14 season, 26% are people of color”), I made it a point to create something that could add to the necessary conversation about the broader diversity of representation we all need to think of when we think of the LGBT community.

That’s how my “COLORful side of Pride” Twitter project was born:

Non-white leads. Non-American stories. POC in key supporting roles. For June, I’m celebrating the COLORful side of Pride in LGBT Media.

— Manuel (@bmanuel) June 1, 2015

I wanted to single out both mainstream characters we’re all familiar with and who have become key members of the LGBT media canon (the ladies of Litchfield, the boys from Noah’s Arc, Justin Suarez, Ricki Vazquez, Almodóvar’s steamy couples) but I also made it a point to single out characters in independent films that many would not be familiar with, and to highlight the work of character actors in smaller roles in tv shows past and present. You can check out the entire thread Storified over here. What struck me most about doing research and compiling info for the thread was the abundance of examples. I began thinking I’d keep it simple and share 30 representative characters but that soon seemed too small a sample (how to decide, especially if I didn’t want to encourage or create any sort of hierarchical list?). Instead, I opted for a more exhaustive approach, sharing as many characters as I could find. 

CAMP (2003) – Michael (played by @RobinofJesus) pic.twitter.com/UzxMvWHuPH — Manuel (@bmanuel) June 19, 2015

You’ll notice I tried to be as capacious as possible, including soap operas, sitcoms, dramas, indie films, prestige shows, Oscar-winning films, festival darlings, Bollywood hitsgenre shows and everything in between! I stuck to scripted stories though I think a look at reality TV stars/contestants would yield an equally as fascinating roster as this one. I also excluded sketch comedy and animated shows to avoid the caricatures that populate the former, and the tricky color-blind casting that usually characterizes both.

FIRE (1996) – Sita & Radha (played by @nanditadas & @AzmiShabana) pic.twitter.com/sYGQBndoY7 — Manuel (@bmanuel) June 2, 2015

I struggled with how and if to incorporate foreign films, which is why in the original tweet I made it a point to include the caveat “non-American films.” I didn’t want to merely lump “non-American” characters with the still-vexing though almost exclusively American moniker of “people of color.” That’s an easy-ish (though not for that any less problematic) label to slap on a Hong Kong actor like Leslie Chung (Happy Together & Farewell my Concubine) but harder to make for people like Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls) and Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), especially given how race as a cultural concept works quite differently outside of the United States. Thus, rather than wholly focus on American performers and films/shows, I decided to single out certain foreign films that speak to decidedly different racial/cultural/gendered/sexual experiences outside of the limiting/limited vision of the “affluent gay white male” which has long been the standard bearer, witness and center of LGBT media representation.

I wasn’t concerned with “quality” or “role models.” Whether the film was any good or whether the character’s portrayal was positive was immaterial as I compiled the list. As I’ve argued before, what we need is more representation so that we’re not left solely with arguments about how we need better representation. Thus, some of the characters I shared exemplify the very stereotypes we’d all like to do without, and even when they don’t, you’ll notice a lot of these characters function in roles that advance other people’s stories rather than their own, thus no entry should be taken as endorsing its portrayal.

#StrangerInside still my favorite work to date #TreasureLee #HBO #OGFemalePrisonflick @bmanuel @cdunye — Yolonda Ross (@YolondaRoss) June 29, 2015

Once I decided to include pictures and screenshots to accompany the tweets, I made a seemingly simple yet crucial decision to include images where the character was the central focus of the shot. Since so many of the characters I would be sharing play the “partner” role to the film’s ostensible lead, I wanted to make a point of not making their visual representation feel subservient. Thus, Omar, Charles, James, Jack, Amanita and Joanne (to single out just a few) required me to find images where they didn’t share the shot with their white partners, a feat that sounded simple in my head but which proved quite trickier in some cases than I would have liked! And now, for some stats! – Despite my best attempts, the list still skews very male. Of the 215 characters shared over 65% are male, so clearly you all need to share any characters and films I missed!

SHE HATE ME (2004) – Fatima & Alex (played by @kerrywashington & @DaniaJRamirez) pic.twitter.com/MXOfpSYqyu — Manuel (@bmanuel) June 17, 2015

– The oldest entry is for 1970’s The Boys in the Band‘s Bernard, while the most recent one comes courtesy of Laverne Cox’s Deathy in Grandma (which isn’t out until August but which I had the chance to see at TriBeCa). We might also include the Sense8 boys and girl who just made their debut last month over on Netflix. In terms of age, the oldest entry is held by Cyril Nri (Lance in Cucumber) and Sonia Braga (who played Samantha’s lover Maria Diega in Sex and the City) while the youngest entry belongs to El Ultimo Verano de la Boyita‘s Nicolas Treise, which means the thread goes from pre-pubescent kids to middle aged adults.

SENSE8 @sense8 (2015-) – Hernando & Lito (played by @ponchohd & @ma_silvestre) pic.twitter.com/8SIZuWuMzH

— Manuel (@bmanuel) June 27, 2015

– Black performers (as I mentioned I didn’t restrict myself to Americans so the “African-American” label would be misleading here) were overwhelmingly represented (close to 40% of the entire thread), with Hispanic performers doing almost just as well (my Colombian heritage and Spanish fluency came in handy when trying to find more films that represented that demographic), while stories about characters of Asian descent (either from their respective countries or in American-set stories) remained limited (please share any I missed out for that’s a blind spot I’m interested in correcting!). But as usual (given the demographic statistics), Native Americans were the least represented group of the bunch, with only Evan Adams, Cheyenne Jackson and Eric Schweig holding the banner for that population in the US and Meyne Wyatt over in Australia.

BIG EDEN (2000) – Pike (played by Eric Schweig) pic.twitter.com/4zdL6au4V8 — Manuel (@bmanuel) June 9, 2015

– The list includes a lot of films from less well-known writers and directors, but there’s no shortage of famed auteurs. You can find films by Almodóvar and Wong Kar-wai, by Spike Lee and Ang Lee, by Deepa Mehta and Mike Nichols, Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen, Jonathan Demme and Francois Ozon. More to the point, there’s no shortage of great queer filmmakers: John Cameron Mitchell, Cheryl Dunye, Patrik-Ian Polk, Ira SachsRodney Evans, Gus Van Sant and Stephen FrearsGreg ArakiRainer Werner Fassbinder, Isaac Julien, among others. And boy does that also skew a bit male, doesn’t it? Thankfully, you can also check out entries by Aurora GuerreroShamim Sarif, Zero ChouLucía Puenzo, Dee Rees, Nisha GanatraCampbell Ex and Julie Taymor.

THE WORLD UNSEEN by @shamimsarif (200) – Miriam & Amina (played by @Lisaraniray & @sheetalsheth) pic.twitter.com/oAszfkS116

— Manuel (@bmanuel) June 27, 2015

– On the TV side, it won’t surprise anyone that Shonda Rimes, Russell T. DaviesJoss Whedon, Jenji KohanTina Fey, Ryan Murphy, Allan Ball, Michael Patrick King and Lee Daniels all found their work cited here. For better, or for worse (see below).

NIP/TUCK (2003-2010) – Dr. Quentin Costa (played by Bruno Campos) pic.twitter.com/T9rDod61NH — Manuel (@bmanuel) June 24, 2015

– The list as a whole includes 5 Emmy nominated performances (with wins for Uzo Aduba, Jeffrey Wright, and Archie Panjabi) and I expect those numbers to go up next month with Queen Latifah’s Bessie performance clearly in the running for Emmy glory, as well as 6 Oscar nominated performances (with the sole win coming from Penelope Cruz’s fiery bisexual character in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which still frames her character from within a white sensibility). There’s still work to be done!

THE COLOR PURPLE (1985) – Celie & Shug (played by @WhoopiGoldberg & @MARGARETAVERY85) pic.twitter.com/cTXrDrThJf — Manuel (@bmanuel) June 30, 2015

– The winners for the GLAAD’s Media Award for Best Drama Series for the past five years (How to Get Away With Murder, The Fosters, Smash, Grey’s Anatomy and True Blood) are all well represented in the list, while only two of the Best Comedy Series winners (Orange is the New Black, Glee) made it (Modern Family, The New Normal and Transparent are all admirable shows but are diagnostic of what prompted this very list in the first place).

THE FOSTERS @TheFostersABCF (2013-) – Lena (played by @SherriSaum1) pic.twitter.com/2XYPq3Lt80 — Manuel (@bmanuel) June 18, 2015

– On the film side, I wasn’t very surprised to find that the more diverse films tended to be the ones singled out for “Limited Film.” GLAAD’s mainstream (or “Wide Release” Film) category tended to be populated with the very white templates I was trying to actively think outside of. Take, for example, this past year’s nominees:

Wide ReleaseThe Imitation GameLove Is StrangePrideThe Skeleton TwinsTammy
Limited ReleaseDear White PeopleLife PartnersLiltingThe Way He LooksWill You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

This speaks, of course, of larger industry problems, of issues of funding and distribution, of what stories get made and marketed to larger audiences, of which films get studio backing, which stars get cast, etc. but it nevertheless seemed rather telling that stories of young black men and cross-cultural relationships, and foreign films about burgeoning and belated sexual awakenings end up ghettoized this way. I highly recommend going through previous nominees for Best Limited Film for there you’ll not only find more transgressive films about the white LGBT experience (Hedwig and the Angry Inch Mysterious Skin, Velvet Goldmine & Beautiful Thing, Tomboy Concussion) but especially films about the very type of characters I highlighted this past month.

THE WAY HE LOOKS (2014) – Leo & Gabriel (played by @GhiLobo & @fabio_audi) pic.twitter.com/cNahweaSzo — Manuel (@bmanuel) June 28, 2015

– Television (and here I must give props to David A. Wyatt’s exhaustive encyclopedic site on Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual Characters), so the thinking goes, remains a more welcoming industry for sustained and meaningful examinations of characters and storylines that exist outside of the white LGBT storylines that mainstream Hollywood has continually understood to be representative of an entire community. And while I was anticipating the TV character list to trump that of films, the final tally has 83 of the final 215 characters shared belonging to a television series (with roughly two thirds of those belonging to series regulars). – The two most shared tweets (see below) speak to the enduring impact these characters continue to have on fans even years after the fact.

GREY’S ANATOMY @GreysABC (2005-) – Callie (played by @SaraRamirez) pic.twitter.com/byfeaQ53Ik — Manuel (@bmanuel) June 2, 2015

 

NOAH’S ARC (2005-6) – Ricky, Noah, Chance, Rodney (played by @CJDevi @darrylstephens, @DougSpearman Rodney Chester) pic.twitter.com/V5hkNfuu6w — Manuel (@bmanuel) June 28, 2015

The best part of this month was having these tweets spark conversation, trigger memories, and actually see the enthusiasm for these performances and films. So while the project is nominally finished, I will continue to add entries every once in a while knowing that this archive was only ever imagined as a way to keep privileging and talking about these stories, these actors/actresses, these directors and producers, and supporting their work. Oh, and thanks to everyone who shared, favorited, retweeted, including those whose work I spent this past month celebrating!

Faves

A sampling of the support offered by the various actors and directors singled out this month.