Tokenism or authenticity: What is the future of Queer representation at the Oscars?

Illustration Credit: Engin Akyurt via Flickr

Queerness in film is a constantly developing and culturally instrumental subject, with an increase in positive Queer media playing a key role in creating a more accepting society for the LGBTQ+ community. Each year, however, award season poses many questions about diversity. In particular, there has been much debate about the recognition of Queer stories throughout the history of the Oscars. In September, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes on which films win Oscars, established new representation standards for Best Picture. With nominations announced today, a consideration of whether these new rules will make a significant difference is necessary.

Why is it important for the Oscars to develop representation?

It goes without saying that Queer film is a very important educational tool, as ignorance is a great source of prejudice. Telling authentic stories, with which LGBTQ+ people can identify, can both help with self-acceptance from a younger age, but also provide Queer voices with a platform to tell stories that can instrumentally effect culture. As award season plays an important role in guiding the film industry, how the Academy deals with diversity issues is therefore significant in the development of Queer film. The creation of the latest guidelines shows how the Academy plans to showcase Queer stories in the future.

How have the Oscars dealt with diversity in the past?

There has been much development in diversity since the beginning of the Oscars. There were a few Queer films recognised at the Oscars in the 70s and 80s such as ‘Dog Day Afternoon’, ‘The Times of Harvey Milk’ and ‘The Kiss of the Spider Woman.’ In recent years, more and more films have featured Queer characters, such as ‘Moonlight’, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ ‘The Favourite’ and ‘Green Book.’ Indeed, in 2018 ‘A Fantastic Woman’ made history as the first film with a transgender lead to win an Oscar, winning Best Foreign Language Film.

These changes show how the academy is attempting to improve their diversity by including more Queer films recently. The examples listed above also demonstrate how a range of Queer films have been celebrated, focusing on different subgroups of the LGTBQ+ community. Films like ‘Moonlight’ demonstrate the celebration of more intersectional Queer film, demonstrating an active effort to be more diverse, representing positive progress.

What do the new standards dictate?

The new standards dictate that films nominated for Best Picture must meet 2 of 4 standards. For example, main storylines must be centred around underrepresented groups, with 30% of secondary characters being minorities. The guidelines also aim to enhance diversity behind the camera, aiming for greater minority inclusion in creative leadership. Thus, 30% of the film’s crew and in-house executive positions must also be of minority status. Such inclusion of previously marginalised groups in the creative process, including LGBTQ+ people, is promising for authenticity.

These changes are, however, only necessary for the Best Picture category. Still, they represent a welcome step, as Best Picture is the Oscars’ most prestigious award. Perhaps most importantly, these rules create an atmosphere of equity rather than just equality, as there is now greater active encouragement for diverse films.

Where do these standards fall short?

There is a possibility however that these guidelines could be viewed as tokenistic. Certainly, in the past, the Oscars have showcased Queer film and plan to continue in this vein, yet the Queer films nominated often do not showcase openly LGBTQ+ actors. In 2016, for example,‘The Danish Girl’ received 4 Oscar nominations, including Best Actor for cisgender Eddie Redmayne, who played the lead transgender character Lile Elbe. As a consequence of this casting choice, the film feels much less authentic.

In an MTV interview, American Actor Indya Moore spoke about cisgender characters playing non cisgender roles, explaining that,

“Gender is a social construct, but so is race, and that still doesn’t make it okay for white women to play Asian women. Still doesn’t make it okay for cis people to play trans people… We are more than capable of not only telling our own stories but telling stories in general.”

Simply put, cisgender actors playing these roles removes opportunities for transgender actors. There is the argument that since transgender actors might also want to play cisgender roles, why can’t cisgender actors play transgender roles? However, when there is so little opportunity given to transgender actors to play any roles, it is wrong that many of the sparse selection available are taken away. Also, the roles themselves require such attention to nuance and detail of transgender life, that only transgender actors can capture and do justice. Therefore, the academy’s celebration of films that take opportunities away from Queer people, will always feel somewhat empty.

In terms of sexuality, many of the Queer Oscar winning films do not feature Queer actors. Whilst actors should not be forced to share their sexuality, it would be promising to see more openly Queer people securing awards. Currently, the academy remains open to accusations of tokenism, as their standards appear almost like a tick box affair. As these standards dictate, there is no need for nominated films to be truly authentic.

Whilst the new standards may lead to more Queer stories being nominated, it is crucial that the Academy ensures more of these films champion Queer actors. Some argue that this creates a smaller pool of films for organizations like the Academy to consider awarding. However, by championing authentic films and actors, there will be more encouragement for similar films to be made in the future.

Award season has great potential to be a tool for breaking the heteronormativity of supply and demand in the film industry. The Academy just needs to start selecting more films that are truly authentic.

There are also issues regarding the types of Queer storylines that are repeatedly used by filmmakers. Queer films in general, but especially those championed by the Oscars, are often coming out stories or narratives depicting Queer trauma or repression. For example, American Beauty’ depicts homophobic behaviour whilst ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ explores the murder of a transgender person. In 2018, ‘Call Me by Your Name’ received three nominations and won ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’. However, the film was criticised for idealising the large age gap between 17-year-old Elio and his father’s 24-year-old research assistant.

This year, 'Welcome to Chechnya', a harrowing insight into purges of LGBTQ+ people by the Chechnyan regime, became the first documentary to be shortlisted for Best Visual Effects: largely due to the need to augment new faces onto the film's participants in order to protect their identities.

Although films such as this are important in documenting the harsh present realities of LGBTQ+ discrimination, there is a sparsity of positive Queer films in the industry, preventing the promotion of a discourse surrounding Queerness as positive and worthy of celebration. Perhaps if the Academy took their representative reforms further by striving to also champion positive Queer stories, there would be greater encouragement for more of these films to be made.

I believe that the Oscars are making steps in the right direction with their new guidelines. However, if further progress is to be made, it is crucial that the Academy diversifies the films they nominate. Progress will not be made solely by championing more Queer films, as the new guidelines dictate, but also by encouraging Queer film that is both positive and authentic. Active encouragement and recognition of such films will likely encourage demand for them, diversifying the stories we see on screen, and enhancing the visibility and accessibility of Queer voices in the industry.