Hollywood’s annual report card has the Riverina arts and academic community divided over the representation of LGBTQI characters in film.
Each year since 2012, the American organisation GLAAD ranks mainstream film releases’ representation of LGBTQI characters.
In the past 12 months, it found 12.8 per cent of new films included a character from the rainbow community, a drop from 18.4 per cent the previous year.
So, it has now set the target to see half of all mainstream films include a LGBTQI character by the year 2024
It is that target that has Riverina theatre heads and academics locked in debate.
“The premise of having more visual presence [for LGBTQI characters] can only be positive,” said Kat van der Wijngaart, spokesperson for local LGBTQI support group, Rainbow Riverina.
Mrs Van Der Wijngaart worries that an increase in LGBTQI characters just to meet the quota will result in a flood of one-dimensional characters who may misrepresent the community.
“When a quota is forced onto the writer, as in it becomes something they have to do and not what they necessary want to do within the story, it makes the character stand out more and that’s not what we should be aiming for,” she said.
“Not all gay men are flamboyant, for example, and that’s the fear that if you force a quota it won’t represent the broad community, it will actually have the opposite effect.
“We don’t want to see an increase in films with the ‘token gay guy’, for example.”
Veteran theatre director and screenwriter Peter Cox agrees that a story is only as good as its characters.
“A character’s identity has to push the plot and work naturally in the story, but it doesn’t mean we [should] go hunting for it,” Mr Cox said.
“Theatre and film do need to represent society, and be relevant to the audience, but characters are there to drive the story and imposing on the plot something that doesn’t really fit just to tick a box, is not going to work.”
But inside the question of on-screen representation hides the much deeper problem of industry inclusion, and it is this issue that the CEO of the Eastern Riverina Arts Scott Howie, would like to interrogate.
He believes the only way to introduce diversity on-screen, is to promote diversity behind-the-scenes.
“It’s easy to get caught up in asking ‘who’s going to tell us which characters to put on screen’, but the better question is, ‘who’s telling the story?’,” Mr Howie said.
“A quota doesn’t create authenticity, you can only get that real, relatable authenticity by having a diverse range of creators from all communities who provide their life experiences that connect to the world we live in.”
Dr Emma Rush agrees with that need for authentic storytelling. She lectures on ethics and law in creative industries at the Wagga campus of Charles Sturt University, and often encounters the representation debate.
If done appropriately, Dr Rush believes balanced on-screen representation is a powerful tool for societal change.
“We’re very much a screen-focused society, and even though people say ‘popular culture is a mirror to society’, what we’re actually seeing is the reflection is a little distorted and doesn’t really show society as it is right now,” Dr Rush said.
For Dr Rush, the quota is only a restriction if the creator wants to view it that way.
“It’s not about adding a character, it’s about applying what we see in the world and reflecting that on screen,” Dr Rush said.
“It’s down to the way people want to see it, but it doesn’t have to be seen as censorship, the quality of the art might just be enhanced by thinking deeper about the story and how it reflects its audience and not just ticking a box.”
Though all parties to the debate agree, representation when done needn’t be a burden on the creator or the audience, Dr Rush said its paramount to realise the guideline is just that, a guideline and nothing binding.
“The important thing to remember is that it’s not a requirement that 100 per cent of movies [have a LGBTQI character]. If 50 per cent of movies don’t have one, the target is still being met,” she said.
“[But] the most important thing is that we have discussion and that we are listening to the voices in those communities who have struggled so that we can address their needs and concerns appropriately.”