Why are superhero movies so reluctant to embrace sexual diversity?

Director Mike Buonaiuto says introducing LGBT characters is only half the battle.


Matt Burton

There was an unusual sight at this year’s London Comic Con. Amid the usual previews, expert panels and cosplay contests, a gay superhero was brought to life for the first time via a fake movie trailer. Launched by social change company Shape History, the #LGBTSuperheroes campaign video is leading calls for more LGBT superheroes to be portrayed in Hollywood productions.

While gay, lesbian and transgender characters are on the rise in comic books, this diversity has yet to be reflected in mainstream cinema, especially superhero blockbusters. “What we’re seeing in characters like Ice Man, Catwoman or Mystique is that any elements of their authentic sexuality just dissolves and they become these white-washed, Hollywood-ified characters,” says Mike Buonaiuto, who directed the trailer.

If there is an increasing demand for a broader representation of sexuality in the comic books, however, why has this not translated to the big screen? “It’s all down to risk,” suggests Buonaiuto. “Film producers are under such immense pressure to get the audience to immediately understand characters that when it comes to introducing elements which are somewhat different, they fear it won’t attract the same amount of audience.”

Buonaiuto explains that Shape History created the trailer to counter this market-driven attitude, aiming to show the movie industry that LGBT superheroes pose no threat to their profit margins. “We put together a campaign that paints a picture of what it would look like if the amazing diversity we’ve seen in the comic books translated to the screen in real life,” he says. “We just need to demonstrate that this stuff has a massive audience and there’s no risk involved in accurately portraying diversity.”

Shape History made a similar splash in 2015 with Credence, the first sci-fi film to feature a same sex couple, which received more than 600 contributions to its crowdfunding campaign. Buonaiuto believes the success of his film proves the time is right for Hollywood to tackle its diversity problem. “It’s a media moment. It’s a chance to actually talk about something which I think the media are ready to talk about and I think film is ready to talk about.”

But simply having more LGBT characters is only half the battle; they also need to be depicted in different ways. While the recent successes of the likes of Blue is the Warmest Colour, Carol and The Danish Girl are small steps in the right direction, the characters they portray are still defined entirely by their sexuality. As Buonaiuto observes: “Why can’t we have a film with a trans character, or a bi, lesbian or gay character, that isn’t surrounding the fact they are coming out or struggling with their sexuality or being subjugated against? Why can’t they just be living their life?”

Buonaiuto believes the best way to make Hollywood take note is for more LGBT filmmakers to create content that will grab the world’s attention. “I know from my own experience that there are plenty of LGBT people working in all kinds of media, including film, but they just need to step up and actually take a stand and start creating the content they want to see rather than the content they think others want to see.”

There’s certainly plenty of evidence that studio execs can be swayed by public opinion. Marvel fan-favourite Deadpool, for example, was once considered untouchable by panicky studio execs who thought a motormouthed mercenary would not appeal to a mass audience. It was only when a leaked sizzle reel of test footage, showing Ryan Reynolds in red Spandex, quipping and killing this way through a car-load of goons, sparked an enthusiastic response that Fox green lit a full movie.

Could #LGBTSuperheroes have a similarly transformative impact? “The whole idea is to inspire other people to create their own campaigns,” says Buonaiuto. “We want people to be painting artwork, writing fan fiction and creating a platform where they can get their work seen and shared because then it proves to the movie business that there is an audience for this kind of material.”

The challenges facing the LGBT community might seem insurmountable, especially when you look around and see destructive acts like trans people being forced to use public bathrooms corresponding to their birth gender in North Carolina. But it’s a fight Buonaiuto is confident we can overcome. “We will definitely see more diversity in superhero movies,” he says. “Because myself, the Shape History team and others around the world will continue to campaign for it together.”

Published 9 Jun 2016

Tags: Comic book movie DC Comics LGBT superhero Marvel Mike Buonaiuto Shape History

Suggested For You

20 queer movie classics you need to see – part 1

By Little White Lies

Inspired by Todd Haynes’ Carol, explore our potted history of great films that depict gay lives on screen.

It’s time for Hollywood to change its attitude towards LGBTQ+ characters

By Victoria Luxford

Social media campaigns like #LGBTSuperheroes are exposing the movie industry’s worrying lack of diversity.

Sensual queer shorts from before Stonewall

By Sophie Monks Kaufman

New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center has curated a season dedicated to early explorations of LGBT themes.

Little White Lies Logo

About Little White Lies

Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.