In recent years, LGBTQ characters have made enormous strides on television. Shows like Empire, Transparent, and Orange Is the New Black showcase diverse queer stories with complex characters who aren’t defined solely by their sexual orientation or gender identity. And in a medium where same-sex kissing was once considered risqué, in 2014, How to Get Away With Murder featured a scene of interracial gay analingus (although the show has also indulged in a disappointing strain of bottom shaming). Last year, Freeform’s The Fosters featured a gay kiss between two 13-year-olds, the youngest queer lip lock in the medium’s history.
2015 was such a groundbreaking year for queer representation on the small screen that GLAAD announced it was discontinuing its “Network Responsibility Index”—which graded TV networks on LGBT inclusivity—because everyone was doing a good job. Instead, the organization will focus on its annual “Where We Are on TV” report, which also looks at the racial diversity of LGBT characters and the presence of characters living with a disability.
But when it comes to film, things aren’t getting better for queer audiences. There’s no sadder indication of this than Dirty Grandpa, the abysmally reviewed Robert De Niro, Zac Efron comedy released in theaters on Jan. 22. Out actor Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman plays Bradley, the gay best friend of Lenore (Aubrey Plaza), a Florida party girl with a thing for much, much older men. Bradley exists not just to be her token queer sidekick but also to act as a human punching bag for anti-gay humor. The duo meet Richard “Dick” Kelly (De Niro), a foul-mouthed patriarch on a road trip with his straight-laced grandson (Efron). Dick likes to call Bradley names like “princess” and “twinkle toes.”
Dirty Grandpa is one of those movies that mistakes lazy racism and homophobia for actual humor, as in a scene where Bradley has had enough of Dick’s antics. While enjoying the sights of Daytona, Florida, Dick comments on Bradley’s flamboyance, chiding him for “being so gay.” Bradley shoots back: “I’m also black.” It’s meant to be a challenge, as if to say, “Go ahead, say something about it!” Naturally, Dirty Grandpa doesn’t back down from the provocation. “Yeah, that’s funny too,” Dick smirks.
This incident offers a stark contrast to UnReal, the critically acclaimed Lifetime show in which Bowyer-Chapman plays Jay, an unscrupulous gay producer. UnReal takes place behind the scenes of a fake Bachelor-style reality show where the production team will do anything to get good ratings. Amid all the scheming and mustache-twirling, Jay’s sexuality is barely addressed. In a recent interview, Bowyer-Chapman explained that was exactly what drew him to the role. “I feel like the only time it’s ever mentioned on the show [is when] it comes out of Jay’s mouth,” he said. “No one else mentions it. It’s really wonderful.”
If cinema continues to lag behind in allowing queer characters to be fully human, movies like Dirty Grandpa are a huge part of the problem. According to GLAAD, LGBT characters continue to be all but shut out of studio films. In 2014, just 17.5 percent of major films had any queer characters at all, and many of them made brief appearances on screen. While GLAAD found that studio comedies were the most likely to include queer characters, that visibility comes with a cost. Many of those characters are “outright defamatory representations,” it declared, singling out movies like The Hangover Part III, Horrible Bosses 2, and the Chris Rock-directed Top Five as being particularly egregious.
One movie stood out among the rest. In its most recent report, GLAAD singled out the 2015 comedy Get Hard as the “one of the most problematic films we’ve seen in years.” The Kevin Hart, Will Ferrell vehicle focused on James (Ferrell), a clueless hedge-fund manager who is sentenced to prison for embezzlement and fraud. After a chance meeting with Darnell (Hart) in a parking lot, James assumes—because he’s black—that Darnell must have served time and pays him $30,000 to help him prepare for life behind bars. Oh, and to keep him from getting raped.
What has the potential to be a Trading Places-style satire quickly devolves into a 90-minute gay panic joke. BuzzFeed’s Alison Willmore argued that Get Hard’s treatment of race is laden with “hipster racism”—i.e., constantly showing that it’s “in on the joke” and that the film knows its offensive. Its homophobia operates the same way. “Get Hard ties the very real and understandable fear of rape in with a general sense that men having sex with men is hilariously icky,” Willmore writes. “ ‘Might as well call it ‘San Fuckin’!’ Darnell says, smacking his hands together to create a soundtrack as he describes a scenario in which James gets gang-banged behind bars.”
The movie’s fear of queerness peaks during a scene in which Darrell realizes that James is a lost cause and takes him to a “gay brunch spot” to prepare him for the realities of same-sex intimacy. Darrell says it will be easy to find a willing gay partner for this experiment because—after all—anonymous, public sex is “what they do.” He declares, “It’s a scientific fact.” After they find a willing volunteer, the two men adjourn to the bathroom so James can find out just how horrific giving a blowjob truly is. In the end, James can’t go through with it and enthusiastically recommits himself to the “toughening up” enterprise. After all, nothing can be worse than that.
The film attempts to show that its gay characters are fine with how the movie treats them. Defending the film, director Etan Cohen focused on a scene that occurs while James is engaging in thwarted fellatio, when Darnell strikes up a conversation with another brunch patron, while rejecting his advances. “Clearly, they’re very comfortable together, and Darnell is making jokes back,” Cohen told BuzzFeed. But the movie’s version of “gay-straight bonding” is anything but relaxed. After the gay man introduces himself as “Chris,” which is “short for Christmas came early this year,” Darnell all but recoils in disgust. But even if the scene were as inclusive as Cohen suggests, all the token gay friends in the world wouldn’t save Get Hard from its own homophobia.
Dirty Grandpa engages in its own hipster homophobia—by having its lone queer character repeatedly call the movie out on its problematic jokes, as if recognizing bigotry were enough. Any time Dick says something objectionable (which is all the time), Bradley erupts in disgust, typically yelling, “That’s offensive!” The movie’s coup de grâce comes when Dick saves poor, dear Bradley from being gay-bashed by a group of thugs. The implication is very clear: It’s OK to be racist and anti-queer, just as long as you don’t beat anyone up.
It’s easy to dismiss these movies’ hipster homophobia, because it feels as if they don’t matter. After all, Dirty Grandpa was a very, very bad movie, loathed by nearly every critic who laid eyes on it. Uproxx’s Mike Ryan called it “the worst movie I’ve ever seen in a movie theater.” But it would be easier to dismiss comedy’s homophobia problem if queer people got other opportunities to see themselves on screen. Aside from limited-release indie efforts like Carol—which screened in just 790 theaters at its peak—mainstream comedies like Dirty Grandpa (which played in 2,912 theaters in its opening weekend) represent some of the very few representations of LGBTQ people at the studio level. This is a medium in which they continue to be treated with disgust, ridicule, and contempt.
It’s time for Hollywood to catch up with television and start treating its characters like people, not punch lines.