“Lightyear”, “Everything Everywhere at Once”, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”, “Fantastic Beasts: Dumbledore’s Secrets” and “Eternals”. What do these movies have in common besides recent release dates?
Kisses and romance, as in almost any other Hollywood production. But here, they happen between characters of the same sex, which provoked the fury of censors in several countries where the films ended up being banned or shredded.
The most recent case is that of Pixar’s new animation about space patroller Buzz Lightyear, which hits theaters this week. The plot has a lesbian character, who at the beginning appears getting married, having a child and kissing his wife – something unprecedented in a Disney animated feature.
Therefore, it has not received authorization to debut in at least a dozen countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Indonesia, and, according to the industry’s expectations, it should also be barred in China, which two years ago became the largest consumer of cinema in the world.
This expansion of the Chinese film market and that of other conservative nations is precisely what worries filmmakers in the West. As the big studios become more dependent on the profits that come from there, the more difficult it will be to show in their films subjects considered taboo or forbidden in other cultures – leaving room, then, for self-censorship.
That’s what a long study by freedom of expression agency Pen America, “Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing,” indicates, which showed how major studios have accepted Chinese money, allowed officials to visit film sets and edited scenes to please the Communist Party. Although homosexuality was decriminalized in the 1990s, there is an ongoing campaign to rid Chinese screens of “vulgar, immoral or unhealthy” content, ranging from LGBTQIA+ characters to rape scenes.
For Ging Cristobal, coordinator for Asia at OutRight Action International, an organization that fights discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people and acts as a consultant to the UN, self-censorship has today become an obstacle to seeing more diversity on screen, with directors and producers reducing the space of colorful characters, anticipating the barriers they may encounter in markets such as China.
“It’s a business strategy, a capitalist move at the expense of giving proper visibility to the queer population,” she says. “Studios need to sell, even if that means cutting back in some markets, which creates an impasse – do we stop supporting these films or do we overlook these decisions?”
Studios have dealt with the specter of censorship in different ways. It’s not yet clear what Disney will do if “Lightyear” is banned in China, but it’s important to remember that the studio only released the lesbian kiss after employees protested to keep it in the animation, in the wake of the company’s controversial reaction to the law. of Florida that limits discussions of gender and sexuality in schools.
In June of last year, LGBTQIA+ Pride Month as it is now, the subsidiary Pixar also released “Luca”, a feature film about the friendship between two boys that was seen by many people as a romance – the characters talked about not being accepted by society and even the color palette followed that of the gay pride flag. But the studio paid little attention to the conversation.
On the other hand, Disney has refused to bow its head to the censors and cut back on other of its recent blockbusters. This was the case with “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” with its heroine America Chavez, who has two mothers, “Eternals”, with its gay hero and family man, and “Amor, Sublime Amor”, which has a young trans. All waived the launch in countries in the Gulf region, such as Kuwait and Qatar.
In the neighbourhood, in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, however, a bigger problem has been posing itself. If today the Arab world has little relevance for international box office data, research indicates that the scenario should change until 2030, when these two conservative nations are expected to assume positions in the list of the ten largest film markets in the world.
“I believe studios will continue to include queer representation in their films because they know they need pink money. [lucro vindo de consumidores LGBTQIA+] in countries with freer and stronger queer communities. But in other places there will be cuts, which is a disservice, and in general, a brake on the size of the diversity we see”, says Cristobal.
Unlike Disney, Warner Bros., for example, had no problem releasing “Fantastic Beasts: Dumbledore’s Secrets” in China after local officials cut scenes from the film that mentioned a romance between wizard Albus Dumbledore and the villain Gerard Grindelwald. The relationship, supposedly, is at the heart of the plot, as their abrupt breakup turned the lovers into rivals, but despite fan requests, it gained few explicit seconds of screen time.
In this, “Fantastic Beasts” and the other mentioned features are very similar – the presence of LGBTQIA+ characters and discussions is always secondary. They are not at the center of the plots, they are details that are often little explored. Sure, having a Marvel superhero married an openly trans man or boy in the adaptation of one of Broadway’s biggest musicals is a step forward, but still a shy one.
“When talking about representation, we need to be careful not to fall into ‘tokenism’ [um esforço superficial, meramente simbólico, para parecer inclusivo]. Unfortunately, this is what we have seen most in Hollywood cinema”, says João Federici, programmer of the Mill Valley Film Festival and Mix Brasil. “Hollywood, as we know, has always been very conservative, oppressive and excluding. Upon discovering the financial advantages of representation, they began using various meaningless LGBTQIA+ characters.”
For him, who hopes that the influence of conservative markets does not increase, although we are talking about a business that seeks profit, the scenario will only change even after a “radical” change, with representation also invading the backstage of productions.
After all, despite recent cases of censorship and banning, there is still a reluctance to make Marvel-sized films entirely centered on queer characters.
With the rise of conservative markets, the path to this ideal should get longer and more tortuous – even because, reinforces Ging Cristobal, “we are normal, and we shouldn’t let the studios put us at a negotiating table just to accommodate, encourage and preserve structures discriminatory”.