Disney Plus is still a relatively young service , but it’s quickly become one of the most popular streaming services in existence and continues to grow as Disney brings its service to new markets. But one market it’s still not available in is Asia. And while LGBT content is technically not forbidden in China, it is frequently reported by the Communist censors. And due to the growing importance of the Chinese market in boosting box office profits, studios and directors are looking for a way to strike a balance between all the attention-getting gay representation in the West and maintaining a level of acceptable material in other parts of the world.
Although some people find this sort of action to be hollow and irritating, it certainly does garner a lot of headlines.
Marvel’s Victoria Alonso, Marvel Studios’ executive vice president of film production, is promising social justice activists and media that more LGBTQ representation is coming.
“It takes time, we have so many stories that we can tell,” she said at the Black Widow fan premiere in Hollywood last week. “We will empower those that are. We’re not changing anything. We’re just showing the world who these people are, who these characters are…”
She also added, “there’s a lot that we have coming up that I think will be representative of the world of today. We’re not going to nail it in the first movie or the second movie or third movie, or the first show or second show, but we will do our best to consistently try to represent.”
Marvel used the same cynical marketing tactic while promoting “Avengers: Endgame,” promising an out homosexual character, only for the widely publicized scene to be a minor scene with an unidentified male in a support group about a date he went on with another man. “Endgame” didn’t require the spotlight since it was the conclusion of a massive franchise with a massive fan base that went on to smash box office records. In reality, the event was heavily panned, with many people criticizing it for its blatant attempts at pandering without content.
But in China, the chances of blatant homosexuality depicted in a movie is very, VERY slim. According to Variety:
China has an uneven stance on homosexuality, which is not criminalized but also not legally recognized. Its censors have no clear, comprehensive policy on such content, but it is deemed sensitive and is inconsistently but regularly removed. Same-sex themes are technically banned from appearing on TV and, since 2017, in online streaming. However, subtle content can sometimes make it through — like the Netflix-acquired boys love series “The Untamed,” which became one of last summer’s hottest titles.
Brief same-sex moments in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and Disney’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast” also made it to the big screen unscathed, yet “Call Me by Your Name” — which has a cult following in China despite never having been officially released — was pulled at the last minute from the Beijing Intl. Film Festival for its gay theme.
When authorities do something like cut out direct references to Freddie Mercury’s sexuality in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the censorship is obvious. But “a lot more of the censorship is invisible — you only learn about it when you talk to LGBT activists who say, ‘We’re trying to put out content, but it’s getting blocked or throttled,’” explains Darius Longarino, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center who focuses on LGBT rights in China. “It seems like there’s an effort maybe not to forbid LGBT content but to constrain it and let it exist in a bounded space.”
The bottom line here is that explicitly LGBT themes in a film will have no commercial prospects in China: They can’t screen in local cinemas, stream on services, or formally play in festivals there.
Marvel has been promising to diversify its films and television shows for years and has always found ways to drag its feet. So then why would Marvel Studios constantly promise more gay representation, while the prospects of them actually delivering be so slim? Because these companies don’t actually care about LGBTQ people. They simply see them as tokens, and the corporations go with the trends. What they actually care about is profit, and China is home to a huge movie industry that generated more than $9 billion in box office sales in 2019— second only to the United States.
So this way, two women can hug and kiss in the background of a crowded Star Wars scene, and even Loki can make a comment about being bisexual, and the foreign language over-dub or closed captioning can say something completely different when it plays in China. And Marvel continues to promise other queer heroes will be introduced such as Wiccan and Speed, the twin sons of Wanda Maximoff and Vision, and America Chavez, a lesbian superhero who is expected to be introduced in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Will their homosexual-affirming lines be overdubbed to say something acceptable in China? Undoubtedly.
Up next, after Black Widow, the MCU is going to introduce moviegoers to Jack Kirby’s The Eternals, and cynically as ever, Marvel’s marketing department has promised there will be the first same-sex kiss on screen.
On Thursday, actor Haaz Sleiman teased his upcoming on-screen kiss with costar Brian Tyree Henry, telling NewNowNext that filming the Eternals love scene — Marvel’s first LGBTQ smooch — was emotional for everyone on set.
“It’s a beautiful, very moving kiss,” said Sleiman, 43. “Everyone cried on set.”
Don’t expect The Eternals to play in China. That’s just how it is at the moment. So does this mean Disney and Lucasfilm and Marvel Studios actors will be boycotting China over their anti-LGBTQ++ bigotry?
Don’t be so naïve.
Studios will continue to be more interested in increasing their market and profitability than standing up for ideology and fighting censorship as long as Communist China continues to be a big market. Instead, much ado will be made about these minor little events in order to attract the desired attention of gay and social-justice-minded moviegoers while avoiding any substantial steps towards representation of the gay community.