For most of cinema history, LGBTQ people have relied on subtext to get us through the cold lonely nights of our queer discontent — and sometimes we did so because studios and test audiences were terrified by any and all reminders that we existed! “Straightwashing” comes in many forms: turning a queer person into a straight person in a biopic, rejecting gay storylines to please studios or in fear of losing family and international audiences, removing gay scenes or relegating obvious lesbians to subtext because nobody wants women to be happy without men. Last week the internet was abuzz with an actor revealing that Legally Blonde had a potential lesbian ending, although a screenwriter for the film has since denied that claim. Still, I got to thinking that wow, this has happened to us a lot, hasn’t it?
The list of biopics or movies based on true events that straightwashed their characters for a film adaptation would be longer than a CVS receipt, so I’ve tried to limit this list to films where there is evidence that gay content was considered and rejected or conversation around the absence of gay content.
Times Square (1980)
This gritty indie follows misunderstood youths Nicky and Pamela who meet each other in a mental hospital and become best friends, finding refuge in punk music and street life. The story was based on the diary of an actual teenage girl that the screenwriter bought at a second-hand store. The filmmakers still consider it to be a lesbian love story, but the vast majority of its lesbian content was stripped from its final print, which essentially destroyed the movie. Despite being impossible to find online, it still has a cult following amongst queer audiences and has been noted for its portrayal of a pre-Giuliani Times Square.
The Color Purple (1985)
Author Alice Walker wrote of the Spielberg adaptation of her classic novel: “I was clear that Shug is, like me, bisexual. That Celie is a lesbian. Do I regret that my version of the book was not filmed? I have accepted that it wasn’t.” She “lobbied for a kiss” with Spielberg but “knew the passion of Celie and Shug’s relationship would be sacrificed when, on the day “the kiss” was shot, Quincy reassured me that Steven had shot it “five or six” different ways, all of them tasteful.” In 2011, Spielberg admitted that he “took something that was extremely erotic and very intentional, and I reduced it to a simple kiss.”
Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael (1990)
A film that has tentatively attracted queer audiences for over three decades, this Wynona Ryder vehicle was supposed to be, depending on who you ask, “an account of a small town’s memory of a bisexual teenage woman” or “a lesbian coming out story.” But, as recalled by the director, “at test screenings people were kind of shocked to see the two [women] in bed… I think we miscalculated the reaction.” According to author Michelangelo Signorile, ” the film “removed the original lesbian theme from its screenplay.” The remaining pieces left in its wake are what one fan called “one of the most subtle lesbian subplots in Hollywood history.”
Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
The lesbian relationship between Idgie and Ruth was fairly explicit in Fannie Flagg’s book (although her then-girlfriend, Rita Mae Brown, recalls Flagg struggled with internalized homophobia and didn’t want her book considered a “lesbian novel”) and deliberately ambiguous in its blockbuster Hollywood adaptation. Fried Green Tomatoes was released right before Basic Instinct, inspiring activists to wonder why queerness was okay for serial killers, but not for two cafe-owners in Alabama. In the director’s cut, director Jon Avnet claimed that a food fight scene was intended to be a “love scene.”
This epic flop’s storyline was thus: Steve’s an asshole, three (3) of his former lovers assemble to murder him and then he is reincarnated as a woman, Amanda, so he can learn what it’s really like to be a woman! He’ll only make it to heaven if he can find one woman to love him. One of his potential suitors is Sheila, a lesbian perfume magnate. Originally Amanda/Steve and Sheila shared a lesbian sex scene, but test audiences felt uncomfortable about it and thus the story was re-written to have Amanda/Steve rebuffing Sheila’s advances. “Beyond the explicit and offensive homophobia that provokes such a censorious action,” wrote a reviewer at OutWeek, “the suppression of this scene is further complicated by the fact that arguably, it would’ve been the “safest” way to represent lesbianism in a Hollywood movie: not as lesbianism at all, but as heterosexuality.”
L.A. Story (1991)
As quoted in the book Basic Instinct, Hollie Conley of GLAAD said that the Steve Martin comedy LA Story “had two positive lesbian characters removed from the film following negative reactions at test screenings,” while The L.A Daily News reported that Steve Martin’s lesbian friend and neighbor in L.A Story had her lesbianism “downplayed.”
A League of Their Own (1992)
For not being gay, a League of Their Own has a reputation for being really fucking gay — from the classic bircurious straight girl / butch lesbian friendship between Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna to the gay outcast played by gay actress Megan Cavanaugh to Anne Ramsey to the league’s entire deal. Josephine D’Angelo, the baseball player who inspired Geena Davis’s Dottie Hinson, was gay in real life and ejected from the league for getting an alternative lifestyle haircut. The recent Netflix documentary A Secret Love tells the story of two women who met and fell in love playing for the AAGPBL, which was apparently a non-stop party for its closeted lesbian players. Luckily, the new television series will not be obscuring the league’s intense gay history.
Now and Then (1995)
Christina Ricci and Rosie O’Donnell shared the role of tomboy Roberta in the beloved (by future lesbians) ’90s girl movie Now and Then. Lesbian showrunner Marlene King, who would later go on to produce Creepy Doll Tribute Series “Pretty Little Liars,” told Entertainment Tonight that “The script was written, and then we shot [the movie] with the intention of Roberta being gay.” But when they screened the film in the Chicago suburbs, their plan went south: “When Roberta was Rita Wilson’s character’s gynecologist [during the labor scene], people freaked out. They were like, ‘Ew, she’s a lesbian and she’s looking at her vagina!’ And we were like, ‘What? Seriously? Do you really care?'” Unfortunately, the studio backed the test audiences’s homophobic response, insisting they change the character to avoid anybody leaving the theater with “crazy thoughts.” King, Rosie and the cast were all upset by the decision, which also involved adding the line “Roberta, for example, has chosen to be alternative. She lives in sin with her boyfriend, but she is still normal.”
X-Men Franchise (2000 – 2019)
In the comics, Mystique/Raven is bisexual and has a long-term female partner named Destiny. You wouldn’t know this from watching the X-Men films, however, because Destiny is only in one of them and although in the comics Mystique has had relationships with men, women and demons; her only relationship in the films has been with Magneto.
Legally Blonde (2001)
The original Legally Blonde film was allegedly supposed to end with a romance between Elle (Reese Witherspoon) and Vivian (Selma Blair). “The first ending was Elle and Vivian in Hawaii in beach chairs, drinking margaritas and holding hands,” star Jessica Cauffiel told the Times. “The insinuation was either they were best friends or they had gotten together romantically.” However, Legally Blonde’s screenwriter has rejected this claim.
Scooby-Doo (2002) & Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (2004)
Scooby Doo writer James Gunn wanted his live-action film adaptation of the Scooby-Doo comics to make Velma “explicitly gay.” After a fan tweeted at Gunn last year asking him to “make our live-action lesbian Velma dreams come true,” he replied, “”I tried! But the studio just kept watering it down & watering it down, becoming ambiguous (the version shot), then nothing (the released version) & finally having a boyfriend (the sequel).” Sarah Michelle Gellar also told reporters that her character and Velma were supposed to kiss during a body-swapping scene.
Love Actually (2003)
My least favorite film in the history of cinema committed many sins in its pathway to near-universal affection and adoration and one of them was, in fact, cutting a plotline featuring a lesbian couple. In this story, a teacher at the school attended by many of the films innocent children (Liam Neeson’s stepson, Emma Thompson’s kiddos, etc), played by Anne Reid, is seen heading home with her partner, played by Frances de la Tour. There is coughing and illness and then um, she dies? So. As you can see, Love Actually’s cut storylines were just as stupid as the ones it included!
Whip It! (2009)
Whip It! was a fantastic vehicle for Elliot Page and Drew Barrymore to do a lot of hot editorial photoshoots together but more than that, it was an actual movie about roller derby, which is a lesbian sport. And yet: where were the lesbians? “I was pushing for Eva to be a lesbian seductress, hitting on all the girls,” said actress Ari Graynor. “I tried to push the envelope a little on stuff that didn’t end up in the film.” In 2018, Elliot Page said of the film, “A movie like Whip it, you know, should be more queer. It’s just that simple. It wasn’t a realistic reflection of the derby world, and I wish that was different. I love that film, just wanna be clear. Love that film, had a fucking blast, met two of my best friends in the universe on the film. But yeah, of course looking back on that, that’s a bummer. It’s a reflection of the time.”
Saving Mr Banks (2013)
Pamela Travers, the bisexual author of Mary Poppins, was not the “solitary, sexless spinster” she appeared to be in the Disney film. (Nor did she ever come around to liking the Disney adaptation of her book, as this movie suggests) Emma Thompson, who played Travers, defended the choice to leave sexual orientation out of the film: “You can’t fit everything about a persons life in two hours…. Saving Mr Banks is about a woman’s creative, artistic life. It’s a relief, quite frankly, because when is a movie about a woman not about her love life?” Well, I think we all know the answer to that!! WHEN THE WOMAN IS GAY.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, director Paul Feig affirmed that Kate McKinnon’s Holtzmann was a lesbian character, shrugging and noting “I hate to be coy about it. But when you’re dealing with the studios and that kind of thing…”
Suicide Squad (2016)
Although this wrong was eventually righted in future films (and in the animated series), Harley Quinn’s bisexuality was nowhere to be found in Suicide Squad, which instead lauded her abusive relationship with Joker. As noted by The Advocate, “It’s truly horrifying that Hollywood would rather try to sell an abusive ‘straight’ relationship as romantic over showing a bisexual woman in a healthy same-sex relationship.” In fact, the animated series did address her abusive relationship with the Joker — and then she ended up breaking up with / killing him, falling in love with Poison Ivy, and riding off into the sunset with her. Guess which one had more critical acclaim? The second one, by far, even from straight critics.
Pitch Perfect 3 (2017)
According to star Anna Kendrick, she and co-star Brittany Snow “tricked everybody into just shooting one [ending] that was just the two of us getting together. We knew it was a long shot. It meant so much to us that there was this following around their latent relationship and, yeah, I thought it would’ve been really cool if it would have ended up coming to fruition in the end.” (That said, the Pitch Perfect franchise has featured a Black lesbian character in all of its films.)
Ghost in the Shell (2017)
In addition to casting lily-white actress Scarlett Johansson as Japanese cyborg Major Motoko Kusangi, Ghost in the Shell straightwashed the character, who is depicted as queer in the original anime and manga. The film hinted at a lesbian scene in its first trailer, but that hint turned out to be a false lead. Screenwriter David Opie said it could’ve been “refreshing” to not focus on her sexuality, but noted that the directing team “did ultimately sexualize her character through numerous action scenes featuring Johansson in the nude, which arguably reinforces how the lack of bisexual representation here is even more of a missed opportunity.”
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)
Daniella Pineda played Dr. Zia Rodriguez, a paleo-veterinarian who ends up on an unexpected journey with Owen and Claire in their mission to save their park from angry dinosaurs. Pineda told Yahoo that a scene was cut in which she looked at Owen to size up his looks and noted: “square jaw, good bone structure, tall, muscles. I don’t date men, but if I did, it would be you. It would gross me out, but I’d do it.” She loved the scene for its insight into her character and for the inherent humor of a woman rejecting objective hunk Chris Pratt.
Black Panther (2018)
As Carmen explains in her piece on Black Panther, two prominent members of the Dora Milaje, Ayo and Aneka, are in a romantic relationship in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ version of the Marvel Black Panther comic series. In 2017, members of the press were invited to private screenings featuring clips from the much-anticipated feature. Joanna Robinson wrote in Vanity Fair of a scene she witnessed at that time: “We see Gurira’s Okoye and Kasumba’s Ayo swaying rhythmically back in formation with the rest of their team. Okoye eyes Ayo flirtatiously for a long time as the camera pans in on them. Eventually, she says, appreciatively and appraisingly, “You look good.” Ayo responds in kind. Okoye grins and replies, “I know.”” Marvel responded swiftly to assure that the relationship was not a romantic one, and when the film debuted to widespread acclaim, it was clear to viewers that the scene confirmed by multiple journalists in attendance had been mercilessly cut.
Thor: Ragnrok (2018)
Bisexual actress Tessa Thompson has confirmed her character, Velkyrie, is bisexual and that the female warrior who died to save her in a flashback during the film was her lover. Thompson also managed to convince director Taika Waititi “to shoot a glimpse of a woman walking out of Valkyrie’s bedroom” but, alas, “he kept it in the film as long as he could; eventually the bit had to be cut because it distracted from the scene’s vital exposition.”
Wonder Woman: 1984 (2020)
Wonder Woman is bisexual in the comics and therefore canonically queer, but you would not know this from watching any films in which Wonder Woman has appeared, which have all been handily straighwashed. Some expected a little more out of Wonder Woman: 1984, as it also featured the canonically queer character of Barbara Minerva/Cheetah, with whom Wonder Woman experienced palpable sexual tension. When asked about why their connection wasn’t explored, Patty Jenkins said, “This storyline was so clearly about Steve coming back, the whole story was about Steve. It’s all a love story with Steve.” That focus was um, one of many reasons why the movie SUCKED HARD.
The trailer for the Hulu biopic got the entire queer community stoked for its release — but the queer scenes from said trailer were nowhere to be found in the film. We did not see Billie and Tallulah Bankhead at a jeweler together and we did not see them kiss. “It was hinted at that they were lovers,” wrote Dani Janae in The Drop review of the film, “but the scenes between them were so… stale. It looked like they were just acquaintances.”