In 2015, GLAAD made a supercut of homophobic and transphobic jokes from recent studio films. Most were from mainstream comedies’ — like Horrible Bosses, Pain & Gain, and The Other Woman — attempts at humor that aren’t so much offensive at this point as they are boring clichés.
If lesbian characters show up in mainstream films, it’s often in small parts, either as butch stereotypes (Sisters, Pitch Perfect) or creepy predators (Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates). Sometimes, they’re a phantom presence, reflected in insults made about two straight women (Bridesmaids). Perhaps that’s what makes the new comedy Rough Night so refreshing: It’s the rare studio film to have not one but two queer characters in leading roles — and even better, they feel like real people.
Directed by Broad City’s Lucia Aniello (who wrote the script with Paul Downs), Rough Night follows four college friends who reunite for a bachelorette party. Scarlett Johansson is Jess, an aspiring politician who is taking a weekend off from campaigning to celebrate her upcoming nuptials alongside her overbearing BFF Alice (Jillian Bell), free-spirited activist Frankie (Ilana Glazer), and the bougie Blair (Zoë Kravitz). The beginning of the film is a flashback to a college frat party, where Frankie and Blair turn down a leering lothario by cluing him in: “We’re together.” In most movies, this would be a trick — a move pulled to get rid of unwanted male attention or, as in Hot Pursuit, distract a horny guy. But here, the two women are clearly into one another, as friends and strangers alike point out throughout the film.
When Blair and Frankie reunite for the main action, it’s the first time they’re seeing each other in years, and they flirt a bit before sharing an embrace that is neither melodramatic nor played for awkward laughs. Their chemistry is built on history and mutual attraction, and it shows. They share an affinity that’s common for real-life queer women who break up but maintain a bond. Sometimes it’s completely platonic; at other times, it’s an indication that maybe the timing just wasn’t right the first time around. (Aniello says she based the characters on women she knew in real life, and she gets these little things so right I suspect she has some queer women in her crew.)
As Frankie, Glazer is playing a similar character as she does on Broad City. Like TV’s Ilana, Frankie is an outspoken progressive, though she’s a bit more dedicated to the cause. (She’s been arrested several times.) She uses phrases like “heteronormative” and “cis male” in regular conversation, and while that’s funny, it doesn’t make her the butt of the jokes. She’s enlightened, but not annoying.
Kravitz’s Blair recently split up from her husband and is going through a custody battle, but her bisexuality is never a point of contention, not from her ex nor anyone else. When a neighbor couple (Ty Burell and Demi Moore) share an interest in her, she takes one for the team and has a threesome with them so she can destroy some evidence on their security camera. Some viewers might roll their eyes at yet another bisexual character having a threesome, but at least here Blair isn’t shamed by her friends, and she seems to quite enjoy her time with Moore’s tongue talents. (“She was inside of me, and then she was outside of me, and then she was me,” she recalls.)
Without getting too spoilery, Blair and Frankie’s friendship takes a turn toward the end of Rough Night, as the women acknowledge how much they care for each other. Their love story is one of the movie’s central romances, second only to Jess and her groom-to-be, a development that’s all the more exciting because of how matter-of-fact it is. The film comes with a neatly wrapped-up ending that offers the message that close friends can inspire you to be yourself, without having to keep up expectations or appearances. For queer women, that lesson is essential to self-acceptance. Surrounding yourself with friends that support and love you is survival — that’s the kind of friends Jess, Alice, and Pip are to Blair and Frankie, and vice versa.
In a world where the typical studio comedy at best might include one LGBTQ sidekick, or a token same-sex couple on the margins, Blair and Frankie are an incredible anomaly. The most recent GLAAD Studio Responsibility Index gave Sony, the studio that released Rough Night, a failing grade for 2016, noting only two of the studio’s 21 films that year included LGBTQ characters. (Oddly, both were animated: Angry Birds: The Movie and Sausage Party.) GLAAD made a special note about not counting Sony’s Ghostbusters: Despite McKinnon’s Jillian Holtzmann pinging a lot of fans’ gaydar, the movie’s “refusal to confirm Holtzmann as a canonically lesbian or bisexual character” deterred them.
Sony is hardly the only studio that’s dropping the ball when it comes to LGBTQ inclusion. In 125 films released by the six major studios and their subsidiaries last year, GLAAD identified only 70 LGBTQ characters, but noted even that number was likely a little too forgiving, as 14 characters came in a single musical number in Popstar. The mere fact that Rough Night has two out characters who are in almost every scene of a film and are highly visible in posters, trailers, and billboards is very exciting for queer women, who for so long have had to wade through subtext to see themselves onscreen at the local multiplex.
Rough Night is only one movie, but I’m hopeful it leads to Sony and other major studios bringing more queer characters to the front of their films, to the point where their sexual identities are a nonissue. Every comedy works better when the characters are well-rounded people, not just types.