Why Can’t Queer Stories Just Be Stories?

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In 1992, film scholar B. Ruby Rich coined the term New Queer Cinema to describe the film movement consisting of independent filmmakers using new technologies to make stories about a previously under- or poorly- represented group. The movement emerged largely due to rage at the Reagan administration (and later Bush Sr.’s) for its response (or lack thereof) to the AIDS crisis, condemning millions to an early death. The movement was crucial at the time and groundbreaking in its depicting of human stories about queer people, especially since in the history of film (largely due to regulations like the Hays Code) queer people were almost always killed off or depicted as immoral and unnatural. The NQC movement was a watershed moment in queer history, but it has rightly taken its place in history. Times have changed, and although I hold no pretense that queer people are unequivocally accepted everywhere and have all the same opportunities, the type of representation needed has changed and the stories have evolved.

A few years ago, at a keynote address called “Publics and Privates: Revisiting The New Queer Cinema,” B. Ruby Rich bemoaned this very natural evolution of the genre, presenting it as a negative for queer representation. Listing examples such as Looking and The Kids are Alright, Rich said that queer cinema today is veering away from the community-focused stories into more insular stories about individuals, and described this as a “disturbing” shift. She evidently holds the notion that “proper” queer stories are only those that depict the LGBTQ community at large and explore larger themes, purportedly universal within the community. She seems to think that queer cinema belongs at queer film festivals, only to be seen and enjoyed by queer people. Respectfully, I fundamentally disagree. Why do queer stories have to be so niche and other? Her statements bothered me in the same way that “queer fiction” sections in bookstores bother me: are all other books “hetero fiction?” Why can’t cinema just tell stories about queer people without being put in a box by default?

What Rich seems to be ignoring is that the needs of the community are not the same now that they were in the 90s. At the time, queer people were being thrown to the side by the government and left to die, and even being told it was their fault for choosing an immoral lifestyle (for more on this, watch How To Survive a Plague). The need was to have true, honest, stories about a very difficult time in the community, with films finally showing a sector of society on-screen which had previously been ignored or maligned. A niche movement was exactly what was needed then. Nowadays, the need is for normalization. With so much of the national conversation treating queer people as others, at best looked at like a different species, at worst brutally beaten and stripped of their rights, what we need now is for queer people to be shown to just be people. Not only do young queer people need to see themselves represented as regular people who can live normal lives, but young impressionable straight people also need to be able to view queer people as just anyone else. A niche film movement allows people to ignore and marginalize them, if they so choose. Having queer characters in a random tentpole blockbuster forces representation and, eventually, normalization.

I say all of this with full knowledge of my privilege: growing up queer in a staunchly liberal bubble in San Francisco means I’ve had the tremendous luck of never going through some of the incredibly difficult experiences my peers have. I never had a proper coming out experience, because I was never properly closeted. I’ve never been insulted, attacked, or otherwise maligned for being queer. This also meant that I never really yearned for representation of the kind that was needed in the early 90s, and I never saw myself reflected in any of the dramatic iconic ~queer movies~. I appreciate them as works of art, of course, but they’ve never been particularly relatable to me, despite the assumption they would be simply because of our shared queerness. Some more recent films with queer characters have become some of my favorites of all time, but not simply because of the fact that they’re about queer people. I am incredibly fortunate, yes, but I’m also not all that unique, and there are more and more like me each day.

Young queer people nowadays really just want to see their identities represented in regular stories (read: stories the straights have been getting for ages). We want our superhero flicks, our cheesy rom-coms, our hard-hitting dramas… Basically, we want all the same movies that have been the traditionally cis-het stories so far, but with queer people. In many big cities in the United States young queer people are getting to grow up without the fear that they will be persecuted, harassed, disowned, or otherwise affected simply for being who they are. We don’t need to surround ourselves with a tight community of other queer people simply because they’re queer. This is the mentality that the recent trend in queer movies is reflecting, and it is far from disturbing. Rich describes this trend as a negative in her rundown of queer representation today; she notes, for example, the main character of Transparent’s, a trans woman’s, annoyance at the “boisterous gay party boys” in her housing complex as an example of this trend of shaming queer collectivity. The character in Transparent is a woman in her 60’s or 70’s, going through a tumultuous family drama; is she meant to enjoy the constant partying simply because of their supposed shared community?

Veering off a previous point, this trend in making queerness mainstream (or making the mainstream queer, however you want to see it) will also benefit those who do not have the fortune of growing up like I did. For a closeted kid in the Bible belt, it will be a lot easier and safer to explain wanting to see the new whatever blockbuster to their parents rather than trying to sneak their way into a Brokeback Mountain type film. Kids growing up in that environment and struggling to understand their sexualities (or even before they realize they’re queer) will also probably not seek out those kinds of films, or even have the chance to see them; they are much more likely to see a “regular” movie, with a coincidentally queer character, which can then help them understand themselves. The one drive-in in Alabama that banned Beauty and the Beast (2017) because of the “gay moment” made national news, but most theaters, even those in conservative places, don’t make it a habit of banning the second-highest-grossing movie of the year from their screens.

Although #20gayteen started as a joking (and perhaps aspirational) hashtag, it is actually a mathematical fact. In comparing the top 100 grossing films from the past two years alone, you can see plainly that there are more and more queer characters in movies.

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Top 100 grossing films of 2017 (left) vs 2018 (right). List of films by gross from Box Office Mojo, analysis by me. Blue = implied queerness, either on- or off-screen, or a very minor character. Yellow = primary or secondary queer character, but the story is not explicitly about being queer. Red = explicitly queer character, with a story that deals directly with queerness or the experience of being queer. Not meant to be 100% accurate since it’s my human and therefore flawed assessment, but it serves to show a trend.

This is not even to mention the many many independent films, such as Call Me By Your Name and Moonlight, that don’t gross as much but garner massive critical acclaim and awards out the whazoo. (Despite being already halfway through the year, I am still hopeful for #20biteen. Don’t let me down now, world.)

To explore a specific example, Love, Simon last year was a groundbreaking moment in queer cinema history exactly because of its normality. The fact that we got a fairly decent John Hughes-style coming of age high school love story centered around a queer protagonist is probably the best example I can give for where we are now. This is a completely normal, formulaic, effective story, and this is the first time it’s been applied in such a mainstream way to a non-straight protagonist (also, POC love interest, can I hear a “wahoo”). There are other movies from last year like Love, Simon that are explicitly about queer storylines and coming out, such as Blockers (a broad, studio comedy with a wlw storyline), Colette, and even the small Netflix film Alex Strangelove. There are also the films which feature incidentally queer protagonists, wherein the stories have little or nothing to do with their sexualities, they’re just another character element. These movies include Can You Ever Forgive Me?, The Favourite (where sex is used as a weapon and a manipulative tool, but it’s not explicitly about being queer), Annihilation (technically the queer character is not the main Natalie Portman character but she’s a main character), Night School, and the delightful yet criminally under-seen Hearts Beat Loud about a father and his bisexual daughter who has a girlfriend for most of the movie.

All of these films essentially perform an act of normalization. Eventually, seeing queer people in random primary or secondary roles will not be uncommon, which will lead to more and more queer characters, because art imitates life imitating art. Think what you want about the significance of the “gay moment” in Beauty and the Beast (2017), but somewhere, at some point, a kid will see that and not be fazed the next time they see two men dancing. It doesn’t need to be a huge event story to be important, educational, or formative. To make things clear, I am absolutely not saying that random background characters and offhand comments are anywhere near enough. Joe Russo’s cameo in Avengers: Endgame and LeFou’s implied queerness in Beauty and the Beast (2017) were all well and good, and certainly more than other studios are doing (@WB and the Dumbledore-Grindelwald blood pact stupidity — seriously, it’s not that complicated to just say Dumbledore couldn’t attack Grindelwald because he loved him, since that’s what’s implied in the books anyways…) but that doesn’t make them icons and heroes of the LGBTQ+ community. Calm down, Disney. You did the minimum.

There are even still those community stories Rich seemed so scared of losing. Last year alone there were two separate films about gay conversion therapy (Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post), which each showed a character forced into a toxic environment because of the community in which they were brought up, who come out the back end having formed their own little supportive community. There was also Disobedience which showed a character returning to an unaccepting community to mourn a death and eventually deciding to return to the inclusive niche she had found.

This is, of course, not to say that all representation is equal, or that we have perfect or ideal queer representation nowadays. Mlm stories are significantly more common than wlw stories, and they’re almost always about pretty white boys. Stories about queer women or people of color are few and far between, although there is no shortage of white twinks on screen. There is also the problem that due to heteronormativity, unless a character is explicitly stated to be queer (or heavily queer-coded), we assume that a character is straight until proven otherwise. There is also the lack of representation for all other identities beyond gay and the very occasional bisexual; On Chesil Beach (2017) actually had a main character who was implied to be asexual, which is something that is never even mentioned in most media.

B. Ruby Rich believes that the success of the New Queer Cinema movement will be a protection of the queer films that are communal within the smaller queer community only. I disagree. I think the success of the NQC movement will be total inclusivity in mainstream cinema. Movements evolve, needs change to match the time. The progression is natural and good, and with all due respect, all Rich is doing is gatekeeping a movement for which elitism seems entirely counterintuitive.

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