During the course of this essay, I will use the terms ‘queer film’ and ‘queer cinema’. Queer film will be referring to any film which includes LGBTQ+ characters and themes, while I will use the term queer cinema to refer not simply to films that include LGBTQ+ characters and themes, but to a category of films which present queer persons or queer themes in specific ways and with specific purposes. Uses of ‘queer’ in terms of persons will pertain to all LGBTQ+ identifying individuals. Additionally, the definitions of ‘queer cinema’ from multiple theoreticians will be referenced. For the purposes of this essay, only films showcased traditionally (with a theatrical release and not created for a streaming platform) are going to be discussed. As case studies/exemplars to aid the explanations of my argument, the films Call Me By Your Name (CMBYN), Portrait of a Lady on Fire (POALOF), Moonlight and Love, Simon have been selected. This is due to their being arguably the most widely known and popular queer movies of the previous few years.
What I aim to explore is the contention that despite the amount of high profile, critically well received LGBTQ+ films that have been produced in recent years, there is still a lack of truly ‘queer’ cinema- and furthermore, why it is so important that this is remedied. A topic close to my heart as both a queer woman and a student of film.
Complex Queer Identity
In his discussions of queer representation, James Joseph Dean categorises films into gay/lesbian standpoint, mainstream Hollywood and queer- with gay/lesbian standpoint films focusing on the lives and problems specific to gay/lesbian individuals, mainstream Hollywood giving a normalising depiction of queer individuals, and queer portraying fluid and complicated queer identities. Dean argues that this decentring of sexual identity which problematizes flat images of queer individuals is queer cinema’s primary departure from mainstream Hollywood and gay/lesbian standpoint films. Applying this theory to Love, Simon, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Call Me By Your Name and Moonlight, it can be found that only three of the four features meet the criteria of portraying queer characters with fluid and complex sexual identities; those three being CMBYN, POALOF, and Moonlight. In the film CMBYN, the character of Elio has a sexual relationship with both Oliver and Marzia; Oliver with Elio, Chiara and his long-term girlfriend/fiancé, with neither being categorised as having a specific sexual identity. In POALOF, Heloise and Marianne are depicted as having a sexual/romantic relationship; while Marianne has also previously slept with a man and Heloise goes on to marry one, yet as with CMBYN this is without any attempt at categorisation of their sexualities. Lastly, the character of Kevin in Moonlight has a relationship with Chiron, but also speaks of a wife with whom he has a child, once again with no singular sexuality being ascribed. These films show an absence of focus on traditional labels or definitions of sexuality, allowing their characters to exist simply as individuals. From this analysis, it is possible to conclude that, in fact, the majority of the four exemplars do contain this aspect of queer cinema by containing characters with fluid sexualities.
Another factor in creating queer figures with complex identities on screen is the portrayal of intersectional identities, and the exploration of how those different yet simultaneously occurring identities such as class, sexuality, race and gender interact with one another. In the film Love Simon, the protagonist Simon Spier says in the opening he’s just like us, however for a large section of the queer population that doesn’t ring true. Queer people are not simply queer. Simon is gay, yet he’s also a white, cisgender, middle class male- facts the film doesn’t take the time to address. Turning attention to the remaining features, POALOF and CMBYN don’t take great pains to address intersectionality either, with CMBYN briefly referencing Elio’s Jewish heritage only to not explore the topic further and POALOF pursuing some limited examination of womanhood in its period setting. Of the four films, only Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight explores intersectional identities. The film details the life of a queer, black man from an underprivileged background, and how his multiple conflicting identities interact.
Another important component of queer cinema is the involvement of queer creators, Janet Staiger (29) argues that postulations of the death of the author (and auteur) came strategically just as marginalized groups were becoming more visible; ‘[d]epriving us of our voices just as we are speaking more loudly seems like a plot’. The term ‘death of the author’ refers to Roland Barthes theory that the meaning audiences glean from films is created by the audience members themselves, and not the filmmaker, leading some to the conclusion that the identity of the auteur has no impact on their creation. This has caused the very situation which Staiger refers to, with marginalised creatives at risk of losing their voices to those in power, due to their influence on their own work being undermined. The involvement of queer creators in queer projects is critical, as directors certainly, but also writers, actors, editors and every other aspect of filmmaking. Before the portrayal of queer characters/stories on screen was seen as socially or morally acceptable, and at times when it was explicitly banned such as under the Hays Code in the USA, it was often queer creators who smuggled coding (in the words of Pauline Greenhill (3-4), ‘a set of signals—words, forms, behaviors, signifiers of some kind— that protect the creator from the consequences of openly expressing particular messages’) into films in order to still tell queer stories to the people who needed them. In terms of the exemplars, the four films host an impressive collection of queer creatives. Three of the four features (CMBYN, POALOF and Love, Simon) were directed by queer creators (respectively: Luca Guadagnino, Céline Sciamma and Greg Berlanti). Three (CMBYN, POALOF and Moonlight) were penned by queer screenwriters (James Ivory, Céline Sciamma and Tarell Alvin McCraney). Two (Love, Simon and POALOF) had queer actors (Keiynan Lonsdale and Adèle Haenel) playing the parts of main queer characters (Bram and Héloïse). Additionally, two (Love, Simon and Moonlight) were adapted from existing pieces of literature by queer writers (Becky Albertalli, and Tarell Alvin McCraney).
The “Good” Queer
In order to escape the clutches of the ‘monstrous queer’ trope, many films attempt to find safety in the arms of the ‘good queer’, or the ‘positive role model’ as it is termed in the following quote by Bob Nowlan (18), “Queer cinema rejects both separatism and assimilation, and both ghettoization and normalization, while dismissing a resort toward setting up positive role models with which straight audiences can easily identify”. The ‘good queer’ displays these ideas of assimilation, normalisation and being a positive role model. They usually have little to no interaction with the wider queer community, fit societal expectations by all standards except for their queerness, and are restricted from being portrayed to have too many character flaws. In all the films, bar Moonlight, the queer characters live within the societally accepted moral and legal bounds, their discretions minor at best and always made up for by the end of the feature. Simon in Love, Simon apologises for being blackmailed into using his friends in order to not be outed, Elio from CMBYN makes amends with Marzia for their messy relationship and POALOF’s Marianne comes clean about being hired to paint a portrait of Heloise in order to send to potential suitors. Meanwhile in Moonlight, the queer protagonist Chiron becomes a part of the drug dealing trade in the last third of the film and is still presumed to so by the feature’s climax.
Spoken of here by Clifton Snider (4), “Political progress on … life-and-death issues [directed against] women and men who find or fear they are homosexual, or are perceived by others to be so has depended precisely on the strength of a minority-model gay activism”. The ‘minority-model gay’ is the real-world equivalent of the cinema’s ‘good gay’. This type of politics and filmmaking makes queer spaces and productions about anyone other than queer individuals, essentially attempting to de-queerify them and to strip away all distinctive aspects other than their sexuality to bring them as close to ‘the norm’ as possible. It also leaves the most vulnerable in queer communities behind. Sending the message that only those queer persons whom heterosexual/cisgender society deems to be ‘good’, not an inconvenience to ‘normal’ people, and who are not angry at what they are subjected to by that very society, deserve to be accepted.
A quote from J.J. Dean on the topic of the continued existence of the ‘good queer’ (6): “That is, if homosexuality was not assumed to be an already stigmatized sexual identity, then normalizing films would not continue to hyper-idealize homosexual characters in every other aspect but their sexual identity.”
The Monstrous Queer
Long before the conception of cinema, the ‘monstrous queer’ trope had made its mark on the world. Throughout history in Christianity and its texts, queerness was written as a sin too terrible to speak directly about, and many novels over the years, such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, covertly explored the concept of the unnatural, poisonous queer. The idea of the ‘monstrous queer’ lurked on screen at cinema’s conception. Through silent films in the early 1900s, early talkies, and the years of the Hay’s Code, which hosted covertly queer villains the likes of Waldo Lydecker in Laura (1944) - whom Alice T. Friedman (2) wrote the following about, “everything from the cut of his suits, to his flowery language, and especially his lavish New York penthouse filled with exotic bibelots and antiques combined to create an image of the effete, narcissistic, yet powerful “homosexual” widely feared at the time.” It continued to 1990s horrors such as Scream (1996), with the queer coded killers Ray and Bobby. Not only in the horror genre did queer coding come to be associated with scheming, perverted evildoers, though it has most certainly been a favoured horror trope over the years, seen in films including The Haunting (1963) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The ‘monstrous queer’ found their way into near every single genre including children’s films. The reason the trope has earned a place here in this piece is its role as a pre-cursor to, partial cause of, and apparent opposite to the previously covered ‘good gay’ trope.
As Ellis Hanson comments, in the gothic narrative tradition which fuels cinematic variations of the lesbian vampire, “the lesbian is represented as spectral, demonic, brutal, unnatural, murderous, pathological, perverse, and a real bitch to the husband and kids.”’ This quote from Susan Mooney (5) can be applied not only to the lesbian vampire on screen, but in different manners to all demonised queer persons on screen. Neither CMBYN, POALOF, Love, Simon nor Moonlight contain this trope, which understandably is viewable as a positive aspect of the films. Throughout history, the queer community has been routinely demonised. After centuries of being the ‘bad guy’, getting the opportunity to see ourselves (the queer community) portrayed as upstanding human beings should be a win for the queer community, no? Below the surface, things are more complicated. As was previously addressed in the sections on the ‘good queer’ and normalising representations, having queer characters presented as being without moral flaws and ‘just like straight people’, carries a different, yet still damaging set of consequences and stems from the continued ‘othering’ of queer persons. Additionally, while we’ve traded blatant demonization and ‘othering’ for insidious assimilation propaganda and saintly queers, our power has also been traded up.
“For those who may often feel on the outside of cultural power structures, is there some pleasure in identifying with a monstrous (read: powerful, active, vengeful) entity (Creed , 155–156) ?” When explaining in what ways queer power has been traded up, this quote from Kent L. Brintnall (13) is a solid place to begin. I would argue that the answer to the question is undoubtedly ‘yes’. Identifying with monstrous characters is where we as queer persons get to vicariously experience power and expression of our anger. When you feel powerless you grasp what little power is available, even when it’s a double-edged sword. Women use men’s desire even while it puts us at men’s mercy, and many queer people use the fear we inspire, even while it means us accepting the role of monster. Loss of this would not be so much an issue if queer characters were granted a new form of power in modern LGBTQ+ films; however, they are not. Instead, modern queer characters are cast as the ‘good, normal queer’, a figure allowed only to inspire pity and be helplessly at the mercy of a heteronormative society.
Returning to the work of J.J. Dean, this time to his discussions on normalising representations, and their appearance in mainstream Hollywood and gay/lesbian standpoint films. Dean (10) argues that normalising films do not challenge the dominant logic of heteronormativity, giving the example that while they often display solitary acts of violence or discrimination towards a queer individual, they avoid exploring ‘a larger society structurally organized around the norm of heterosexuality.’ While neither Love, Simon, Call Me By Your Name, Portrait of a Lady on Fire nor Moonlight fully take the time to display the ways in which society is built around heteronormativity, though Love, Simon does fulfil this mission of queer cinema more so than the rest. During the runtime of the feature, subjects such as the idea of cisheterosexuality as the default are raised, with a comedic scene involving straight people having to come out to their horrified parents.
Dean speaks further on normalizing representations, addressing how attempts to avoid positioning the target demographic of a feature as sub culturally gay, instead of a ‘general’ (read: the ‘ally’ heterosexual and ‘good gay’) audience, films actually avoid the use of gay subcultural communities as context. This essentially translates as queer films that are primarily produced for everyone except most of the queer community. It could be argued that while these films are not made for us, they deserve to exist as an unfortunately still necessary way to normalise our (queer persons) more common visibility in the mainstream.
In response to that argument, I will return to the work of Kelly et al. (5), who state that, “These internal traumas indicate a lack of solidarity within queer communities, which exacerbates the marginalization of the most vulnerable members of these communities.” In their exploration of trauma in queer communities, the researchers write on the topic of how multiple scholars have found that attempted assimilation into the mainstream- which is what normalising representation promotes- leads to, as said in the above quote, the exacerbation of divisions already present within the queer community. This is something the community cannot afford, as much scholarship has already documented the internal exclusion of trans persons, POC and others. Examples of such discrimination include: the 1991 banning of trans women from that year’s National Lesbian Conference, and the Human Rights Campaign choosing to not fight the exclusion of transgender persons from early versions of the Employment Non-Discrimination.
To finish, a quote from Jack Babuscio (122), which effectively conveys the insidiousness that lies behind normalising: “At the core of this perception of incongruity is the idea of gayness as a moral deviation. Two men or two women in love is generally regarded by society as incongruous- out of keeping with the “normal”, “natural”, “healthy” order of things. In sum, it is thought to be morally wrong.”
Queer Community and Collective Trauma
For the fourth section of this queer cinema litmus test, I will be returning to the work of J.J. Dean. In his work, he discusses how normalising mainstream Hollywood films isolate queer characters from a larger queer community, due to depictions of queer subculture undermining the heterosexual norm, while standpoint gay/lesbian and queer films address and explore those communities. Examining CMBYN, POALOF, Love, Simon and Moonlight, it’s near impossible to unearth any traces of queer community within the features. In each film, the queer characters are alone, detached from any wider supportive network of fellow queer individuals with whom to discuss their experiences. In fact, in only half of the four films is the audience introduced to any queer character outside of the main couple. In Love, Simon, a fellow queer high schooler graces the screen for a grand total of three minutes and eight seconds, and gay couple in CMBYN for one minute and twenty-eight seconds. Here, once again, modern queer films fall short of attaining the right to be called queer cinema.
Art may imitate life, but life in turn imitates art. Audiences internalise the messages in the media they consume, such as the idea that queer persons exist in isolation, detached from any wider queer network. To help elucidate why exactly this is so detrimental, I will be using a recent sociological study. In October 2020, at Portland State University, Maura Kelly, Amy Lubitow, Matthew Town and Amanda Mercier published a paper on trauma in queer communities. In it they investigate topics such as what types of traumas affect queer communities as a whole, the lasting effects of those traumas, and what exacerbates traumas within the community. The researchers analyse prior data in the form of interviews carried out in Portland in 2013, where interviewers spoke with members of the queer Portland community about trauma they had experienced as a part of the community - these traumas included discrimination, widely publicised physical attacks on queer persons, and anti-queer political campaigns. From the findings in these interviews, Kelly et al. (18) conclude that what the interviewees experienced is consistent with the concepts of historical and cultural trauma, in that “the events and actions described were reported by participants to have negative impacts; these events contributed to tension and disruption within the queer community, ultimately threatening the cohesion of the collective sense of community; and the memory and impact of these events have endured over time.”
These collective traumas which the queer community faced in 2013 are the exact same ones which we still currently face now. The importance of queer community on screen is connected to the real-world importance of queer communities. Not only do Kelly et al. (4) conclude that queer community is vital for the intergenerational sharing of history and knowledge; on the subject of collective trauma, they state, “there are certain "resilience factors" such as community building or individual empowerment that come from being active in fighting heterosexist legislation (Russell et al).” Queer community actively aids in protecting queer individuals from the effects of collective trauma. Turning a blind eye to one of the few things which holds that high an amount of positive potential for queer persons is simply not acceptable from modern, ‘progressive’ LGBTQ+ films. Films about the queer community carry the responsibility of representing and addressing a vulnerable group in society. The needs of that community should be considered by any creator looking to profit off of a story based on the queer experience.
Having held the modern queer films Love, Simon, Moonlight, CMBYN and POALOF up against multiple different markers of queer cinema, while they did rise to the occasion on points such as the inclusion of queer creators, ultimately, they all fell short. Queer films are political, whether we would like them to be or not. In our current era where we, the queer community, have seen victories such as the legalisation of same sex marriage in 29 countries (as of the current time of writing), the increased visibility of openly queer politicians and celebrities, and growing acknowledgment of various gender identities, it is all too easy to sit back and be complacent. To do so is a mistake. To once again quote J.J. Dean (20), “Moreover, these three filmic types – mainstream Hollywood, gay standpoint and queer cinema – are arguably emblematic of the larger political landscape in which we find ourselves today.” His words apply just as much to our current time as they did his. The three categories of queer films reflect the different brands of queer activism- some of which, for reasons that I have addressed in this essay, are actively damaging to the queer community. If we wish to continue a path of progress, and not become stagnant or regress, change is necessary: in the poor accessibility of the arts, the still principally homogenous makeup of the film industry, and many other areas. When this is achieved, we will finally see not merely queer films, but queer cinema.
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Mooney, Susan. “Women's Looking Relations After the Gaze: Maternal Ambivalence and Queerness in Notes on a Scandal”. Quarterly Review of Film and Video, vol. 33, no. 6, 2016, pp. 529-549.
Brintnall, Kent L. “Re‐building Sodom and Gomorrah: the monstrosity of queer desire in the horror film”. Culture and Religion, vol. 5, no. 2, 2004, pp. 145-160.