All too often, queer cinema seems to be for straight women instead of for queer people.
“I do it for the girls and the gays, that's it” is the number one phrase I am sick of hearing right now. You’ve probably seen it on Tiktok or Twitter or in an Instagram caption at some point recently. It’s literally everywhere. Aside from being played out, it’s always being used way out of context. The line is a lyric from Ayesha Erotica’s song Yummy. Ayesha Erotica is a trans woman (she is also wildly problematic, but that is a conversation for another day) and the line is a reference to this — Ayesha does it for the trans girls and the gay boys and that’s it. Her music is for transgender women, gay men, and the LGBTQ+ community, not for straight women. This isn’t to say that straight women can’t enjoy her music, it just means that it isn’t for straight women. The idea got me thinking; so much of queer media, especially movies, aren’t for the LGBTQ+ community at all, rather they are designed to appeal to straight women. This straight gaze allows media, from indie cinema to family films to be filled with depictions of non-threatening gay men, and very little other LGBTQ+ representation. It pays lip service to queerness while catering to a straight market. So why are so many “gay” works really made for straight people?
In order to answer this question, we need to look back to when gay characters first started appearing in mainstream media. Early gay characters in popular culture tended to fit the gay best friend (GBF) trope. The GBF serves as an accessory to compliment the outfits of and provide sassy comic relief for the female protagonist, usually in teen movies and romcoms. These characters frequently have no story arcs of their own and are devoid of personality beyond gay stereotypes. Despite the entirety of the character being rooted in their sexuality, they tend to be divorced from it; being decidedly unsexy and never actually getting involved with other men. Think Damien in 2004’s Mean Girls, a character who is supposedly “too gay to function”, and yet never even utters a word about a guy for the entire film. 1994’s Reality Bites, starring Winona Ryder, has Sammy — a celibate and closeted gay man. Sammy gets the fewest lines of any of the principal characters, and his coming out is used by Winona Ryder’s character for a scene in her documentary. The moment, which is surely monumental for Sammy, is seen through the eyes of his straight friend as something which makes her more interesting and is useful to her. Additionally, the movie is about sexual liberation, yet the only character who is not straight is the only character not having sex. The film is clearly aimed at young women who view themselves as progressive; none of the characters are homophobic and all want to shed the gender and sexual norms of their parents. Yet the film hesitates to portray the gay character as anything other than an object to enhance the other characters, or someone to be pitied.
This view of gay male characters as essentially props for straight female characters is at the cultural root of the straight gaze. As gay characters have moved out of the wings and into the spotlight, they have remained the subject of this straight gaze. Most media centred around gay characters exists to make straight people feel better about themselves. Perhaps the “queer” film celebrated most widely in recent years is 2017’s Call Me By Your Name. For a romance celebrating the love between two men, it is remarkably deficient. Firstly, both lead characters are played by straight men. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but in terms of marketing, it reminds straight women that they have a theoretical chance with both of the main actors. This becomes problematic in this context because it begins to show that the film is essentially smut for straight women. This is reinforced in the narrative when Oliver goes back to America to marry a woman. Oliver could be bisexual, and this is of course fine, the bisexuality of the character is not an issue. What is an issue is the suggestion that the romance between the two men was just a phase, at least for Oliver. This narrative beat appeals to a young liberal female audience because it makes Oliver appear more emotional, less threatening, and by extension more sexually desirable.
Likewise, Elio spends the first third of the film chasing after a girl and is left single by the end. The girl he likes is supportive of him and continues to be his friend after he falls for Oliver. The character serves as an entry-point for the intended audience and allows them to place themselves in the narrative. The audience can say, “look, that’s me! I can be an ally and I can shag Timothee Chalamet!” It is also worth noting that the scene of straight sex is the only one in the movie where the act of intercourse is depicted. All the scenes between Elio and Oliver pan away during the foreplay. This is significant because the movie is thematically obsessed with the aesthetics of sex and duality. The moment where two bodies join is climactic to this exploration as the visual manifestation of the title. In love, and especially the act of love, the two main characters become part of one another; even their names may as well be each other's. So, to deny the film of this is to deny the validity of this theme, and, by extension deny the love between Oliver and Elio. Finally, it is important to note that the only explicitly gay characters in the film – an older couple — are caricatures and the subject of ridicule from Elio and Oliver. Overall, it is clear that while queer characters do populate the film, they are portrayed in a way that alienates many queer people. It is also worth noting that the film is set in 1980s Italy, which was incredibly unwelcoming to gay people, and also at the height of the AIDS epidemic, yet the film fails to touch on these themes.
Call Me By Your Name is aesthetically stunning, full of rich characterisation and an atmosphere of beautiful, tragic passion. However, what it is not is a genuine queer story. And, to be fair to Call Me By Your Name, there is a strong argument that it never intended to be that at all. Call Me By Your Name is a mainstream romance film designed to be commercially and critically popular. It was intended to win Oscars, not to be subversive. So, do indie films do any better?
One film lauded for its total rejection of the male gaze and conventional romance narratives is Eliza Hittman’s 2017 feature Beach Rats. The film focuses on the life of a closeted teen from Staten Island as he engages in hook-ups with older men while dating a girl and going out with his friends. The cinematography is striking; utilising lingering pans and close-ups usually designed to show women as the objects of male desire, the camera is unapologetically voyeuristic, filming lengthy, nearly clinical sex scenes devoid of affection but full of animalistic lust. Thematically, the film meditates on ideas of male vulnerability and toxic masculinity. The film accomplishes all the things it sets out to do with style and success, so what is the issue? In order to make a movie that objectifies men and exposes their vulnerabilities; the central character had to be gay. This demonstrates a view of gay men as less masculine than straight men, and highlights an unwillingness to estrange a straight audience from the film.
Straight men — while likely uncomfortable with the subject matter of Beach Rats — would be able to watch with a degree of removal, despite the fact that the themes are a reaction to lad culture and the unwillingness of society to accept that masculine men can be vulnerable. Likewise, the movie appeals to straight women because it portrays a sympathetic and non-threatening male central character — to the extent that he is emotionally tormented and treats his girlfriend well — in spite of the way he treats his male hookups. This is comparable to the way in which the other male characters mistreat women, yet he is forgiven – both narratively and by the audience — due to his inner turmoil, in a way that Eliza Hittman would not forgive a straight man. The film alienates gay viewers by presenting gay sex as purely carnal and violent, which is especially problematic because it is one of few films to devote so much of its runtime to gay sex scenes. Fundamentally, the film is an exploration of a queer narrative from a straight perspective: it is uninterested in exploring queerness beyond surface-level angst, and the sex scenes objectify gay men, rather than men as a whole. The movie offers gorgeous visuals and an intensive dissection of toxic masculinity among working class youth, the issue is that it utilises queerness to do this.
The most telling thing about Beach Rats, Call Me By Your Name, Reality Bites, and Mean Girls is that the queer characters are cis White gay men. There are notably fewer films about queer women or gender non-binary people. This reflects a lack of intersectionality in filmmaking as a whole and furthers a narrative of division within the LGBTQ+ community – pitting cis gay men against the community as a whole. It is also worth noting that while these films do fetishize queer men, queer women are fetishized to a greater and more flagrant extent: think of the gratuitous lesbian scenes which populate the work of most male auteur filmmakers who then win Oscars and the Palme D’or (David Lynch, I’m looking at you). In fact, much of the discourse surrounding the queer gaze is rooted in misogyny, and it is important to draw a distinction between cogent criticism of the film industry and attacks on female filmmakers and audiences simply because you disagree with their views. For example, denouncing Hittman’s entire filmography as homophobic because you didn’t like Beach Rats? This is misogynistic. Asking questions about whether it should be viewed as a queer story in context? Valid criticism. Overall, it is clear that when we discuss queer cinema, there is a disconnect between what LGBTQ+ people want to see, and what is given on-screen. So, what is there to be done about this issue? I think the solution is threefold: firstly, queer filmmakers must be given the trust and creative freedom to tell authentic stories, as they are the people best placed to create art that does not fall foul of the straight gaze. Secondly, queer characters shouldn’t be shoehorned into films where they aren’t given agency or dimension — instead, producers should focus on quality rather than sheer quantity of representation. Vito Russo’s criteria for queer representation should be taken into account: he argues that queer characters must be identifiably queer (as opposed to queer coded); not solely defined by their sexuality; and that they should be tied to the plot to the extent that their removal would have a significant effect. Finally, audiences need to recognise that a film is not a queer film simply because it has a queer character or even multiple queer characters. We need to recognise the straight gaze in cinema and evaluate films according to their intentions. Only by accepting that many “queer” films tell stories for straight people can we demand authentic LGBTQ+ cinema.
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