What a Difference a Gay Makes: Reflections on New Queer Cinema by Aisling Dolan.
Hollywood has always had a very strange relationship with homosexuals. From the very beginning of the silent era the subject has been taboo. It was not a topic to be discussed publicly or privately, and never ever positively. However the insinuation of homosexuality has been a sure source of comedy since the very start. From Charlie Chaplin to Michael Bay, questioning the masculinity of a male character has always garnered a laugh. Just recently the trailer to Ron Howard’s The Dilemma stirred up controversy when Anderson Cooper labelled a throwaway gay jibe in it “unacceptable” The sissy has been Hollywood’s go-to joke since the silent era, when prissy gestures and raised eyebrows denoted which characters were to be mocked.
This didn’t change much over the years and after the introduction of film censorship with the Hayes Code in 1934-homosexuality disappeared altogether. This code allowed film censors to change entire plots which were deemed ‘unsuitable’ for audiences. As a result gay themes and characters were cut completely. As you can imagine, this led to a lot of confusion. For example, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), a play about a married man coming to terms with the death of his gay lover, became a film about a man overcoming the death of his best friend, a broken leg filling in for his impotence. Because their relationship is never explained, his emotions and the drama surrounding him make very little sense at times.
It wasn’t until 1959 that a gay character was shown overtly on screen. Of course, we never see his face, no one says he is gay and obviously he dies before the film even begins. Yet Suddenly Last Summer caused massive controversy when it was released. In the film, Sebastian uses his mother and later his cousin as bait to lure attractive men to him. Obviously he must be punished for this and so he’s chased by the young men he’s been seducing and eaten by them. Honestly. It is told entirely in flashback and the audience never sees more than a shin of Sebastian, so monstrous is his character.
From the 50’s onwards Hollywood began to show different side to homosexuality. After the dismantling of the Hayes Code, films were allowed to address the issue of homosexuality directly. Audiences were encouraged not to demonize gays, but instead feel sorry for them. The ‘sad young man’ was the stereotype of choice for this genre. These characters couldn’t help being gay, but they sure wanted to. In fact almost all of them kill themselves before the end. In Rebel Without a Cause, Plato develops an obsession with Jim, and though it can never come to fruition Jim maintains a relationship with him. Plato is a troubled boy because of his implied sexuality. He is jealous of Jim’s relationship with a woman, though admires him for it. Plato is the typical sad young man; lost and alone. Because his desires can never be fulfilled, Plato as a character has to die. For the girls we have Shirley Maclean crying about how sick and disgusting she is before hanging herself in The Children’s Hour, a remake which even in 1961 never uses the word ‘lesbian’. Meanwhile in Britain Victim was being released, the first film with openly gay themes to ever be released to a mainstream audience. Of course, it didn’t travel very far outside of Britain. Also, the lead character, Farr, chooses to fight his urges and stay with his wife, but it was a step in the right direction.
By the 1980’s gay audiences were beginning to tire of these representations. The civil rights movement had started. People were coming out of the closet and taking to the streets to fight for their rights. It was time to have something to call there own on celluloid. Heterormative society had failed gay audiences and so it was time for a new wave of young, gay filmmakers to take matters into their own hands. Thus New Queer Cinema started.
New Queer Cinema came about to challenge exactly what peoples perceptions of a gay film were. Audiences had come to expect films like The Boys in the Band where the homosexual protagonist agonized over themselves for the whole film and were wrapped up in self pity and self loathing. These movies, though groundbreaking in their day, were no longer what the queer audience was looking for. By the time they reached the nineties, the AIDS crisis made sure gay people were always in the media anyway. Now they wanted a positive portrayal of themselves, one they could relate to in an affirmative way.
Gay directors began to make the kinds of films gay audiences wanted, completely ignoring the heterosexual view. No longer would gay audiences seek to translate films into their experience. These films were made to be of the moment, made to be radical and made to evoke extreme responses. They were low budget, grungy, dirty and urban. They were often parodies of the stories Hollywood had told before. Films like Todd Haynes’ Poison (1991) played on the perceptions of homosexuality, dividing itself into three parts; Hero, Horror and Homo in order to tell its story. ‘Hero’ tells of a young boy who attacks his over-bearing and violent father and flies out the window, overcoming traditional masculinity and asserting his alternative. ‘Horror’ is an allegory for the AIDS virus, were the disease manifests itself as sores on the skin. ‘Homo’ is a love story between two men played out through their lives in reform school and later prison. Tom Kalin’s Swoon is a retelling of Hitchcock’s Rope, this time with the characters sexuality made explicit throughout. These films were about reclaiming identity and holding it aloft, an act of defiance against hetero-normative society.
So what happened? How did we get from there only ten years ago to here, where homosexuality is no longer a taboo, but rather a commodity? It is the new quirky attribute, not of course for the main character, but their best friend. Hollywood has gotten rid of the bitchy female companion and replaced her with a gay. I say ‘a gay’, because they seem to be using the same stock character in every film. This is of course the reprisal of the sissy. While he is no longer asexual, nothing else has changed. He is fashionable, sassy, bitchy opinionated but not offensive. He doesn’t disrupt the narrative and he certainly doesn’t challenge anything. Characters like Damon in Mean Girls, who serve no other purpose in the narrative other than making the protagonist look good.
It does get worse. More recently I went to see The Kids are Alright and was completely take aback. The film has been marketed as a queer family drama, and the media has been up in arms about how accepting it is. This is a prime example of ignoring the gay audience as I do not know of any lesbian who enjoyed it (aside, possibly, from the director). The buzz surrounding the film is that it is taking gay families out of the closet. Well, that is rather easy to do when the family are not in fact gay. If the media has taught us nothing its that no woman, however gay, can resist a stubbly man. I find it hard to believe that this film was made in 2010 and applauded. The story centres on the family life of a lesbian couple and their two teenage children, who decide to find their sperm donor. For the first 40 minutes or so the film is actually very good. It is sensitive to the topics and I don’t think would have ever be accused of being a ‘gay film’. Then for no reason, and going against all character development to this point, one of the mothers and the sperm donor start having an affair. This is jumping the shark in the extreme. What is particularly offensive is at no point do the characters mourn the loss of the family or show any respect for the relationship that went before. It is just a series of shots of Julianne Moore being excited about a penis. As I said, this is probably the most offensive film I have seen in a very long time.
Sadly, today representations of homosexuality on screen are rarely questioned, and this is irresponsible. The old adage ‘visibility at any cost’ is completely irrelevant at this point. It is now positive representation, and most importantly realistic representation that we should be concerning ourselves with. The New Queer Cinema movement (or moment) needs more than ever to be revived.
By Aisling Dolan