It didn't start with Call Me By Your Name.
2017’s Call Me By Your Name sparked a borderline fanatic response across the world, receiving copious amounts of critical and box office acclaim for its unabashed portrayal of a budding gay relationship. Yet, if you use the lens of queer media studies to inspect certain elements of this film, problematic remnants from the early history of LGBTQIA+ film reveal themselves. In saying this, I am not trying to devalue the positive impact this film made on audiences everywhere - the exemplary performances of Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer as the two lovers create a wonderful landmark in the exploration of queer representation. To put it simply, I believe it is vital to acknowledge the progressive nature of LGBTQIA+ communities and simultaneously understand that there are still long-running toxic elements that need to be improved upon.
Most people if asked about LGBTQIA+ film history would assume it to be a recent development, rising in conjunction with the Gay Liberation movement and aided by modern pride movements. Surprisingly, that could not be any more untrue. Queer characters in film can be traced all the way back to the origin of film itself in the twenties and thirties - but, as you could imagine, these are not the kindest portrayals as they directly contradict the “husband, wife, two children and a dog” idealized family that dictated the era.
If that wasn’t enough, Hollywood put in place the Hays Code, an informal name for the Motion Pictures Production Code, created in March of 1930. This organization was an effort to police content in film to protect the morality of audiences. Of course, the Catholic Legion of Decency was a big supporter of this code and often worked in conjunction with it. While these codes were not technically obligatory, Hollywood studios used them as an easy way to reject any film that could have caused controversy or pushed the envelope. Any positive LGBTQIA+ character or storyline in a film was kept invisible for the better part of sixty years, and the invisible characters reflected the invisibility of gay citizens in the real world.
We have to continue to speak and force change; make new LGBTQIA+ films; normalize queer characters to create content that accurately reflects the beauty and depth of the queer community; and show audiences, young and old alike, that being gay doesn’t equate to suffering and loneliness— but instead can open up an entire new community based upon love and acceptance.
LGBTQIA+ portrayals in film have always been defined by the societal notion of masculinity - or, more accurately, the lack of it. Gay men become almost exclusively defined by the correlation between femininity and inferiority. This is where the idea of the gay “sissy” originates, which in turn defines the perception of the gay man. There has to be a clear difference between the American Hero and social outcast to maintain societal structure. Gay characters, if depicted, were always some sort of gag - whether it be by their clothing, attitude, flirting, etc. In most instances, LGBTQIA+ representation in film exclusively consisted of straight characters assuming the stereotypical roles of gay people to perform something akin to 1959’s Some Like It Hot, where two men running from a life of crime decide to pass as women. Representation for lesbians was even worse. While men were given effeminate traits to disregard their value, lesbians became solely perceived as erotic tools for men. Romantic lesbianism was not considered a possibility. Gay men were less than men, and lesbian women were less than women.
The toxicity of these harmful gender roles pales in comparison to the repetitive storylines these characters were forced into. In short, LGBTQIA+ plot tropes were inherently, well, terrible. First and foremost, films right from the start always followed one golden rule: the gay character must die. In the first film to include a gay character, Different from the Others (1919), the man commits suicide - and, from that moment, hundreds were to follow. But wait, there’s more: being homosexual and suppressing homosexuality became simultaneously defined as a psychiatric illness and associated with immorality and social/sexual depravity. Gay men struggling with their sexuality had two options - be cured or killed. Curing can span anywhere from forcing a heterosexual relationship to forced time in an institution, with the character’s death seen as an escape from their own suffering.
This rang true from the twenties through the seventies, with the latter half taking a more violent twist. The cure-them-or-kill-them mentality got boring for audiences. There were no longer content perceiving gay people as real people, instead opting to dehumanize them into nothing more than monsters. LGBTQIA+ characters, especially men, were perceived as dangerous predators - the villains and willing rejects of society and film. From this, the connection between psychiatry and homosexuality was further validated. Not only were they ill, but also pathological. In fact, Times Magazine, in 1968, proposed that the demonization of gay people was because “they had run out of conventional bad guys.” Gordon Doulas’ The Detective was a 1968 thriller that explores the squalor and lawless underbelly of New York, where most of the LGBTQIA+ community lives. This film stars Frank Sinatra who plays a detective solving the murder of a well-known homosexual. Not only is the murder victim killed, but an innocent gay bum who was coerced into a false confession by Sinatra’s seduction is also forced to the electric chair. And, of course, the actual murderer is revealed near the end of the film: a closeted man who commits suicide, writing, “I was more ashamed of being a homosexual than a murderer.” Straight people: 1, Gay People: -3.
While lesbian representation was affected by the development of violent stereotypes, the most interesting, and problematic tropes stem out of a good cause. The film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) sparked a rush of feminist films whose core was the exploration of female friendships. Think of the iconic duo of Thelma and Louise (1991). A housewife is pulled into a life of crime and passion by her tomboyish best friend, with theory after theory of their subtextual relationship spurring. While this was progress in women’s representation, it was done at homosexuality’s expense. These friendships presented themselves proudly, but with the caveat that there had to be an explicit declaration that the protagonists were not gay. If Thelma and Louise had ended up together, we most definitely would not have heard of the film and its amazing reputation today. The easiest way to accomplish the disowning of homosexuality was through the use of queer-bashing and slurs at the hands of the women and supporting cast as well. Historically, this begins an oppressive normalization of queer slurs in films. It got to a point where it almost seemed as if anti-gay terminology was mandatory in films, and was often heard from those which the audience is supposed to emphasize with.
Why would the representation of gay female relationships and characters create such a cultural wave of disgust? The easy answer is homophobia, but, in more depth, the only accepted characterization at this specific time of lesbians were lonely predators who take advantage of friendships with straight women, or who are filled with pain at their unrequited longing for a straight woman that pushes them into violence.
It’s hard to look at LGBTQIA+ history, especially if you are a member of the community, as I am, and not to feel the weight of such harmful stereotypes. As you’ve seen, LGBTQIA+ representation in film was no different in terms of negativity. The good news is that portrayals of queer communities have progressed in leaps and bounds over just the past ten years. No longer are we forced to watch any and every gay character on screen commit suicide. Instead, we get to see genuine relationships develop, teens able to learn self-acceptance, and even, God forbid, films with LGBTQIA+ characters that aren’t solely focused on queer struggles. And, while I’m as happy about this as the next person, I think it’s important to understand that despite the progress, queer representation still has a long way to go.
The most likely response to my last sentence is, “What? No, I can name some movies with amazing LGBTQIA+ relationships that don’t harm the community!” I am not qualified to make blanket statements about anything, but generally, most queer films still fall under the topics mentioned in the past few sentences, albeit in a significantly lighter way. Take Call Me By Your Name or Desert Hearts (1985) for example. While both films are personal favorites of mine, and Desert Hearts does have a vaguely happy ending, both relationships in the films have borderline creepy age differences, spanning almost ten and fifteen years respectively. If that is not enough, Carol (2015) has a sixteen year age difference, the upcoming Ammonite is theorized to contain a twenty-year age gap, and films such as Beach Rats (2017) explore just how easy it is for teenagers to seduce older men. Again, I have to reiterate: I’m not saying these films are bad! However, the prevalence of these massive age gaps is a direct result of just how common the film industry’s depiction of gay characters and relations have been predatory and perverse. While lesbian relationships are no longer an older woman desperately stalking after a young crush, remnants from that trope still exist.
The “gay character must die” plot point is arguably the worst to develop over film’s history — and, thank God that we don’t still abide by this rule! That is, for the most part. Unfortunately, there is still a disappointingly high number of contemporary films in which an LGBTQIA+ character either commits suicide, is killed by a freak accident, is murdered, etc. Brokeback Mountain (2005) is one of the most well-known examples. Not only did this film gain attention for the stark and unabashed depiction of a gay relationship between Ennis and Jack, played by Jake Gyllenhal and Heath Ledger, but it also became notorious for the heartbreaking turn the film makes when Jack dies. The Imitation Game (2014) and Cloud Atlas (2012) both feature the suicides of two gay men, with Cloud Atlas also including the eventual murder of the first man’s lover. In some instances, violence against LGBTQIA+ characters are included despite having almost no relation to the protagonists or main plot. The worst example of this in recent years is the opening of It: Chapter Two (2019). With the intention of showing that the main antagonist, a monster named Pennywise, has returned, the film is opened with the brutal attack of a gay couple by several men, and if that wasn’t enough, then has one of the men violently killed by Pennywise. While in the book Pennywise was an allegory for the fears of rural white conservatives which mildly justifies the targeting of gay men, the film fails to flesh out this point instead opting for the cheap thrill of a horrific attack.
Lesbians, and bisexuals to a certain extent, are still highly linked to predatory behavior. This is seen in films like Jennifer’s Body (2009), or even in feel-good blockbusters like Pitch Perfect (2012). Pitch Perfect’s one LGBTQIA+ character is a black woman named Cynthia Rose Adams. Played by Ester Dean, a well-respected songwriter for major celebrities, it would be reasonable to think that her character would be at the very least respectable, both for Dean’s and the queer community’s sake. Instead, Cynthia functions as an incredibly stereotypical butch lesbian whose main personality trait is predatory behavior against the other women as comic relief. For example, during a high-stress situation, Cynthia lunges forward proclaiming, “I’ll protect you, I’ll protect you!” all the while grabbing her teammate’s breast.
To be frank, it’s exhausting to realize that you’ve been societally trained to associate the queer community with exploitative behavior and guaranteed hopelessness. But, if you’re still dubious about film’s past impacting contemporary queer cinema, I ask you: How many queer films can you name where a queer couple actually ends up happy and together? Yeah. It is painful to realize how few there are. Some LGBTQIA+ films end in a way that satisfies the protagonist, giving at least one happy ending, but the same opportunity is rarely offered to queer couples. In most queer films, we follow a protagonist as they come to terms with their sexuality and identity, all the while falling in love with someone who either started or aided their sexual awakening. However, these films also typically include some last-minute external situation that forces the couple apart, ending the film with the protagonist as a proud queer person, despite suffering major heartbreak. In addition, many queer films opt for a vague end to the relationship. Are they together? Will they be in a relationship after this? Or, in another vein, many of these films also depict the protagonist losing many relationships with friends and family as a result of their sexuality. It’s almost as if the film industry is saying, “Okay - we’ll give you decent representation, but it’s going to make you feel terrible after.” Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), My Own Private Idaho (1991), Moonlight (2016), The Half of It (2020), Disobedience (2017), Heartstone (2016), and more, not counting the films where one part of the relationship dies, as mentioned above, are all examples of this.
The bar for LGBTQIA+ representation has historically been nonexistent, perpetuating grotesque stereotypes and caricatures of the queer community that forced an entire generation of queer men and women to isolate themselves in fear of suffering like those on screen. These films told gay audiences that they were a problem that needed to be solving, morally reprehensible, psychologically ill, incapable of love, and monsters. That’s not the kind of trauma a community or medium can shake. Even if we don’t see it or discuss these flaws straight away, it is vital to continually critique these films, however good they may be. We have to continue to speak and force change, make new LGBTQIA+ films, normalize queer characters to create content that accurately reflects the beauty and depth of the queer community, and show audiences, young and old alike, that being gay doesn’t equate to suffering and loneliness, but instead can open up an entire new community based upon love and acceptance. All of the films mentioned above are fantastic films, with mostly good intentions. That doesn’t mean we can’t continue to demand more.
To make up for writing a thoroughly depressing article about LGBTQIA+ cinema, here are some recommendations for queer films that fill me with joy: The Way He Looks (2014), My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), The Watermelon Woman (1996), and God’s Own Country (2017) (but still watch other films mentioned above, they’re fantastic!). ✸
Sofia Voss is a twenty-year-old filmmaker and writer pursuing a double major in Film Production and Art History at the University of Missouri. Her specialization is LGBTQIA+ representation in long-form media. Find her on twitter and instagram @sofiapvoss.