From Mockery to Moonlight – The Long Road for Queer Identity in Cinema

The month of June holds the now honored position of being devoted to celebrating Pride for all members of the LGBT community.  It’s a celebration that is largely about coming together as a united community, with both those who identify as gay or straight expressing support for one another, but it’s also about looking back and honoring the progress that it took to achieve not only an identity in modern society, but also a level of respect and recognition.  The sad reality is that for far too long, homosexuals were ostracized and marginalized by society, and were often actively suppressed by the powers that be; and still are in some parts of the world.  The largest part of the LGBT struggle is to find that fleeting level of acceptance, both on the personal level and on the societal level.  It has gotten better over the years for some, as most stigmas surrounding gay people have thankfully been disappearing and people are finding broader acceptance from friends, family, and society in general.  But there is still a lot more work to do before the gay community can finally gain full acceptance.  And a large reason why there is still a ways to go is because gay people are still struggling to find a level of dignity surrounding their representation in society.  A lot of gay people unfortunately still fall victim to certain degrees of misrepresentation, and remarkably it stems from a source that has also long been an ally of the gay community; Hollywood.  While movies, television, and other media has been helpful in changing peoples minds about the gay community, and the Hollywood industry has shown strong support to gay people through their charity and support, the industry is also still responsible for perpetuating damaging stereotypes and misconceptions as well.  So, while Pride Month is a source of celebration for many, it’s also a reflection over what still needs to be done, and an important aspect of this is finding more progressive ways to represent themselves in media in general.

A more dignified representation from Hollywood is certainly something that the gay community cares about, because so many within the community are avid fans of cinema themselves.  Even when there was still a stigma surrounding homosexuality in the culture at large, a lot of gay people did manage to find a sense of community around their love of cinema, and it was a unifying element that helped to connect one another around something positive in a time of overwhelming prejudice.  But, due to restricted cinematic representation for so many years, few if any queer role models emerged in order to make gay individuals feel included as a part of society at large.  For the longest time, gay men often found their role models in iconic Hollywood actresses like Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and in particular, Judy Garland, because they appealed so much to the community’s attraction to the glamorous, the extravagant, and also the camp in cinematic art.  But, the gay community’s attraction to this aspect of cinema was largely a result of the lack of any other representation for the longest time.  Lesbian and Trans people have had even less in the way of respectful representation or role models.  Because of social stigma, the only times Hollywood would touch upon the subject of homosexuality in movies or other media would often fall into the categories of exploitation or ridicule.  It actually is only a recent phenomenon that queer cinema has actually achieved a true mainstream acceptance in our culture.  Until now, the notion of queer cinema has either faced ridicule, misunderstanding, or just complete ignorance.  But, the question remains is how decades of misunderstanding affects queer film-making and representation going into the future, and how does the gay community resolve their changing identity in cinema after defining it for so many years on the fringes.

For the longest time, the biggest struggle for the gay community with regards to cinema was just achieving an actual identity in general.  Because homosexuality was a social taboo for so long, Hollywood either tip-toed around the existence of gay people in society, or just ignore it completely.  It’s not like there was no gay people around in the early days of cinema, but because the studios knew that they often had to market their movies to middle America and Bible Belt audiences who take a very hard-lined stance against homosexuality, there was a concerted effort at the time to exclude openly queer characters in their movies.  Sometimes a queer character might appear on screen, but it was often either to act as a foil for the hyper macho marquee star (the effeminate tailor from James Cagney’s Public Enemy), or there to act as a clown to humor the audience (the photographer from Ginger Rogers’ Lady in the Dark).  The hyper puritanical post-war years nearly wiped away any queer representation in cinema completely, as religious leaders became more involved in the control of content coming out of Hollywood.  The Hays code put strict restrictions on a variety of taboo subjects, but chief among them was any reference to alternative sexual identity of any kind in society.  Even sympathetic films aimed at normalizing queer characters in movies had to do so in a way where they couldn’t outright address the issue.  The 1956 film Tea and Sympathy, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Deborah Kerr, attempted to touch on the issue, but it instead depicted it’s central character of Tom Lee (John Kerr) as “sensitive” and not gay.  Though things did loosen up during the end of the Hays code era and the beginning of the counterculture 60’s, the damage had already been done to the gay community, who for the most part, had largely disappeared from cinematic representation entirely.

The unfortunate result of any attempt at the time to reestablish a queer identity on the big screen was that it was often met with instant ridicule.  Because of little to no exposure for so many years.  Gays had become so marginalized that any exposure in society at all was a foreign concept to audiences unfamiliar to it.  When social taboos started to break down, gays were once again acknowledged on the big screen, but in a way that often pointed out how novel they were.  Oftentimes, it would manifest in some not so positive portrayals of gays meant to generate laughs from audiences (like the ballroom dance fight from Blazing Saddles) or generate unease from a deep dive into the seedier side of the community (the leather bar scene from Cruising).  The unfortunate result of these types of portrayals was that it perpetuated the idea of homosexuality as being not normal in society; that it was a bastion of the weird and the perverted in contemporary culture.  Though gay people benefited from actually being acknowledged again as real people once again in cinema, they unfortunately had to contend with this new identity as being seen as “the other” in society.  The sad reality is the misconception on Hollywood’s part in thinking that this was actually a progressive move on their part.  But what they saw as inclusionary, the gay community saw as exploitative.  Their culture was not one to be singled out for intrigue and mockery, but one that should be seen as legitimized as part of the normal human experience.  It was insulting to think that homosexuality was just something that people on the fringes of society indulged in.  When one of the few queer themed films made by Hollywood at the time ended up being the Redd Foxx film Norman…Is That You? (1976), where the comedian plays a father attempting to set his openly gay son (played by Michael Warren) right, then you can see why the gay community felt frustrated with the industry that they held close to their heart for so long.

Thankfully, at the same time, an underground independent queer cinema arose to fill the gap that Hollywood was leaving empty.  Filmmakers like Kenneth Anger and John Waters arose to create what we know now as early Queer Cinema, creating movies that finally not only touched upon issues pertaining to homosexuality, but openly celebrated it as well.  Not only that, but their movies also purposely pushed many buttons, establishing a new defiant identity for the gay community.  Their films came at a time when the Gay Rights movement began to gain exposure in American society, and their movies were perfect expressions of a class of people who were fed up with being ignored.  You can clearly see this in John Waters’ first couple features, Multiple Maniacs (1970) and Pink Flamingos (1972), both of which are visceral attacks on all social norms and a defiant defense of the weird and perverse to exist freely in society.  In his way, Waters made social progress by relentlessly assaulting the notion of normal, and questioning whether or not one thing is ever worthy of that mantle.  His movies also made the first real concerted effort in cinema to give identity to trans people as well, with drag queen Divine becoming a surprising breakout star from appearing in Waters films.  But, even still, Waters and others like him worked on the fringes of Hollywood, having to work independently in order to remain true to their visions.  But, through underground success, Queer cinema did get embraced and Hollywood did take notice.  Waters did bring his camp filled vision to the mainstream with Hollywood productions like Hairspray (1988) and Cry-Baby (1990), which somehow maintains the director’s style despite a toning down of his more vulgar indulgences.  It helped to convince Hollywood to take a chance on queer themes in the future, which thankfully pulled away from the depths of ridicule.  Unfortunately, Hollywood still had a way to go before it would fully understand how to speak to and accurately address the concerns of the gay community fully.

During the 80’s, the AIDS epidemic hit it’s high point, and that led to a crisis of identity for the gay community going forward.  Just beyond social acceptance, gay people now had to contend with the added stigma of living with a widespread disease that was unfairly blamed on them.  Again, the stigma of being social outcasts was laid upon the gay community, and the struggle to tell their story became even harder.  One common unfortunate result of the stigma placed on the gay community was that there was a growing disconnect with regards to the view of masculinity.  During the 80’s and parts of the 90’s, hyper masculine males were seen as the ideal in Hollywood, with the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger dominating the box office.  What this, pressure was put on actors to adhere to this ideal, whether they were straight or not.  It was not a new ideal, but one that hit an apex in the blockbuster era, and in this time, it put enormous pressure on Hollywood to keep the status quo going.  But, with the AIDS epidemic, you saw a crack in the macho image that Hollywood was perpetuating, when masculine actor Rock Hudson suddenly died from the disease, and it was discovered that he had indeed been a closeted homosexual this whole time.  This exposed Hollywood to a new awareness of how poorly they had been looking at the gay community, showing that they themselves had perpetuated the damaging stereotypes and misrepresented the community as a whole for far too long.  In time, they began to listen more to the complaints of gay audiences when they objected to how they were portrayed in the movies.  After complaints about the representation of a transsexual serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), director Jonathan Demme chose to make amends with his next feature Philadelphia (1993), a groundbreaking and sympathetic portrayal of a gay man living with AIDS, and fighting for his dignity after losing his job because of it.  It was a small gesture, but a move in the right direction, with Hollywood finally showing a true, un-filtered portrayal of real gay people in society.

The road to acceptance has been steadily getting better ever since, though not without some unfortunate roadblocks in the way.  You still get the occasional tired and cliched “gay panic” routines in some lazy comedy movies (particularly from Adam Sandler’s repulsive Happy Madison productions).  There’s also the occasional “coded queer” sidekick character that is mainly there for comedic effect in some movies.  I honestly don’t know if anybody finds them that funny anymore.  Truth be told, recent years have finally made it okay for gay characters to not only exist within a film, but to also to be considered as part of the normal fabric of society.  Regular occurring gay characters are nothing but a positive now in movies, and even better, are now expected.  There is still an issue, however, of Hollywood trying to understand the best way to address the troubled history of queer representation in cinema.  Sometimes it even manifests in too much acceptance.  There have been some Hollywood films that go too far the other way, and portray queer characters as these fragile little things that need their protection.  That is clearly not how gay people want to be treated in society.  Gay people want support and acceptance; not pity.  It’s an aspect of some so-called “progressive” films made within the system that I find troubling, culminating with Hollywood’s biggest attempt at Oscar-baiting the issue with Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), a topic that I want to address separately in an article in the future.  Where Hollywood’s efforts are best served is in supporting not just a queer identity on the big screen, but also within the community at large.  Whenever a queer actor or actress wishes to live openly, support that, and don’t marginalize them by defining their careers by their sexuality.  Also, allow queer filmmakers to be as flexible as they want.  It’s a strong sign where gay filmmakers like Bryan Singer can work queer themes into unexpected areas like superhero movies (X-Men for instance) and have it feel natural.  Hollywood should know by now that society’s attitudes have changed, and part of that evolution is and has always been within their power.

What ultimately shows us today that things have changed for the better is how mainstream queer representation has finally become now in modern media.  No more are we seeing gays ostracized as something abnormal, but instead, just as common as every other grouping in society.  You sometimes lament how much of film history was wasted trying to ignore the existence of homosexuality in general, or trying to put it down as something out of the ordinary.  But, given how some parts of society are still actively trying to hurt the members of the gay community, it’s nice to see that they have a committed ally in Hollywood.  I think there is no better sign of progress than the unexpected triumph at this year’s Oscars for the film Moonlight (2016).  Though made by a heterosexual filmmaker, the film nevertheless represented the best mainstream portrayal of the internal struggle of identity that gay people face when growing up that we’ve seen from Hollywood to date.  It didn’t try to do make any other grand statement other than helping people understand the psyche of the every-man gay person in society, and how often the internal struggle manifests into negative actions due to having such a fractured and marginalized identity.  I think that the subtlety of it’s message helped to keep it underground for so long, and that’s why it’s win at the Oscars took so many by surprise; even to the presenters themselves.  Moonlight‘s win was so rewarding because it didn’t feel like an empty gesture on Hollywood’s part; it was genuinely earned, beating out the heavy favorite La La Land (2016) in the process.  Moonlight’s Best Picture win is the best sign yet of Hollywood finally showing full, dignified acceptance of queer cinema, but there’s still a lot more to do.   At least now, there are plenty of cinematic portrayals and role models to satisfy those who have struggled to become comfortable with their gay identity; including yours truly (sorry for burying that lead).  It’s been a long road to reach the end of this rainbow, but as we look back during this Pride Month, it’s clear to see that Hollywood has made considerable progress in giving their devoted queer fan-base the support and dignity that they deserve.

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