On Blockbuster Fails and Pop Culture’s Poliphony of Centres
2018 has been such a prolific year for the gay image it might be easy to assume all of our issues, culturally, are all but over. Call Me by Your Name was released into a world largely hungry for its narrative; Love, Simon was received with as much enthusiasm and acclaim as a tween blockbuster could possibly garner under the current conditions. Boy, Erased has earned numerous accolades from serious industry figures. Last year, movies like Moonlight seemed to break open those doors wider than they had been before, suggesting a cultural swing toward audiences who were not only accepting of homosexuality but actively inviting of it. Homophobia is cancelled, sis! The moral trajectory of history is arcing towards justice!
The cultural proliferation of non-heterosexual imagery is obviously exciting. Though perhaps it’s wise to consider the way these narratives are being forged rather than simply interpreting their existence as meaningful on face value. The liberal media is keen to inform us that representation is emancipation—and that a differing ‘identity’ is dichotomous with human experience. Though these surface level gains could be indicative of something, history shows us that ‘progress’ is so often tenuous, non-linear, and rewarded on a conditional basis. It’s not unlike trying to press the air bubbles out of plastic packaging—as soon as pressure is removed from one area, it (annoyingly) rises to the surface somewhere else. The underlying issue cannot be addressed unless we play the long game. Despite great strides in terms of LGBTQ visibility, huge issues continue to plague the lives of gay men, such as the shockingly high rates of suicide, loneliness, and addiction. ‘Gay rights’ have not solved gay loneliness and, as the writer Michael Hobbes claims, may have even exacerbated inter community conflict. In a piece for the Huffington Post they quote Alex Keuroghlian, a psychiatrist at the Fenway Institute’s Center for Population Research in LGBT Health:
We see gay men who have never been sexually or physically assaulted with similar post-traumatic stress symptoms to people who have been in combat situations or who have been raped…Gay men are, as Keuroghlian puts it, ‘primed to expect rejection.’ We’re constantly scanning social situations for ways we may not fit into them. We struggle to assert ourselves. We replay our social failures on a loop.
It’s clear that the quintessential moment of self-realisation that’s supposed to come from recent legal and societal shifts is more fraught than we might imagine. The impetus for us to be constantly in opposition to each other, policing each other’s bodies and minds and behaviour, is encouraged by a culture (or perhaps even a workforce, an economy) that accepts us on the basis of being a model minority—getting as close to heterosexual scripts as possible. Lo and behold, intellectual knife fights suddenly start to break out in the squabble for those rarefied positions. From Hobbes’ Huffington Post piece:
‘Gay and bisexual men talk about the gay community as a significant source of stress in their lives,’ [Yale’s Associate Professor of Public Health] Pachankis says. The fundamental reason for this, he says, is that ‘in-group discrimination’ does more harm to your psyche than getting rejected by members of the majority.
Up until recently, the fear of cultural gayness, of queer eroticism, has been—in loose terms—attributed to a shared panic about HIV (and thus our mortality), meaning that our relationship to traditional media was largely subliminal and unconventional. As Brian Flynn speculates in The Guardian: ‘As the queer male bodies of colour that inspired the video struggled against sickness and stigma, their dance moves and aesthetics were lifted clean and plastered on to a heterosexual female canvas. If in the 80s, male queerness was dissociated from the male body, in the 90s it was uncoupled completely. In a post-Aids world, cultural gayness was mediated by proxy.’
The recurrence of overtly queer stories performed by queer characters is a wry reflection of our collective pain, and stark reminder of our vulnerabilities: to be ‘out’ is to be under fire, to inevitably face pain. Our shared well-being in some way relies on a kind of selective amnesia—it’s too difficult to face the reality of our otherness every single second. In comparison, the jubilantly aspirational fantasies of NYC-living white women (hello, Carrie Bradshaw!) feel like placeholders of our own yearning, our dreams, desires for actualisation beyond the so-called sickly body. Queers have always been experts of translation, as Anne Carson has often argued in her work. Born into a culture unwilling to accommodate us and our indices, we have had to find satisfaction through fantasy, transposition, and through the twisting of available cultural matter. Queer theorists like Jose Esteban Munoz have described this phenomenon as ‘disidentification’—the process of projecting our own narratives onto a story that only incidentally matches its character. By the time we’ve reached adulthood, we’ve become used to finding our stories hidden in the societal fabric that so easily accommodates others.
For instance, to worship the diva figure, like so many of us are happy to do, is to be given a vicarious deliverance of life-size emotions, into high-concept silliness, celebration, sartorial freedom, joy, and the multitudes of feeling that are often absent from our drab IRL gay experiences. Having a foreign body deliver our stories means avoiding the compromises that inevitably arise with ‘representation.’ Existing in the world as a gay person who is unapologetic about their femininity, about their gayness, is more and more difficult—we are continually asked to make amendments to the invisible masses in order to be ‘seen.’ Indeed, acceptance from a mainstream audience is often painted as the final goal for inclusion, as if the values of the mainstream aren’t completely vacuous, heart-breaking and opportunistic at the best of times. Why must that be our end game? ‘Our distance from the mainstream may be the source of some of what ails us,’ says Hobbes, ‘but it is also the source of our wit, our resilience, our empathy, our superior talents for dressing and dancing and karaoke.’
I must have been around 15 when I first watched Suddenly 30—my sister inattentively selecting it from a video rental store and pressuring me into watching it with her while on holiday. By the time we’d finished, my prefrontal cortex was electrified with possibility. When it came to fully charged feelings of teenagedom, the levels of indulgence are so satisfying in their completeness they become, almost, spiritual. There are simply no limits. We’d go on to watch the movie three more times over that weekend, and I’d revisit it many times over the coming years. The movie is unapologetically forthright in its girlishness—it captures all the feelings of longing, actualisation and belonging that remain unsatisfied in our pubescent state. In many ways, the western condition of ‘girlishness’ is suspiciously parallel to the feelings that remain unvalidated by being queer. The longing for transformation (shown by Jennifer Garner’s age jump), for metropolitan idealism, for inexhaustible vulnerabilities, for camp, for the possibility of existing largely in public life, all remain at the forefront of our fantasies. I love so many of the cheesy moments in that movie—the moment Garner’s character wakes up in the future with an Adonis boyfriend next to her, her delightfully earnest truisms and behaviours that spill forth unprompted (to the confusion of her adult peers), the garish ‘Thriller’ dance scene complete with group choreography, the penultimate scene when the protagonists confess their love to each other. Rom coms might often be driven by capitalistic modalities which communicate in the language of consumerism, but their appeal lies in something more profound—a beautifully juvenile (but perfectly understandable) wish for a more satisfying, more liveable world.
Gay icon and fantasist Mariah Carey once described herself as an 8 year old girl. Her attitude lives on in a new generation of gays who flock to the often child-like Ariana Grande, who references a litany or chick flicks (including Suddenly 30) in her new music video. One can see similar parallels in other disarmingly sentimental movies like Never Been Kissed, Perks of Being a Wallflower, or any movie starring Hilary Duff. They’re appealing in their unseriousness, not having to cater to the gaze of conservative adults—they remain, in some way, emotionally unblemished. Cher Tan describes this type of mirroring as ‘a vessel for collective longing and hope, for the yet-enunciated self to fully materialise in private. It strives to alter identities; concluding that there isn’t an endgame, as we gradually move away from being looked at to concentrate on re-centring one another.’
When I look towards existing gay media, I rarely find narratives that feel as if they are genuinely parallel to my own, or that strike a chord strong enough to leave me thinking about it for much longer after—many of them glorify the elegiac, fustian kind of life experience that exists within the bubble of the upper middle class. There is a dryness, a safety and relatability there for cautious straight audiences, who can consume the narratives of gay characters while happily remaining ignorant of the more pressing dangers queer people face—ones they might even be responsible for. Cher Tan writes: ‘As it stands, the attention economy prides some stories to be more interesting than others, creating a sub-canon that drowns out the voices and images of those less beautiful and less linear. The public obsession with messiahs keeps creating spokespeople for the revolution, each one more dazzling than the last, each fandom built with bricks pilfered from the master’s house, their likenesses as eerily uncanny as androids. I stan.’ By nature of that positioning, these confrontations of queerness have a lightness to them, and an understanding of queerness that always buffers the stricter types of complexity and nuance that defines our lives. Rarely do they actually go deep, explore inner monologues or even frivolities in a way I feel is genuinely satisfying. If they do, it’s only for a moment. Maybe this is because these aren’t actually homosexual films—they’re homosocial.
When I say homosocial, I refer to the more recent interpretation: that of a homoerotic relationship between ostensibly ‘straight’ identifying men or women that occurs on the fringes of the social law. A homosocial relationship may depict gay sex or romance as long as it veers towards a straight syndication at the end (for instance, CMBYN finishes with one of its protagonists marrying a woman, similar to what happens in Blue is the Warmest Colour). These portrayals are not actually a celebration of homosexuality as some might mistakenly believe them to be, or some profound new frontier in Hollywood story-telling. They offer an out for the heterosexual viewer, who can leave the cinema having safely kept their heterocentric biases intact. Queerness is just ‘a phase.’ This impresses a dangerous sentiment. It is a sinister kind of selective retelling of history to fit within heterosexual desires and sensitivities, to push the queer subject toward assimilation. For the heterosexual reader, perhaps this phenomenon might be unfamiliar or sound overly paranoid, but it’s a spurious trend that recurs in queer fantasies. Pornography—the famous canary in the coal mine for our culture—is most telling on this front. Gay porn is full to the brim with straight guys being deflowered, of married men going to pound town with neighbours, with friends of older brothers who become seduced by twinky, lusty eyed teens ‘just this once.’ This is not to mention the endless fetishisation of football teams, of businessmen, and other predictable heterosexual archetypes. Call Me by Your Name, for example, is just a soft-core variation of this; a Eurocentric and infantile mirror of gay fantasies that never requires the vulnerability of actual marginalisation. It’s masc4masc supremacy coated in a palatable vintage filter. Slate’s Billy Gray writes: ‘Moonlight and Call Me by Your Name in particular reveal a stubborn resistance—even among pedigreed and ‘challenging’ indies—to depicting same-sex romances defined by romance rather than repression, obsession, and torment.’ Compare these to any number of chick flicks, which always seem to promise fulfillment or atonement by the moment the curtain comes down.
These trends aren’t a suggestion of queer alternatives or new possibilities, or of an escape from heterosexuality; they’re totally the opposite. The prioritisation of homosociality appeals to a strict and unrelenting patriarchal need. Instead of the high dramatics and camp of 90s divas, where women are somehow centred, many mainstream gay films are careful to veer away from the company or friendship of women at any cost. We’ve swapped an (albeit simplistic) worship of women for a universe where they are suspiciously invisible. Yet we know from history that women and gay men have been, at times, some of the greatest allies. The return of Will & Grace has been largely ignored in my own little queer community. In movies like Boy, Erased and Love, Simon this is remedied somewhat, but the primary female figure is reduced to that of the mother. When I say these movies appeal to a patriarchal storyline, I try not to be flippant or buzzwordy, but I remain suspicious of how gleefully these movies are received by varied audiences, and why. What is there to celebrate about a new wave of gay cinema that celebrates the straight-acting gay by sacrificing camp? Is it possible for these seemingly contradictory things to exist at once? Despite my love for Frank Ocean, I’ve often seen his celebration as being typical of that view; not just him as an artist, but the projections onto him by both straight and gay men alike. His is a vague entry point into queerness, one that only alludes to sexuality through lyrics, but never speaks to it directly. Even Timothee Chalamet—coincidentally—has expressed enthusiasm in Frank as a leading artistic figure on multiple occasions. Writer Michael Arceneau asks: ‘do his songs—especially those that directly engage his sexual identity, which has yet to come into full view—warrant such ample amounts of praise and, in the most extreme cases, deification? Although Ocean has acknowledged same-sex attraction, he’s never taken on the labels gay, bisexual, or queer—if anything, he has purposely refuted them… Ascribing such specific and pointed labels and meaning into the work of an artist who purposely submerges himself in ambiguity only achieves the opposite.’ It’s almost as if the entire history of white manhood has been defined by an elaborate and suspect enviousness of black male culture!
Ultimately there’s little room for depth, introspection, contradiction, or continuity in all of these stories, and through most of them we can see the influence of acceptability politics and the irrefutable nature of the dominant gaze. It’s a queasy sort of voyeurism taking place as we’re being fed a distorted version of ourselves back at us—like a private, intimate exchange being overlooked and policed by your boss. Nothing could be unsexier!
Not surprisingly, the most validating experiences I have with media commonly mirror the lives of straight women. The narrative often pushed by liberal LGBTQ outlets is one that makes ‘identity’ increasingly more concrete and oppressive, rather than complicating and messying the human condition in a way that offers a richness of connection. I’ve often felt confusion about this; perhaps our preferred modes of masculinity are similarly imposed upon gay or gender non-conforming men as they are straight men, making it more difficult to shatter expectations. Thus the types of emotionality that are seen as permissible can only be channelled through a female conduit. I don’t necessarily know if this is true of other marginalised people.
Through untangling all these suspicions, I’m not trying to find a point where an example of media can be ‘perfect’—in fact I embrace media that relishes in imperfection. Rather, I question the need for a centring of attachment styles, storylines and characterisations that continually refer back to straight couplings and taxonomies. Maybe that will never exist as long as the nuclear family and the heteronormative romance remains the centre of our moral compass, economically, socially, and psychologically. But, we can take risks, and endeavour to move beyond.
Jonno Revanche is a writer based in Sydney and Adelaide on Gadigal/Kaurna land. They are interested in exploring the residue of ephemeral subcultures and geographical, psychological, emotional experiences from beyond the margins.