Liberation vs Assimilation in Queer Cinema


– In the first video in this series, I talked about queer cinema and its relationship to mainstream film, and essentially concluded
that, as a single descriptor, it isn’t really that useful
in measuring the kind and quality of impact that
an LGBT film is having. Just simply being mainstream doesn’t really tell us that much. So in this second video what I wanna do is have a look at a new way that we can visualise LGBT
movies and their impact by plotting them on a
two-axis, four-quadrant graph. Stay with me. There is no maths in this. It’s just a good way of visualising. So films and shows with LGBTQ+ characters can have the exact genre,
even the exact same story, and still be different in terms of how they
treat that representation. We can see a difference, I think, between two kinds of representation that we might strive for, and this is the basis of my first axis. Let’s take, for example, the
classic genre of the sitcom. The first season of “Modern Family” introduced us to three couples, but fans quickly noticed the
discrepancy between them. Unlike their straight counterparts, the gay couple Cam and Mitchell were less physically affectionate and specifically had never
kissed each other on screen. There was a lot of backlash
after this first season, and in the second season Cam and Mitchell were allowed to kiss. The episode in which it finally happens is specifically around Mitchell’s issues with public displays of affection. In the show, it’s
explained away as to with his father’s emotional unavailability. – Jay, he’s your son, he’s a mess! – Oh, come on, now. – We don’t have to do that, it’s– – Yes, you do!
– Oh, why? – Come on, come on, do it! (all clamouring) – All right, all right, shut up! Mitch, get over here. – What, now, well, I feel weird. – Don’t be coy, what are you waiting for, a box of chocolates? Let’s do this. (applauding) – [Cam] That’s the sweetest
thing I’ve ever seen. – All right, and now, because
I never wanna hear this again. You.
– Aw. – Not you. – [Claire] Oh, Daddy, I love you. (kisses) (Jay sighs) – The kiss when it happened was in the background of the scene. (Jay sighs) And I think that this
really goes to show to me that the excuse given by the writers that they were always planning
on having the couple kiss and it just happened to
be in the second season because of the natural
progress of the show, doesn’t really hold much water. What they were forced to do
within the narrative of the show was explain away why the gay characters had been treated with
such double standards by claiming that Mitchell just didn’t like public
displays of affection, and so it was written into the characters that this hadn’t happened, rather than acknowledging
that maybe it was affected by what was going on
externally with our society. If this had happened within season one, this kiss in the background would’ve been an interesting statement, the idea that, you
know, gay people kissing shouldn’t be this big
momentous occasion on the show or a very special episode, it should just be littered
in the background. It’s just the background noise
of our society, it’s normal. But by waiting an entire season to do it, it kind of just falls flat. Compare this with another
sitcom with queer characters, “One Day at a Time.” This show includes a teenage
lesbian activist character with a group of like-minded friends and a non-binary significant other after coming out at the end of season one. Elena’s coming out story
is knowingly linked to the double standards
that exist within society, particularly across
genders and sexualities. Elena’s mother discovers lesbian
porn on the family computer and immediately expects
it to be Elena’s brother who has been looking at it. Sex, relationships, and dating all dealt with in Elena’s
storyline in a very similar way to all of the straight
characters on the show. On top of this, we also get
some LGBT-specific issues, some more serious, like the issue of homophobia
within your family, but some more lighthearted, like the idea of what do you
call your significant other if they’re non-binary and don’t wanna be called
girlfriend or boyfriend? So obviously the first
season of “Modern Family” was aired quite a number of years before the first season
of “One Day at a Time.” I do think that we’ve made
great progress since then. But I also don’t think that
the good representation on “One Day at a Time” is a
given in today’s landscape. And I think when we have a look at what was going on behind
the scenes on the show, we start to have an idea about
why this became something that was so well-done. Michelle Badillo and Becky
Mann, two writers on the show, shared their coming out
stories with the writers room when they were first
starting to script the show. And the sitcom’s showrunner
Mike Royce’s daughter came out to him around the same time. This had a marked impact on the way that he looked at the series. He said, “The things the
writers were talking about, “their own experiences, “made me understand things I was seeing “in my own life with her. “So I was crying a lot, not from sadness, “but from being emotional.” His fellow showrunner Gloria
Calderon Kellett remembers, “He was going through it in real time “and we wanted to talk about it. “What’s beautiful about Mike “is that he wanted to do everything right. “How do I do this right? “How do I parent a gay kid “so she says that her
coming out was amazing? “That’s a different perspective
than I’d ever heard.” This commitment to doing
it right from the beginning can be compared to the attitude of “Modern Family’s” showrunners, who immediately denied that
they had done anything wrong and that this was all part
of the plan to begin with, when the double standards in
their show revealed themselves. That’s not to say that they
consciously and deliberately chose to have this double standard. But I think there seems to be a real lack of critical engagement
with what might have unconsciously swayed
them in that direction. So we can see both shows
have LGBTQ+ representation, but they deal with it
in very different ways. And we can see this happen
even with the exact same story. Take the film “The Birdcage” and the musical “La Cage
aux Folles,” for example. They’re both based on
the same source material, and ostensibly on the
surface tell the same story, just with slightly different names. As we discussed then for clarity’s sake, I’m gonna use the names from the musical. But the different way in which
they deal with the conflict and character moments within the story betrays a difference of attitude they have towards the queerness at
the heart of the tale. Both the film and the musical tell the story of a gay couple,
a nightclub owner, Georges, and his partner and star drag queen Albin. The story starts when
their adult son Jean-Michel comes back home to tell them he’s engaged. However, his fiancee Anne is the daughter of a notoriously conservative couple, and they want to come
and meet his parents, who they assume to be heterosexual, before they will agree to the marriage. Although Georges, Jean-Michel’s
biological father, can fake straight, he realises
that Albin won’t be able to. And so, a secret plan is hatched
without Albin’s knowledge to send him away for the night when the parents are coming over, and then get the biological
mother to come back and kind of play straight, happy families just for that night to try and
make the wedding day through. The centrepiece song of the
musical “La Cage aux Folles” is an anthem written by an openly gay man called “I Am What I Am.” ♪ I ♪ ♪ Am ♪ ♪ What I am ♪ ♪ I am my own special creation ♪ It’s the last song before
the first act finale, an absolutely emotional
show-stopping number. It’s after Albin finds out about the plan, and it’s out of utter defiance
at a partner and a son that would ask him to just
disappear as if he doesn’t exist. The song talks about the way in which his femininity and queerness are an intrinsic part of who he is, and it’s the ultimate F-U to people who would consider
the plan for even a second. ♪ It’s one life ♪ ♪ And there’s no return and no deposit ♪ ♪ One life ♪ ♪ So it’s time to open up your closet ♪ ♪ Life’s not worth a damn ♪ ♪ Till you can say ♪ ♪ Hey, world ♪ ♪ I am ♪ ♪ What I am ♪ Most importantly, in the musical the audience is fully on his side. This is in direct contrast
to the film “The Birdcage,” in which the audience is often asked to laugh at the Albin character, because being a flamboyant game man is just kind of inherently funny. The film really doesn’t do a very good job in expressing the
devastation that Albin feels. It kind of seems more preoccupied with this archetypal, hysterical gay man and the comedy that might come from it. – I’m hideous! Hideous, fat and hideous! (sobs) I’ve endured such pain! – I know, honey, it’s gonna pass. – Oh, no, it’ll never pass! I hate my life! Oh!
– [Armand] Hey, look. There is a packed house out there! – That’s all I am to you,
isn’t it, a meal ticket? – If you wanna hear more about that, I’ve actually done a
full-length podcast episode with Jazza John, my cohost
on the Queer Movie Podcast, so I’ll leave it in the description if you’re interested in
learning a little bit more about “The Birdcage,” in particular. In musicals there’s often this
sort of point of view song that the main character will sing, often just to themselves
and to the audience, which explores something
that they want or they need or an element of their character. In “La Cage,” this is Albin’s song “Put a Little More Mascara On.” This essentially explains
the appeal of drag to him. And it’s not pandering
to a straight audience. During this song he doesn’t explain it as a sort of softly, softly
way of gaining acceptance from a straight audience, nor is it kind of over the top that you’re meant to laugh at him being effeminate or flamboyant. Instead, he’s allowed to be
angry and sad and unashamed all at the same time. ♪ Once again I’m a little depressed ♪ ♪ By the tired old face that I see ♪ ♪ Once again it is time to be someone ♪ ♪ Who’s anyone other than me ♪ ♪ With a rare combination ♪ ♪ Of girlish excitement
and manly restraint ♪ ♪ I position my precious assortment ♪ ♪ Of powders and pencils and paint ♪ But as well as queer
angle within the musical you also have multiple love
songs between these two men, some of what I think
are the most understated and beautiful love songs
in musical theatre. Really unlike in the film, in the musical Georges very quickly realises
how awful the plan was and completely sticks up for Albin in the song “Look Over There.” ♪ How often is someone concerned ♪ ♪ With the tiniest thread of your life ♪ ♪ Concerned with whatever you feel ♪ ♪ And whatever you touch ♪ ♪ Look over there ♪ ♪ Look over there ♪ ♪ Somebody cares that much ♪ And their son Jean-Michel
also realises how awful it was and ends up being utterly ashamed, again, in a way the film
doesn’t really portray, in the “Look Over There” reprise. In the film “The Birdcage”
the two men never kiss. They never say “I love you.” In fact, I don’t think
the Georges character really sticks up for the
Albin character at all. When you look at these
two pieces of media, on the surface they seem
like they’re the same. They’re telling the same story. They might even seem to
have the same message. But when you dig even a little bit deeper, you realise that these
differences in representation are pretty stark, and for me there is nothing
that compounds this more than the ending of each of each of them. In “La Cage,” the very end
song is the love refrain that has been going
through this entire musical between these two men. The rest of the characters
leave the stage, it’s just those two. They go up the stairs upstage,
and they share a kiss, and the curtain closes. They are the last things that we see. “The Birdcage” movie, on the other hand, ends with the wedding between the son and the daughter-in-law, and ends on a freeze-frame
of them kissing. That’s what you’re left with. The end of the musical
really tries to emphasise the idea itself of acceptance and of mutual support and love. And the ending of the film
seems to be emphasising I guess how the surface level plot line of the straight boy who wanted
to marry a straight woman was resolved at the end? Now, make no mistake, “The
Birdcage” and “Modern Family” are both extremely
successful and celebrated. They aren’t bad pieces of media at all. And a lot of people would say that it’s the overall message that counts, that the idea that they
have exposed straight people to queer characters should be enough. What I do think we can
acknowledge is the difference in the way they approach representation and the way in which “One Day
at a Time” or “La Cage” has. And this difference is the first axes, assimilation versus liberation. Because this is an axis,
we have to acknowledge that this isn’t black and white. You aren’t just here or there. You can be plotted across
anywhere on that line. So what kind of thing would we count along the assimilation
part of this spectrum? Well, they often fall into
three kind of categories. One, they might be sort
of safe and sentimental and careful not to upset
straight audiences. Two, they might dig into extreme suffering of LGBT characters to promote empathy from the straight audience. Or three, they’ll be using gay characters purely as comic relief. All three will often avoid
having straight or cis audiences confront their own prejudice or biases by making the villains
exaggeratedly so or gay themselves. Sometimes these films will
be focused on an LGBT person but will have them as part
of an ensemble at large, which isolates them from an LGBT community and stops the film really
having to go very far in looking at what that
community looks like. They’ll often try and
make queerness universal, kind of very much digging
into the idea of like, “we’re all the same” mentality. It’s very much the film embodiment of that sort of “Love Is Love” slogan, which I see very similar to the whole, “I don’t even see colour,” where you are attempting
to broadcast acceptance while not actually being interested in the particular nuances or
the joys or the experiences or the legalities of
being an LGBTQ+ person. Because of this big focus on normalising, you’ll kind of remove any
differences that you might have and try and slot LGBT people into the traditional cis
and heterosexual narratives, essentially making them the Cool Girl of sexuality on screen. – [Amy Voiceover] Cool Girl
is game, Cool Girl is fun. Cool Girl never gets angry at her man. She only smiles in a
chagrined, loving manner. – An then on the other
side of the spectrum we have this liberation kind of area. These are more likely to
made by queer creators or with queer people at
the heart of the process or the subject matter. Because traditionally
this isn’t necessarily the kind of representation
that major studios have been investing in, when we look at this type of queer cinema, historically it’s probably
gonna have a lower budget, and the quality maybe won’t be as good. But they’ll probably be
much more unapologetic in the way that they deal with
queer issues and experiences, a lot less kind of censored or palatable. They might be engaging with
conversations around queerness that happen within the community, or be focused on a hyper-personal story from that particular filmmaker’s life. Almost always we’re gonna have
an LGBT character as the lead or as multiple leads
rather than one person in an ensemble of straight characters. It’s not necessarily that
assimilation films are bad and liberation films are good. There are a lot of liberation-based films that have not good scripts or good acting. I have watched enough
straight-to-DVD queer cinema to know that. In the way in which it deals with LGBT stories and identities, for me, the liberation stuff comes up top. But both are better than the alternative, which is open condemnation. So this first axis is condemnation
through to assimilation through to liberation. But this doesn’t show
us the whole picture. So let’s look at the second axis. There’s a difference between
incidental LGBT characters and a queer-focused story. A side character, parents
of a teen protagonist, or one character in an
ensemble are all incidental. – I’m definitely not turning gay. – Be neither. (upbeat dance music) – Oh, it could be a lot of fun! Paul made a police formation
dance team here last week. What a blast! – [Rowan] Whereas a main
character in a non-ensemble film, a group of queer leads,
and exploring queer issues, are all queer-focused. – No, I haven’t been
back there in 16 years. – Why not? – Well, let’s just say
there isn’t always a welcome in the hillsides. Shall I get you the phone book? – Well, what’s the
worst that could happen? – Oh, hello! I represent a bunch of
screaming homosexuals! – May I inquire about your communal baths? (all laugh) – What’s that gonna do us, Johnny? – Oh, nothing, I’d just like to inquire. (all laugh)
(overlapping chatter) – Ah, thank you! All right, hey! If we’re gonna do this, we
need to take it seriously. Come here. – Both kinds of films
have their own purpose, but just to get it out
there at the beginning, I prefer the more focused ones. And so that second axis is invisible, incidental, and focused. So we can have films which are
focused on LGBT characters, but which condemn them
within the narrative. Or films with only incidental
or secondary representation, but which allows that character in the small place that
they hold within a film to dig into the queer experience
in a more in-depth way. They may also be children’s films which use metaphor to dig
into the queer experience while not being able to visibly show queer characters on screen. Or examples of queer-catching in film, where in the film’s marketing they will announce that
there is a queer character who doesn’t actually seem
to be visible on screen. Where a film falls on this
graph is not a mark of quality, but it’s a helpful way of referencing the impact the film has beyond just being popular or mainstream. A lot of statistics
around LGBT representation focus on percentages. You know, what percentage
of the characters on mainstream TV are lesbians? How many trans characters do
we have on major networks? That kind of thing. Without necessarily being able to dig into the quality of representation. In the age of representation
where we are now, I do think that incidental representation often gets overly praised. It kind of feels like the
suggestion that we should just be grateful for any queer
character to turn up, no matter how small the role is or what kind of character they are. The Netflix animated children’s
show “The Dragon Prince” has recently gotten praise for showing a queer character at all, even though they’re a
side character’s parents who die before the start of the show and who are only shown in a flashback across a couple of episodes. We’re so starved for representation that this is seen as a big deal. Because it is a big deal. To see queer characters
on a children’s show still feels revolutionary, even though we know that it shouldn’t. Like in most issues of our representation, I think most of us can
see where we should be, and it feels frustrating
to be so far behind. So this is the question,
do we lean into this and celebrate this kind of representation, even if they are minor
characters and dead? Do we take away from potential progress by criticising the
issues we have with that? I think a lot of people are worried about this type of criticism,
because they see it as playing into the hands
of the people in power who may be uninvested in queer
stories being told at all. A lot of people are
worried that it might be used as an excuse to quash
any progress in the future. So, for example, if you
have a mainstream film, and it casts a cis man
to play a trans woman, there’s a worry that if you
decide to boycott that film, the powers that be will
not see it for what it is, which is a boycott because you have a man playing the role of a trans woman, but instead will just simply say, “Well, trans stories don’t sell.” Should we have to suffer
through bad, minimal, or inaccurate representation
just for the hope that in the future the
representation might be better? Some people say, “Yes, be
grateful, take what you’re given “and don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” But other people question,
“Well, how will they know “that that representation is
bad, minimal, or incomplete “if no one talks about it?” It’s a tricky one
because individual voices sometimes feel powerless. But with the vastness of the internet, it means that even the mildest criticism can feel overwhelming when so
many people are voicing it. Showrunners, writers, and directors can feel attacked and defensive
about a piece of feedback given online by a great many
people who are anonymous, when one-on-one that
might have seemed like pretty mild and reasonable criticism that they’d have been able
to listen to and discuss. And so it kind of becomes a PR issue rather than a story issue. Similarly, in the way in
which the internet works in terms of entertainment
news or commentary journalism, something which is treated
in frustration by one person may be used in an article to describe the way the LGBT community
feels about a film. Tweets that are meant to
vent personal frustrations become about outraged fans and, “The LGBT community has
something to say about this.” YouTuber Sarah Z recently made a video about the idea that
marginalised creators often face a harsher level of criticism
and call-out culture. – On one hand we do tend to feel as though we have a closer personal relationship with small indie creators, which can lead to us
feeling even more betrayed when those creators let
us down in some ways. But there’s also something
very real to be said about how our own subconscious biases can play into who we choose to criticise and for what reasons. – She points out that there’s a difference between stories created
by marginalised people, which include tropes and
stereotypical elements because they reflect on the
lived experience of that person and can be treated with more nuance, and the kind of stories
by non-marginalized people that might include those
tropes and stereotypes, but often with little nuance and only because they’ve seen them played out on screen before. This isn’t to say that
cis and straight people can’t write LGBTQ+ characters or stories. Of course they can. It’s just that they need to do research, in the same way that you would when you are writing anything. If you have a character with
a job you’ve never done, you’d need to do that research. But I think where we often fall down in terms of marginalised identities is that the type of research that’s done is looking at books or
looking at films or TV which was in turn created
by straight and cis people. And that, again, creates this cycle where the same tropes and
stereotypes are recycled without people actually
going and researching with first-hand sources and talking to people who
actually hold those identities. Sometimes there are truths
behind the stereotypes. Some gay men are effeminate, some bisexual people are promiscuous, and sometimes queer people are killed. But there is a difference
between using these as presupposed consistencies
across an identity, just because that’s what
you’ve always seen on screen, versus looking at them as individual cases with a three-dimensional
personality beyond that. Is your gay character effeminate
because it’s an easy joke, you’ve seen it that way before, or it’s a seemingly really easy
indicator of his sexuality? Or are you going to allow
that character to explore what the experience of
being an effeminate gay man is in the society that the
character is living in? To have layers, to be vulnerable? To understand the strength
that it takes to exist beyond a very narrow idea
of gender and sexuality? Are you gonna give him other
gay people to interact with? Are you engaging with people in real life who have this experience in the same way that you might
engage with nurses or doctors if that was the job
that your character had? Are you making a queer
character die on screen because you think it will be shocking? Because you think queer
people just have sad lives? Because you haven’t done your research and haven’t heard of
the Bury Your Gays trope and therefore think it’s no big deal? Or because it’s a way for
your straight characters to learn a very important lesson about the importance
of love and acceptance? Or are you engaging with
a personal experience with queer death? Are you channelling a queer rage at past and current injustices? Are you trying to find the most respectful and least painful way of
acknowledging the high murder rate across the globe of trans women of colour, so as not to erase that experience, without using it as a
way that is exploitative, making sure it isn’t
gratuitous or fetishized? Something that Sarah didn’t go into but I think is an important distinction, specifically within LGBT creators and the criticism they face, is that being LGBTQ+, for a lot of people, is a kind of invisible minority. That you can’t know someone is LGBTQ+ unless they tell you they are. And because being queer
is still seen as something that people should be ashamed about and that often is kept secret, it means that we can’t assume
that just asking someone is going to be enough for
them to disclose it to you. So when we’re looking at a piece of media created by someone who hasn’t
said that they’re LGBTQ+, do we take it at face value and just assume that they aren’t? Or do we always leave
room for the possibility that they could be
LGBTQ+ but just closeted? We’re in a situation where we
have to kind of treat everyone as if they might secretly be LGBT, or treat creators who
haven’t said they’re LGBT as if they aren’t, and only
acknowledge in our criticism the personal experiences
of those who are out. Because asking a creator
directly if they are LGBTQ+ runs the risk of either
having to out themselves or to lie to you. It’s an impossible
situation which for me calls for a more nuanced and
individualistic approach than just these broad brushstrokes. When we see so few portrayals, every portrayal that we do see seems like it has to be saying something, it has to be representative
of an entire community, because so often it’s the
first or the only of its kind. And this is why with the axis I’ve created what I’m interested in is the impact. I always talk about the idea that representation
isn’t true representation unless it can be seen in
the piece of media itself, understood by its target audience, and that you don’t need
anything outside of it to appreciate it. It’s not representation, for example, if it’s queer-catching, if
somebody says in the press tour, “By the way, this character
was meant to be bisexual, “but we had to cut a scene,” that’s not actually representation,
because what it does is it means that people would have to know about this secondary piece of media, this interview, for example, to appreciate the
representation that’s on screen. Representation in this context being in very inverted commas. And so for me what’s important
in this axis is the impact. Intent doesn’t really mean much when what we should be judging is what’s actually on the screen. So for me, although it
can be really useful to learn about the filmmakers and whether this thing
was autobiographical, whether it was something that they came up with in a team, how long they’ve been working on it, all that stuff’s really interesting, but in terms of the
axis I’ve come up with, I think it’s much more useful to look at the impact that it’s having, rather than the intentions around them. What this graph also allows us to do is to plot multiple films
on there at the same time. I think often there’s a difficulty with the complete lack of
representation that we have, that when we’re criticising these films, we kind of seem to in a vacuum. The idea that, because especially the
way that they’re marketed and the way we talk about them as being the first film to do this,
or the only film to do that, it feels like it has to
be everything to everyone. It has to carry that entire
identity or experience on its back. And so by plotting multiple
films within the same graph, we can appreciate the different things that the individual films might give us. Or from the other side of things, we can appreciate that some films that have been given
the benefit of the doubt by being the first and the only maybe need to be examined more critically. And it’s that labelling and pressure that I’m gonna look at in the
third video in this series, as I use the recent
teen movie “Love, Simon” as a case study alongside
20 upcoming queer films from 2019 and 2020. That’s going to be the final video in this trilogy of videos about the mainstream
future of LGBTQ+ cinema. If you are interested,
obviously you can subscribe so you get that into your sub box. If you want to help support
me make these videos, I’m gonna leave a link to my
Patreon in the description, along with all my social media so you can find me all over the internet. Until I see you next time, bye.

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