Mainstream: The Future of Queer Cinema?

– Earlier this year it was announced that “RuPaul’s Drag Race”
was coming to the UK. With the global success of the franchise, it was hopping across the pond. – Hey, this is RuPaul, and guess what, UK? We are casting for “Drag Race.” That’s right, we are looking for queens, we are looking for showgirls for the UK! God save the Queen! – So we’re going there. Yeah, five years ago I did
a television show over there called “Celebrity Big Brother,” and the reason I did that show, nobody really knew much
about “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” it wasn’t on really the radar over there, and I did it to get
attention for our TV show. – The announcement has
highlighted a schism between the drag world of reality TV and the drag world of, well, reality. In the days following the announcement, on social media and in publications, including LGBT and mainstream ones, there were people voicing
their reservations. In a Guardian article entitled, “The UK drag scene is too diverse “for RuPaul to turn into
a race for ratings,” British-Iraqi drag
performer Amrou Al-Kahdi was worried about the discrepancy between the very competitive
winner-takes-all world of “Drag Race” and the more
community-focused world of UK drag. It also discussed the
difficulty of balancing the capitalist mentality of “Drag Race” and the mentality of the British scene, which often seeks to directly avoid that. And these aren’t criticisms that came just when the British show was announced. This is something that
people have been criticising about “RuPaul’s Drag
Race” for some years now. Writer Brian Moylan
talks about the idea that when you have something which
is so phenomenally successful as “Drag Race” has been and
in such increasing degrees, you have a lot of people who
aren’t within the community who’s being portrayed who want to watch. That in itself obviously isn’t a problem. But then when they’re
invited onto the show and into that space and
feel entitled to the space, without really necessarily
appreciating it fully, just what they’ve seen
portrayed on this TV show, it kind of gets a little bit sticky. He gives as an example in the article the honestly so cringe-worthy it’s going to pain me to say this sentence that Vanessa Hudgens, one
of the guest judges utters, “I’m so into voguing right
now, so that gave me life.” (upbeat dance music) – [Vanessa On Recording] I’m
so into voguing right now, so that gave me life! And that jump, it was just insane! It was so good! Oh my god, the speed at
which you hit that shablam, I was like (squeals)! You really brought it! – The Hudgens voguing seems to be a trend which is just so hot right now. In the article, Moylan talks
about the differences between the show originally when it
was something a lot smaller with an avid gay fanbase, and the way it’s transitioned
into mainstream media, arguing that increasing reliance
on things like petty feuds meant that the show had
changed in some way. The UK is a country with
drag in the foundations of our performance bases,
from Shakespeare to panto. We’re likely to have seen a drag performer before the age of 10. – Ah, I adore balls! – Yes. (audience laughs) They say the prince holds
one of his balls every year. (audience laughs) – And this year, love, we’ll
be there to see it in person. (chuckles) (bright music) (audience cheers) – ♪ You’re looking at class ♪ ♪ A study in chic ♪ ♪ I reek of Chanel ♪ – You reek of lots of things. (audience laughs)
– ♪ And feminine mystique ♪ ♪ At the royal ball won’t
we turn men’s heads? ♪ – No, I think it’s their
stomachs you’ll turn instead. (audience laughs)
– ♪ ‘Cause I’ve got class ♪ ♪ Lots of class ♪ – But in terms of the UK drag community, a lot of them pride
themselves in being the home not just of cis male performers, but also drag kings, female drag queens, non-binary performers, and acts that are a range
of styles from biting humour to political commentary
to weird performance art. There’s also been some concern that the particular kinds of challenges that are the staple of
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” won’t necessarily match onto the reality of the UK community. Especially after RuPaul’s
previous comments on the scope of drag, that “drag loses its sense of
danger and its sense of irony “once it’s not men doing it,” even if he later
apologised for the remarks. Dragpunk, a drag artist
collective from Birmingham, said of the UK scene that it’s “at odds with the
fame-driven commoditization “that ‘Drag Race’ promotes.” And it’s no doubt that “Drag Race” is now
unavoidably tied to fame. Not necessarily because
money is flooding in and raising all ships, as it were, but because the money is being diverted specifically to “Drag Race” girls rather than the community in general. Joe Jeffreys, a historian of drag at the New York University,
has said this about the show. “It’s only made opportunities
for those contestants. “If it was the true golden age of drag, “I would see mass audiences
flocking to the drag shows “at my local bars, but
they’re flocking to events “featuring contestants from the show, “but when you get back
down to that localised “gay bar drag show, the doors
aren’t breaking down yet.” Now some people are hopeful
that the UK version of the show can shine some light
onto the UK drag scene, but even some of them have reservations. Margo Marshal, a UK drag
performer, has said, “I do worry that it could
change people’s expectations “of drag and people might
dismiss artists who don’t conform “to the narrow ‘Drag
Race’ beauty standards, “and so the diversity of
the scene might decrease.” Now this decrease might be because people are only willing
to pay for certain acts, so the ones that aren’t are
sort of priced out of performing in terms of professional shows. But it might also be that they decide to change the way in which they do drag in order to conform to
continue to have a career. Charlene, a New York drag queen,
has talked about the effect this is already having in America. “There’s this dance you do on Instagram “and way you network yourself. “We’re like, in Toy Story,
the aliens in that machine “waiting for the claw to pick them up. “We have this stagnancy
of queens doing the dance “rather than focusing on their art.” For a lot of people, “Drag Race” is their first
introduction to drag at all. And for a lot of people,
that can’t be overlooked, the idea that it’s
bringing to the mainstream something which otherwise
wouldn’t be seen, that it’s increasing visibility, maybe increasing acceptance. And that’s something to be celebrated. But I think while praising “Drag Race” for the good it does just by existing, we can also acknowledge some of the issues that people have with it or the worries that people have about it. So, the idea that it only presents a certain subsection
of the drag community, and therefore the idea
that it doesn’t reflect the reality of drag, and therefore the potential
damage that it does to real-world drag performers. The good and the bad can
exist alongside each other when we talk about a show like this. “Drag Race” is there
for the perfect example of an LGBT TV show which is made with the best intentions in mind, and which may even be heralded as a bastion of
representation by some people, but which in terms of its impact isn’t necessarily having an
entirely positive effect, or portraying a particularly
representative queer reality, even when a lot of straight
and cis people view the show as doing exactly that. This conversation about
the future of “Drag Race” is a sort of microcosmic
view of the wide issues around LGBT movies or TV shows as queer representation moves
further into the mainstream. And it’s this future
that I wanna talk about in today’s video, in the first of a three-part series about the mainstream
future of queer cinema. So, what exactly mainstream cinema is is a little bit difficult
to pin down at the moment with the changing media landscape that we are currently living in. But for the purposes of
this video and for me, I’m gonna talk about it as the idea that’s it got to do one of three things. It has to be one, produced
by a major film studio, two, get a general release in cinemas, or three, be produced and
prioritised by a streaming service and have a significant marketing budget pushing it towards audiences. In this way, it’s probably
useful to note at this point that we can see mainstream as sort of synonymous with capitalism, with vast sums of money
being pushed onto it. And so as a little background
thing to be thinking about during this video, it’s probably
useful to just have in mind the impact that that kind
of large investment of money might have on the
content that is produced, as well as how and who it
is distributed towards. So when you first heard my
introduction about “Drag Race,” you probably had some kind
of instinctive thoughts about what I was saying and the criticisms that
I was talking about. So you might be thinking,
actually, you know what, overall it’s doing a really good job of increasing representation, and that is gonna cause
a trickle down effect, we don’t have to have perfect
representation right now, and what’s important is that
it is potentially increasing acceptance in the wider community. Or you might think, do
we really care about appeasing straight and cis
people with these kind of shows? They should be by and for gay people, and if they enjoy the show, great, but it shouldn’t be for them. Or you might have thought, who cares, it’s a show with gay people
and it’s not that deep. And all those thoughts are informed by your personal internal
answer to the question, what is LGBT+ media for? So there are four main
angles that people tend to be coming towards when
answering this question. And it’s important to note
that these aren’t necessarily conscious answers that
are clear and precise and that they’ve had to
actually work through and think about. Sometimes they’re just
kind of instinctive. So the first angle is that
people who see it as a way of increasing acceptance in
straight and cis audiences. So these people might
favour entirely palatable or respectable LGBT portrayals. It’s quite difficult to
try and increase acceptance in a homophobe if your
gay character is acting just like the homophobe fears they will. So these portrayals might skew
into the kind of sticky world of respectability politics. Now I’ve talked at length
about respectability politics in another video that I’ll
link in the description, but essentially it’s the
idea that marginalised people need to act in a certain way
to be seen as respectable to not be marginalised. Kind of putting the onus
on marginalised people to act in a certain way so they aren’t like “those” gay people, or like “those” black people. Whatever it is. And the view that if only that minority acted in the proper way, they
wouldn’t be marginalised. It kind of puts the onus on
those marginalised people rather than society at large
to accept them as they are. So if we’re trying to increase acceptance, do we say we only want these people who conform to this kind of acceptable idea? You know, do we say that we don’t want any HIV-positive gay men unless they got it while in a committed relationship? Do we say that we don’t
want any overtly political LGBT characters because it
might be too controversial? People who want to use
representation to increase acceptance might also be in favour
of using LGBT characters to explain LGBT concepts or identities within the narrative of
the film or show itself. There’s also a kind of risk
here of it becoming didactic, that this character is there only to teach and not necessarily is
a well rounded character in their own right. We can also see media of this
type will sometimes employ what can be quite damaging tropes that they think might increase acceptance. So a really obvious example of this is the Bury Your Gays trope, the idea of killing off characters often to really further a straight
character’s storyline. So sometimes it teaches
them an important lesson about the true pure nature of love, or makes them appreciate what they have. And that can be seen as
something that’s really positive, ’cause it’s like, well, if we’re saying that gay love is beautiful, then surely that’s
positive representation. But when it’s all about
trying to get straight people to be accepting, it
kind of prioritises them over the gay characters
and audiences themselves. This idea, the idea
that LGBT-focused media is kind of used to increase acceptance is obviously very
mainstream-aligned, right? It’s super accessible, you don’t have to have any
queer community knowledge to understand it. It’s extremely non-offensive
to straight and cis audiences, it’s very, very easy to align
that with the mainstream. So the second angle is people who think that LGBT-focused media should be to portray queer lives and experiences. This can kind of fall into two camps. So the first are very
sort of neutral about it. It’s just because LGBT exist in society, and therefore portray
them at the percentage that they are in the population. You know, there’s no thoughts either way other than the idea that LGBT
people exist in the world. If we’re gonna be portraying the world, we should portray them. The other kind of people
who fall into this camp have more of an idea of the
inherent value of LGBT stories and telling them for LGBT people, and cis and straight people are
a kind of secondary concern. So questions around this
angle would be things like, what identities within the LGBTQ+ spectrum are you representing? How accurate are they to
these queer experiences? Because you can absolutely
have the best of intentions in terms of showing
people’s lives on screen, but they won’t necessarily be reflective if you haven’t done the
work behind the scenes. And also this question
of how marketable is it to the general public? Is it something that
realistically is going to be made? Is it necessarily going to
be able to be mainstream in terms of the amount of money that people are willing to put into it if they think that the
audience is going to be a smaller subsection of the population? And is it necessarily
going to be something that straight and cis audiences will get or be invested in? So here we can see that
these first two angles aren’t necessarily two
completely separate things. Right? So, if you’re someone
who wants to prioritise LGBT audiences, but you are
hampered by the practicalities of trying to make the film, it might be that you say, you know what? The history of the LGBT
community is extremely important. We ought to make a film about Stonewall. Hmm, but if we want to
make audiences kind of be able to get into the story, maybe we go down the route
of creating a protagonist that falls into that more acceptable or palatable idea of,
you know, for example, a white cis gay man. We know how well that went. So these kind of films can
be mainstream-aligned or not. It really just depends on kind
of behind the scenes stuff in terms of who’s funding
it, who’s writing it, whether it engages with
LGBT tropes and in what way. And these kind of external
variables about money. So the third angle is
people who believe that queer cinema should allow queer people to tell their own stories. And this is how a lot of quintessential classic queer cinema is viewed, but it does run into its
own issues and problems. For one thing, who is
telling the story, right? Is it the writer, is it the
director, is it the actors? Do all of them have to be queer for it to kind of fit into
this idealised version of what queer cinema is? So the interesting thing is,
you know, within the last year, we have seen this unified kind
of marginalised storytelling in a very mainstream way in
the film “Black Panther.” You know, that film had a
black cast, black director, black writers, as well as
black production designer, black costume designer. And the story itself that it was telling wasn’t this kind of externalised story that we might be used to
in terms of the portrayal of black people in mainstream film which is often quite this
externalised idea of, okay, we’re gonna tell a
story about black people, so we have to tell a story
about racism and slavery because it has to interact
with white society in some way. “Black Panther” goes
deliberately out of its way to avoid those kind of
cliche conversations, instead looking at conversations
within the black community, looking at the different
viewpoints and experiences of people who are black Africans and black African-Americans, for example. What would that look
like for a queer film? I don’t think we’ve had
a mainstream example of a queer film that has
that level of queer people within the production and the cast before. I don’t know what that would look like. With this third angle we also need to ask about the idea of, you
know, if we’re saying that queer people should be
telling their own stories, what do we mean by their own stories? There are so many different identities within the LGBTQ+ spectrum. So should we have an all-trans
team on a trans-focused film? What will someone just
within the community do if we have at least some people present? Now to some people the
idea of gathering together an all-trans production team would seem slightly over the top and ridiculous. But actually for some other people it seems like quite a good idea, especially when we look at
the mistakes and missteps that have been made by the film industry full of cis people when
trying to make trans films. So this third angle, the idea of queer people
telling their own stories, has not traditionally been mainstream. It could be, but ultimately
it’s how we normally see sort of indie queer cinema. And finally, honourable
mention to the fourth angle, the chaotic neutrals in the world, who are just kind of like, does
it have to be for anything? I don’t care either way. Make every film gay, make no films gay, it doesn’t matter, who cares? And so when we look at what
a film is being made for, we can see how that
changes its relationship to the mainstream in terms
of how accessible it is, how available it is, and
also how legible it is to a general population. So why would people be interested in making LGBTQ+ cinema mainstream? Well, it has a lot of positives. Mainstream cinema is very accessible, and it can potentially
increase LGBTQ+ acceptance through that accessibility. It can also help get
recognition for LGBTQ+ figures and histories into the mainstream in a way that we don’t necessarily have within our education system, for example. And there’s obviously the
question of the availability of more money and more funding
within mainstream productions that means that the overall quality is potentially going to be better. But these pros aren’t a given. For example, it’s very possible
to have a mainstream film with LGBTQ+ characters
that won’t do anything to increase acceptance. And some of these pros
also come with conditions, so although there might be an
increase in money and funding, who is that money and funding
going to and what for? There are also potential negatives to films being mainstream. Again, these aren’t certainties,
but they are possibilities. So first, we have sort of
death by crowd-pleasing. So either this means that you
have to have your portrayal be kind of acceptable or palatable enough, even if it compromises on real
LGBT histories and figures in order to appeal to a mass audience. Or alternatively, and this is
often the case in comedies, becoming an exaggerated sideshow for an audience which is
well-versed in stereotypes. It may lack nuance in
terms of being accessible to as many people as possible, in particular having to fit into the idea of the Hollywood mould
of narrative or morality. It may also overlook the most marginalised or least sellable people
within our community, especially if they’re wanting a return on the kind of big budgets that are put into projects like that. So if we look at these
kind of pros and cons of why people might want
something to be mainstream, and then we also look at
those four different angles in terms of what LGBT films are for, we can see how and why people might decide that it’s sort of worth
the risk or the investment. If you prioritise the idea
that LGBTQ+ representation should be increasing acceptance in cis and straight audiences, then being mainstream is vital to get that message out there. If you think these films
should be for queer people then it doesn’t necessarily
have to be mainstream. If you’re going looking for it, there are tonnes of lists of,
you know, amazing queer cinema, best queer cinema of this
year that you can dig into. You can go into the LGBT tab on Netflix. You can look at kind of
distribution companies that specialise in queer cinema, so Peccadillo Pictures,
for example, in the UK. So on the surface, that
seems pretty obvious. However it isn’t necessarily
as simple as that. What about closeted
and questioning people? Especially young people
or people living with potentially homophobic families? If they share a Netflix account
with their entire family, you can view their viewing history. How do they know that their parents aren’t going to see that they’ve
watched one of those films? You might wonder how
you’re going to explain a DVD coming in the post to your parents who want to know what you’ve bought. Potentially, going to see a
mainstream film in the cinema won’t invite as many questions. And maybe the discussion around
it may open up acceptance within your family. So potentially for those queer people, being able to go to the cinema for something which is
readily mainstream available will invite less questions. And actually, the
acceptance that that film might bring to their family could ultimately help in the long run. Or it might implicate them
further if their family knows because it’s more mainstream
what kind of film it is. And what about people who
maybe need to see these films to help discover their own identity, but wouldn’t necessarily go
looking for them independently? So being mainstream isn’t
necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can do a lot of good. But simply being available
and acceptable to the masses doesn’t make it inherently good either. There are a fair few examples of films that have been accepted, even praised by the
non-marginalized majority, while the minority it’s
playing have criticised it. – [Reporter] Critics have wondered who exactly was this movie made for? (softly upbeat music) In the past few years,
films like “Moonlight,” “Blindspotting,” and “The Hate U Give” were celebrated for their more modern raw depictions of black
experiences in America. – What do we do about the bones? – We do this. – [Reporter] But “Green Book”
is a more mainstream movie with a reassuring message and
a rose-colored happy ending. – “Green Book” being
probably the most prominent recent example that has been criticised for a number of reasons. One, in terms of narrative itself, it focuses more on the
white racist’s journey, rather than on the black man
within the same narrative. Two, behind the scenes the lack
of respect and consultation that was given to the family of the black man who was portrayed. And three, that the sort of
white majority production team compounded all of these in-narrative and behind-the-scenes problems. So I don’t think that
mainstream or not mainstream is a particularly useful
descriptive factor in terms of assessing
the impact and importance of LGBTQ+ media. And yes, I am aware of
the irony of me rejecting the very title of this video at the end of the first
part of this series. But I have come up with an alternative. Instead I want to propose two axes on which we can plot these films to give us a more nuanced
understanding of LGBT media beyond whether it’s popular or mainstream. So join me in part two as I
break down these two axes, and in part three, where
I’ll be using a case study of “Love, Simon” and
looking at 20 upcoming films in 2019 and ’20 to look at the future
trends of queer cinema. If you aren’t already, of course you can
subscribe/turn on notifications if you want updates of when
these videos are coming out. And if you’d like to help
support me make these videos, I’m going to leave a link to
my Patreon in the description, along with all my social media, so you can find me all over the internet. And until I see you next time, bye.


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