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The Good, The Bad, and The Profitable:
Queers in Hollywood in the Last Year

The Good, The Bad, and The Profitable:
Queers in Hollywood in the Last Year
by Greta Christina
(written June 1994)

With the commercial release of Go Fish set for July 1, and with Ace Ventura, Pet Detective released on video just this week, now seems like a good time to talk about what the last year in Hollywood movies has been like for queers. I have a theory about this subject (no surprise, really; I have a theory about just about every subject that happens to cross my mind, including the Big Bang, homoeroticism in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," district elections, the designated hitter rule, the validity of narrative structure, and whether Jodie Foster is a butch or a femme).

Here is my theory. The last year (say, June '93 to June '94) has presented a radical change in the way queer characters, queer issues, and queer themes have been presented in mainstream American movies. The change has been a bizarre one -- things have been getting better and worse at the same time. We're more likely than ever to see images of ourselves on the screen that are decent, likeable, sympathetic, successful, happy and recognizably human; then, at the next screen over at the multiplex, we're just as likely to see a depiction of ourselves so loathsome and pathetic that it might as well have "Queers Are Scum -- Beat One Up Today" written in giant letters in the opening credits.

Our images are being gradually humanized, and at the same time are being blatantly demonized. And this change reflects the split personality with which hetero American society is dealing with the existence of gay culture.


THE TIMES, THEY ARE A-CHANGIN'

As much as I despise the cowardly greedheads that seem to do most of the decision-making in Hollywood, I have to give the devil its due -- some of them seem to be getting it. (Painfully, mulishly, and at a glacial pace, but getting it nonetheless.) I've seen more decent portrayals of queers on the silver screen in the last year than I have in the previous ten. Most of the more-or-less intelligent and thoughtful movies that I've seen this past year have, for the most part, dealt with their queer characters quite decently (those that had queer characters, at any rate). Few of these movies have been perfect, mind you -- I have quarrels with even the best of them -- but they have shown an apparently honest attempt to be sensitive and un-homophobic. And more often than not, the attempts have been reasonably successful.

If you ask your average Joe or Jane on the street (straight or queer) to name one Hollywood movie from the past year that dealt in a meaningful way with gay characters and gay issues, I'd bet dollars to donuts that he or she would name Philadelphia. And for good reason. Regardless of whether you actually liked the movie, you do have to admit that it is a landmark. It's a major Hollywood release, directed by a well-known Oscar-winning director, featuring two highly sought-after, hot-property movie stars. It was given a lavish publicity budget and a wide release, and has been both critically acclaimed and highly successful at the box office (grossing over 70 million in the U.S. and over 40 million overseas). It was nominated for five Academy Awards, and even won two of them. And it has a gay man as its hero -- the hero, mind you, not some bumbling clueless protagonist or ambiguous anti-hero -- and homophobia as one of its primary subjects. I can't think of a single other movie that even begins to combine all of these qualities.

But I also think it's easy to overestimate its influence. When Philly was first released, everyone in and around Hollywood was watching with eagle eyes to see if "the AIDS movie" would succeed. Because it did, and because a number of queer-themed Hollywood movies have come out since its release, we may have a tendency to see cause and effect where it isn't necessarily so. It's important to remember that most of the current wave of Decent Queer Films were either already completed or in the works when Philly came out. It's definitely an important landmark, but there simply hasn't been time yet for it to be a major trendsetter.

In fact, when you take Hollywood production schedules into account, I would venture to say that the more influential film by far has been The Crying Game. Released in mid-1992, it was, to say the least, the sleeper of the year, acquiring both critical and commercial success (including numerous Oscar nominations). Hollywood insiders were stunned that average Joe-on-the-street hetero moviegoers not only weren't turned off by the film's queer content, but were actually recommending the movie to their friends in droves. It's not hard to imagine Hollywood producer-types looking at the grosses for The Crying Game, hitting themselves on their collective forehead, and crying, "Hey! Joe and Jane Average will spend money to see movies about queers! Maybe -- hey, here's a crazy concept -- we should make more of them!" (Interestingly enough, it's not just the gay-positive movies that have been influenced by The Crying Game. At least two of 1994's homophobic yahoo movies used it as a springboard for their hostility.)

I will admit that I am somewhat biased. Personally, I am particularly fond of what my friend Chip refers to as the "No Big Deal" school of gays in film, and am rather less fond of the "This Is A Movie About Gay People Wow Isn't That Important" variety. A movie in which the gay characters' sexual identity is either taken for granted or presented as one of many questions to be sorted out is, I believe, both more satisfying aesthetically and more effective as propaganda.

Take, for instance, Four Weddings and a Funeral. Now, there's a No Big Deal movie if I ever saw one. The gay couple is an integral part of the motley social crew that the movie revolves around. They're indispensable to the plot; they're among the funniest and most charming of the movie's vast profusion of funny and charming characters; and their relationship is taken seriously, both by their friends and by the film itself. And yet nobody in the movie ever makes a fuss over the fact that these guys are gay. It's not ignored or trivialized; it's just taken for granted, assumed to be a normal part of all their lives that they've been dealing with for years. I like this -- it feels natural and realistic. Even the most rabid queer separatists don't spend 24 hours a day talking about the fact that they're queer, and the best straight people are the ones who take our identity seriously but don't constantly ask us, "So what's it like to be gay?"

Or take Threesome. The movie clearly takes queer identity seriously; the gay guy is the narrator, and we see the story primarily from his point of view. But although his coming-out process is one of the central themes of the movie, it's not seen as the end of the world. He's gay, and while that's obviously important to him and his friends, it's not presented as The Single Most Important Defining Characteristic That Anyone Could Possibly Have.

In a way, I find the existence of the No Big Deal movies to be even more encouraging than the success of a Big Gay Movie like Philadelphia. They show a kind of progress that a Big Gay Movie just doesn't demonstrate -- the ability of straight people to recognize queers as fundamentally human, rather than seeing queer identity as something that irrevocably and by definition sets us apart from the rest of humanity. Movies that ten or even five years ago would have either ignored or derided queers are now recognizing us as a normal feature of the cultural landscape.

Look at The House of the Spirits. If it had been made ten years ago, the lesbian subtext would have been either entirely missing or used as an example of Ferula's (Glenn Close) dried-up pathetic degeneracy. Instead, it was used to reveal Esteban's (Jeremy Irons) neurotic need to control and suppress the passions and emotions of everyone close to him. And what about Reality Bites? I think that ten or even five years ago, a movie about young people coming to terms with their world would have been very unlikely to have even included a gay character, much less looked at gay issues as a major part of the real world that has to be dealt with.

A quick bit of clarification before I go on. When I talk about how well or badly a movie presents gay characters and gay issues, I'm not making any claims as to whether or not the movie was actually any good. I wouldn't even begin to assert that all films with gay-positive content are unmitigated works of genius. In fact, I would say quite confidently that some of them are unmitigated works of crap. So if I say, for instance, that I liked the way The House of the Spirits or Even Cowgirls Get the Blues portrayed its lesbian characters, you shouldn't necessarily interpret it as an endorsement of the film. (In those cases, you most definitely shouldn't.)

Now for the complaints. The strongest and most important complaint that I have with the way that decent mainstream movies are portraying queers has to do with queer sexuality. According to most of these movies, it simply doesn't exist. In Philadelphia, the gay couple goes through nightmarish traumas together, and yet they never show any more physical affection than a little cheek-to-cheek dancing and a good-bye kiss. Of the three main characters in Threesome, everyone but the gay guy gets to have a sex life outside their triangle; the only time we see him having sex is when he's experimenting with a woman. In Reality Bites, the gay guy ponders, processes, agonizes, and then -- wowee zowie! -- actually sits around at a coffeeshop with another guy. In The House of the Spirits, the lesbian desire is sublimated so deeply you could drill oil with it. And in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, we get some doofy love letters, a whole lotta talk about True Love, and one measly kiss. Even Four Weddings and a Funeral falls down on the job; as sweet and loving and affectionate as the gay partnership is, it's distinctly lacking in lechery. With the exception of Sirens and Six Degrees of Separation, Hollywood's queer-themed movies have been leaching the sex right out of homosexuality. And even Sirens, whose central theme is sensuality and sexual exploration, shows a fairly de-fanged version of lesbian eroticism -- gentle, touchy-feely, soft-focus, Penthouse.

My other complaint has to do with lesbian visibility. Surprise, surprise, surprise -- most of the new crop of mainstream movies dealing with queers are dealing with queer men. With the exception of Sirens, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and to some extent The House of the Spirits (although even that wasn't exactly saturated with dyke drama), lesbianism is once again being relegated to the back of the bus. Let's keep our fingers crossed for Go Fish to do well at the box office -- if our money talks loudly enough, maybe Hollywood will listen.

But while I don't want to negate the importance of these grievances, I also don't want to negate the importance of my commendations. In fact, the last year has produced so many mainstream movies with decent portrayals of queers, I can't really do justice to them all. From Sirens to Six Degrees of Separation, from The House of the Spirits to Reality Bites, we're finally beginning to see the kinds of movies we've been demanding. Even Mrs. Doubtfire, a movie whose sexual politics I found generally distasteful, came up with a funny-but-not-ridiculous gay guy to be the hero's brother. All in all, the last year has been one of the best to be a queer at the multiplex.


THE MORE THINGS CHANGE...

Unfortunately, there's another side to this coin. It's true that the reasonably intelligent, reasonably thoughtful Hollywood movies have given us more positive queer images in the last year than we've had in the previous ten. But I've also seen more blatant, vicious, and downright violent homophobia on the screen in the last year than I have in the previous ten, or even the previous twenty. In second-rate big-studio formula comedies aimed at lowest-common-denominator audiences (hereafter to be referred to as "yahoo" movies), the depictions of queers have been getting increasingly ugly. What's more, they've been getting explicitly, consciously, and shamelessly ugly. Movies that five or ten years ago might have included a few nasty, insinuating, underhanded snipes at lesbians and gays are now declaring open warfare. The homophobia isn't anything new, but the degree of blatant and even violent hostility is.

In Major League 2, big yucks are generated in a locker room scene, in which one of the ballplayers is thought to be making a pass at another and is -- surprise, surprise! -- threatened with physical violence until the wacky misunderstanding is cleared up. Naked Gun 33 1/3 pulls out the old "you don't want to go to prison because gay men will rape you" chestnut, as well as a fairly unpleasant and unfunny spoof of the penis-discovery scene in The Crying Game. And Hot Shots Part Deux! manages to pull off racism, nationalistic chauvinism, and homophobia in one swell foop. The lengthy opening sequence sets up the Saddam Hussein-esque character as the comic villain by portraying him as faggy and effeminate, a lover of yappy little dogs and a wearer of women's underwear, with a mincing walk and a prissy interior decor -- and therefore as both despicable and ridiculous, someone the audience wouldn't mind seeing blown up with a few well-aimed Patriot missiles.

But none of these movies quite lives up to the grand, sweeping vision of brutal adolescent homophobia that characterizes Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. Even if you haven't seen the movie, you may well have heard about The Scene, in which Ace (Jim Carrey) discovers, much to his horror and dismay, that the woman he's had the hots for and has just been kissing is "really" a man. He spends the next several minutes of film time going through drastic, oh-so-wacky contortions, including plunging his face with a toilet plunger, in an attempt to cleanse himself of the vile cooties that he got from kissing someone with a penis. (I guess penis cooties are worse than toilet cooties, huh?)

In its confused and chickenheaded way, this scene manages to be both homophobic and transphobic simultaneously. True, Lt. Einhorn (Sean Young), the cop-seductress-villainess that gives the boy-cooties to Ace, isn't exactly your garden variety transsexual. She did the sex change for doofy movie revenge reasons rather than gender dysphoria, and it's not at all clear whether she sees herself as a woman or as a man in disguise. But I don't think the screenwriters were paying a whole lot of attention to these finer points. As far as the movie is concerned, Einhorn is a male-to-female transsexual without the genital surgery, and is therefore "really" a man. She's icky because she's a man who became a woman, and she's icky because she's a man who kisses another man.

That's not the end of it, though; in fact, it's not even the worst of it. The worst of it comes near the end of the movie, when Lt. Einhorn's dastardly plot to kidnap Miami quarterback Dan Marino is discovered. Surrounded by cops and detectives, she is forcibly stripped to her underwear; when her "real" gender is exposed, the good red-blooded American hetero law-enforcement types proceed to beat the living crap out of her. The leader of this manly and courageous exercise is Ace -- the hero of the movie.

In case you didn't know, Ace Ventura, Pet Detective has been one of the most financially successful movies released this year. It was on the top ten box-office list for eight weeks (and was the number-one movie for four of those eight weeks). It has made over 65 million dollars off of the American movie-going public -- almost as much as Philadelphia.


BUT WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

So here's what I think. I think that both sides of these changes, both the progress and the regression, come from the same source -- the increasing visibility of lesbian and gay culture in mainstream hetero society. Queers and queer issues are becoming an integral and un-ignorable part of the national consciousness. And the current trends in major motion pictures are proving to be very revealing of how the national consciousness feels about it.

Now, the reaction to this increased visibility has obviously not been exactly uniform. But I think that the queer community has a bad tendency to look at mainstream hetero society as somewhat monolithic. We sometimes forget a fairly simple fact that Hollywood's current "two roads diverging in a wood" trend makes eminently clear -- namely, that not all straight people think alike. Straight people who are reasonably thoughtful do seem to be making an honest attempt to deal with the no-longer-ignorable fact of our existence; and while they're not doing it perfectly, they're not doing it entirely fucked-upedly either. The yahoos, on the other hand, are scared and mad. Boy, howdy, are they ever scared and mad. They are homophobic in the most literal sense of the word -- their hostility, as expressed in these movies, clearly stems from a weird, blind, unarticulated terror. Their reaction to the presence of uncloseted gays and lesbians in "their" society is fairly straightforward. They've never seen it before, they don't understand it, and they don't like it. And the only way they know how to deal with it is by lashing out.

Interestingly enough, if you look closely at these two trends in major motion pictures, you'll see some very telling similarities between them. For one thing, the lesbian invisibility issue is apparent in both camps. Although there has been at least some inclusion of lesbianism in a few of the progressive films, the queer content of most of them has been focused on gay men. And the hostility of the yahoo movies is almost entirely directed towards gay men (with a certain amount of transphobia added). Presumably, the more-or-less cool straight people either don't think about dykes much or don't think we're bankable; the yahoos either don't think about us (unless they're having doofy girl-girl fantasies) or don't care. It will be interesting to see if hostility towards dykes increases with our visibility.

And both the groovy trend and the yahoo trend reveal a great deal of fear and anxiety about queer sexuality. The homophobic so-called humor in the yahoo movies is most commonly focused on gay sex -- penis jokes, cocksucking jokes, fag-sex-in-prison jokes, you name it. At the same time, the reasonably sensitive straight people are desperately trying to ignore it. They do okay with the existence of queers in their midst, until they get to the part about how being queer generally means having queer sex. Then they clear their throats and look the other way and try to make polite conversation. The hetero insecurity about homoeroticism that's reflected in mainstream American movies is obviously not limited to the yahoos.

To sum it all up in a ducky little package, the past year has shown a startling change in the way mainstream American movies portray queers -- a change which reflects the way hetero America feels about us. The queer community's demands for visibility in the mass media are clearly beginning to have an effect. We're in their faces. We're here, we're queer, and they're -- sort of -- getting used to it.


Copyright 1994 Greta Christina. Originally published in San Francisco Bay Times.

     

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