The tagline for gay teen romantic comedy-drama Love, Simon is ‘Everyone deserves a great love story’, and this couldn’t be more true for those members of the LGBT+ community who have still never seen an appropriate and positive portrayal of themselves and their romantic relationships on the big screen.
Mainstream cinema has always had a tenuous grasp of how to accurately portray women, people of colour, and LGBT+ people, amongst others. An industry dominated by straight white men is inevitably missing the input that it needs to set diverse representation on its proper path. And some might say that it has thus far largely been – perhaps deliberately? – missing the motivation too.
The film industry is just that: an industry. It is concerned with the accumulation of money, and it fears making a loss. And it seems to be only now coming to the realisation that the ‘pink pound’ (rainbow pound?) is worth billions, and that it can cash in on some of that action.
But is this really the case? Or have decades of entrenched homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny thwarted progressive portrayals, even when they stood to make money? Has an industry that has largely seemed to equate only cisgender straightness with ‘appropriate’ versions of ‘manhood’ or ‘womanliness’ suddenly had a financial epiphany, or is it finally being forced to confront unacceptable attitudes because consumers are holding it to account? Or are these things one and the same?
Cinematic representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, and asexual people is fraught with problematic portrayals, especially when it comes to mainstream films. There is, to be sure, much cluelessness and lack of education in play, and these can perhaps be forgiven, up until a point. Everyone makes foolish mistakes. The trick is to kick yourself, apologise, and do better next time. But there are some tiresome tropes that just won’t seem to go away.
For a start: stereotypes. The flaming queen. The trans prostitute. The depraved bisexual. The lesbian who just hasn’t met the right man. Sure, some specific characters that embody these tropes have become well-loved, and yes, some of these people do exist in real life, but they’re not representative of the entire LGBT+ community. So when they keep popping up in film, over and over, one can only ascribe it to deliberate malice, ignorance, or lazy writing. Take your pick.
This leads into – or back to – the male gaze. Lesbians and lesbian relationships written by men, for men. Titillation is the main aim here, because who cares about nuanced storytelling? And then there is what has become widely known as ‘bury your gays’ or ‘dead lesbian syndrome’, whereby one partner in a same-sex relationship – particularly a relationship that appears to be going well – is suddenly and without warning killed off, presumably for shock value, or as punishment for not being straight.
Then there are all the slurs, toxic attitudes, and micro-aggressions towards and about members of the LGBT+ community that are still rife in film. Hopefully we’re done with 1980s favourite ‘fag’ as an insult, but it seems that there’s always something new to take its place.
Our social attitudes are, in part, influenced by what we see on film and television. And what ends up in film and on television is influenced by social attitudes. It’s something of a chicken and egg situation. If what we see are positive portrayals onscreen – well that changes lives for the better. It’s a ripple effect. And if what we see on the screen is a warped reflection of ourselves – well, that can do damage. A lot of damage. We understand the world through the stories that we hear and see, and being represented appropriately in these stories matters. It is vital.
Homophobia and transphobia are still very real, and cost lives on a daily basis. Let’s make that clear. But overall, social attitudes seem to be shifting, slowly, towards a wider understanding and acceptance of differences in gender and sexuality. And film is slowly – sometimes painfully slowly – following suit. So what has changed for the better? Visibility, for a start. Just the existence of more characters who clearly identify as LGBT+ is hugely positive. And not just main characters in ‘gay interest’ films, but incidental characters everywhere, people who just happen to be bi or trans, and are getting on with their lives, like in the real world.
Visibility leads to understanding and acceptance, which in turn leads to more visibility. In real life this might manifest as more LGBT+ people being ‘out’, feeling able to be open and honest about their sexuality and gender identity. And in film we are beginning to see it as a movement from subtext to text, from implicit to explicit. Identities and relationships that were once only hinted at are now made apparent.
There is a same-sex romantic relationship in 90’s classic Fried Green Tomatoes – it’s actually a huge part of the plot – but it is never named as such in the film and you could easily miss it. Whereas we know that at least one of the main characters in Love, Simon is gay because the trailer and other promotional material says so. And that’s a good place to start. If these don’t sound like vast accomplishments it’s because they’re not, they shouldn’t be, and yet all too often these tiny victories can feel like huge wins.
But for any advances that film is making, TV is doing it better – and faster. Why? Well, for a start there’s more of it, so there’s more opportunity for it to provide appropriate representation. And it has a smaller budget and smaller expected return, so it can afford, financially, to risk alienating the parts of its viewership that are not ready for positive portrayals in order to cater for those who are. (And we so are!) It can tap into the currency of the moment far faster than film can, which keeps it – if not ahead of the curve, then at least trying harder to catch up. TV is also, arguably, more socially influential than film, because of its potential to tell ongoing stories that reach more people at any given time.
If seeing yourself – seeing your gender identity or your sexuality – reflected on the big screen makes you feel like cheering or moves you to tears, then it is a sure sign that you have thus far been underrepresented in that medium. Well-written, positive, and realistic representation is out there, it’s just that you might have to go looking for it, and it won’t necessarily be in English.
It would be nice though, wouldn’t it, to think that it might be coming to a cinema near you, soon?