[Written by John Tinneny (he/him)]
We’ve had Timothée Chalamet lounging about the Italian countryside and Cate Blanchett flirting with Rooney Mara over a department store counter during the holiday season. Now we have an actual Christmas rom-com, Happiest Season, starring Kristen Stewart as one half of a lesbian couple. Queer cinema has made a lot of progress over the last decade or so, with a string of critical and commercial successes showing that LGBTQ+ stories needn’t be the kind of risk they were once seen to be. As these films appear more and more within the so-called cinematic mainstream, do they maintain the radical edge they once had, or are they in danger of becoming sanitised versions of queer lives, subsumed into a culture happy to accept them so long as they do not challenge the status quo?
Go back a few decades and the idea that queer art of any kind, never mind film, finding such a large audience would have been ridiculous. Visual artists like Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe are now renowned, and even exhibited in the kinds of institutions which once rejected them. So in many ways it is heartening to see them get the recognition they deserve, even if it’s posthumous. But it can be a mixed blessing: an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art of work by David Wojnarowicz was contested by activists for sanitizing his work and the AIDS crisis. There are many other examples of artists being repackaged and made into shallow representations of their actual selves and politics. Theresa May, a former Conservative prime minister with her own spotty record towards LGBTQ+ rights (eventually supporting equal marriage rights, but still very happy to oversee horrendous treatment of refugees while Home Secretary), wore a bracelet covered in the face of Frida Kahlo, a bisexual Mexican communist. This shows how the increased exposure carries the risk of queerness being lost, if not erased, in favour of superficial endorsements and fashion statements.
Looking at those in film who had an uncompromising and radical attitude, Derek Jarman serves as an example. Shakespearean sonnets recited by Dame Judi Dench over ethereal stop-motion imagery; a love triangle between Caravaggio and his muses; one feature that was just the colour blue filling the screen from beginning to end as Jarman narrated his loss of sight due to contracting HIV in voice-over. Throughout his work there is an unashamed treatment of queer lives and experiences, as he pushes the limits of cinematic form in admittedly bizarre films. Compare all this with films like Call Me by Your Name, which despite its gay content and lush style, deals with a fairly conventional coming of age/ first love story. It lacks any explicit sex scenes, and you can see where the radical edge is missing. This isn’t to completely dismiss that film or many others like it, as the saying goes ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. While it may seem very deterministic on the surface, it does reflect the power of seeing oneself represented in lead characters with full lives and agency, in a media landscape that reduces LGBTQ+ individuals to sinister or tragic figures. But it is worth remembering how these films have been successful by being inoffensive in other ways, and even reinforcing other problems of representation.
A lot of films like CMBYN have been focused on white cisgender men – they are about as cutting edge as spoons – with the most blatant example being the Stonewall film about the eponymous bar and riot having (you guessed it) a white cis-man throw the first brick. That effectively erased the contributions of black trans women like Marsha P. Johnson in the retelling of this historic event, amongst other historical inaccuracies. Beyond this, the dearth of period dramas about queer women (Carol, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Favourite), instead centred on white characters do nothing to undo their issue with depicting race. Films focusing on queer Black characters like the Oscar winning Moonlight do thankfully buck this trend. However, it becomes clear that as queer cinema ‘integrates’, it can still end up repeating the structural biases against, and erasure of, other minorities rather than showing any kind of solidarity or breaking new creative ground.
There is the argument that LGBTQ+ audiences deserve a wide range of films reflecting the multiplicity of our varied lives. Plus, when we go to the cinema, it isn’t always in search of thought-provoking films to challenge us. Sometimes we simply want to switch our brains off and enjoy some escapism for ninety minutes or so, but there also times when we should be pushed to sit up and pay attention. In resisting assimilation into society’s standards around how we should present ourselves, and how we accept the lacking representation of others, there is not just creative potential for artists on-screen but for all of us, off and beyond it. Progress has been made, but also remains to be fought for on a variety of fronts, due its ability to push us outside of our comfort zones, ask us questions, and remind us of the importance and value of difference. This radical edge is something that we should always keep in mind.