by Truly Edison
As a queer person and a film major, I get this question constantly. And when I say constantly I mean CONSTANTLY, as in pretty much the second that someone finds out those two things. And even though I love talking about queer film and will do it pretty much any excuse I get, the more times I get asked this question the more I realize that I actually… kind of hate it. I almost never know what to say, and whatever answer I do come up with almost never feels genuine. I’m not lying, or at the very least not lying on purpose—for whatever reason, the question is a personal minefield I still don’t quite know how to navigate.
Part of it is because I often feel like the term itself, “queer film”, is sometimes so broad as to become nearly unusable. What even is queer film, anyway? Is it film centering romance between two characters of the same gender? If so, what do we make of a film like Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, which is undeniably queer but leaves the relation between its two leads strictly platonic? Is it less queer, or even queer-baiting? Does queer film just mean films with queer characters, then? Then we have to decide what makes a character queer; if that means a character needs to have a specific label they identify with, the scope of queer film diminishes dramatically and unfairly, excluding whole decades of queer-coded film made in an era where explicit representation was impossible. Even more recently, some creators opt to go for a more subdued approach; the criminally-underrated Where The Truth Lies never uses the word bisexual to describe one of its main characters, who sexually pursues both men and women over the course of the movie. How queer is that film? Some recent films have characters who are confirmed to be queer by directors in interviews, regardless of how much that ends up being expressed in the film itself; are those films queer? Then maybe a queer film just needs to have ‘queer themes’, however literally or not those themes are expressed. But in the muddy space between directorial intent and audience interpretation, themes become nebulous and hard to define with any objective certainty. I wholeheartedly believe that Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey is rife with queer themes (no matter how much my family ribs me about it!); does that make it a queer film, even if the only people who think so are me and my gay friends? Can it work that way?
At the same time that ‘queer film’ is so difficult to get an exact grip on, I also often find it hyper-evaluated and scrutinized both within and outside of the LGBT community. The last couple of years have been an all-time-high for mainstream queer representation, which, don’t get me wrong, I think is an amazing thing; we’ve moved firmly out of the era of Cruising and Chasing Amy with a new cultural knowledge of how to portray queerness on screen without demonizing or alienating queer people in real life. At the same time, though, it runs the risk of producing in its wake a body of easily-marketable, unprovocative, ‘safe’ queer films that are stiflingly conscious of not treading on any toes still sore from decades of stereotypes and cliches. I’m happy that Love, Simon is able to exist, but as a film it did no more for me than any straight teen rom-com I’ve ever seen; it spoke to a sanitized, palatable experience that isn’t anything like how I felt in high school. Some part of me can’t help but yearn for the Pink Flamingos days of queer film. As far as we’ve gotten since the invention of film, homophobia isn’t over, not by any means; Love, Simon was banned in multiple countries upon release, and its spin-off TV series Love, Victor was removed from Disney+ due to ‘mature content’, which more often than not in these kinds of situations is code for ‘gay stuff’. Why should we have to flatten the nuances of our lives to create a cleaned-up, desperately inoffensive version of ourselves that mainstream culture and society still doesn’t even really want?
In addition to this, the more cultural nuance we gain on how to depict queer life on film, the more that older queer films will start to be reevaluated within the scope of that increased nuance. Revolutionary as Brokeback Mountain may have been fifteen years ago, today it risks ringing a little more uncomfortably as yet another gay tragedy. Every so often my social media feed is graced by the posts of some teenager discovering that But I’m A Cheerleader is a comedy about conversion therapy for the first time, and urging their followers not to watch it as a result. Not that I’m against this kind of reevaluation—I think that when done constructively it’s an incredibly valuable cultural tool, and allows us to have ongoing conversations about media of the past and its shifting roles in the present. But when someone asks me what my favorite queer film is, not only do I have to figure out what definition of queer film will translate from my brain to theirs, I also have to ask myself: is this film Good Representation? Which leads into yet another question on the definition of queer film, one with perhaps a little more bite to it than the others I’ve suggested so far: Do bad queer films count? And if they do, how do we reconcile that?
No one wants to commit the social faux pas of recommending a Problematic Film, and the stakes always somehow feel so much higher when I’m asked about queer film as a queer person myself—as though I’m offering up some observation not about my taste in movies but about my very identity. Am I a Bad Queer if I like a bad queer film? God knows I do—there are plenty of messy, ugly, or just embarrassingly outdated queer films that I’m absolutely obsessed with, much to the chagrin of my sorority’s Queer Movie Nights. And when I’m asked about the topic by someone who isn’t queer themselves, I feel the pressure that comes with being an unwitting cultural ambassador, fearing that I’ll end up giving someone the Lesbian Stamp Of Approval on a film that isn’t quite up to snuff. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to take any of this into consideration—in a more perfect world, I probably wouldn’t even be asked it that much at all, because queer film wouldn’t be so radically different from film in general that there was even a meaningful distinction to make.
I don’t really have any good answers for any of the questions I’ve put here—maybe it just has something to do with the intersection in my brain of being a pretentious film major and a chronic overthinker, or maybe I’m just bad at answering questions in general, haha. Since opportunities to meet new people have been few and far between recently, I haven’t been asked this question in a while, but I know it will come up again soon enough. Well, on the bright side, at least I have a whole lot of time in quarantine to come up with a good answer.