Gays and Gardenias: Hollywood’s Queer Representation Regression

“What’s a faggot?”
‘A faggot is…a word used to make gay people feel bad.’
A beat.
“Am I a faggot?”
                                                                                         ~ Little and Juan, in Moonlight (2016)

A gasp? Sure. A tear? Probably. A yawn? Maybe. A laugh? You wouldn’t think so – but, apparently, the above sequence from Barry Jenkins’ heartrending film Moonlight, despite its emotional tension, can elicit reactionary laughter from an audience (or so E. Alex Jung of Vulture writes). The hilarity’s origin remains unclear, but it probably finds its footing in the foregrounding of a certain (usually implicit) “f”-word – a word so charged that it strikes like a thunderbolt into the cinema. Jenkins’ decision to not only deploy but discuss the usage of “faggot” in Moonlight prompted reaction from queer and straight fans alike – feminist scholars and the average moviegoers – silencing chatter or sparking (maybe) uncomfortable laughter. It’s the no-holds-barred, bluntness of its delivery that is, perhaps, what endears Moonlight’s “faggot” most to liberals and leftists ­–  a two-syllabled signifier of the progress media has made in representation: a concrete symbol ability to move out of the closet and into discussion. But how much progress has actually been made? TV, no doubt, has made progressive representational strides, but Hollywood’s queer representation seems stunted; in a post-Hay’s act Hollywood, intentionality has popularized narrow depictions of queerness, foregrounding queer sexuality as a character’s defining trait rather than a piece of their personal puzzle.

The aforementioned Moonlight dialogue serves as a solid entryway into the discussion of queer characters’ present-day afflictions. The overt definition and perception of gayness is tackled between drug-kingpin-turned-father-figure Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his charge: Chiron, the Ulysses of Barry Jenkins’ Miami odyssey. A three-act ode to inner-city culture, Moonlight chronicles Chiron’s peaks and valleys – his eventual embrace of his queerness in a black culture that oozes toxic masculinity. Despite its refreshing poeticism – Jenkins’ couplets are colors, his rhymes evocative camerawork – Moonlight adheres to a standard queer narrative: the sexual-identity buildungsroman. It, like much other mainstream American gay cinema, depicts a queer character in an externally or internally sparked identity crisis. One-dimensional narrative structures like Moonlight’s – despite its retooling of the dramatic arc – are reductive representations of queerness – the queer person becomes queer first, person second; Juan and Chiron make explicit the latter’s queerness, debating its merits and effects on Chiron’s character rather than accepting it and tackling the matters/narrative plots straight characters might. Despite its accentuation of queerness as a defining character trait, Moonlight, in the context of American cinema is a novelty – expressionistic, poetic queer cinema, influenced more by foreign works than Hollywood’s (with Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together an obvious footnote).

TV, instead, seems American cinema’s progressive queer cipher. Television’s production system gave it more foundational leeway than Hollywood’s Hay’s Code-bound origins, and its perpetually more fragmented consumption (the obverse of Hollywood’s studio and theater controlled distribution) resulted in creative democratization that, in turn, has encouraged more realized queer representation.[1] HBO’s Girls, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, True Blood, Six Feet Under, The Wire; Amazon’s Transparent; ABC’s Modern Family; CBS’s The Good Wife; Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, Jessica Jones; all have realistic queer characters with plot arcs separate from their sexualities. Some TV ‘auteurs’, like Shonda Rhimes (Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, How to Get Away with Murder) Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, Firefly), and David Simon (The Wire, Treme) have reputations for satisfactory queer representation throughout their work.

buffy.jpg            The latter pair, Whedon and Simon, have characters of particular note – ones that are not only among the first of their ‘kind’, but also are main characters in two of the most widely acclaimed series in television. From the outset of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon established his desire to incorporate a queer character into the show’s “Scooby-Gang” – the main four or five protagonists that make up Buffy’s high school (and lifelong) cohort. The first two seasons see him and his writers toy with having both Willow Rosenberg, a reticent Jewish redhead, and Alexander “Xander” Harris, a wise-cracking goofball, as options for potential queering. One season one plotline sees Xander form an empathetic bond with Larry, a closeted football bully who feels the need to constantly assert his masculinity. Xander fields his acerbic verbal punches to the point where Larry’s guilt supersedes his bullying – the episode concludes in a locker room, the pair sharing an emotional “coming out” together. Despite the fact that, in later seasons of Buffy, Xander settles into a heterosexual marriage, these early episodes that hinted at his queerness remain embedded in our reading of his character – his emotional sensibilities, and his repressed, stressed relationship at home. Whedon discusses the decision to abandon fully queering Xander in his discussion to instead queer Willow – a decision that would result in TV’s first ever lesbian kiss.

Buffy’s Willow has relationships with both men and women (among them, Xander), but the most long-lasting and emotionally resonant is her season 4-6 fling with fellow wiccan practitioner Tara. Her queerness is never overtly accentuated or discussed, instead seamlessly incorporated into her, and the show’s, plot arc. Willow’s bisexuality is always subservient to the series’ – and her – more overt developments. In arguably the show’s best episode – and certainly its most poignant – Season Six’s “The Body”, Buffy and the Scoobies cope with the sudden and impactful death of Joyce Summers, Buffy’s mother. It’s in this episode that we witness Willow and Tara’s first onscreen kiss – a cathartic moment within emotional turmoil wherein Willow breaks down into Tara’s arms. It is important to note Whedon’s treatment of not only the scene, but of the episode – in attempt to realistically encapsulate the suffering of parental loss, he ditches the show’s usually fantastical elements and snarky dialogue in favor of a scoreless, music-less, and sparse treatment. The effect is jarring, realistically devastating, and a stark contrast to Hollywood’s recent treatment of queerness – a realm where, if there is queer depiction at all, it is usually between white, gay men – and almost always eroticized. (see: Brokeback Mountain, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Imitation Game, Beginners, Capote, Philadelphia). Willow’s bisexuality is almost always demonstrated emotionally, or at least it’s not accentuated and eroticized in the ways bisexuality seems to be in Hollywood’s recent eye.

Take 2010’s The Kids Are All Right, for example – Lisa Choldelenko’s depiction of a Los Angeles lesbian couple and their familial navigations (a trivial, but notable side note: Buffy is also set in the City of Angels). In order to establish Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic’s (Annette Benning) sexuality, Choldelenko often turns to over depictions of sexuality – sex scenes between Jules and Nic, as well as Jules and a male figure, Mark Ruffalo’s Paul, feature prominently in the films narrative. However satirical these scenes might be – a dynamic delved by “The Ugly Truth of a The Kids Are All Right” – the position physical sex as a signifier for sexuality, and foreground the character’s sexuality and sexual practices as narratively significant. Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008) possesses similar focus on Harvey Milk’s sexuality – if he’s not seeing men and “practicing” his sexuality, Milk is battling and fighting for his rights as a homosexual. Here, we have not only gayness through Hollywood’s typical white male, but also sexuality’s narrative foregrounding – not to mention Milk’s tragic assassination, a prime example of what Harry Benshoff and Griffin in the Queer Cinema Reader refer to as queer death tropes.  This focus on the physical manifestation of queer sexuality also mirrors Benshoff and Griffin’s discussion of queer terminology: the preference in queer communities for “gay” rather than “homosexual” as a moniker intimates a desire to not be defined by the physical act of same-sex intercourse, but the intimacy and subtlety of queer relationships.

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While this subtlety is often lost in current Hollywood’s narrative intentionality, classical Hollywood cinema, due to the restrictive production code, depicted queer sexuality shrewdly and, as a result, more realistically. Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film, Casablanca, is often cited as the quintessential Hollywood flick – boasting a star-studded cast of icons, the seamless, classical narrative style, and a near-perfect screenplay; it also features one of the most overtly bisexual characters in 1940s cinema: French captain Louis Renault. “Well, Mademoiselle,” he tells Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund, “Rick’s the kind of man that – well, if were a woman, and I weren’t around, I should be in love with Rick.” This, one of a handful of dialogic nods intimating Louis’ affinity for Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine; paired with Claude Rains’ meticulous performance (stressing Louis’ gaze, sophistication, and admiration of Rick), all signs point to his homosexuality. Narratively, however, Renault is a Casablancan gatekeeper first and foremost. In order to escape Nazi-controlled Europe and Northern Africa for the freedom of the American west, refugees must go through him for an exit visa. His political, cultural, and narrative significance is stressed over his sexuality – although he certainly abuses political prowess to coax attractive women into bedding him.

Maltese Falcon, The.jpgA year before Casablanca, Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre all starred in another of Hollywood’s staples: John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. Yet again, Bogart’s hardhearted masculinity is juxtaposed with queerness: this time via Peter Lorre’s Joel Cairo. A sophisticated crook, Cairo is defined by his cunning, conniving, and efficiency. The Falcon is seminal film noir, and Cairo fits in with the treacherous, deceptive lot of Huston’s characters – despite the threat his queerness potentially pose to a segregated treatment. Like in all film noir, The Maltese Falcon’s shadows say as much as its characters do, and through Huston’s stylistic choices and mise-en-scene, we can unambiguously discern Cairo’s homosexuality: one scene sees Cairo’s shadow cast into a mirror – perhaps an indication of his ‘shadow’, repressed gayness. In another, two detectives stop into Sam Spade’s (Humphrey Bogart’s) flat – the two detectives, authoritative and powerful stay standing, while Brigid O’Shaughnessey (Mary Astor) and Cairo are seated and lowest in the frame, with a foregrounded Spade (the gaze and thus, in control of the moment) falls directly in the middle of the lot. The scene implicitly suggests Cairo is considered to be on the same ‘power’ tier as O’Shaugnessey, the woman in the scene; his garb: a bowtie, pearly white gloves, and cane – are sharp contrasts to the neckties and bare-knuckled-getup of the cops and P.I.’s around him. Cairo, in these scene and others, codes “feminine” as a result of Huston’s shot composition – Spade’s reference to Cairo’s miasma: “…smells like gardenias” buttresses this reading, too. Dashiell Hammett’s original text, on which the film is based, treats Cairo’s homosexuality with much more malintent – he’s constantly harassed, slandered by characters on the basis of his sexuality. Huston’s Hollywoodized interpretation does the Cairo’s sexuality justice: he’s as mean a crook as the rest of the treacherous lot – respected and treated as such, too.[2]

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Alfred Hitchcock is perhaps the most respected and recognizable of Hollywood directors – renown in cinematic circles for his ability to imbue Hollywood-restricted productions with an innate sense of artistry and subtlety; it should come as no surprise that three of his most esteemed films feature complex queer characters. In Rope, Hitchcock twists the Leopold and Lobe murders into a tale of repressed queerness – implicitly hinting at Brandon and Philip’s homosexual relationship. In Strangers on a Train, we can discern Bruno’s sexual interest in Guy Haines via his obsession with him, his hatred for his father, and adoration of his mother. In Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Martin Landau chose to play hitman accomplice Leonard queer – a decision that positions Leonard’s skepticism towards fellow accomplice Eve Kendall as not one of professionalism, but sexual jealously. All three of these representations required a trained eye to observe – ever character has several characteristics – narratively and personally – that spring to mind before their queer dispositions. In Hitchcock’s trio of films, we see how Hollywood’s restrictions can give rise to a more delicate, complex queer character – one that we rarely see today.

It’s interesting to note that all of the above films are not only staples in the cinematic canon, but all often construed as part of the film noir genre: Casablanca, Strangers, the Maltese Falcon, Rope, and (lastly and leastly) North by Northwest all tackle issues of identity in the face of society, all possess a skepticism and stylized depiction of America and masculinity. Perhaps, through them, we might also suggest that noir has a particular propensity for complex identity politics, and thus, complex queer depiction. All of these film were also Hollywood successes ­– now, queerness comes almost solely from independent cinema – the current strain of cinematic moneymakers like the Marvel, Transformers, etc. canon contain the straightest of Hollywood arrows. The onus of representation is now endowed upon television – and its producing more nuanced queer characters than ever – even ahead of the curve in terms of P.O.C. queer depictions. Moonlight has been lauded for its portrayal of a realistic gay, black man – but David Simon’s the Wire, now almost fifteen years old, possessed an arguably more nuanced character – one whose narrative wasn’t contingent on his sexuality: antihero and loose-cannon Omar Little. Omar’s narrative importance comes from his presence on the Baltimore streets: his allegiance is neither here nor there, and he’s often used as a powerful tool for both the cops and gang-leaders – he’s Clint Eastwood’s lone gunslinger modernized – Western saloons swapped for drug dens and high rises, whiskey shots for needles and joints. He’s also gay – but his scenes of intimacy are treated with the same realism as Whedon’s Willow and Tara in Buffy’s “The Body”, though almost all of the Wire is. Through Omar (and Kima, another of the series’ central queer P.O.C.’s) we can an idea of just how far ahead of modern Hollywood TV is: they foreshadow last year’s Moonlight by well over a decade.

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Reflecting upon Juan and Chiron’s Moonlight discussion of queer terminology, I was reminded of the Howard Hawks’ classic, Bringing Up Baby, a Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn vehicle that housed the first onscreen use of “gay” as an expression of sexuality rather than a feeling of elation. Cary Grant, when questioned about his somewhat feminine attire, cries: “I just went gay all of the sudden!” A joke, a quip, a laugh, perhaps ­– but also an intimation of something deeper – a queerness embedded into the wood that made up the celluloid closet: a queerness that didn’t stand out so much – and was all the more notable for it.

Footnotes:

[1] The gradual dissipation of the Hay’s Code’s influence was, in fact, shaped by TV’s growing impact.

[2] It’s interesting to note that both Sydney Greenstreet’s character, Casper Gutman, and his “gunsel” can be read as queer, too – as, “gunsel” is a Yiddish slur for a young gay man at the disposal of an older gent; thus, the whole lot of Sam Spade’s opposition may be construed as a queer coterie.

Works Cited

Moonlight. Dir. Barry Jenkins. A24 Studios, 2016.

Casablanca. Dir. Michael Curtiz. Warner Bros, 1942.

The Maltese Falcon. Dir. John Huston. Warner Bros, 1941.

Rope. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Warner Bros., 1948.

North By Northwest. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. MGM Studios, 1959.

“The Body”. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 20th Century Fox.

“Phases”. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 20th Century Fox.

Jung, Alex. “The Sad, Surreal Experience of Seeing an Audience Laugh at Moonlight.” Vulture. N.p., Nov.-Dec. 2016. Web.

“Motion Picture Production Code.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Jan. 2017. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.

KT, JKP And. “The Ugly Truth about Why The Kids ARE All Right.” Ohindustry. Ohindustry, 12 Aug. 2013. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.

Benshoff, Harry M. Queer cinema, the film reader. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

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