Badly Drawn Gays: Colin Firth & Sex Education’s Eric

There’s a lot to celebrate about increasing diversity in TV shows and movies, particularly with regards the showing of more genders and sexualities. Studio execs know there’s an appetite out there, especially from younger audiences, and studio execs know there are bucks to be made. Sometimes this representation is done well and sometimes it’s done badly. So here’s a post about some badly drawn gays.

Firstly let’s take a look at Colin Firth in the Mamma Mia movies. In the first one it’s not 100% clear his character is actually gay. I mean, he’s one of the possible fathers having slept with Meryl Streep’s character during that fateful summer. Sounds pretty straight to me. But at the end of the movie he comes out…well, by coming out he says that Meryl Streep was the last woman he slept with and then meaningfully looks at another man. Later on when all the cast are dancing in a big fountain and kissing one another Colin’s seen dancing with said man. It’s vague, it’s unclear, it’s all 2008 was going to give us. Moving on to Mamma Mia 2 and now Firth’s a lonely businessman whose only proud achievement in life is his daughter. You’d hope that by the end of the film he’d finally have someone to hook up with like all the other characters including Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Stellan Skarsgård, Andy García and Cher. But no, he’s still single. He also seems pretty unimpressed with his younger self played by Harry Bright and what could be a nuanced point about shame and internalised homophobia gets blasted over with the cast’s rendition of Super Trouper. Having said all that, the movies get some great comic mileage out of Firth’s character because, hey, isn’t gay male loneliness and isolation absolutely fucking hilarious.

Meanwhile,  Sex Education’s Eric, played brilliantly by Ncuti Gatwa, is out, proud, and dealing with the shit you get for being gay. He blasts through tokenising plot devices and stereotypes and as this Junkee article makes clear, breaks through a lot of barriers regarding being black, Nigerian-Ghanaian, gay and queer. Furthermore, his plotline shows what happens after someone has come out and, often, has to keep coming out to reinforce and reclaim their identity, so often stolen from them. He also gets a nuanced and, ultimately, heart warming relationship with his Dad. But. It’s the bullying strand I want to pause on. Some douche named Adam spends most of the series threatening and harassing Eric. He even covers his Dad’s car in dog poo (yup, you guessed it, they’re gonna make out). Come the final episode of the series the two are in detention together and they start to argue. Things get physical and they fight with Adam pushing Eric to the floor and mounting him. They then spit in each others’ faces before pausing and then kissing. Adam goes down on Eric and gives him a blowjob. We don’t actually see this happen, instead we just see Eric’s eyes roll in what is presumably pleasure (whereas we have seen full-body sex scenes between straight couples and one female couple). Something not dissimilar happened in an episode of Skins yonks ago and it seems this gay-gets-with-their-bully trope is still going strong or as series creator Laurie Nunn put it, “telling a love story through bullying” (lovely). There are nuanced points here to be made about violence between men, men’s repression of their sexuality and the trauma they inflict on one another but those points don’t get made. Instead, no clear consent is given and we witness Eric be follated by the man who was just attacking him. As someone said to me the other day, “yeah, but it’s hot”, and that’s kinda worrying – that violence between men and sexual assault are being depicted as hot. Nevertheless, Eric is smitten only to see Adam shipped off to military school by his tyrannical father, leaving us with, you guessed it, more lonely gays. There are plenty more examples, in the meantime, here’s Cher.

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Mama Mia: The Trouble With Cher

Firstly, I want to make clear that there is no trouble with Cher, she is blooming fabulous. I fondly remember turning back time as a kid and wondering if I was strong enough, and the Cher challenge in the latest season of Ru Paul’s was almost everything. No, my problem is not with Cher (unless she’s done something awful that is yet to come to light) but with the latest Mama Mia film’s ruthless exploitation of her. Here we go again (spoilers).

The original Mama Mia heavily implied that Meryl Streep’s mother was dead (I’m going to use their real names given their fictitious names aren’t very memorable and we didn’t really watch this for the characterisation). So it was quite a surprise when Streep’s mother turns up at the end of the second movie in the guise of Cher. Of course, she doesn’t just arrive, she arrives. In a helicopter, looking a million dollars and stealing the show with a marvellous rendition of Fernando. On top of that the other characters are pretty forgiving of the fact that Cher has been a largely absent character from both her daughter and grand daughter’s lives. She missed Meryl graduate, set up a hotel on a small Greek island, have and raise a child on said Greek island, get married, die and have a funeral. She missed all of her grand daughter’s life as well until she flew in at the last-minute. Now, I can’t know what Cher’s character was going through and what her struggles were and I do not want to pass judgement but, still, people seemed really forgiving at the end of Mama Mia 2 and I can’t help but wonder that it’s because the producers were more interested in shoe-horning Cher into the story by any means possible than they were developing her back story. And why might that be?

To get the gays in. Cher is a gay and queer icon of epic proportions. The LGBTQIA+ community love her for many reasons: her wondrous songs, brilliant dress sense, fierce support of her transgender son Chaz Bono and equality for transgender folks in general, her Oscar-nominated starring role as a lesbian in the film Silkwood, her joy at the recent Australian marriage equality vote and even her desire to emulate gay men from the age of 12 because she thought they were so much more fun than “regular men“. So, you can be pretty sure, that if you’ve got Cher cropping up at the end of your movie for a couple of minutes and singing a famous ABBA song then her queer fan base will be throwing their pink pounds away to get a front row seat at the cinema. I did, although I sat further back because I didn’t want to crane my neck. Of course, as far as the Mama Mia makers were concerned having a gay icon in their film equates to representing the LGBTQIA+ community. But it doesn’t, does it. Representation would mean actually having a lesbian, a transgender person, a bi-sexual or anyone from the LGBTQIA+ community adequately characterised in the film with a story arc of their own and despite the slightest of nods being sent in Colin Firth’s direction this didn’t happen. So just to recap, we’ve got a film based on ABBA songs with Cher in it and the queer representation is next to nil. Let’s just take a moment to let that one settle in.

Mama Mia: Here We’re Straight Again

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike straight people. They’re fine. Lots of them are very nice and some have good senses of humour. I live next door to a straight person and they’re perfectly pleasant. I don’t disprove of the straight lifestyle either, I can think of much worse things like the meat industry and climate change. However, my thing is this: while I’m happy for straight people to do their straight thing I wish they could do it a little more privately. And that’s when Mama Mia: Here We Go Again really takes the biscuit because in a little under two hours I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many cis, white straight people make out with each other. Kind of like heterosexual rabbits, of which I hear there are a few.

Before I go on I just want to make something clear, I am not a Mama Mia hater. No. ABBA and toned torsos really do it for me. I even cried at the end. Of course, I could mention that a decade after the original came out the representation of diversity on-screen besides a few seconds given to a woman in a wheelchair and the odd person of colour cropping up in the background is still pretty underwhelming as the ready-to-hand chorus of Grecian labourers return, serving an almost exclusively white cast of leads. I could mention the other racial and national stereotypes. I could also mention the underlying colonial messaging of the film as privileged and often incredibly wealthy white people strut around the globe doing whatever they want. But why mention these things as we’ve come to Mama Mia for a tuneful escape from the woes and intersectional prejudices of the world.

Anyway, back to heterosexuals. They are literally all over this film. Making out in boats, sheds, French hotels, Greek hotels, on plinths, off plinths, near plinths, in the sea, on dryland. Just about everywhere. I mean, I don’t mind hets doing these things but I wish they could spend more time doing them in the privacy of their bedrooms. Fortunately, it’s not all a song and dance about insecure straight people failing to have mature relationships and spending twenty odd years living repressed, unhappy lives, there is the odd strand of queerness. We’ve got Colin Firth, who very quietly (and not altogether explicitly) came out at the end of the last movie and got to hug a topless man in a fountain, who has made up for his lonely gay life by getting some cats and making lots of money. Unfortunately, the scenes where he examines his unhappiness and isolation at the hands of heteronormative patriarchy were left on the cutting room floor but he is given a moment to flirt with Omid Djalili and have a man-on-man Titanic moment with Stellan Skarsgård. Then there’s the woman-on-woman kiss between Lily James and Celia Imrie, playing the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. When James’ character breaks out into When I Kissed The Teacher (my new favourite ABBA song) Imrie’s character is all stern and awkward but after a brief kiss (which is obscured by James’ hair), Imrie throws off the shackles of her long black gown and mortar board and appears to be pretty thrilled with life. I think this can only be interpreted as her finally coming into herself as a queer woman. Of course, for many straight people, they may have missed these elements of the movie as, unlike with queers, they are not trained to keep their eyes peeled for the quanta of queerness on offer given they can just thrill in the deluge of straightness. But I’m sure in another ten years Amanda Seyfried’s daughter will grow up to be a raging queer. Can’t wait.