Not Canaries In The Coal Mine But Cats

Trump is still President. Johnson is Prime Minister. The UK’s in another “record-breaking” heat wave. Mussels are being cooked in their shells on the beaches of northern California (and not by chefs). Brexit is Brexit (apparently). And now the trailer for the Cats film has been released and it’s awful. I’m no Cats fan and the musical didn’t do much for my youth but I respect my friends for whom it revolutionised their lives. They deserve better than human faces badly copied and pasted onto the bodies of real people (I mean, why not just cast good singer-dancers to play the roles, y’know, like in the musical?) set in some oddly dystopic and weirdly proportioned doll house. But the odd thing is that the rise of the demagogues and the rise of global temperatures are inextricably linked to this awful film. It would seem the canaries in the coal mine have been eaten by the cats.

For decades now Hollywood has been churning out countless remakes, reboots and cookie-cutter blockbusters for the sake of making a quick buck. The MCU Universe is now almost as big as the actual universe, the Bond franchise staggers predictably onwards and Ridley Scott foolishly decided to spray the Alien series with acid blood. It was only a matter of time before the corporate-consumer capitalism machine chewed up those alley cats and spat them back out via some grim production line. Screw originality when you can make money. Meanwhile, mainstream politics and economics offer more of the same and worse. Patriarchy’s abhorrent behaviour is lauded and venerated as proud racists and sexists take over positions of extreme power as that age-old and highly unoriginal story of greed and oppression continues to play itself out towards its dystopic conclusions. The mainstream is categorically failing to offer us anything original. Instead we get Cats.

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Another Badly Drawn Gay: Love, Simon

I hate to be that blogger who comes for the friendly, gay-guy-next-door protagonist of cutesy Hollywood coming out film Love, Simon…but, fuck it, I’m gonna be that blogger. Not because the actor Nick Robinson doesn’t act his socks off as the lead role, Simon Spier, but because so much of the story and his characterisation is problematic. To catch you up on the plot, in case you missed it, Simon is gay but hasn’t told anyone, he starts up an anonymous online conversation with another gay guy called “Blue” and spends most of the film wondering who this other guy could be. En route to the reveal he dates his female best friend and really upsets her, behaves pretty questionably towards his other friends, chats with his parents a bit and, come the finale, discovers who Blue really is (then makes out with him on a Ferris wheel, cute right). In essence, it’s your classic coming out coming of age story as Simon is very worried about telling the world who he really is. He imagines it in all sorts of way, like in this fantasy, dance sequence…

What a lovely scene, right? Well, no. Because listen again to that penultimate line: “yeah, maybe not that gay.” Not that gay. What on earth is that supposed to mean? That there is spectrum of gayness and if you wear a grey t-shirt, dance quite badly and quietly have sex with your boyfriend off-screen then that’s fine. Whereas if you wear tight-fitting pink jeans, fly a rainbow flag and flounce with a limp wrist then that’s too much. Nope. There isn’t actually a spectrum of gayness but there is homophobia, lots of it, and it regularly gets internalised by gay men who grow up shamed, bullied and depressed. Simon will have experienced this homophobia and a drastic lack of support in claiming his identity and even if he never encounters verbalised or physicalised homophobia simply living in a heteronormative society will have crushed a part of his soul (I speak from experience). Hence, Simon worries about being that gay, when really I dream for him to be as flipping gay as he wants, but that’s too much for a mainstream Hollywood movie. This point is compounded when secondary character, Ethan, who is visibly queer, out, has dark skin, wears flamboyant clothing and is camp as Christmas gets bullied at school. Simon looks over and, rather than run to Ethan’s defence, instead turns to his friend and says: “I wish he wouldn’t make it so easy for them.” Oh, Simon, you have a lifetime of self-loathing to unravel and it ain’t going to get solved by kissing some guy at a funfair. In this instance, internalised homophobia is being turned on another gay man even though their shared sexuality could be a reason to bond and support one another. For more on Ethan and why he is the REAL hero of the film read this epic article by Naveen Kumar.

It concerns me that Love, Simon did so well as a movie. It won all sorts of prizes and accolades (and even got described as “groundbreaking”) even though its presentation of male homosexuality is so problematic. Which makes me wonder if the film is really for gay, white, cis men or actually just for straight people with less awareness and lower expectations. I mean, it got called the “queer Cinderella story of our time” but given my definition of queerness involves intersectionality and challenging heteronormativity, then Love, Simon is just kinda straight. And it’s a coming out story. Just that. We’ve had a gazillion coming out stories and they’re getting quite dull – I want to know how to live beyond coming out, when the people you’ve come out to have forgotten, or you have to come out again to new people, or how to make a long-term relationship work, or how to deal with having your identity regularly invalidated and/or threatened, and that moment when you realise heteronormativity and systemic homophobia is grinding your soul and community into dust (I speak from experience). I basically want to know what happens to Simon when all that internalised homophobia finally catches up with him (I bloody hope his straight friends are around to support him through that) and how he finds a happily ever after beyond.

Beach Rats: That Gay-Not-Gay Film

The realms of male sexuality are often violently policed. You’re either straight and fit in or you’re gay and will be ostracised. There’s little space for exploration and straight men doing gay things will often get bullied and shunned for it or will come up with ingenious ways of avoiding having to be associated with gayness, yelling “no homo” is but one example. It is this space of confusion and prejudice that the film Beach Rats explores as 19 year-old Frankie navigates the boardwalks of Coney Island. Inspired by a selfie of a young topless guy in a baseball cap (yup, this film was based on a selfie) this film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2017 and won much critical praise. There is much to praise – plenty of epic writing, acting and filming, but it’s the central story I want to critique and the tropes used to tell it. Ultimately, I find this film as confused as its protagonist, and not in a good way.

Firstly, the writer-director Eliza Hittman has been very clear in numerous interviews that this is neither a coming out nor a coming of age film, she calls it “a coming of consciousness” story as Frankie tries to get to know himself. He does so by taking drugs with his mates and hanging out on the beach, getting a girlfriend, and using a gay hook-up site to get with older men. So the film is very much about Frankie’s sexuality but both Frankie and Hittman are adamant that he is not gay, as Frankie says: “I don’t really think of myself as gay”. He might think of himself as bisexual or heteroflexible or queer or just never desiring of attributing a label to his sexuality, or he might just be really confused. By Frankie being not-gay the film also becomes not-gay, seeking to explore that strange and violent world of toxic masculinity and male sexuality. This could make for a great and nuanced film but, sadly, Beach Rats is still overloaded with gay content and relies much too heavily on gay tropes to tell an all too familiar and cliché story. As for those tropes, here are a few (spoilers).

The high volume of topless, sweaty men. The film poster comprising of these topless, sweaty men. The lingering shots on Harris Dickinson’s face. The lingering shots on his six-pack and bum. The full frontal male nudity. The sex between men. The sex between younger and older men. The fact that depicting sex between younger and older men was considered taboo – even though for many guys it’s completely normal! The use of gay hook-up sites. The fact that depicting the use of hook-up sites was considered taboo even though it’s a completely normal way for guys to meet up. Straight (or perhaps not-gay) male characters mocking the gay hook-up sites. The same characters choking and punching a gay guy called Jeremy towards the end of the film and leaving him stranded on a beach. The fact we don’t know if Jeremy survives. That Jeremy is basically a disposable trope: a plot device with little character or characterisation who is a stepping-stone in Frankie’s unhappy and dangerous life. That violence towards gay men is used as a plot device and left uncontextualised and unresolved (this trope is so common it’s got a name – Bury Your Gays). The way women are often emotionally and sexually used by confused men without apology or adequate resolution for those female characters. That distraught mothers and girlfriends are means via which a troubled man can continue his journey of discovery.

It’s a long list and in isolation, many of these elements don’t have to be considered gay or a gay trope but put them together and I think Beach Bats manages to appropriate, fetishise, exoticise and capitalise on gay life without ever acknowledging it. The film yells one loud “no homo” while cashing in on the pink pound. Furthermore, so many of the above issues don’t just happen onscreen, they happen in real life. So many LGBT+ people are beaten up and killed, ostracised from society, and suffer, and I don’t enjoy seeing this reflected on the screen with little nuance and empathy. For me, a film like Beach Rats is the product of a predominantly heterosexual team trying (and failing) to tell a gay-not-gay story. It’s not that straight people can’t tell these stories and shouldn’t be allowed, it’s that they need to do their research and better express their allyship. This needs to happen off-screen as well. If we truly want to explore the world of male sexuality and create a world in which men can more wholesomely explore their sexualities then it’s “no homo” that needs to be buried, not gays.

 

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.

Make Dumbledore Straight Again

I am all for people of any gender and sexuality creating fictional characters of any gender and sexuality. My only stipulation is that they do it well. A few years back I blogged on the trouble with a gay Dumbledore – namely that making him gay after the fact and most of the books are published and he’s dead anyway (spoilers) isn’t good enough. We get no sense of his struggle as a gay man in the wizarding world or maybe even his lack of a struggle because the wizarding world is so accepting of gay people (but likes to enslave house elves). We get no sense of how he relates to his own sexuality and how that manifests in his life. As I wrote in that previous blog, “ It’s the imaginations of straight people that are the limiting factor here not how people choose to express their sexuality, if they are even give a chance to.” But I’ll tell you something worse than retconning gayness into an otherwise straight character (because unless we’re told otherwise it just isn’t clear) is then robbing that character of their newfound gayness.

Fantastic Beasts 2 wasn’t fantastic and all Dumbledore got by way of a gay plot line was the fact that he and Grindelwald had an intense friendship, a bit like brothers but actually “more than brothers”…ok, so like twin brothers then? Meanwhile, Grindelwald is doing his best to become the Hitler of the wizarding world, so things aren’t so great for LGBT+ “representation” in the Potterverse. As the ace LGBT+ activist and vlogger Rowan Ellis describes this isn’t just queerbaiting (which is bad enough), it’s queercoding, whereby  fans are told about ensuing queerness and queerness is coded into the film but never made explicit – “they want to get the credit for representation without actually having it” (imagine being told Captain Marvel was going to be a black woman…). So for the homophobically inclined gayness is not there and for the queerly passionate it’s there-but-not-there and they have to do all the imaginative work for themselves unlike, say, the writer. The result, both groups buy cinema tickets.

Meanwhile, J.K. goes and reveals Dumbledore and Grindelwald did in fact have an “intense” and “passionate” relationship with sex in it. “But as happens in any relationship, gay or straight or whatever label we want to put on it, one never knows really what the other person is feeling…So I’m less interested in the sexual side—though I believe there is a sexual dimension to this relationship—than I am in the sense of the emotions they felt for each other, which ultimately is the most fascinating thing about all human relationships.” Two things I want to point out here: namely the erasure of sexual relations between men because who really wants to think about Dumbledore giving Grindelwald a good blowjob (turns out, lots of hilarious meme-makers); the swift movement from talking about a gay relationship to “any relationship” with “whatever label” – I can’t wait for the day my relationships with people of my own gender don’t get labelled but that day ain’t anytime soon. Then the director of Average Beasts 2 said: “This is a story about two men who loved each other, and ultimately have to fight each other. It’s a story for the 21st century.” I think the second part of the last sentence is true because the script was written in the 21st century but the rest isn’t – it can’t be a story if it gets no mention or action in the movie. There’s not even enough lip service given for it to constitute even the thinnest of plot points. So make Dumbledore straight again because queer fans deserve so much better and shouldn’t have to read between the lines which were never written, then hastily written after the event, then erased, thrown in the bin and so quietly alluded to no one heard. This isn’t representation and I just find it offensive and very, very sad when you consider this in the face of the persecution and suffering the LGBT+ community has faced and continues to face. Now here’s Rowan Ellis saying it better than I could…

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.