Black Widow – “That’s Not My Story”

Spoilers for Black Widow, Avengers: EndgameWandaVision, Loki and Captain Marvel

I’ve just started the Hawkeye series, which I am quite enjoying, and remembered I never published this lil’ take on the Black Widow movie, which came out last summer (which in the world of the MCU might as well be a decade ago). Anyways, after years and years of playing second fiddle to male leads Black Widow finally got her own movie and it was…fine. I mean, this is the MCU so don’t expect too much from their efforts at ‘diversifying’ their portfolio. Nevertheless, it’s popcorn guzzling fun with Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh knocking it out the park as lolsome kinda-sisters and the villain has a secret floating base hidden in a cloud and blah blah, let’s get to the analysis.

The MCU actively avoided producing a film with a female protagonist for years because leaked emails in 2015 revealed CEO Ike Perlmutter didn’t think it would sell (which reminds me of the time a ‘friend’ told me a gay Captain Kirk wouldn’t sell). Yup, women aren’t profitable. This is just one example of the sexism Scarlet Johansson would have experienced during her many, many years playing a secondary character, not to mention the objectification, having to kill people with her thighs (I mean, does Thor ever do that?), her love-interest plot-device status, and a briefly mentioned backstory including an enforced hysterectomy in the Red Room – a grim Russian spy-making facility. Oh, and in her final movie appearance in Avengers: Endgame she dies. She throws herself off a cliff to save a guy (and the universe) and doesn’t even get a big funeral at the end, unlike Tony Stark. She also doesn’t come back to life, unlike Loki and Vision. That’s not to mention the countless sexist questions Johansson had to field in interviews for the films, rarely receiving allyship from the male actors, who didn’t get questions about clothes and underwear (apart from this one).

After all this she finally got her own movie. Trouble is, it’s not really her movie but an introduction to her replacement (because, she’s dead, remember), aka Yelena Belova, played brilliantly by Florence Pugh. They’ve got a long backstory involving being fake sisters with fake parents, brainwashing and the Red Room. But Natasha escaped all that and joined the Avengers, leaving Yelena stuck for years (until someone blows special red powder at her which undoes her chemical brainwashing, yup, that happens in the film). It’s when the pair meet that we get the best acting in the film. They are such believable siblings – squabbling, mocking, loving and trying to make sense of their superhero super trauma. Most MCU films and series are dependent on the chemistry between the two leads – usually a straight white man and either a black, straight male sidekick or a white, straight female sidekick/love interest. Captain Marvel saw a white, cisfemale get the lead and her own straight, black cisfemale sidekick – any potential romance between them 100% denied by the MCU rules even though it wouldn’t haven’t been had Monica Rambeau been a guy. Anyways, Johansson and Pugh are great.

Yelena mocks Natasha for selling out to the Avengers, for flicking her hair back, for always doing a certain fighting pose because, apparently, she loved posing and being looked at. I laughed at the sibling rivalry and banter but once I left the cinema I realised it wasn’t funny at all. Black Widow flicked her hair and posed because that’s what the script and directors had her do. They objectified her because that’s how they profited from a female actor and character. Yelena also criticises her for selling out to the Avengers but she never had the chance to buy into anything else. Her character was never written to have significant agency. It kinda hurts, then, that in her own film she is mocked by another female character for having been objectified and for lacking agency. Black Widow is a victim of sexist storytelling and the lack of imagination of predominantly male teams to imagine well-rounded female characters. But as far as the MCU is concerned it’s all a joke. Talk about rubbing sexist salt in the sexist wound.

Another joke concerns the enforced hysterectomies that Natasha and Yelena were subjected to by the Red Room. After busting out their fake-Dad from a Russian prison (it’s a long story involving an avalanche) Yelena criticises him for never having really cared about her. He mocks her, asking if it’s “that time of the month”, to which she replies she cannot have a period. She then vividly describes what the hysterectomy was like. On the one hand it’s great to have a female character school a male one in periods (and the lack of them) and the nature of a hysterectomy. But the trouble is, it’s played for laughs. Yup, their torture and mutilation is a joke. Black Widow even smirks when Yelena threatens to talk about “fallopian tubes”. This is often the case with the comedy of the MCU. So many moments that could be serious or played for emotion, are played for laughs. Although can you imagine Tony Stark and Captain America bantering about enforced vasectomies? Even Yelena putting flowers on Natasha’s grave in the post-credit scene is interrupted by Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine (played hilariously by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) blowing her nose. So that’s Black Widow’s death and Yelena’s grief getting a punchline.

Another hurdle the film falls at is racial diversity. The two leads are white as are the actors who play their fake-parents. Nothing inherently wrong with a bunch of white leads but it’s how the other characters are treated that’s important. There’s Oksana, another Black Widow, played by Michelle Lee, a Chinese American martial artist, stuntwoman and actress. She doesn’t last long as, having fled the Red Room, she’s stabbed by a pre-Red Powder Yelena. Oksana then bleeds to death, it’s a tough watch. Later on, the Black Widow assassin Ingrid chases Natasha but ends up falling from a roof and hurting her back. Dreykov, the super (white) villain and head of the Red Room, then commands Ingrid to blast herself in the head as she’s failed her mission. It’s another hard watch especially as Ingrid is played by Nanna Blondell, a Swedish actor of Ghanaian decent. The trouble here is that the film couldn’t commit to a more racially diverse group of leads but it did diversify the secondary cast, which results in a lot of non-white* characters dying at the hands of white ones. We’ve seen this before in Thor and Age of Ultron. Unfortunately, art appears to be imitating life by normalising the deaths of non-white people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for diverse casts (100%) but I want diverse leads as well and I want race to be successfully integrated into the DNA of a story just as it was, in many ways, in Black Panther, when a predominantly black team were put in charge. Where was the predominantly female team for Black Widow? And what about a predominantly queer team for the queer lead hero that the MCU ain’t even promising us?

There was a lot to enjoy in the film and I, for one, am loving Phase 4 of the MCU as a lot of the white, male leads take a step back to allow for a host of new characters. But the MCU needs to diversity how it creates and tells its stories, not just diversity who gets a leading role. As Natasha says to Yelena in the trailer below, “That’s not my story”, and I reckon she could be talking about the very film that is meant to be telling her story. Tbh, if I were Black Widow I wouldn’t just flee the Red Room, I’d flee the MCU.

*

P.s. I’m using the term non-white* not to reduce people to something that they are not (i.e. white) but in an effort to try and show that whiteness is going on here and not something that can be taken for granted and considered normal (or not even seen). I appreciate it’s a clunky term and one I may jettison as I continue to educate myself.

P.p.s. as another little post-credits comment, in terms of the MCU and it’s abysmal history of female representation can I just complain that having slogged my way through six sometimes inventive, sometimes dull episodes of Loki I was disappointed (but not surprised) that the person who causes all the bad that’s going to happen for Phase 4 is…..drum roll…..a woman. Yup, female Loki, played by Sophia di Martino, is the one who might just be responsible for the next multiversal war.

The Disempowerment Of The Dog, Pt 3: Straights Win

Happily Ever After? As Peter gets closer to Phil he starts to teach him that being a man doesn’t have to involve being sexist, homophobic, racist, and aggressive. Indeed, a man can be camp, bad at tennis, sensitive, well-dressed and into dissection. Phil realises he is full of repression, anger, trauma and prejudice, and that he’s been taking these things out on the people around him. He finally sees the error of his ways and starts apologising to Rose, George, the local Native Americans, and everyone else he has treated awfully. He becomes close, platonic friends with Peter, and it all ends well…ha, does it bullshit.

Homophobic Plot Twist: as Peter gets closer to Phil it’s hard to tell the nature of the affection the older guy has for the teenager. It could be platonic and paternal but the film is so rife with gay tropes it’s hard not to read more into this, especially as the trailer queerbaits with the (very brief) moment when Phil rubs Peter’s neck. “Look, GAY SUBTEXT,” screams the film but that’s it as far as gay intimacy goes (not forgetting the sweaty handkerchief). As for what Peter feels, he gets a little flirty and seductive, holding a cigarette to Phil’s lips and asking suggestive questions about Bronco Henry. And then what? They fall in love? Nope, Peter kills Phil. Yup, the creepy twink murders the old, repressed gay dude. An earlier scene in the film showed Peter snapping on some Marigolds (lol) and dissecting a dead cow (yuk). Later Phil shows Peter how to make rope out of dried cow hide but he doesn’t have enough. Annoyingly, Rose had given all the excess hides away to the pesky “Indians” but luckily Peter has some he prepared earlier. We watch as Phil places the strips of hide into a tub of water to dampen them. Phil has a cut on his hand and his blood mixes with the water. Peter watches intently, knowing full well the dead cow he skinned died of anthrax. So, for Phil, what is a moment of manly, possibly romantic, bonding is, for Peter, the perfect time to commit murder. It’s not long before Phil is in a coffin. Take that you repressed queer!

“For what kind of man would I be if I didn’t help my mother, if I didn’t save her?”

Peter asks himself this question right at the start of the film and it’s clear that Jane Campion was interested in exploring masculinity. Yet having the more effeminate queer guy kill the more masculine one isn’t a poignant insight into the male condition, it’s just another example of the awful treatment and characterisation of gay men in film.

Straight Love Good: the closing scene sees Peter tucking the rope (aka murder weapon) under his bed (wearing gloves, of course) and going over to his window. Outside he sees George and Rose getting back from Phil’s funeral. They kiss and Peter smirks because what does any queer son love more than murdering his mother’s bully so she can continue her happy, heterosexual marriage. What’s more, it’s not just straight marriage that gets a big tick, it’s also the straight, nuclear family, as George chooses Phil’s funeral as the prime time to invite their parents for Christmas. They happily accept because, thank God, their awful gay son has finally been murdered by an evil twink. It’s also not clear why George does so little to stop his brother abusing Rose, leaving it all up to Peter instead. I mean, if a gay guy has to get murdered could it at least be at the hands of his straight brother, rather than the only other queer character. I’d also settle for Rose shooting Phil, he really does treat her awfully.

I 100% did not need this film. I’ve seen enough homophobic tropes to last a lifetime. Brokeback Mountain (spoilers!) was a super depressing gay love story in which two cowboys did actually fall in love but one gets beaten to death (by straight people) and the other lives on unhappily. That film has the excuse of being 16 years old. Not to mention that The Power of the Dog, the book, was published in 1967 (no one needed this adapted into a film over fifty years later). There are a zillion films out there that celebrate straight love – in which the straight couple don’t die/get murdered and get to stay in love. But there are not a zillion films that celebrate queer love, quite the opposite. The balance needs to be redressed.

The Power of the Dog is a brilliant film for many reasons – acting, cinematography, directing, setting, writing, music – but it’s the story that is the problem. It adds to the long history of the homophobic portrayal of gay men in film. In trying to say “hey, masculinity has nuances” it actually said “gays are bad”. The stories we tell have consequences. Bad stories will have bad consequences and I, for one, am exhausted and deeply disheartened by the amount of bad LGBTQ+ stories being told and, more often than not, by straight people. The Power of The Dog should really be called The Power of the Trope and, boy, those tropes are even tougher to kill than a repressed, gay cowboy.

Straights get to dance, kiss and be happy. Queers get killed (and handkerchiefs)

The Disempowerment Of The Dog, Pt 2: Gay Love Bad

Young Twink: it’s almost like Peter is an amalgam of what the filmmakers thought would make for an edgy, young queer character – he’s camp, loves his mum, is bad at tennis, loves dissection, is a bit weird (in a cousin of the Addams’ family sort of way), and has a male “friend” at uni who gets referenced once and could be more than a friend but it’s never made explicit (like the guy Q is making dinner for in the latest James Bond – we never meet him and we’re not even told it’s a date, yawn). But just like with Phil (and Rose and George for that matter) the film doesn’t dig deep. For example, there is an interesting co-dependent relationship to explore between Peter and his mother but for the sake of the film it seems it’s only really there to make clear that Peter loves his Mum a lot (i.e. with potentially lethal consequences). Meanwhile, Rose loves her queer son very much and is super nice to him, which is wonderful given it’s 1925! But again, why and how she’s like that given the time and place are unclear, instead, it’s as if she’s nice to Peter so we like her more and, therefore, hate Phil even more who, remember, is awful! Also, it’s strange that the film never explicitly says Peter is gay or into guys, despite the barrel of tropes it throws at us, whereas the love between Rose and George is unequivocal and explicit. I’ve so often heard straight people say to me, “oh but we don’t have to make a thing about it”, as a way to silence discussion about homosexuality, while heterosexuality gets taken for granted. In a film like this, no form of sexuality should be taken for granted.

To be clear – I love a camp guy who plays tennis badly (#guilty) but, in this film, I think it’s lazy storytelling – “effeminate gay guys can’t play tennis, ha!” As for the plot, well halfway through and we’ve discovered Phil likes sniffing old handkerchiefs. Peter has spent most of the film avoiding Phil but then he spots him skinny dipping…

Male Nudity: cue Cumberbatch taking his clothes off, covering himself in mud and going for a swim. The camera lingers on his bum and there’s even a brief flash of his mud-covered willy. When Phil sees Peter watching he runs out the river to chase him and his bum jiggles everywhere. For a moment I thought I was watching a farce! While nudity in movies can add so much this just felt like a reason to get the ratings up, including the scene where Phil watches some of the other cowboys playing naked in the river. More bums and the odd willy to see! It’s nice that the female body isn’t being objectified for a change. However, given all the body shaming of George for being fat, it’s strange that the film spends so much time eyeing up the naked bodies of muscular men. It’s like it wants to critique toxic masculinity while cashing in on its body ideals (here’s looking at you Beach Rats). But hey, nudity sells, right, and if it’s artistic enough it might just clinch that Oscar. After the mud bath and naked jog things take a surprise turn…Phil starts being nice to Peter.

Gay Love Bad: and this is where I just cannot. For starters, Phil is in his 40s and Peter is a teenager. Meanwhile, George and Rose are of a similar age and have a nice marriage, if it weren’t for all those awful gay guys ruining everything. As for Phil and Pete, they get the old guy fancies young guy trope, like Call Me By Your Name but much worse. It’s not like Phil could just meet a dude his age and have a nice life with him – I mean, there’s plenty of historical evidence that this happened a lot. Phil also takes to Peter as a way to get at Rose – so even that adds a touch of evil to the whole thing because, remember, Phil is awful.

Phil shows Peter how to ride a horse, knot ropes from strips of cow hide (lovely) and other such manly things. He’s keen that Peter stop letting his mother turn him into a sissy because, yup, Phil is a misogynist douchebag. As they get closer (or appear to get closer) Phil opens up and reveals that the initials ‘BH’ on the dirty handkerchief belonged to Bronco Henry (who also owned the saucy magazines). Bronco was an older man who took a shine to teenage Phil (here we go again, *eye roll*) and taught him the ropes of being a man, including rope tying (obviously) and sexism. One time Bronco and Phil were out on the planes and Phil had an accident. Bronco saved his life, which involved getting in a sleeping bag with him. “Naked?” asks Peter. Phil just laughs. It’s these details that form Phil’s origin story and we discover who’s to blame for why he’s so awful – a repressed older gay guy! History sure loves repeating itself in this movie.

It’s worth noting that the relationship between George and Rose is a nice one that lacks overt physical and emotional violence, whereas the one between Phil and Peter is predicated on abuse. So often when straight people write gay romances it involves some sort of violence (Skins season 1, Sex Education season 1 etc). One character is mean to the other but really it’s because they like them and eventually the violence (emotional, psychological, physical etc) becomes love (at least, a very toxic form of love). This is also true of loads of straight romances as well but, hey, this post ain’t about one of those films. In essence, it seems The Power of the Dog wants to romanticise violence between gay men because what’s sexier than getting with your oppressor, amirite!? As for Phil and Peter, if you think things sound bad so far, they’re about to get much, much worse. Tbc…

Queerbaiting alert! Think you’re in for a touching gay romance? Think again!

The Disempowerment Of The Dog, Part 1: The Evil Gay

The Power of the Dog tells the story of the world’s biggest dickhead, aka Phil Burbank, played very convincingly by Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s 1925 and he lives on a cattle ranch in rural Alabama – think wide open planes, topless cowboys sewing hides and lots of castrating bulls. He has a brother, George (Jess Plemons), who marries a widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst, who is actually married to Plemons!). Rose has a teenage son called Peter (Kodi Smitt-McPhee) who likes nothing more than making flowers out of newspapers and dissecting rabbits. Let’s just say that when Phil first encounters Rose and Peter, he sets one of the newspaper flowers alight and lights his cigarette on it. Yup, things are going to go from bad to worse…and they really do.

Phil Is A Dickhead: the whole film rests upon this premise. He bullies and body shames George, regularly calling him “fatso”. He’s racist, preferring to burn surplus hides rather than sell them to the “Indians”, i.e. the Native Americans who also live on the land. He bullies Peter, calling him “Miss Nancy” and ridiculing him for being an effeminate sissy. Worst of all is his deeply misogynistic hatred of Rose. His bullying of her is slow and purposeful. He mocks and humiliates her, and drives her to alcoholism. Phil is a walking example of toxic masculinity, who loves his leather chaps as much as he does castrating bulls with his bare hands, yee-haw! He also loves being sexist, fatphobic, homophobic and racist. Altogether now, Phil is a dickhead!

But why is Phil so awful? Could it be the other cowboys? Well, they do like homophobically bullying Peter and clearly revel in the masculine ideals of being strong and awful, but Phil’s the boss, and isn’t close to them. Could it be his parents? They do appear briefly in the film but there’s no exploration of how they contributed to Phil’s personality. What about George? He’s so nice it’s impossible to imagine him teaching Phil how to be awful. It’s clear that Phil depends on George to the point of co-dependent dysfunction, which further explains his hatred of Rose, but that still doesn’t tell us why he’s such a bad guy. Then half way through the film we find out Phil’s secret…he’s gay!

Evil Gay: surprise, he fancies men! He’s got a secret stash of photos of hot dudes hidden in a tree trunk and he likes watching the other cowboys swim around naked. He doesn’t join in, presumably because he’d enjoy it too much. He also has a giant, dirty handkerchief with the initials BH on. Phil loves nothing better than sneaking off to the woods, taking out the handkerchief, putting it down his pants, then rubbing it over his face. I’m 100% not here to kink shame and this scene was played so earnestly but, boy, did I laugh. So it turns out Phil is a repressed gay, he’s also incredibly evil, which makes him an Evil Gay – a trope familiar to us LGBTQ+ folks, just watch a Disney film! And there’s nothing an Evil Gay likes more than ruining straight people’s lives, which is precisely what Phil does throughout the film. Now, there is a nuanced point to make here – namely how patriarchy and toxic masculinity oppresses same sex desire between men and how that oppression has awful consequences. But we’re never shown how Phil has been oppressed. As I said earlier, there’s no effort to explore why Phil is awful, we don’t even find out if his parents were homophobic or not – a huge contributor to the shaping of a queer person’s psyche. Phil is just evil and gay, simples. But this is lazy storytelling which rests heavily on decades of homophobic tropes.

Lazy History: now, someone could say that Phil isn’t gay because that word didn’t exist in the 1920s to describe love between men or the identity of a man who loves other men. The word homosexual wasn’t even invented until the 1860s and it certainly wasn’t an identity that one could claim with pride, it was a medical pathology, an illness. It’s also highly likely Phil might never have heard the word homosexual, it was far less common than it is today. This history is vital to understanding Phil as a man in the 1920s but the film doesn’t bother to explore it. It’s not like Phil’s time was one of joyous fluidity in which guys had access to words such as bi, gay, pan, heteroflexible, homoromantic, ace, etc. We have no idea how he relates to his own feelings and possible identity, but what we do know is that he’s horrible, repressed and gay. A further irony is that he’s the chief homophobe of the film. None of the significant straight characters, namely Rose, George and the parents, ever express homophobia. Rose is even extra caring for her ragingly gay son, how nice! So it’s left to nasty, gay Phil to be a homophobe too. To be fair to the film, I think with the character of Phil it was trying to say “toxic masculinity = bad” but what it actually says is “repressed gay men = the root of all evil”. Unsurprisingly, the chief object of Phil’s homophobia is Peter who turns out to be another grab bag of gay tropes. Tbc.

Last Time Watching Last Night In Soho

Popcorn, fizzy drink, comfy seat, tick. Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy acting their socks off, tick. Celebrity guest appearance from the late Dame Diana Rigg, tick. Matt Smith not playing an over-enthusiastic Time Lord, tick. London in all it’s 1960s glamour, tick. Nuanced feminist critique of patriarchy…absolutely not (spoilers).

I’ll get straight to it. Ellie moves from Cornwall to London to study fashion and finds it full of pervy taxi drivers and douchey lads at her halls of residence. She finds a bedsit at the top of a creepy old Soho’s townhouse owned by Diana Rigg. Once in the creeky old bed she starts dreaming of Sandie, a young woman aspiring to be a singer in 1960s London. The bond intensifies as Ellie revels in the glamour of Sandie’s swinging life…only to discover that the 60s weren’t so swinging after all and there were also loads of sexist men, including Sandie’s manager Jack, who quickly starts pimping her out. There is one nice guy, an undercover cop who briefly appears to warn Sandie away from her life in sex work. Back in the present day Ellie keeps bumping into a creepy, old guy who she is convinced is Jack. The ghosts of the men who abused Sandie start haunting Ellie and she then has a vision of Jack stabbing Sandie in bed. It’s a sad old story and all too familiar, one of sexual abuse and femicide. However, I was pleasantly surprised that the writer/director of Shaun of the Dead (a zombie movie) and Hot Fuzz (a gory buddy cop movie) had now turned his hand to feminism. That was until the final act.

Plot twist! Jack didn’t kill Sandie, she killed him! And then she killed all the creepy men who wanted to pay her for sex and buried them under the floorboards – turns out their ghosts weren’t trying to spook Ellie but wanted her help in vanquishing the psychopathic Sandie. Double plot twist – Sandie’s still alive and it’s the nice old lady who owns the house, cue Diana Rigg trying to poison Ellie and then chasing her up the stairs with a knife before being kicked in the face and burned to death. So, for a final plot twist Last Night In Soho reveals that there’s a far greater problem than the systemic abuse of women within patriarchy and that problem is…women! Yup, behind every abusive man there’s a promiscuous, mass-murdering woman who likes nothing better than slaughtering men and poisoning young women (when their knife wielding days are behind them). The film does try to redeem Sandie’s killing spree with a “what was a girl supposed to do” sort of explanation from Diana Rigg because #girlpower is serial murder, apparently. Meanwhile, the dodgy old guy at the pub isn’t Jack but Lindsay the undercover cop. However, Ellie only finds this out once she’s chased him out the pub and he’s been run over by a car. I mean, it’s not like she could have just asked him his name!? Honestly, what is a girl to do in a film in which coherent female agency is non-existent. Ah well, at least I enjoyed the popcorn and Anya Taylor-Joy’s epic downtempo rendition of Downtown.

 

 

Freddy’s Revenge: The Gayest Horror Film

I have long loved horror movies. I was around ten when I got into the Scream franchise and from there it was a blood-drenched rollercoaster ride into the worlds of Urban Legend, Halloween and Final Destination. Subversive, problematic, terrifying, exploitative, thrilling, dehumanising, racist, sexist, scary, horror movies are many, many things, but one franchise I didn’t get into was Nightmare On Elm Street. I’m kicking myself now because I recently discovered that the second Elm Street film, Freddy’s Revenge, is considered one of the gayest horror films out there. Spoilers galore.

The franchise is centred on the demonic Freddy Krueger, formerly a janitor who murdered lots of children before being burnt to death by their parents’. But he comes back from hell to haunt people on Elm Street by killing them in their dreams, resulting in their real world deaths. He does it all in trademark fedora, striped jumper and razor glove. He’s terrifying, which is why I avoided him as a youngster – give me a serial killer in a ghost mask any day. The second film sees high schooler Jesse, played by a 25-year-old Mark Patton, and his family moving into the house where Nancy, the doomed protagonist of the first film, used to live. From the off Jesse starts dreaming of Freddy and it becomes clear that Freddy wants to possess his body and use him to inflict carnage. The central premise of the film is a teenage boy’s fear of being taken over by a murderous, demonic man. As Jesse says at one point, “He’s inside me…and he wants to take me again!”

Jesse (left) and his buddy Grady chatting about their awful coach

Yup, this film is very gay. Further gay material includes Jesse wrestling with his jock friend Grady after having his tracksuit bottoms pulled down; numerous scenes in the guys’ locker room; lots of shots of Jesse in his underwear – unlike most horror of the time there is much less objectification of the young female body and no shots of exposed breasts, instead a young male actor is objectified (I’m not saying this was progress but I am noting the difference, and teenage me would’ve appreciated it); a scene at a queer S&M club (yup); a shower scene in which the nasty sports coach – who turned up at the S&M club in a leather vest – is tied to a shower with skipping ropes, stripped, whipped on the bum and then clawed to death (yes, actually). Central to the story is the will-they-won’t-they between Jesse and Lisa, an absolutely stellar horror heroine. At the infamous pool party, the pair are finally making out when Freddy’s gruesome tongue appears from Jesse’s mouth. Lisa doesn’t see but Jesse flees to Grady’s house where Grady is tucked up in bed not wearing many clothes. Jesse is terrified…

Jesse: Something is trying to get inside my body.

Grady: Yeah, and she’s female, and she’s waiting for you in the cabana. And you wanna sleep with me.

Yup, still very gay, and it’s not long until Freddy literally bursts out of Jesse’s body and slashes Grady to death. Freddy then returns to the pool party and attacks Lisa but she wards him off with her love for Jesse, who she believes is still somewhere inside Freddy. So the demonic maniac kills a bunch of other teenagers before finally being vanquished by a fearless kiss from Lisa. Freddy’s skin falls away to reveal a petrified Jesse within. This is almost the end save for the mandatory nasty twist.

That’s the film in a nutshell and on it’s 1985 release many fans hated it. Various articles picked up on the gay subtext (hardly very sub, I’d call it the text), which cued a lot of denial from the movie’s creators. The director, Jack Sholder, claimed to not have a clue the film was super gay as did the writer, David Chaskin. He denied homosexual and homoerotic themes and subtext. Instead, Chaskin criticised Mark Patton’s portrayal of Jesse, blaming him for the character’s effeminacy, sensitivity and possible gayness. At the time, Patton was a closeted gay actor, famous for having played a queer character alongside Cher in a film. Suddenly he was thrust into the spotlight and subjected to all sorts of homophobic abuse and speculation. Panic ensued and it wasn’t long before his agent told him he’d have to get good at character acting because he’d never be able to play it as a straight man. All this to a backdrop of a deeply homophobic moral panic fuelled by Reagan’s Republican party and the press, and their use of the AIDS pandemic as justification for on-going homophobia. It wasn’t long before Patton left Hollywood in order to protect himself.

Over the next few decades Freddy’s Revenge became an underground gay hit and acquired a cult following. I wish I’d had Jesse as a role model, tbh. It got harder and harder to deny the gay subtext and eventually Chaskin acknowledged he’d lied. He’d written the gay themes on purpose. Except, for him, it wasn’t a homosexual story, it was a homophobic one – he wanted to play on the moral panic to scare adolescent boys even more. What’s scarier for a teenage boy than a demon with razor fingers? Being gay! To achieve this Freddy’s Revenge deviated from the typical horror movie plot. Many horror films of the time had female protagonists, aka final girls – virginal female characters who are hunted by a dangerous, male killer with a penchant for murdering teens. The final girl would usually avoid sex, thus making it to the end, while her ‘promiscuous’ friends got butchered. So, we’ve got slut-shaming; punishing and shaming women for their sexuality while fetishizing and objectifying the bodies of young actresses; and the murderous male villain as a metaphor for rape and assault. The first Elm Street film has a scene in which the protagonist, Nancy, is asleep in the bath when Freddy’s razor glove appears between her legs. His grotesque tongue also licks her through the phone and later, after killing her boyfriend he shouts, “I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy!”. These images are deeply scary with the fear centred around female vulnerability and sexual assault. Cut to the end of a typical horror movie and said final girl finally takes it upon herself to kill the maniac with a knife, axe, gun or other phallic symbol – Nancy uses a sledge hammer, an exploding lamp and lighter fuel. In a way, she learns from her tormentor and uses his tools to kill him because murder is so emancipating, right?

Don’t worry Jesse, if it’s done with consent this can be great!

Freddy’s Revenge changed the formula by having a final boy. The change wasn’t a simple one though because part of the final girl story is her objectification and her punishment for being sexual. But if a final boy is being stalked by a male antagonist then the sexual overtones would be gay. You wouldn’t hear Freddy yell, “I’m your boyfriend now, Jesse!”, partly because Jesse wouldn’t have a boyfriend in the first place and also because Freddy can’t be gay. There was even a scene where Robert Englund, who plays Freddy (very well), suggested that as well as stroke Jesse’s face with a razor finger he also put it into his mouth. But I think it was the make-up artist who suggested to Mark Patton that he not go through with this because it might look gay (unlike all that other stuff). Furthermore, in a horror movie the monster is often a stand in for predatory behaviour, assault and rape as experienced by women. But with a final boy at the helm this would force us to consider male rape, which was beyond the scope of an Elm Street film. So, how to solve the problem of the final boy? Well, he can’t just pick up a machete, slay the monster and liberate himself from the oppression of men, instead, he became the monster. Because that’s the story of male sexuality – the end result is becoming a monstrous sexual predator and mass murderer.

For these reasons I want to argue that while Freddy’s Revenge can be seen as a gay film, this is only possible via an act of reclamation – i.e. it takes a queer eye to see the details. But the original script was never meant to be gay, it was meant to be homophobic. It’s a cautionary tale meant to terrify teenage boys out of their possible, blossoming interest in other guys, be they bi, pan, gay or anything else. The point is guys shouldn’t like other guys. Homosexuality is a monster within that will literally tear you apart and destroy your life. One can also see the monster-within as a metaphor for AIDS, another way gay men were vilified and left to die. Remember, also, that the leather-vest wearing coach was slashed to death moments after we see him turn up at a queer S&M bar. So the only queer character is quickly murdered and there’s even the implication that he’s a pervert/paedophile. Grady warns Jess that the coach is “into pretty boys” like him and the coach sure does enjoy punishing Jesse and sending him off to the showers. And let’s not forget that moments after Grady mocks Jesse for wanting to sleep with him, Jesse/Freddy impales him against his bedroom door, because if you can’t sexually penetrate your best friend why not do it with a razor glove. In terms of LGBTQ+ representation, the film basically says gay men are a murderous threat to those around them and deserve to be killed. This isn’t gay, it’s homophobic. A gay version of the film would go something like this…

Jesse would fall for his male friend Grady (rather than his female friend Lisa) and the feelings would be reciprocated. Jesse could be camp and femme, into sports, love wearing nail varnish, and all sorts, he could just be himself as he wanted to be, not as toxic masculinity dictates. Tension would amount around the two friends having sex together, cue Freddy’s arrival to punish sexual teens. Freddy would hit on Jesse just as he’d hit on female characters and it would all be gross and problematic. By the end true love would win and Grady would kiss Freddy to save Jesse. This is a much gayer version of the film which would, in the crass, contradictory and violent way horror movies do, celebrate Jesse’s sexuality. But we didn’t get that film, we got a homophobic one.

Jesse and Lisa looking pretty terrified at the thought of male anal penetration

I’d also like to voice a big shout out to the character of Lisa, played brilliantly by Kim Myers. First things first she is bonkers level intelligent and adapts to the supernatural horror without batting an eyelid (while Jesse has yet another breakdown). For example, while Jesse’s Dad is busy trying to come up with a “rational” explanation for why his pet parrot just burst into flames, Lisa has already researched the origins of Freddy Krueger and is quick to suggest Jesse might have a psychic link to him. This is lightning fast intellect. She also fearlessly confronts the absolutely terrifying Freddy and even kisses him, in order to save Jesse. This time the Princess saves the Prince. When I watched the film I genuinely believed in Jesse’s affection for and attraction to Lisa and didn’t see his attraction to men precluding an attraction to women. However, the film won’t let Jesse actually voice this or realise his attraction to men, other than turning into a psychotic killer and penetrating his best friend with razors rather than, say, a finger or his penis. In many ways, the film can also be seen as a thwarted and deeply problematic bisexual coming of age story. Either way, Lisa gets caught up in a young man’s angst around his own sexuality and gets a rough ride for it. This is a sexist trope very prevalent in the genre of male coming of age films, here’s looking at you Call Me By Your Name. In my version, Grady and Jesse would be lucky to end up in a throuple with the clever, brave, compassionate, kind and independent Lisa. Having said all that, shouldn’t Lisa be allowed to freak out, be messy, and go off the rails like Jesse does? Why should Lisa have to highly achieve being a heroine when the guys around her are kinda average (but I do get that Jesse is in the throws of demonic possession which is no easy ride)?

The final point I want to make concerns villainy. Because the real villain here isn’t the razor glove wielding Freddy, it’s patriarchy. Yup, I whacked in a plot twist in the final paragraph just like the movie does in its closing scene. Toxic masculinity pervades all of the story – in the way Jesse is verbally bullied by his father and his coach; in Jesse and Grady only being able to connect intimately through fighting rather than platonic, sexual and/or romantic affection; and in the way Lisa is forced to compromise for a teen-demon. Patriarchy also pervades the creation of the film itself, as demonstrated in its huge homophobia and the way in which Patton was scapegoated. Fortunately, Patton recently made a brilliant documentary which outlines his story. I think Freddy’s Revenge is a fascinating example of how the limits of society limit how we can tell stories. The twist isn’t that this is actually a gay film, it’s that it was never the straight film it pretended to be, because straightness is an identity that artificially precludes queerness, even though we all carry queerness within. Queerness is no monster though but its suppression is truly monstrous. That’s the stuff of very real nightmares.

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This blog post sure was a labour of love for which I referred to many fab articles including Cracked, Wiki, BuzzFeed and Patton’s documentary Scream Queens!

A bonus shot from the first movie as teen Nancy throws some serious shade after a few nights without sleep!

Marvel’s Gay Super Hero

His name is Phastos and he’s one of the Eternals, a group of super beings who’ve lived on earth for yonks and will be blasting into cinemas this November (hopefully). Played by actor Brian Tyree Henry, Phastos is going to have a husband, a kid and an on-screen kiss. This is big news. Marvel’s previous LGBTQ+ representation included one of the films’ producers, Joe Russo, playing a nameless, grieving gay man opening up about his loss in a support group with Captain America in the film Avengers: Endgame. Yup, the first vaguely gay character is significant because a man he loved had died – eye roll. And then (spoilers) when all the people who turned to dust come back do we see the nameless gay guy be reunited with his now reincarnated lover, do we get an onscreen kiss, maybe even a hug? Do we bullshit. Not to mention Valkyrie from the third Thor film who, after the movie aired, we were told was bisexual, it’s just that any scenes that indicated this were left on the cutting room floor. So we didn’t get LGBTQ+ representation but we did get queerbaited. Again.

So, Phastos is progress – men kissing, men of colour kissing, men raising kids together, men loving one another. Hurrah. My concern though is with the larger morality of the MCU and how it’s dictated by the hero’s journey – it’s all about men following their punches with punchlines. Heroism is violence and quipping. There’s Iron Man, insufferably arrogant Tony Stark who likes nothing better than patronising women and making billions off selling weapons. Captain America, who used to be a scrawny guy but got injected with super-steroids so he could go beat up Nazis, living the American dream, right? Doctor Strange is a less funny, more arrogant version of Iron Man but with magic instead of a metal suit. Thor is the bro-God of Asgard who’s a violent mess with a big hammer but he is kinda funny. The Hulk is the personification of anger in giant, green blob form. The aforementioned are all white but fortunately Black Panther is black and also gets to beat people up in the name of good (although at least his movie has some nuance). Not forgetting Captain Marvel, a woman who’s a fighter pilot turned superbeing capable of inflicting super violence. Oh, and she’s great with those one-liners. So who is Phastos going to be? The violent, funny and gay one, who’ll do whatever he can to defend the simplistic and binary values of whichever side we’re being told is good? Kinda like gay soldiers being allowed to fight for Queen and country. It’s a certain sort of progress predicated on opening up opportunities for killing bad guys.

As for the portrayal of Phastos’ sexuality in the film, my gut feeling is that it will be ‘normal’ – the “hey, we don’t have a problem that you like boning guys” kinda reaction from straight people, “as long as you don’t rub it in our faces” etc. It’ll just be normal that he’s got a husband and kid because, y’know, gay people are normal. But normal in the MCU is patriarchal and violent which, spoiler alert, is a reflection of wider American society. Will we see any of the struggles that Phastos has had to face for his sexuality – the bullying, exclusion, poor mental health, loneliness – or will the Eternals be conveniently OK with diversity despite having delivered only one movie with a black lead and one with a female lead? Because it seems with a lot of movies these days, diversity is copying and pasting LGBTQ+ people into previously cishetero roles, rather than questioning the patriarchal plot lines and actually delivering something novel.

But queer isn’t just a word for describing gender and/or sexuality, it’s also a type of politics and, for me, that politics challenges the constraints and violences of the world so championed by the MCU – one which has so regularly seen women reduced to their reproductive capacity (or incapacity in the case of Black Widow) and romantic possibilities; and also one that so often kills off people of colour because they’re usually secondary characters (see Captain America: Civil War and the first Thor film as examples). Meanwhile, the baddies in the Eternals are known as the Deviants, which is a word often used to describe LGBTQ+ people but I’m guessing they’ll be a group of people as equally OK with diversity as the eternals but just the nasty version who want to commit some sort of simplistic evil so the audience will know to boo at them (in the MCU this usually means committing genocide and/or harming children). In conclusion, while there is progress in diversifying the MCU, I can’t wait to see Valkyrie actually get to be bisexual (and maybe get a name as well), until the underlying structures are transformed (i.e. truly queered) it’s just a fresh paint job on patriarchy. I could be wrong, though, and The Eternals could be the queer, intersectional feminist extravaganza we’ve been waiting for but I won’t get my hopes up.

P.s. and one quick aside about Valkyrie: when the director of Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi, was asked if Valkyrie would be explicitly queer in the next movie he said: “I think so…The IP is not mine. But with the actors, I feel whatever makes them comfortable — whether they feel like there’s a natural choice, or a natural way for that character to go — then I’m pretty supportive. If Tessa wanted to do that, I’m in.” But why does a queer plot line require a “natural choice” and a “natural way”? Heterosexual relationships never have to jump this bar and get endless, unquestioned screen time, while queer relationships have so much more ‘work’ to do to ‘earn’ their place on screen. Yawn.

The Eternals

Will Elsa Ever Be Gay?

Elsa’s journey to lesbianism has been a long one. It began in the subtext of the first movie (I mean, the metaphor speaks pretty loudly and Let It Go did become an LGBTQ+ anthem) and became a rallying call in the hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend dating back to 2016. Over the years those at Disney regularly alluded to Elsa’s possible homosexuality without ever  committing to it in what is a classic case of queer baiting as the fans did the imaginative labour (and spent their rainbow dollars) while Disney never had to come out for LGBT+ equality and representation. Then an unknown female figure was spotted in the sequel’s trailer and we’d finally been given a glimpse of Elsa’s future girlfriend! Alas not, as it’s now been made clear Elsa isn’t going to fall in love with a woman (or a person of any gender for that matter).

“Like the first movie,” said Kiristen Anderson-Lopez, the film’s songwriter, “Elsa is not just defined by a romantic interest. There are so many movies that define a woman by her romantic interest. That’s not a story that we wanted to tell at this point in time. What we really wanted to tell was if you have these powers, how do you grow and change and find your place in the world and find answers that haven’t been found before?” And Anderson-Lopez is right, there are so many movies that define a woman by her romantic interest. But there are zero Disney movies that allow a protagonist to be defined by their romantic interest in someone of the same gender.

Furthermore, being defined by a same-gender romance doesn’t mean a character has to be reduced to a stereotype or trope. In fact, given how Elsa’s society treated her for having ice powers it wouldn’t be surprising if they shunned and shamed her for being gay, thus traumatising her and forcing her on a lone quest for healing and self-empowerment. Being Elsa and being fab she would find resilience in the face of hostility and liberation in the face of ignorance and if along the way she found love then, my God, she would deserve it and the audience would celebrate it. To clarify, the problem with reducing LGBTQ+ characters to their romantic interest has nothing to do with LGBTQ+ people or characters but everything to do with the ignorance, prejudice and lack of creativity of the heterosexuals who contribute to oppressive cultures of heteronormativy and benefit from its privileges and violent policing of binaries. Tokenism and stereotyping are perpetrated by oppressors, not the oppressed. In the wrong hands Elsa would be reduced to a trope but in the right ones she would be shown for the multi-faceted and brilliant gay character she could be in the face of a world of hostile bigotry and callous indifference. But something tells me that the courage and bravery so prevalent in the hearts of all queer people who have to fight simply to exist is not to be found in the offices of the billion-dollar company that is Disney. I guess I should just let it go.

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.

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.