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.
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.
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!”
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?
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.
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.
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…
When I was little I was always rooting for the baddies – Scar was just so much more fun than moralistic Mufasa and his arrogant son; Jafar was fab, even his facial expressions were more interesting than anything cocksure Aladdin did, and Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent is fab. In hindsight, I think it’s because these characters oozed rebellion and camp, giving two murderous fingers to all those endless cis, straight men who ruled their worlds awfully but called themselves Gods, Kings and heroes while they were at it. Twenty odd years later and nothing has changed – boy, did I want Cate Blanchett’s Hela, Goddess of Death, to skewer Thor, God of cisgendered, heteronormative patriarchy and smash his home planet of Asgard into smithereens (spoilers). And she almost succeeded.
I went to the cinema for dramatic and colourful escapism and I got it – there were more rainbows in Thor: Ragnarok than in a well-lit museum of prisms and we got a fair few shots of Chris Hemsworth’s buff chest. Cate Blanchett’s arrival was epic – she crushed Thor’s hammer-penis-ego-extension thing with one hand. There was some funny bromance between Thor and the Hulk (tbh, Chris Hemsworth is really funny), Tom Hiddlestone grinned his way through one of Marvel’s only memorable villains – Loki, and Tessa Thompson’s character, Valkyrie, was an alcoholic, gambling warrioress who kicked butt on her own terms and answered to no man (until she suddenly changes her mind and acknowledges Thor as King at movie’s end). Of course, this is Hollywood and all the usual failings are there – why is there only one well-rounded female character in the group of male heroes, why not two or three (or y’know, the whole fucking group), and any trans or nonbinary heroes…nope. Why is the Grand Master of the bizarre planet of Sakaar a man, albeit a hilarious, exceptionally camp Jeff Goldblum? Why is Hela’s assistant a man? Why was the one scene that would confirm Valkyrie’s bisexuality cut? Why was Korg’s (a male warrior made from rocks) first love not mentioned, a first love who was a man? Why was Loki’s gender fluidity and probable pansexuality unmentioned? Of course, we know why and it’s going to be years before diversity triumphs over patriarchy.
But something I did enjoy was Cate Blanchett’s unashamed villainy. She is Thor and Loki’s elder sister and firstborn of idiot patriarch Odin (played by Anthony Hopkins). She reveals the sordid truth behind Asgard’s glory – that all the gold and treasure was gained through bloodshed and annihilation, with her being her father’s executioner (maybe an allusion to the US and its legacy of slavery and militaristic imperialism often papered over by photographable presidents…until Trump, who is just plain awful and too stupid to be considered a super villain). Yup, Odin trained his own daughter to be a psychopathic mass-murderer then banished her when her power grew more than his. So, whilst it’s hard to root for her genocidal intent I did get where she was coming from and struggled to see her out-witted by a group of men and a token Valkyrie (who doesn’t get an actual name beyond her race). But at least when Hela gets destroyed, Asgard, planet of sociopathic, patriarchal monarchy, goes with her. Unfortunately, the film still ends with Thor taking the throne because Hollywood isn’t ready to give up on white men running everything. But times are changing, incredibly slowly, and Raganarok – the death of the Gods in Norse mythology – isn’t over yet. The heroes of colour are amassing as are the female heroes and the queer ones – soon, cis, straight, white men will be the disposable, comedy sidekicks and we’ll get the rainbow warriors we deserve. Now here’s Jafar owning Genie, because even though that movie went straight to video it was still one of my favourites (although this was before I learned about post-colonialism and cultural appropriation).
One a play at the Vaults Theatre in London about the lives of ten gay men, the other a Hollywood romance about a decidedly straight couple falling in love as they zoom through outer space. The former is a great piece of writing accompanied by some wonderful acting and the latter is actually surprisingly good given that it’s a romance at zero gravity. However, as I watched these productions I felt I had seen them before albeit in different locations: men f*cking in Manchester for example and straight couples falling in love, well, pretty much everywhere. And it was the way the scripts unfolded that disturbed me the most (spoilers).
F*king Men introduced us to a world of brief encounters between men in dark parks, closeted professionals worried their careers would collapse if they out themselves, put upon sex workers and porn stars, HIV stigma and homophobia. It was also a world full of laughter, love and heart as different individuals and couples tried to make it work in a world where guys just seem to want to f*ck all the time. Meanwhile, in Passengers there’s only room for two straight people as Chris Pratt and J-Law discover they’ve woken up ninety years before the spaceship has reached its destination. As it turns out Pratt woke up first, then, a year later, woke up J-Law. Obviously, when she finds out she’s pretty mad but she ends up forgiving him and (straight) love conquers all, it even fixes a hole in the spaceship caused by a tiny asteroid.
And it’s funny isn’t it that the scripts of gay men’s stories don’t always end quite so happily as those of straight lovers. Now, I know I’m comparing an Off-West End show with a Hollywood blockbuster, it’s hardly like with like, but I’m concerned that so many of the shows I see about gay men are bittersweet or sometimes just bitter. It’s like each time we have to go through all the homophobia, shame, prejudice and self-loathing before we can get to asking what might happen next. Whereas there are so many scripts for straight folk that they can do as they please and often get happy endings to boot. Passengers ends in engagement after all (which, I appreciate, doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness) whereas F*cking Men ends with a young sex worker being given extra pay with which he might just be able to afford the mortgage on a flat with a kitchen – but, unlike the hole in the ship, the shame, stigma and self-loathing haven’t gone away. So, dear LGBTQIA+ allies, it’s another call for help – please help us queer folk get happier endings (and not just of the orgasm variety), please help edit the societal scripts that force us into hiding and get us hurt, and please listen to and share our stories. Next year I want to see two lesbians stuck in outer space, or two trans men, or two intersex folk, and I don’t want that plea to sound like a joke because I’m not being funny. And if you’re not going to write the script then I will and in the meantime I’ll carry on enjoying F*cking Men – seriously, it’s great – get your tickets here. Trailer below most definitely NSFW.
Found my seat in the dark, cracked open my gluten-free snacks and prepared myself for two hours of explosive, crass and unsubtle storytelling. Yup, X-Men: Apocalypse, part 3 in the latest outing of the mutant franchise. A few genetic alterations and people are freezing time, firing lightning bolts and flying. I shan’t bore you with the plot as it’s basically X-Men 2 (2003) all over again but rebooted for the current generation of teens. Onto the highs and lows. Spoilers.
Highs: En Sabah Nur (the main baddy). Marvel is not renowned for doing interesting baddies. Asides Loki, The Avengers series has been plagued by an underwhelming line of talking robots, aliens and cardboard cut-out evil human stereotypes. However, the latest X-Men series can boast Kevin Bacon and Tyrion Lannister as some half-decent snarling villains. But when X-Men: Apocalypse begins in ancient Egypt at a huge ceremony for the all-powerful mutant En Sabah Nur you know things are going to be epic. He’s betrayed by some of his worshippers and trapped underground for a couple thousand of years until he’s reawakened in the 80s, and boy, are his motivations simple: power and destruction. He pursues these with ruthlessness and sure, whilst there isn’t much more depth to him, I felt his power was genuinely menacing. Unlike Bacon and Lannister I genuinely thought he might beat the X-Men. Of course, I knew he wouldn’t because I understand how these films work but he put up a damn good fight. Hats off to En Sabah Nur. Although one problem: when it came to dressing his henchmen in cool, new body armour he did have a habit for covering the guys up but keeping the women largely exposed. So nothing like the below…
Low: Character Development. Ok, so the main baddy is just a really powerful psychopath hellbent on world destruction/domination and it doesn’t fare much better for the other characters. Since the last movie Magneto has retired from evil-doing to go live in the woods with his wife and daughter. Yup, as soon as we see those two innocent, female clichés we know they’re going to die. And they do. Cue Magneto’s motivation to turn bad again and join En Sabah Nur. Xavier is still irritatingly smug and morally righteous. Meanwhile, Alexandra Shipp plays Storm (the weather controlling one) and starts life as an Egyptian street orphan living with a gang of thieves getting chased by Egyptian male stereotypes. Yup, non-American cultures don’t come off too well in this movie and just when I thought there was going to be a female Muslim character she rips off her veil to reveal she’s actually Moira MacTaggart, the white, CIA agent. And she’s also the one that accidentally causes En Sabah Nur to wake up. Yup, just like in the last movie we have a woman to blame for all the world’s problems.
High: Quicksilver. Let’s face it, the five minutes of Quicksilver larking about listening to ace music whilst the rest of the world moves in slow motion are some of the highlights of these movies (see below). This one doesn’t disappoint as he rescues all the mutant kids from Xavier’s school as it blows up – serves Xavier right for allowing a highly explosive war plane to be built-in his basement. What I also like about Quicksilver is that because he hasn’t studied at Xavier’s school yet he hasn’t become a self-righteous, entitled doofus. Sure, he’s one of the good guys but he gets the job done without fuss and no pompous speeches. And he lives at home with his Mom and likes playing video games yet is happy to stand up to world-destroying megalomaniacs. He’s also great at saving people rather than killing them. A true hero.
Low: Mass Destruction. Sometimes all it takes is a shadow on a floor to create suspense and other times real drama can come from such seemingly mundane events like a row over breakfast or being late for a meeting. Of course, none of this applies when the word Apocalypse is in your movie title. We have crazed demi-gods building pyramids out of modern-day Egypt, we’ve got Magneto tearing Auschwitz to pieces (I really don’t think unsubtle superhero movies should tread into sensitive terrain like this, mainly because they don’t tread, they stampede) and we’ve got Magneto basically destroying the entire world by ripping up all its metal. The sheer number of people killed in all this would be astronomical. Yet come the end of the film Magneto casually goes home and Storm, who also assisted En Sabah Nur in trashing loads of stuff, just joins Xavier’s school as if she’s not a mass murderer. I know we want to watch cool graphics and special effects but bigger really doesn’t always equal better, especially when the actual amount of damage caused, not to mention the death toll, would take decades to mend. Maybe just a tiny bit of realism please in and amongst the flying and mind control.
So, providing you can turn off your feminism, racial-sensitivity, snobby-Charles-Xavier-hating and general-common-decency filters then you’ll love this. Lots of things blowing up, Quicksilver doing his hypersonic speed thing and even the odd joke. One pack of gluten-free chocolate biscuits later and I was suitably entertained.
Countless tiny violins are playing for offended white people all over the world. First, there was Charlotte Rampling saying that “it is racist to whites” to suggest that decades of institutionalised racism have yet again resulted in no people of colour being nominated for Oscars. Then there was Michael Caine reminding us that it took him “years to get an Oscar, years” so it’s only right that people of colour should “be patient” and wait their turn. And, finally, there are the many white people outraged that Beyoncé should use her latest music video to highlight the racism and abuse that black people continue to face in today’s society. I’m getting a bit bored of trying to encourage fellow white people to see things differently (cue my own tiny violin) but here goes.
Charlotte Rampling: As a female actor who rose to fame during the sixties she no doubt encountered an awful lot of sexism. An industry that is still predicated on the objectification and demeaning of women was surely worse back then. So kudos to Rampling for pushing through. However, even if my speculations are right and she did face discrimination this is no excuse to ignore the struggles of others as she willfully ignores the prejudice facing people of colour. “One can never really know, but perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final [Oscars] list,” said Rampling whilst discussing the boycott of the current Academy Awards. If the consequences of ignorance weren’t so grave this would be laughable – to actually think the Academy Awards are based on an objective judgement of acting talent carried out by unbiased judges behind closed doors is ridiculous. No, the predominantly white people who form the panel are just as likely to suffer from the prejudices and bigotry that run through all sectors of society resulting in biased behaviour. Sorry Rampling, you may be a good actor but you’re not that good and actors of colour aren’t that bad either.
Fortunately, Rampling issued a statement in which she clarified her position. Whilst not explicitly apologising she did say she regrets what she said. “I simply meant to say that in an ideal world every performance will be given equal opportunities for consideration.” Yes, but come on Rampling, we don’t live in an ideal society and crass comments about how talentless actors of colour are for which you don’t apologise form part of what doesn’t make it ideal.
Michael Caine: When it comes to winning awards, to suggest that people of colour need to “be patient” and hold tight until the Academy deigns them worthy is a right slap in the face. Caine is an individual actor of arguable talent whilst people of colour represent an absolutely vast talent pool. For Caine, as a privileged white male who will never have had to experience the sort of racism that people of colour have faced and do face in the film industry, to compare his situation with that of people of colour is ludicrous. Why doesn’t he hand over his awards to some of the many overlooked and discriminated against yet hugely talented actors of colour? Come on Caine, it’s time to step up by stepping down.
Formation by Beyoncé: Centuries of slavery and oppression meant black people were treated abysmally in the States and all over the world. Whilst slavery might have been abolished in the US its legacies of violence, prejudice and ignorance live on. It’s time white people acknowledged this history and recognised that we still benefit from huge amounts of white privilege (what’s white privilege? Check out this cartoon). Questioning this privilege means redistributing it in such a way that we can all be empowered – so it works out better for all of us, yes, even white people. Sure, it’s going to be tough for us whites to accept that an awful lot of violence has been and is still perpetrated in our name, often by us, but this will never be as tough as actually experiencing that violence. I could go on but Beyoncé’s latest video speaks for itself.
The journalist Catherine Shoard recently wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian in which she bemoans two things: 1) that our addiction to the digital world (social media, constant news, google etc) undermines our creativity, 2) that because we have become less creative we expect films to be more like our own lives and the contexts within which we live. Two interesting views worth exploring, unfortunately though, Shoard uses points 1) and 2) to back up a completely different and unrelated opinion: that it’s ok if women and people of colour are under-represented in films. What!?
The Bechdel Test and the Latif Test are two means of testing whether a film pays even a token nod towards inclusivity and diversity. The former concerns the representation of women on-screen and the latter people of colour. As Shoard points out five of the eight best-picture Oscar nominees for 2016 fail the Latif test. This isn’t good. Yet, Shoard argues, “sometimes to fail is more dignified than to triumph.” Following this useless aphorism she points out that three of the films are period pieces and the main action concerned did not really involve anyone but white men, so people should quit their whining. However, having just complained about modern audiences expecting films to be closer to real life because we all, apparently, lack imagination, she’s now defending movies that stick closer to the facts. This is what is known as a contradiction.
Shoard argues we shouldn’t try to rewrite history (another aphorism I’m getting very bored of) by adding women and people of colour into films about historical events that didn’t involve women and people of colour. If a bunch of white men did something amazing fifty or a hundred years ago then only a bunch of white, male actors should play those roles. She says we’re being overly sensitive if we expect the past not to insult the present yet she also acknowledges that this very same past has been invariably “cruel, unfair and imperialist.” It seems almost as if Shoard is trying to justify cinema’s reflection and repetition of this cruelty, unfairness and imperialism given that “people did things differently then” (trite aphorism number 3). Unfortunately, Shoard seems to be forgetting that ‘then’ – aka the past – wasn’t just populated by white men. In fact, I think there’s much evidence to suggest that women and people of colour existed in the past. And I imagine if they existed then they did things as well and I’m sure many of those things were great. Do you see where I’m going here?
We need more films like 12 Years A Slave,Suffragette, Pride, Made In Dagenham and The Danish Girl. Sure, all these films have their problems (e.g. apparently Emmeline Pankhurst was a notorious racist yet Suffragette glossed over all of this, including the contributions of women of colour to the suffrage movement) which is why we need more like them but better. We need more films that shine spotlights on new bits of history that haven’t been turned into films yet. This doesn’t mean rewriting history so as not to offend people it means highlighting the history that was never written about because history was so often documented by a bunch of supremacist bigots.
Shoard throws some more musings into the mix: that people like bungee jumping; that we’re addicted to social media; that we like reading the news; that despite reading the news which is often about other people we struggle to relate to issues that aren’t about ourselves; that for some reason the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite signals the end of history (that’s at least the third time history has ended if we include the warnings of Fukuyama and the Mayans); we’re not very good at processing fiction – even though the majority of her article is about historical dramas (which are meant to be factual). In essence, this is a confused and quite boring article that poorly hides a justification of the white, male status quo. We’ve already got enough justifications of this we don’t need anymore.
Shoard’s final complaint is that modern audiences “just have to keep it real” but having read the article it’s hard to know what her definition of real is – is it the supposed ‘realness’ of a history written by the victors and conquistadors, is it the reality of sexism and racism still present in Hollywood, or is it the sort of real that demands we explore history’s little-written of stories helping to redress today’s maintained prejudices? I’m not sure Shoard would know the answer nor would it appear does Hollywood (see video below) but we’ll get there one Bechdel and Latif test-passing film at a time.