As someone who has seen way too many Marvel films and TV series I thought The Boys would be a nice antidote to the predictable three-act structure with the dubious final fight scene and limited morality. The superhero world needs some cynicism and not just Batman’s grumpy malaise but something with wit. The Boys has been praised for doing just this – making fun of and deconstructing the genre while offering bloody violence and intrigue. A lot of its satire is very funny with some stellar performances from the likeably unlikeable super “heroes”. But four episodes in and I was becoming uncomfortably aware that the violence of the series also included a morbid and violent fascination with and disgust for the anus and anal sex.
Take episode 2, the superhero Translucent has been captured by the show’s group of unpowerful vigilantes. His skin is made of a carbon metamaterial which makes him both bulletproof and able to turn invisible. For the life of them the boys cannot figure out a way to kill him. Cut to Frenchie, one of the vigilantes who is…French, spotting a tortoise on TV. He watches as it retracts its head into its shell. I knew exactly what was going to happen next. Yup, they drug Translucent and insert a bomb up his anus. Hilarious, right. They want to use it to keep him under control but it’s not long before he gets blown to pieces. Like a lot of graphic violence this is played for laughs and the fact that Translucent has something forcibly inserted into his anus when he’s drugged is part of the joke. Cut to another scene in which the superpowerful Popclaw, high on drugs, is straddling a man’s face. “Eat my ass,” she screams but it’s not long before she crushes the guy’s skull with her bum. Hilarious, right. Come episode four, Frenchie and another of the vigilantes, Mother’s Milk, are having a row about a superpowerful and violent women they had tried to capture but who got away.
Mother’s Milk: So where’s the girl, Frenchie? Since you’re the psycho chick whisperer all of a sudden.
Frenchie: Maybe subway. Maybe she wants to find a train, no?
Mother’s Milk: Oh, yeah? How deep up your ass did you pull that out?
Frenchie: Well, it depends. How deep does your tongue go?
Witty dialogue, right? I mean the thought of Frenchie having a subway train up his bum, lol. And the thought of Mother’s Milk rimming Frenchie with a really long tongue, gross! A few moments later and Frenchie says, “I understand it’s hard for someone who’s anally OCD to understand.” Another anal joke mixed with a mental health one. Hilarious!
Nope. Anal sex is not gross and is often amazingly pleasurable for the people involved. Yet The Boys treats the anus as a site of ridicule, disgust, and violence. Anilingus between guys is referenced as something gross, thereby ensuring the series is mega-homophobic. Meanwhile, a guy getting a bomb forced up his anus and a woman crushing a guy with her buttocks are played for laughs, while the sexual violence, homophobia and sexism of these jokes are completely ignored. Add to this that the protagonists’ of The Boys are pretty much all male. The heroes we’re meant to root for are the guys cracking jokes about anal violence, which means there’s no way the series can step back from the homophobia and anal-phobia (for want of a better word) and critique them. They’re treated as normal. Of course, what we’re really looking at is toxic masculinity within patriarchy predicated on, amongst other things, homophobia, sexism and an utter fear and disgust of the anus. These are what make boys men and we’re supposed to laugh along with the joke. I don’t think it’s funny.
But what if one of the male protagonists enjoyed anal sex and it wasn’t treated as a joke or something to be ashamed of? Perhaps he uses a dildo, perhaps his girlfriend rides him with a strap on, or perhaps he just uses his finger. Or what if there is a male character who sleeps with other men and enjoys it and we can understand the pleasure and empowerment he gains from it? The only male character I saw in the show who gets with other guys was a total creep #herewegoagain. A show like The Boys is totally ill-equipped to present male liberation, leaving its characters to no-homo each other and make anal sex/rape jokes instead. Not for me, thanks.
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.
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…
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.
It was International Coming Out day on Monday 11th October and it got me reflecting. For so much of my life coming out was something I had to do for the benefit of other people – i.e. straight and cisgender people. When I told my parents I had a boyfriend the response was one of surprise and bewilderment. They didn’t have a clue what to do and so it fell on my teenage shoulders to carry the burden. When I told my parents I use they/them pronouns the response was one of surprise and bewilderment. They didn’t have a clue what to do and so it fell on my thirty-something shoulders to carry the burden. As you can imagine, I really want a massage.
Whenever heterosexual and cisgender people ask me when I came out the question makes me feel uncomfortable because it’s framed as something I had to do. No one ever asks the question – what did your parents do to champion you as a queer child? For me, coming out was predicated on being in. As a teenager I kept my sexuality hidden for years. I was surrounded by homophobia, both loud and quiet, and with each comment and microaggression so the closet was built around me. As a twenty-something I kept my gender hidden for years. I was surrounded by transphobia, both loud and quiet, and with each comment and microaggression, so the closet was built around me. Despite all this I barged my shoulders against the closet doors and forced them open. But rather than being met with love, solidarity and validation, I was met with surprise, neglect and continued microaggressions. I was still loved, though, and well loved, but it wasn’t a love that could adapt and expand to fit and understand queerness. While my first boyfriend came to stay for Christmas, for example, I was policed on who I could tell. This policing of my sexuality and gender was a regular feature of my twenties as I kept getting shoved back into the closet, “Don’t talk about these things in front of the kids”, “Don’t mention these things on your CV”, “Stop shoving it down our throats.” It’s not elephants, it’s closets all the way down.
As you can imagine, I’m tired of coming out. I’m exhausted by it. These closets were not of my making and all they’ve done is make my life harder. It’s not my job to tell straight people I’m gay and queer, it’s their job to stop assuming I’m straight. It’s not my job to tell cis people I’m non-binary, it’s their job to stop assuming I’m cis. I’m done with coming out for the very people who built the closets in the first place and then forgot I even came out! So, rather than come out those closets I’m going to burn them down. But even as I write this I realise there is a bigger closet than the one I was trapped in and that is the closet of cisheteropatriarchy. It’s a closet in which so many heterosexual and cisgender people are trapped in, even though they do not realise it. Instead, they’re left busily doing the thing they know best – building closets. It’s closets all the way down, after all.
To counter this somewhat bleak post I want to note a few times when coming out has been a joy. When I met one of my long-standing friends at uni and we both had got the same badge at Freshers’ week, it read, Homophobia Is Gay. Looking back, it’s a self-defeating badge which says a lot for the state of things back in 2007 but thanks to that badge my friend and I came out to one another. We then went on to become co-LGBT (I’m not sure if we had the Q on back then) reps for our college and, boy, did we have a lot to fight back then. We also threw some great parties. And just the other day I met someone for tea and we both came out as non-binary and it was a joy. Four hours later and it transpired we had a lot to talk about. It’s these experiences of coming out that I live for, when it’s not a struggle to barge open the closet doors but the closet kinda dissolves as we embrace who we are. After all, why build closets when you can build Queertopia?
Twelfth Night, it’s a Shakespeare rom-com classic: twins, ribaldry, much confusion and a bunch of marriages. The National Theatre very kindly shared their brilliant live version online, which I watched again last night. For the second time I was blown away by Tamsin Grieg’s show stopping performance as not Malvolio – the uptight steward – but Malvolia, the female version, who is tricked via a forged letter into believing that her mistress, Countess Olivia, loves her. Malvolia is over the moon, she even starts dancing in a fountain. “I thank my stars,” she shouts grimly, trying to smile, “I am happy.” She’s quick to don yellow, cross-gartered stockings (all things the Countess hates) and it’s not long before Olivia has her locked away only to be further bullied by her tormentors. Thus, thanks to the NT’s gender switch it transpires that the fate of a woman who loves another woman is…torture. Damn.
As Tamsin Grieg said in a recent interview, “I was very nervous of making Malvolio a woman and therefore a lesbian, considering what happens to the character in the play, which is monstrous.” And it’s true. For all Malvolia’s arrogance and her nastiness towards some of the other characters, her fate is one of torture at the hands of a bunch of sadistic homophobes. Grieg also said that, “Malvolia is a deeply wounded human being who becomes OCD and bullies the other people in the household in order to cope.” So we’re also seeing violence towards someone with a mental health condition. It’s no surprise that the play ends with a distraught Malvolia crying bitter tears in the rain swearing revenge on those who have bullied her, while most of the other characters are busily getting married. Damn.
As for the marriages, they need some explaining. Remember the twins – Viola and Sebastian. They were separated in a shipwreck, both thinking the other dead. Viola disguises herself as a man called Cesario and starts working for Duke Orsino who gets her to woe the love of his life Countess Olivia. Trouble is Olivia falls for Cesario/Viola while Viola/Cesario falls for Orsino, who keeps finding himself oddly attracted to Cesario/Viola. And then Sebastian turns up at the end and all manner of confusion/hilarity ensues. Olivia quickly marries Sebastian thinking he’s Cesario while Duke Orsino is over the moon to discover that Cesario is actually a woman, Viola, who he promptly marries. Even Sir Toby Belch and Maria get married (two of the characters instrumental in Malvolia’s torture). As for Antonio the friendly pirate who rescued and fell in love with Sebastian (they even share an early onstage kiss)…he’s left to watch Sebastian get married to Olivia. So it’s happy ends all round for the heterosexuals (who didn’t turn out to be queer after all, phew), while the people who openly love people of the same gender end up bullied and alone. Damn.
So I was left wondering if this was an appropriative queering of a classic by a group of well-meaning (but perhaps slightly ignorant) creative types or if it was a searing indictment of the ridiculousness that is heteronormativity and its associated rituals – I mean, Sebastian marries Olivia within five minutes of meeting her, which is incredibly problematic given she can’t consent to marry Sebastian because she thinks she’s marrying Cesario; Orsino is so utterly repressed he can’t let himself fall in love with a man, inappropriately persuing Olivia instead who has already made her disinterest clear. And there’s the brief scene at The Elephant, a queer-ish bar, with a drag performer who ends up getting punched by Sebastian, along with a number of the other patrons (a needless bit of queer bashing methinks). Not forgetting the queerphobic abuse that poor Malvolia suffers and it’s almost as if the moral of this production is that it’s shit being queer.
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.
The realms of male sexuality are often violently policed. You’re either straight and fit in or you’re gay and will be ostracised. There’s little space for exploration and straight men doing gay things will often get bullied and shunned for it or will come up with ingenious ways of avoiding having to be associated with gayness, yelling “no homo” is but one example. It is this space of confusion and prejudice that the film Beach Rats explores as 19 year-old Frankie navigates the boardwalks of Coney Island. Inspired by a selfie of a young topless guy in a baseball cap (yup, this film was based on a selfie) this film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2017 and won much critical praise. There is much to praise – plenty of epic writing, acting and filming, but it’s the central story I want to critique and the tropes used to tell it. Ultimately, I find this film as confused as its protagonist, and not in a good way.
Firstly, the writer-director Eliza Hittman has been very clear in numerous interviews that this is neither a coming out nor a coming of age film, she calls it “a coming of consciousness” story as Frankie tries to get to know himself. He does so by taking drugs with his mates and hanging out on the beach, getting a girlfriend, and using a gay hook-up site to get with older men. So the film is very much about Frankie’s sexuality but both Frankie and Hittman are adamant that he is not gay, as Frankie says: “I don’t really think of myself as gay”. He might think of himself as bisexual or heteroflexible or queer or just never desiring of attributing a label to his sexuality, or he might just be really confused. By Frankie being not-gay the film also becomes not-gay, seeking to explore that strange and violent world of toxic masculinity and male sexuality. This could make for a great and nuanced film but, sadly, Beach Rats is still overloaded with gay content and relies much too heavily on gay tropes to tell an all too familiar and cliché story. As for those tropes, here are a few (spoilers).
The high volume of topless, sweaty men. The film poster comprising of these topless, sweaty men. The lingering shots on Harris Dickinson’s face. The lingering shots on his six-pack and bum. The full frontal male nudity. The sex between men. The sex between younger and older men. The fact that depicting sex between younger and older men was considered taboo – even though for many guys it’s completely normal! The use of gay hook-up sites. The fact that depicting the use of hook-up sites was considered taboo even though it’s a completely normal way for guys to meet up. Straight (or perhaps not-gay) male characters mocking the gay hook-up sites. The same characters choking and punching a gay guy called Jeremy towards the end of the film and leaving him stranded on a beach. The fact we don’t know if Jeremy survives. That Jeremy is basically a disposable trope: a plot device with little character or characterisation who is a stepping-stone in Frankie’s unhappy and dangerous life. That violence towards gay men is used as a plot device and left uncontextualised and unresolved (this trope is so common it’s got a name – Bury Your Gays). The way women are often emotionally and sexually used by confused men without apology or adequate resolution for those female characters. That distraught mothers and girlfriends are means via which a troubled man can continue his journey of discovery.
It’s a long list and in isolation, many of these elements don’t have to be considered gay or a gay trope but put them together and I think Beach Bats manages to appropriate, fetishise, exoticise and capitalise on gay life without ever acknowledging it. The film yells one loud “no homo” while cashing in on the pink pound. Furthermore, so many of the above issues don’t just happen onscreen, they happen in real life. So many LGBT+ people are beaten up and killed, ostracised from society, and suffer, and I don’t enjoy seeing this reflected on the screen with little nuance and empathy. For me, a film like Beach Rats is the product of a predominantly heterosexual team trying (and failing) to tell a gay-not-gay story. It’s not that straight people can’t tell these stories and shouldn’t be allowed, it’s that they need to do their research and better express their allyship. This needs to happen off-screen as well. If we truly want to explore the world of male sexuality and create a world in which men can more wholesomely explore their sexualities then it’s “no homo” that needs to be buried, not gays.
The Quest, think Queer As Folk meets Lord of the Rings, just ran for a week at the Arcola Theatre in East London. For six nights I got to watch a fabulous, queer troupe bring a range of characters and worlds to life. There was Fred, the bisexual teenager on his first Tinder date, whose past catches up with him, and Zemuel, of the mythic Valley of Embers, sent on a quest to banish the monster that haunts them. There were other characters too such as adoptive mothers, gossiping friends, a village Elder, a sarky waiter, a loving dad, teachers, a LOTR-disliking intersectional feminist, a best friend and a waterfall lover. The directing was fantastic and it was amazing to see my words brought to life on stage. And the audiences loved it. There was laughter, tears and many words of congratulations. Many people felt deeply moved by the stories of Fred and Zemuel, and they hit home for a lot of the team as well, as growing up queer in an oft hostile world means we are all faced with monsters. So, really, this was so much more than a play, it was its own quest, one for belonging.
Because that’s what I crave as a member of the queer community. I want to feel like I belong among people who care for me and care for our wider community. People who are spiritually, emotionally and physically nourished, and given a chance to heal the wounds of their past so they can live lives of greater freedom and face the difficulties of today. I want us also to be able to enjoy the many joys of our lives – such as making an ace piece of theatre. There is so much unbelonging in the world, for so many of us, and the queer community is hit by this unbelonging at a number of intersections. As the King of Brunei imposes the death penalty for gay people, so the fight for survival is still very much real. In Britain there will continue to be high rates of LGBT+ suicide, especially among young people, there will be LGBT+ homelessness, and a range of mental health problems exacerbated by societal prejudice and indifference. It’s a tough world to live in and the quest for Queertopia continues. A quest that straight and cisgendered folks need to join, so they can offer their power and allyship to their queer companions who will stand by them in return (and make ace pieces of theatre to boot).
So, thank you to the wondrous cast and crew of The Quest who helped prove that Queertopia can exist here on earth. While the play might be over I know we have all come away with pride and, hopefully, a little more of our soul – a sense that even though many of us might still struggle with belonging in this world, we can at least belong to ourselves more deeply and, hopefully, one another. Now in an act of unforgivable arrogance I will leave the last word to Zemuel, after they have vanquished their monster and returned to the villagers in the Valley of Embers, their new home…
“They are all there. A feeling wells inside of me, one I can barely name, but I think it is called belonging.”