Beach Rats: That Gay-Not-Gay Film

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Meaningless Millenials: Clique & Search Party

Life can seem quite meaningless for millennials these days as we’re forced to jump through the increasingly outdated hoops of school all for the sake of one day getting an adult job. However, much debt later and those dream jobs tend to be unpaid internships or going the way of automisation. Meanwhile, Trump, Brexit, climate change etc etc…what do we do!? It’s no surprise then that this nihilistic turn ends up influencing popular culture. Two examples include recent mystery based dramas with Gen Y protagonists, Search Party (TBS) and Clique (BBC). For the former think Nancy Drew meets mid-twenties millennial malaise with a side of Gone Girl and the latter is a less funny Mean Girls meets The Secret History with Scottish accents. Both have meaninglessness at their hearts but for two very different reasons. Oh, and head’s up, there will be spoilers.

Search Party tells the story of Dory, not the forgetful fish, but a 20s something woman living in New York who lacks direction and purpose in life. Naturally, she goes looking for this by going looking for Chantal – an old college acquaintance who is now a missing person. Cue hunting for clues, curious suspects, intriguing red herrings and a whole cast of amazing characters – from her endlessly self-absorbed rich friends to a cult-load of ‘wellness-seeking’ weirdos. Dory’s 21st century world is exceptionally bleak but also very, very funny. Clique takes itself a little more seriously as young students and lifelong friends, Holly and Georgie, fall out over getting in with the in-crowd: four conventionally beautiful young women who have looks and banking internships to die for (literally in the case of one of them who kills herself in episode one). The characters here are familiar clichés: the charismatic lecturer who lures the impressionable young women in with her force of character (and questionable brand of feminism) and the attractive people who do glamorous things (e.g. take drugs, jump into swimming pools with their clothes on, have chauffeurs etc) but aren’t actually that interesting. However, what’s great about Clique is that it’s going all out to fail the Mechdel test – the male equivalent of the Bechdel test – as the guys are left to be annoying, peripheral characters and the occasional bare butt shot.

So both shows are full of selfish and sometimes vacuous characters, however, I’d say Search Party is knowingly presenting them as such in order to skewer them in parody. It takes a mirror to Gen Y’s obsession with selfies, celebrity and self-promotion, and reminds us that it’s all paper-thin (whilst also mistressfully weaving this trope into the denouement). Meanwhile, I feel Clique is being a little more earnest in its vacuity and trying to convince us that, like Holly and Georgie, we really should want to join the clique of coke-snorting, unpaid yet highly attractive interns who don’t say much of interest and are forced to work for/with complete chauvinists. But that’s the thing with cliques – cool from a distance but kinda disappointing once you’re inside. Although I’m not convinced Holly is all that convinced of the clique either so, with three episodes to go, there’s still plenty of time for biting, poignant cultural critique a la Search Party.

Interestingly, one thing lacking in both these tales of millennial woe are significant adult figures. Search Party has the odd wellness guru and disinterested, rich parent, whilst Clique has got the over-zealous lecturer and her weird brother but I feel both series are missing a trick because without adults who can the Gen Yers blame for all our problems? Let’s face it without the baby boomers we millennials wouldn’t be here. Without their inventions, businesses, advertising agencies and super-charged model of consumer capitalism where on earth would we go to struggle to find meaning and purpose? I mean if they’d invested in sustainable energy, steady-state economic models and put community before profit then Dory and Holly probably would have already found themselves and wouldn’t need to go on dangerous mystery adventures. Likewise, their friends would probably spend more time looking out for one another and not wasting so much time setting up faux-charitable initiatives to boost their fragile self-esteems or chasing the next high-functioning sociopath with a six-pack. And nor would everyone be stone broke and forced to pay too much rent because we’d have caps on renting or, who knows, maybe all housing would be social housing. And freaky wellness cults run by overly charismatic yet dubious people who wear too much expensive jewellery wouldn’t need to be invented because we’d all probably be quite happy sharing stuff and looking out for one another. Who’d need an exclusive clique when we’d all have community. Anyways, just a thought. Now quick, back to Instagram!

Calling All Queer Warriors

Last summer I spent a week in the Welsh countryside. I slept in a big yurt and under a tarp, I did some fasting and I met a bunch of great people. The landscape was beautiful – we were staying in a rewilding valley, meaning that nature was slowly reclaiming the space that would previously have been farmed (although some pesky sheep did manage to break in to do some casual grazing). The land was fantastical and it reminded me of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and also the world of the Legend of Zelda (an ace computer game I loved playing when I was younger). However, as I thought about these stories I realised they are often about straight men fighting orcs and/or rescuing Princesses. So, there, deep in the Welsh wilderness a new character was born: the Queer Warrior.

Skip forward to yesterday and I just ran my first ever Queer Warriors workshop at ActivateLDN – a whole day event to equip young people with the skills and resources to make social change. The subtitle for my session was Resourcing and Supporting the LGBTQIA+ Community and for 90 minutes that is what I and eleven others got up to. We unpacked the acronym and explored what the different letters mean. We also spoke about our own experiences of gender and sexuality. We then got a bit fictional and invented our own characters, giving them names, appearances, genders, sexualities, fears and much more. We confronted our characters with their fears and had them overcome them in novel ways. In essence, we honed our storytelling and communication skills which I think are vital for the queer community because we have so many stories to tell, whether we consider ourselves a member of the community or an ally of it. We also need to be able to combat the stereotyping and prejudice that tries to sideline the queer community, often inciting and resulting in violence. Our stories matter and the more empowered we feel to tell them then, hopefully, the more others will listen.

Another metaphor of the Queer Warrior workshop is the idea that the queer community offers a huge umbrella of protection to those underneath. Furthermore, all are invited to shelter from the storm whether you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, straight, asexual, queer, trans, cis, intersex, questioning, genderqueer, non-binary or curious. It is also an intersectional umbrella that recognises prejudice and discrimination affect different people in different ways including along lines of race, ability, mental health, class and religion. In essence, the one thing I would hate for the queer community to be is a clique. There are enough cliques out there (and, trust me, I’ve got a post or two on this for later) but in the world of the Queer Warrior all are invited – you don’t have to be x enough or more y or less z, you can just be you, whoever that is and you’ll be welcome. You don’t even have to be a Queer Warrior, that’s just a name I like!

If you’re interested in a Queer Warriors workshop please get in touch at hello@robertholtom.co.uk. And you can find out more about my work in storytelling and narrative skills here – www.robertholtom.co.uk

Video Game - The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild Link Wallpaper
The Queer Warrior surveys their domain (actually it’s Link from the next Legend of Zelda game!)

The Trouble With A Gay Dumbledore

A few months ago I was getting excited for Star Trek Beyond, especially because (spoilers!) I’d heard there was an LGBT plotline in store. The character of Hikaru Sulu (played by John Cho) was being written as gay and whilst George Takei (the first actor to play Hikaru Sulu and gay activist) was rightly not that impressed it was still a change from the usual warpspeed sequences and other Trekky things I clearly know little about. Of course, what I really wanted was a gay Captain Kirk but I was told that would never happen because a Blockbuster movie with a gay protagonist just wouldn’t do well financially. However, unlike movie producers I am not in this for the money and I think it’s high time that LGBT folk of all ages had some good role models to look up to. Unfortunately, as one would predict, Hollywood is doing a terrible job.

Not only was Star Trek Beyond a very average film, the gay plotline lasted about five seconds. We saw Hikaru Sulu give another man, presumably his husband, a hug and then say hello to the young girl that is presumably their daughter. The scene was so bland and vague that the other guy could have been his brother and the little girl his niece. Apparently an actual man-on-man kiss was edited out because in the future there can be people who are entirely green and giant cities floating in space but same-sex PDAs are a big no-no. Meanwhile, numerous fans were up in arms about the “controversy” of the gay plotline and I think that just goes to show how far we still have to go. For now I’ll make do with a gayish hug.

Another example of a missed opportunity is, of course, Dumbledore. Not only did J.K. Rowling make him gay after the event – i.e. after the books had been written and films produced in which there was no hint of his sexuality – but it’s a shame that the only gay member of the Potterverse was a lonely old man who ends up dead. Fantastic Beasts could have made up for this but instead Dumbledore’s crush, Grindelwald, is too busy acting inappropriately around teenage boys and plotting the downfall of muggles. Yup, the other LGBT character is also a smörgåsbord of queer clichés and stereotypes. As for the four protagonists of the movie – all cishets (cisgendered heterosexuals, for more on this, click here). But, I hear you say, surely one of them could have been bisexual. Perhaps but just like with Dumbledore if a character’s sexuality is not made explicit then it just comes across as the ‘norm’, i.e. straight. But, I hear you say again, why should a character’s sexuality have to define them, surely they can be quiet about it? Of course they can and I agree with both points but the problem is you’re probably straight and you probably don’t see your sexuality as a definitive feature of you because you haven’t been routinely discriminated against for having a sexuality other than straight. You’re not regularly made to feel self-conscious or ashamed of your sexuality and if you are it is not because you are of the LGBTQIA community (it is for another equally grim reason that I will blog about in another post). And nor do you have to endure the crass plotlines of a relentlessly straight Hollywood as you search for inspiring role models. So, as far as I’m concerned Captain Kirk can wear a pink dress, have a limp wrist and sing show tunes whilst Dumbledore can have rainbow eyelashes, leather trousers and a biker boyfriend and still neither can be reduced to or defined by their sexuality. 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. In the meantime it’s left to the fans to make some pretty creative stories of their own about their favourite queer characters.

These Are The Christmas Adverts!?

It’s that time of year again, still pretty far away from Christmas but our economy’s on the rocks and we need to get people shopping pronto. The lights are up in the streets, Paris is ordering another giant, green butt-plug and Black Friday is looming. To fuel this pre-Christmas consumption extravaganza the propaganda machines, I mean televisions, are doing their best to spew out an array of emotive adverts to get us racing further into debt. Here are some of the highlights (well, lowlights).

Sainsbury’s and the 4th Industrial Revolution: this Xmas ad is a simple one, an overworked Dad who works in a toy store (as if we have those in Britain anymore) gets worried he won’t be able to spend enough time with his family at home. As stresses mount and this unforgivably long advert unfolds the Dad’s solution is to automate himself, yup, riding the trend of replacing humans with robots he gets a drone to do his shopping, machines to run the factory production lines and a nodding dog to do his ‘yes-manning’. This radical transformation of our society is being heralded by the World Economic Forum (self-important 21st century Adam Smith types) as the 4th Industrial Revolution but to those of us who aren’t super rich and who don’t work in think tanks it heralds loss of jobs and increased social atomisation. Thus, rather than an uplifting advert this is actually a bleak prophecy of things to come, worthy of a Black Mirror episode, but Sainsbury’s do give a great nod to diversity in British society as people of colour and different faiths appear in this advert, of course, the protagonist is still a white guy proving that the supermarket will go some of the way but not all of it.

Lidl/Aldi: Nostalgia and the Dangers of Anthropomorphising Vegetables: at least these ones are short. Lidl’s is called Homecoming (yup, it has a title) and is about a family redecorating their Grandad’s old cottage out in the countryside in time for Christmas day. This is a blatant play on British nostalgia for the countryside and ‘family values’, which today are, of course, being trashed by urbanisation and rural poverty, which are both exacerbated by supermarkets taking jobs away from farmers and forcing them to engage in unsustainable farming methods. This advert is effectively a nostaligc lie about what our past once was but probably actually wasn’t. Meanwhile, Aldi’s advert (Aldi is another German superchain and Lidl’s top competitor) shows a carrot running across a Christmas table laden with food – he runs past the corpses of other carrots, the mashed remains of dead potatoes and even gets the skin of his back grated off – all so he can reach the plate by the fireplace with a mince-pie for Father Christmas on it. The carrot gets its wish and, unlike all his dead and eaten friends, ends up caught in the antlers of a reindeer at the front of Santa’s sled, perhaps a subtle nod to the idea of the carrot and the stick, and this time the carrot is incentivising us all to eat loads and buy even more. Whilst funny this advert does highlight the dangers of anthrompomorphising vegetables because, ultimately, we kill, cook and eat them.

M&S Does Sexism: I would mention the Waitrose and John Lewis adverts but their over-reliance on creepy CGI animals and their unrealistic plots really let them down this year (a normal robin would not survive that journey and besides the fact animals don’t use trampolines they also don’t get on that well: the badger would attack the foxes, the foxes would eat the squirrel and the second the hedgehog landed on its back the foxes would be eating that too). Although, this US election result take on the JL advert is inspired and depressing! Instead, it’s M&S, which shows Santa Claus heading off to do the rounds leaving Mrs Claus at home. Not only does she lie to him when he asks if any “last requests” have arrived in the post and she says “no, just bills” – actually, there was a letter addressed to her and unless her bank uses crayons it’s pretty clear it’s not a bill. It turns out a young boy threw his sister’s trainers at a dog and she cried a lot (typical girl, amirite) so could Mrs C sort this out. Sort it out she does: changing into a highly impractical dress given the weather, getting on a jet-ski, into a helicopter and flying half way round the world to add a final present to the pile her husband will have just put under the tree. She even has a cheeky bite of mince pie but not a big one because women have to be dainty in their eating behaviour, amirite! Naturally, the sister is overjoyed because all girls care about is clothes and shoes, amirite! So, not only does Mrs C do the dirty work of a young boy too lazy to buy his sister a present but just before Mr C gets home from his worldwide trip she hides all the evidence: her secret HQ (think bat cave meets festive cheer), her cool dress and even the letters she receives from kids all vanish behind the wall. She even pretends to have fallen asleep whilst reading a book called ‘Fifty Shades of Red’ (because women only care about sex with sociopaths, amirite) and when Mr C asks how her night was she says, “oh, you know, quiet.” Um, not true! So why is she lying? She tells her husband it “wouldn’t be fun if you knew all my secrets” whilst giving the audience a knowing look and she’s basically asking us to collude in patriarchy, where men’s egos are so fragile the thought that a woman can contribute to the working world is just too much. Mrs C would rather weave an incredibly elaborate web of lies and deceit rather than have her husband know quite how resourceful and independent she can be. Talk about #masculinitysofragile. Either that or she’s just very bored of her marriage.

I Call Bullshit Again: Bored Of Being Polite To Bigots

A few posts ago I was encouraging people to take an empathetic stance towards Trump voters, trying to understand the lives they live, the difficulties they face and why they might vote for someone like Donald Trump. That was, however, before the election result and now that Trump is in the White House I think things have changed. Someone who promoted racism, sexism, disablism, Islamaphobia and a whole host of other prejudices is now not just the surprise candidate he is the surprise president (and don’t forget that he called for bombing civilians, waterboarding and stealing Iraq’s oil). He might be backtracking on his wall and offering a fence instead and he might be telling people to ‘stop, just stop’ committing violence towards minorities but it is precisely those things that helped get him into the White House. So, once again, I call bullshit to bigotry.

I’ve heard a few people, Barack Obama included, say we should accept the situation and just move on (y’know, that keep calm and carry on bullshit), accepting that Trump has been voted president and hoping he makes good of it. Well, as he welcomes people with even more extreme views into his team, denies climate change and courts demagogues I can’t see this ending well. This guy has profited from capitalism, flaunted the rules and grabbed pussy to boot. There is nothing progressive about this man and just because he called bullshit to the political status quo does not make him a trump card (yup, that word is marred forever). He’s a supercharged Nigel Farage who wants to use inequality, social dissatisfaction and age-old rivalries to promote his political success. He doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process so please, please can we carry on calling bullshit to Donald Trump.

And back to that post about empathy. I think it’s pretty easy for someone in my privileged position – white, male, financially secure, not in America, rarely on the receiving end of prejudice – to make simplistic statements about striving to understand people different to myself but if said people have just voted in someone who will make your life incredibly difficult and add fuel to the fires of hatred in your country then the last thing I imagine you want to do is get empathetic (getting a gun probably seems like a safer bet). Rebecca Solnit, Bernie Sanders, Owen Jones and Noam Chomsky are just some of the few calling bullshit and I reckon we should join them. And more than just calling bullshit we need to get organised. For those of us who can, we need to offer support to those facing prejudice because history has not been made by people turning their backs. We also need to ensure that Trump and his equivalents elsewhere do not have it easy – the Republicans made Obama’s presidency tough, so let’s make sure the Democrats do the same rather than just passively endorse the rise of hate. And, yes, empathy and compassion are important too and so is not stereotyping an entire group but Trump is in the White House and the many wars that the ‘West’ has always waged against itself (e.g. black people v. white people in the US, ‘nationals’ v. immigrants in most countries, rich v. poor, rural v. urban) are getting worse and worse. And sure, as the privileged person I am, I am yet to be at the receiving of said prejudices but I’m not going to wait until I get punched in the face before I do something about it. Trump is in the White Horse. This is not OK. And may I remind you that this has led to the return of Sarah Palin and we all know who she is. She says Trump’s presidency is “going to be so much fun” and that just sounds like a threat. So, game on folks, it’s time to wing a whole load of bullshit at those bigots (and here’s a link to the SNL parody of Palin’s speech but I couldn’t decide which was more funny/depressing/scary).