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

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

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

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

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

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

Beach Rats: That Gay-Not-Gay Film

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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