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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No Homo

“I’m gonna take my shirt off, no homo…I’m gonna take my pants off too, no homo…I’m gonna give you a hand job, no homo.” It’s a little phrase, no homo, that does a lot of work. It’s like a get-out-of-jail-free card in Monopoly – it means you can do the arrestable deed but not get imprisoned for it. It means a straight guy can do a gay thing and still be straight. The list of these things are many and varied, from nudity around other straight men, masturabation, kissing, intercourse and aboslutely loads of things that gay men love doing together. Except the straight men doing it aren’t gay, right?

I’m currently reading the fascinating book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men by Jane Ward, which shines a queer theorist’s light on the bizzare world of heteronormative, racially motivated not-gay gay intimacy and sex. From hazing rituals in Frat Houses to initiation “ceremonies” in the military, all sorts of excuses are given as to why men do these things together – to become part of a fraternity (the gayer the dare, the tougher the bond), because there aren’t any women around, because the women who are around don’t have the sort of sex these guys want, because of childhood trauma, inverted Oedipal complexes, an adolescent phase that will be grown out of, by accident. There are all sorts of reasons but one that never comes up is that these men are gay. Heaven forefend that one of these straight guys might be gay – that’d be awful right, almost as bad as being a woman.

What Ward’s book makes clear is the amount of effort these men, and the people around them, put into maintaining the infrastructure of heteronormativity – that there are two genders (male and female), heterosexuality is the default sexual orientation and sex/marriage should be between people of opposite sex. Biological sex, sexuality, gender identitiy and gender roles are all mixed together to create the doctrine of the heteronorm. So, if you slip from that doctrine, and kiss your mate, you have to justify it somehow – “no homo” is a start or saying it was a dare or you were really drunk. As long as you can justify it within the rules there’s some wiggle room. But come out and say you prefer men to women, then you’re gay, and out you go. The heteronorm is a heavily bifurcated place built on rigid beliefs about the human. Some of these beliefs might stem from the Bible – that God created Eve from Adam’s rib, or biology – that penis = man and vagina = woman. When it comes to sexuality, well, Leviticus said a man should not lie with a man and some scientists say sexuality is in our DNA, so as long as I don’t have the gay gene I’m fine (I can even shag my mates, within reason!). Regardless of the veracity of either of these belief systems what’s clear is that there’s little space for fluidity – of desire, expression, identity and romance. Instead the heteronorm establishes its rigid, violent and patriarchal boundaries, and polices them with force, often by denigrating and abusing the “other” – e.g. gay, female and/or black. Thus, from the queer angle that Ward offers we can see no homo a little differently – instead of an expression of a man’s inherent straightness, he is actually expressing his desire to hold onto the idea that he’s inherently straight. But is he?