Queer movies hit the mainstream, but for this gay lady, only one gets it right
2018 was a banner year for queers in film - a fact upon which The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber has already dutifully reported. While we’ve seen queer people portrayed in movies before, in major roles even (think Milk, Brokeback Mountain, Transamerica), what this years movies have in common, as Kornhaber notes, is that they focus on coming out and the declaring of one’s nascent queer self.
This storyline has been much awaited. Even the most queer-centric films of the past have presented queer characters in a state of being that is taken for granted, encouraging audiences to see queerness as a binary of existence or non-existence: there are gay people in the world and here they are. For liberal audiences, this characterization is an opportunity to declare sympathetic allegiance to the marginalized.
In the presence of more side-lined roles, this is an opportunity for stereotyping and segregation. Growing up, many movies and television shows I watched depicted the insidiousness of lesbianism as a threat. Typically this was in the form of a character who, for the purposes of slap comedy, presents her sexuality with such brazen confidence one might mistake her for a straight white man. I assumed that queer people were so self-possessed that they simply came into being - and then came to fuck up your straight life.
Alternately, lesbianism appeared in the form of punishment for failing to be the right kind of woman. Liz Lemon is appalled Jack Donaghy set her up on a date with his female friend; he explains his assumption of her sexuality by pointing to her sneakers that are “definitely bicurious.” That was how the media depicted sexuality before I was ready to accept my own queerness. No wonder it took me so long to say those words aloud.
What this year’s films have done well is presenting gay people in a state of change that almost all queer people have had to confront (if not in action, then at least in contemplation): coming out of the closet.
While no one should make the mistake of believing that coming out of the closet or acting on sexuality is about “becoming gay,” the experience is a becoming of sorts. “Coming out of the closet” is a transitory descriptor for a reason. And the journey has hurdles that even the most sympathetic of straight people cannot imagine. Kornhaber’s astute thesis is that queer coming of age films require the ultimate challenge - deciding to pursue lives that bear no resemblance to those of friends, family, and most peers and mentors. Queer characters are therefore inherently and genuinely rebellious, not merely in the way they appear to be in films like The Breakfast Club.
The genre of queer films past has therefore neglected the one triumph story we have desperately needed - the coming out movie. In my own personal narrative, I gazed unto a sea of Duke fraternity brothers and wondered if it was the sweat glistening from their exposed, unevenly hairy chests that turned me off, or their gender (a very close call that was ultimately decided in favor of gender). With no outlet in which to discuss the challenge that lay ahead of me, I began scripting parts of a movie that would eventually serve as my declaration; my movie poster was to say “A Coming of Age Out Film,” with a line crossing out “of age.”
It was to my great disappointment that Love, Simon portrayed much the same scenery as I had plotted - the liberal enclave that somehow isn’t liberal enough, the father’s seemingly innocuous gay jokes, and the portrayal of gay people as harmlessly “just like us” (even gay males do sports). On the last narrative element, I had particularly great concern as a teen.
When I began presenting my script idea to my film studies capstone class five years ago, under the guise of being a straight person interested in the topic, my film teacher suggested I present my character staring longingly at soccer teammates’ bodies. My heart thudded as I nervously told him that “it doesn’t work that way” (“I have it on good authority, please don’t ask me how I know”).
Despite the warm and fuzzies (with only a little resentment that someone beat me to making this movie) that Love, Simon brings me, the movie doesn’t adequately address the muddiness that accompanies understanding oneself. Instead it is a challenge of proudly stating what he already knew. Boy Erased also fails in this regard. How can a boy, indoctrinated by anti-gay religious beliefs his entire life, state matter of factly to his god fearing parents that he is attracted to men?
Of course, an added issue in Boy Erased is that the movie centers so much on the horrors of conversation therapy that the program takes on the role of main character. While this movie undoubtedly serves an activist purpose, drawing our attention to a very real occurrence in modern day America, a story of this nature encourages an audience to channel their emotions into outrage against some “backwards” parts of the world rather than understanding the overarching challenges of being gay in any city.
In truth, the questions of “what do I want?” “what do I like?” and “who even am I?” plagued me and, even after six years of being proudly out of the closet, still do. For this reason, I would like to make the case that only one film gets it right - the indie darling The Miseducation of Cameron Post, directed by Desiree Akhavan, which is based off a book of the same name, which queer women have been passing to each other in secret for years. My bias should be immediately obvious - this is a story about queer women in a sea of films about queer men (which float in a sea of films about straight men); but even so, this movie tapped into a facet of queerness that most films misportay, and most straight people gravely misunderstand: the confusion.
My god, so much confusion.
For starter’s there’s the blurry distinction between best friendship and romance, which forces you to ask the question, “do I love her like a sister or love her like a girlfriend?” In high school, some straight girls hold hands; in college, some straight girls make out. Some of us Facetime our best friends for two hours; some of us still have sleepovers. Then there’s the fact that, for some gay people, exploring sexuality begins as an attraction to personalities, leaving the physicality of romance to be explored much, much (muuuuuch) later. Closely aligned is the prospect of falling in love with one specific person, which, when that one person ultimately decides to stomp on our young gay hearts, leaves us to wonder if there will be other women we could love.
And of course, weaving these questions tightly together is the presence of neurological work that is beyond our control. It is nearly impossible to explain repression to someone who has never experienced it - how all at once you can have one hundred percent clarity on a dilemma you didn’t even dare debate at the conscious level.
Cameron Post is such a relief because it depicts our queer heroine approaching her sexuality timidly, not just with the outside world, but in her own self understanding. A world in which conversion therapy exists as a possibility, which is also the backdrop of the more widely recognized film Boy Erased, is certainly a stark contrast to the liberal haven of urbanites like me, but in Cameron Post it’s almost as if questions of faith and the institution of Christianity stand as proxy for understanding our place in the social order. One can easily swap god’s intention with the invisible hand. For all the education attained by the liberal elite, we don’t readily identify Capitalism’s popular culture machine as such a forceful social institution. Our mantras delineating normal from abnormal are so internalized that we can call them to mind as quickly as a preacher can draw from bible verses.
Confronting a marginal identity therefore takes an incredible amount of soul searching that can freeze you in your tracks. Enter Cameron. In the beginning of the movie, she wordlessly falls in love with Coley - an innocuous touching of the foot turns into a full on make out with no discussion. It is only when people find out the two have been intimate that she has to start finding words to understand herself. And of course, Coley abandons her, leaving her to understand her sexuality as a matter of the self, not of the pair. It is a member of her group at God’s Promise (the conversion therapy camp where her aunt sends her) who first presents to her the idea of SSA (same sex attraction).
Throughout the movie Cameron confronts questions of her past and present with reticence that her peers mistake for recalcitrance. The reality, as cinematically depicted with Cameron’s searching eyes and frequent flashbacks, is that she does not yet have answers. God’s Promise does not have the double doors and tight security present in Boy Erased - anyone can walk away into the woods if they so choose. The question of “and go where?” is easily read as a question of “and be who?” Not everyone stays in the closet because they face actual threats of punishment. Many simply fear the abyss that awaits, having no models or mentors to lead the way. At the end of the film, when she burns a letter from Coley and asserts her worth as a human, she walks away from God’s Promise (or, if you will, Adam Smith’s Promise).
While this movie gratified me for all the reasons I have overindulgently stated, I would also like to extend an olive branch to people who do not share my specific history: more specifically straight or questioning folks. Being uncertain or timid about our sexual identities is not a burden. When we finally have a film that focuses on the questioning of the identity, we might open a door to more people asking questions of their own identity. At a school like Duke, questioning, either about sexuality or about life’s purpose, is a very vulnerable position to be in. How is it that so many 18 year olds can coincidentally stumble upon management consulting as their eventual career?
Exploring sexuality, and owning your identity as a sexual being, is also a challenge that straight people ought to face, whether they realize it or not. For women in particular, asserting that you have sexual attractions might etch away at the false ties between wanting sex and being slutty. For men, perhaps questioning your manliness would be a much needed reprieve from asserting it.
And for selfish reasons, all of us asking questions of sexuality and identity will alleviate that burden from the shoulders of queer kids, who, fifty years since stonewall, still have a challenge ahead.