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Love, Hollywood: Gay Representation in Modern Film

13 mins read

In recent years, gay representation in cinema has been making slow but steady progress. Aside from backhanded, ‘performative’ representation in Disney films like marketing Lefou (Beauty and The Beast) as the first “gay Disney character” and showing him dancing with a man for one second which they are more than happy to remove for overseas markets for the sake of extra profit (Beauty and the Beast was banned in Kuwait, and it isn’t the first film in recent years to be banned in countries overseas for queer scenes), there has been a plethora of queer representation in films and TV lately.

For instance, Call Me by Your Name, which chronicles a brewing romantic relationship between 17-year-old Elio and his father’s intern, Oliver in Lombardy, Italy, was an award-season darling. It won Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars and was nominated for Best Motion Picture of the Year. In addition, it also won Best Screenplay (Adapted) at the BAFTA Awards and was again nominated for Best Film. The film has been praised by some members of the LGBT community for its portrayal of queer love; however, others took a more critical approach to the material.

Some have pointed out the inability to empathize with the character of Elio, because there is no internal struggle shown on screen, making it unrelatable for most gay audiences who found it difficult and at times traumatic to come to terms with their sexuality. When Elio discovers he is attracted to guys, he doesn’t have any visible anxieties or worries. Elio acts on the feelings naturally and shows no worry when it comes to coming out to friends or family, which is quite unrealistic.

Call Me By Your Name, Image Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

More significantly though, some viewers see the central relationship as predatory or ethically wrong.

When discussing the criticisms, Armie Hammer, who plays Oliver in the film, pointed to the age of consent in Italy to dismiss them. The age of consent in the U.S is 16 whereas in Italy, the location of the film, it’s 14.

However, Queer Eye star Karamo Brown spoke about finding the film ‘problematic because it glorifies predatory behaviour.’ In an interview with Insider, Brown discussed his opinion on the film: “I’ve worked with many survivors of sexual assault, especially in the LGBTQ community… And so, the minute I saw that movie, I thought, ‘Here we are glorifying this sort of relationship.”

He then went on to talk about how dramatically older Armie Hammer looks than Timothee Chalamet and how this kind of relationship would not be perceived as okay if it was two straight people, but because it’s two guys, Brown said that the problems are ignored because it’s just as “just exploration.”

So, while it can be seen as progress that a queer film went on to get such mainstream attention, and more significantly, win or gain nominations for so many awards, representation itself can still be problematic or faulty, even if unintended.

There have been other important gay or queer films or films that feature queer characters but as someone who is gay himself, I’d like to address a film I found helpful and important in my personal coming-out journey. Love, Simon.

Love, Simon, the film adaption of the beloved young-adult fiction novel, Simon Vs. The Homosapien Agenda, follows the coming-out journey of Simon Spier, a 17-year-old gay boy, and his relationship with an anonymous classmate online. Simon was the first mainstream teen rom-com to feature a gay lead character.

Love Simon, Image Credit: 20th Century Studios

As someone who struggled with their sexuality until quite recently, Love, Simon had a significant impact on me.

To see this film centered around someone in the same general age group as me and going through similar struggles made me realise I wasn’t alone in what I was experiencing and that there are others out there just like me. I heavily related to Simon’s reluctance to tell anyone about his sexuality for fear of rejection. Even if you know you have a loving family, and supportive friends (both of which I’m lucky to have), the fear is still real. The fear of being seen differently, of changing perceptions.

Love, Simon is raw and genuine in showing the coming-out experience. From wishing you were straight, pretending to be straight, the constant emotional rollercoaster and fear of someone finding out. While some have criticized it for being too idealistic, as when Simon does come out, his family and friends are generally accepting straight away without any conflict, it was the gay representation I needed after seeing so many gay films centered around tragedy or homophobia.

There’s a very emotional, moving scene in the last act of the film where Simon’s mum tells him: “You get to exhale now Simon. You get to be more you than you have been in a very long time.”

That perfectly summates the feeling coming-out had to me personally and to so many others. It’s like this giant weight that you’ve been carrying around on your back being lifted, or as the film suggests, it’s as if you can finally breathe after feeling suffocated for so long.

Love Simon, Image Credit: 20th Century Studios

It’s so difficult being a gay guy in high school, amongst mostly straight peers, and grappling with your sexuality. Especially the all-too-common experience of pretending to like girls around other guys, or trying to ‘mask’ being gay, which is shown so delicately and honestly in Love, Simon. I’d also like to add that as someone who is masculine-acting, it helped to see someone similar as the protagonist of a gay film; I found it quite difficult to relate to the personalities of characters in other films, and it led to a feeling of “I can’t be gay, I don’t act like them…” and constant self-doubt.

Films like Love, Simon are the positive gay representation that is required.

We need more triumphant stories. We have had enough about homophobia, the AIDS epidemic, loss of friends and family. Not that those aren’t incredibly important stories to tell also, but it’s time we look at the other side of being gay and tell stories that encourage people to be proud of their sexuality (Heartstopper also comes to mind).

While Love, Simon was the first teen gay rom-com, 2022’s Bros is the “first gay romantic comedy from a major studio featuring an entirely LGBTQ principal cast.” While Simon was played by straight actor, Nick Robinson, the two leads of Bros, Luke Macfarlane and Billy Eichner, are both gay in real life, which adds extra authenticity to the film. It gives gay adults a voice in mainstream cinema, and the film was also written by Eichner, meaning that there are a lot of jokes that purposely appeal to gay audiences and a lot of gay inside jokes – gay icon Kristen Chenoweth even makes a cameo.

Bros, Image Credit: Universal Pictures

Bros doesn’t reinvent the template of a modern rom-com; just to see the regular formula with a gay cast feels so refreshing. It normalizes the queer relationship and never feels like the film is applauding itself for being diverse or screaming at us “this is a gay rom-com!”. It’s treated like any straight film in the genre is.

Unfortunately, despite a mostly positive critical reception, Bros was a flop at the box office, making an underwhelming $4.8m on its opening weekend. While Eichner himself has come out and said: “Even with glowing reviews, great Rotten Tomatoes scores, an A CinemaScore, etc., straight people, especially in certain parts of the country, just didn’t show up for ‘Bros’” and there have been some noticed instances of homophobia towards the film outside cinemas, other reasons have been noted.

For instance, Eichner and Macfarlane aren’t massive stars and after the COVID pandemic, star power is needed to draw people to films. An interesting case study is the success of straight rom-com Ticket To Paradise, which made $45m overseas ahead of its U.S debut, but this film also featured two mega-stars, George Clooney and Julia Roberts

Ticket To Paradise, Image Credit: Universal Pictures

The marketing also may have been an issue as Universal arguably leaned too hard into the historical importance of the film in adverts, rather than on what the film’s plot was, or its comedic aspects. The marketing barely even mentioned the film is by the director of Bad Neighbours, a smash-hit comedy.

Three films. Three unique perspectives. Three case studies.

All of them emphasize the increased effort by film studios to cater to LGBT audiences but also show the progress that needs to be made. For films to really strike a match with gay audiences, we need more gay creatives behind the scenes. We need more films like Love, Simon that show a more positive angle to the coming-out experience. We don’t want Disney’s performative gay scenes that they are willing to cut for profit in other countries.

And that’s possibly the greatest hindrance to gay cinema and representation in the film industry. Profit. It goes without saying that studios are looking for the widest market to cater to and globally, 80% of people identify as straight. Therefore, filmmakers are going to make films that appeal to this demographic, limiting gay voices. When gay films are made by mainstream studios, like Bros, they flop, meaning that they’re more unlikely to invest in similar projects in the future. Unfortunately, it’s looking like the struggle for more significant, and regular, gay representation is going to take a while yet.

Featured Image Credit: 20th Century Studios

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