By Kelsey O’Regan, Contributing Intern
What do we want? Quality LGBTQ representation.
When do we want it? Now.
This is the overture constantly heard ‘round the Internet world, long before but especially after queer fan favorite Commander Lexa was killed in season three of The 100. In the past few years, we’ve not only grown sick enough of the yet unshakable “bury your gays” trope to raise money for charity, establish a wildly successful fan convention, and (shameless plug) start creating our own content, but we’ve also begun, as we should and must, to demand even more.
We ask for characters who are living, breathing, three-dimensional people, who can show flaws and complexity without being villainized, and who—GASP—can find love without it being cruelly snatched away episodes (or even mere scenes, or a single commercial break) later.
And, to be fair, our requests have not gone unanswered. Sci-fi Western hit Wynonna Earp has the overwhelmingly popular “Wayhaught” ship, both halves of which are series regulars and crucial to the cast; returning soon is Black Lightning’s revolutionary Anissa Pierce, a black lesbian activist who also happens to be a bulletproof superhero; and gearing up for its fifth and final season is the absurdly charming Killjoys, in which every character we meet is seemingly queer until proven… nope, forget it, there’s not a single straight person on that show.
If TV is putting in at least some effort to be less harmful, what about Hollywood?
For me, that question is a little more complicated. Pop-culture has been slowly drifting into a dangerous realm where everything is either Perfect or Cancelled and the two sides are divided by an increasingly precarious line that even our own community has trouble navigating. As we move forward with our conversations about each new addition to the LGBTQ media archives, I think it’s worth examining three recent (and very imperfect) attempts, what makes them satisfying or unsatisfying to us, and how we can keep up with the ever-evolving definition of “quality.”
Analysis #1: Deadpool 2.
For a franchise whose titular (canon pansexual) anti-hero is all about raunch-tastic sex-capades, its nearly blink-and-you-missed-it inclusion of Negasonic Teenage Warhead and her girlfriend Yukio is as puzzling as it is frustrating.
Both the original and sequel smother themselves in an explosive, no-f*cks-given aesthetic that should arguably allow them to get away with anything, so why do the girls pop up to announce they’re dating and then have literally no other role in or impact on the rest of the story?
Kristy Puchko noted an a piece for Mashable that “the visuals of their romance are notably chaste […] even in their moments alone. It’s almost as if they’re gay in name only, and the sole acknowledgement of their romance and sexual orientation could easily be cut from the film.”
And yet, the GAYTIMES headline “Deadpool 2 features the first LGBTQ romance in a major superhero film” isn’t wrong, or unimportant. Writer Sam Damshenas points out that their relationship “is explicitly stated and not merely implied,” and that “despite their lack of screen time, their relationship is positively portrayed,” which is “a massive step for representation in a genre dominated by straight male characters.”
Here, the queer visibility seems to have more statistical significance than narrative; to serve as a check-mark, as opposed to an actual story. But what’s important to acknowledge here is that baby steps like this are not only okay—they’re necessary in a world where heterosexuality continues to be the default and straight audiences are seen as the majority.
Deadpool did something, and it can do a lot better.
Analysis #2: Love, Simon.
In the interest of full transparency, I’m telling you right now that I adored this movie. I cried every time Simon came out to someone, I wept during the Ferris wheel kiss, and when we left I almost had my girlfriend turn the car around so we could go back and watch it again.
The second layer of transparency, however, is that the trailer frustrated the hell out of me for months before I walked into the theater. As a bi woman who rarely sees herself portrayed on the big screen, yet another story about a cis white gay man was something I had little to no interest in, not to mention how much I hated Nick Robinson’s character in Jurassic World.
I bought my movie ticket with negative-leaning but mostly neutral feelings about the whole thing, but left wanting every single student in the country to watch it.
Much of my Love, Simon afterglow was spent swimming through the Twitter discourse—people who loved it, people who hated it, and people who let their assumptions about the characters and plot stop them from seeing it at all—and I was fascinated by how many different opinions the LGBTQ community could have about the same story.
In a discussion on Vulture, Matt Rogers said he thought the movie was “pretty wonderfully basic. It’s vanilla and accessible and maybe that’s exactly what it needed to be.” A review on Medium that it was a “cute little coming-out flic,” that “does a lot of things well, and within [its] subgenre as a gay teen coming out story, it does subvert some of the tropes that we’ve grown tired of.”
A piece for Affinity Magazine written by a pansexual woman was far more critical:
Would it be too much to ask for more queer leads of color, queer kids that aren’t wealthy or upper-middle class, or queer leads who don’t fit the sassy gay sidekick mold in 2018? Is it too much to ask for queer women to be leads? Is it too much to represent the queer community beyond gay and lesbian characters? Is it too much that a queer character’s story arc goes beyond coming out storylines?
My own take-away was that yes, I would’ve loved to watch a less generic version of the LGBTQIA+ experience unfold; but maybe those layers of privilege, described in TIME’s mostly tasteless review as “endless social advantages and a nurturing, liberal-minded family,” are a lesson on their own: being in the closet is always, always, scary.
Anxiety doesn’t care if you’re conventionally attractive. Self-doubt never stops questioning the daily affirmations of your family and friends. Fear is one of the most powerful emotions a person can experience, and Love, Simon does everything it can to emphasize that.
(Also worth noting is the outsider’s perspective: heterosexual moms and dads now have Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel’s characters to exemplify unconditional love, and prejudiced kids might think twice before spouting homophobic garbage lest they be treated like the fictional bullies).
Love, Simon shouldn’t necessarily be called a champion of LGBTQIA+ cinema, but its significance in queer history remains—a mainstream story about the importance of personal agency, made for a younger audience but appealing to all ages, and maybe best of all, the happy ending that inevitably accompanies a rom-com label.
Analysis #3: Atomic Blonde
Dammit, Charlize Theron, why’d this masterpiece have to do us so dirty? We got a female-led, visually stunning, totally kick-ass action thriller where our protagonist sleeps with a woman not just once, but multiple times… and then said love interest is brutally murdered during the third act. What the hell?
The fact that the script bothered at all to add such depth to Lorraine and Delphine’s dynamic given her ultimate fate is vaguely infuriating. Riley Silverman observed in a piece for SyFy that the women weren’t “just eye candy, but actually had a few moments of tenderness, of at least faux-vulnerability on the part of Lorraine,” which of course was “darkened” by Delphine’s murder.
IndieWire also appreciated that the relationship isn’t “an afterthought,” but “a fully-fledged subplot told in a few meaty scenes […] creating a world where lesbian relationships are just as valid as any other.” In addition, “there are no offensive jokes, no one has to come out, [and Lorraine] never has to explain herself.” Which is all well and good, of course, but how much does any of that matter if one half of the relationship ends up six feet under?
If that piece ignored the issue, SPLINTER’s review revolved around it, saying the film “can’t quite escape some of the most tired tropes of the testosterone-centric genre,” and calling Delphine’s murder “the worst part of the movie” given that “hers is somehow both lengthy and reductive.” Autostraddle agreed, claiming her death wasn’t “ultimately necessary for the story and is a pretty blatant replication of the harmful Bury Your Gays trope,” especially since “Delphine is a genuine love interest for Lorraine, who doesn’t sleep with her to get information or for any other ulterior motive other than just wanting to sleep with her.”
And so the question remains: am I a blasphemous bisexual for sincerely enjoying a movie that refuses to let the gays have a happy ending? (Thank Lesbian Jesus for AO3.) Can we, and should we, promote an otherwise refreshingly feminist piece of media in spite of such a gross plot twist?
In order to determine the queer quality of a piece of media, we first need to understand what character or storytelling elements we’re seeking, that nothing is black and white, and that perfection is absolutely worth striving for, but also, perhaps, unattainable.
We all experience and perceive our world differently, and that might mean there’s no wrong or right answer to any of the questions I’ve asked here. But sometimes, the answers are less important than asking the questions in the first place.