Have you heard? According to Marvel Comics, Star-Lord – the guy in Guardians Of The Galaxy played by that one guy you used to find funny on Parks & Recreation — is bisexual. Apparently.
Did you know? The title character of Disney’s new animation Raya & The Last Dragon is gay, at least so sayeth her voice actress Kelly Marie Tran.
Both characters are great steps forward for LGBT representation, right? Maybe? Realistically, what does this actually mean?
I’m not being glib or facetious when I ask that. I am genuinely at a loss as to what, exactly, these proclamations of inclusion, almost completely divorced from the realities of the texts in question, are supposed to mean to anyone. Does anyone look at these characters differently? Does anyone actually feel affirmed by them?
I don’t mean to pick on these examples —Kelly Marie Tran has definitely heard enough from white men on the Internet. However, I feel that the particular hollowness of these declarations of homo/bisexuality taps into something that has bothered me about the state of LGBTQ representation in mainstream entertainment for a few years now. Theoretically, we’re in a time of unprecedented progress, as the entertainment industry (again, theoretically) expands to incorporate a more holistic range of perspectives. Unquestionably, you and I are now far more likely to see characters and relationships outside of heteronormativity in mainstream film and television. A decade ago, a film like Booksmart, a mainstream genre piece with a lesbian character and her desires and its centre, would have been essentially unthinkable. That’s progress, and undoubtedly valuable on an artistic and cultural level. ‘Representation matters’ goes the slogan, right?
And yet, for me, that slogan is overdue for an asterisk. Does all representation matter equally? Doesn’t the quality of representation matter? And what about where said representation is coming from? What is the value of representation within frameworks that are fundamentally disinterested in representing any aspect of existence authentically? It’s when we start asking these questions that triumphalist narratives around increased queer visibility start to look a little shaky.
Let’s be frank about what we talk about when we refer to representation; most of the time, we mean representation within the dominant culture, which right now means four-quadrant sci-fi/fantasy blockbusters, usually based on a pre-existing IP and produced by one of about three companies. Slowly but surely, these companies have begun gingerly catering to this idea, line by line and scene by scene. The problem here is that, with only sporadic exceptions, these films are generally artless, soulless, shrink-wrapped, made-by-committee products constitutionally incapable of representing any aspect of human reality — physical, psychological, or otherwise. Derived largely from media originally intended for children, they are also (as writer R.S Benedict brilliantly articulates) uniformly sexless. These films can’t even imbue the preordained heterosexual hook-up between their conventionally attractive leads with anything approaching a spark, how do we expect them to handle anything more outré? So, sometimes they deliver some off-screen, out-of-text confirmation that a character is “most definitely queer when we’re not looking, between the scenes, in the subtext, promise” — J.K Rowling’s outing of Albus Dumbledore is probably the gold standard here, with Jonathan Kasdan proclaiming Star Wars’ Lando Calrissian as pansexual not far behind. When actual on-screen representation does occur, it’s as a truncated aside, visually undistinguished and utterly divorced from the wider narrative so that it can be excised in certain markets (it seems diversity matters a little less in some hemispheres). Think of such embarrassments as the brief kiss between two anonymous female rebels in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, or co-director Joe Russo making a tortuous appearance as a man grieving for his once-mentioned husband in Avengers: Endgame (at least when perennial provocateur Gaspar Noé made a cameo to dispel allegations of homophobia in his gruelling masterpiece Irreversible, he had the decency to do so fully nude). This isn’t representation so much as signification, a quick gesture to reassure the audience that they’re on ‘the right side of history’, perhaps even to reassure them that in buying a ticket they’re helping fight the good fight in their own way. One hesitates to use the term ‘virtue signalling’, but it’s hard to think of a better way to describe this phenomenon — its queer visibility as a sign that the filmmakers have the right values, rather than as a reflection of the actual complexities of sexual and gender identity as people live them. If Disney’s Guardians Of The Galaxy films ever follow the lead of their paper-and-ink counterparts and out Star-Lord as swinging both ways (although that may necessitate a recast given what his actor would have to say on the matter), do you really imagine it will manifest as anything other than, at most, a strained wink at a male extra?
But even outside these necessarily distanced-from-reality tentpole fantasies, even on the rare occasions that a mass-audience entertainment put sexuality in the foreground, the version of queerness we see is still decidedly cleaned-up and denuded. Take for instance, Love, Simon, the high-school romantic comedy which made history in 2018 as the first major studio release centred on a gay relationship. The version of teenage male gayness presented in this film is almost comically inoffensive. The title character’s yearnings are ultimately chaste, he longs for the same romantic happy ending as his heterosexual peers; his moments of internal conflict are short-lived and unambiguously resolved by the time the credits roll. When we dive into his fantasy life, we find no evidence of lust, or of anger at the pain of the closet, but rather just a musical number fantasising about his eventual life at a ‘liberal college’. The film was a milestone, but that that title had to go to a film whose queerness is so completely divorced from human messiness, real difference, and actual sexuality is a tragic statement.
Perhaps the suffocating predominance of such shallow depictions is why the discourse around queer art has grown so unambitious in recent years, so seemingly resigned. These days, it all seems to be about whether Queen Elsa will get a girlfriend or whether Captain America will get together with his old friend Bucky. Relationships, wants, experiences and the politics thereof seem to have been replaced as subjects of interest by iconography — bisexuality not as a way of feeling and desiring, but a style of lighting, gay identity reduced to sitting oddly in a chair. The conversation has come to centre not only on representation exclusively within the mainstream, but on the mainstream’s desexualised, de-aestheticised, de-politicised terms. To paraphrase Orwell; if you want a picture of the future of queer art, picture two blandly handsome white guys looking at each other under purple lighting, forever.
You might ask, not unreasonably, if this is really so bad — it’s certainly better than nothing, isn’t it? After all, surely anything that might bring comfort to those struggling with their gender or sexuality is worthwhile? And anyway, who is it hurting? That last question, at least, has a fairly clear and blunt answer — actual queer artists, often working independently, that’s who! In fixating on assimilation into the mono-culture, we miss out on the vital, messy, challenging and stimulating work being done by LGBTQ artists on the margins, past and present. Let’s look back to 1968 and Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade Of Roses, a classic of Japan’s New Wave focussed on the lives of cross-dressing ‘gay boys’ in Tokyo’s Shinjuku District. It’s not a film you’re going to see on the BBFC’s list of films for teens during LGBT history month, and it’s unlikely to come up if you take to Twitter or Tumblr and ask for films with good representation. But it’s as truly queer a piece of art as you’re likely to ever see, attuned to the nuances of body language and gender performance, embracing artifice and camp, and gleefully breaking down boundaries and binaries of tone and genre. It is a physical, visceral, ecstatic expression of being and wanting and moving differently. More recently, we have a film like Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, which is in dialogue with mainstream forms (Sciamma astutely cites the melodrama of Titanic as an influence) but filtered through a way of looking and touching that is achingly specific. To touch on a recent schism in the film world, these works are not content with the representation of certain identities is slapped onto a pre-made formula like a new brand of Coke, but art, imbued with their artists’ specific perspective, fascinations, and fetishes. There is not a corporate boardroom in the world that would sign off on either of them — and that’s why they’re valuable.
The reason I chose to write this for The Liberty Club is that, in many forums, the above sentiments are hard to voice. Corporations and conglomerates have cynically learned to speak the language of diversity, using their meagre forms of representation to smear any and all critics as opposed to inclusion itself — say anything critical about the latest superhero blockbuster or animated adventure that happens to feature five whole seconds of kinda-sorta queerness, the inference goes, and you’re on the side of GamerGate, or ComicsGate, or the Fandom Menace. Well, I’m not on the side of those people — I think they’re absurd, and abhorrent, and worthy only of scorn. I’m also not on the side of plastic corporate art which wheels out the most trite, generic, impersonal rendition of LGBTQ identities and expects to be thanked for it, or of a fan culture which settles for such again and again. I’m on the side of Toshio Matsumoto, Céline Sciamma, Chantel Akerman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Todd Haynes, Cheryl Dunye, Tsai Ming-Liang, Torrey Peters, Yukio Mishima, Derek Jarman, and any other queer artist, of any time or place, who has sought to make truly bold, personal, defiant art. And if you want ‘representation matters’ to ever be anything other than a cutesy slogan, you ought to be too.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the values of The Liberty Club.
‘Marvel just confirmed Guardians of The Galaxy’s Star-Lord is bisexual’ at PinkNews
‘Disney’s newest princess is gay, according to Raya and the Dragon star Kelly Marie Tran at PinkNews
‘Everyone Is Beautiful and No-One is Horny’ at Blood Knife
‘Dumbledore’s outing gives text new meaning’ at Today
‘Lando Calrissian’s newfound ‘pansexuality’ is bullshit’ at The Verge
‘Is Chris Pratt’s evangelical church really welcoming to LGBTQ people?’ at The Mercury News
‘Ten films for teens this LGBT history month’ at BBFC