The Evolution of Queer Romance in cinema
How Queer Cinema evolved with the LGBTQ+ Liberation Movement
When it comes to writing on Queer film and studying its history, you have to become an archaeologist— dig through archives of film, and like an excavator— discover a small piece and somehow place it among the rest of the pieces in order to analyze the foundations of it. Film studies of Queer representation is a small, but a growing field. To add on to the challenge of Queer film studies, we must factor in the present, yet sparse representation of Queer bodies of color.
While in recent years, Queer romance films, such as Moonlight (2016), Carol (2015), Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013), Call Me by Your Name (2017), etc., have gained critical acclaim in Academy Awards and other prestigious festivals. However, they continue to remain predominantly White (with, of course, the wonderful exception of Moonlight). To add on to that, films remain to be focused on the representation of cisgendered bodies and gender conforming stereotypes.
Queer movies have skirted from the exposure within the mainstream circuit of Hollywood despite being awarded by prestigious awards, and only recently, with Love, Simon (2018), made waves in mainstream Hollywood. Love, Simon (2018) was distributed and produced through Twentieth Century Fox, becoming the first big production of a “Hollywood Gay movie.” Previous Queer films have either been in the more indie art-house scene, screened only in select theatres (usually art-house theatres), or muddled in the pool of trash, campy, and/or experimental cinema. Also, Queer cinema used to be inaccessible to all ages because of mature themes and distribution, which questioning teens who are starting to identify on the spectrum would find it hard to access a movie without being ultimately discovered. When Love, Simon (2018) was released this year in March, its sweeping effect and praise emphasized the importance of representation that further portrayed the extent of how far Queer cinema has come.
The acceptance and exposure of LGBTQ films have progressed through the years, thus mirroring the political and social views of the United States towards LGBTQ issues. Queer cinema, in the United States, made its appearance in the 1950s and was influenced by the underground art films of Weimar Cinema. The Weimar Republic in Germany and its implicit expression of Queerness was a significant influence on the rising creation of Queer cinema in Hollywood starting in the 1950s. From the 1950s to present day, the acceptance and representation of Queer cinema have made considerable changes, which aligns with the changes in the political and social atmosphere of America.
The Experimental Queer Cinema (The 1950s – Early 1960s)
In Hollywood, it was particularly important to note the emergence of Queer cinema from the 1950s to 1960s as it is seen as a response and rejection to the Hays Code— a production code that “formalized the verdict that homosexuality could not be represented in actors or words on the screen.” The Hays Code upheld a moral standard and prohibited any form of “indecency” that defied this code. The prohibition of the Hays Code created an aesthetic form of Queer cinema rooted in the subtexts rather than being explicitly stated or shown. Queer cinema gained filmic styles that are recognized and studied today, but at the same time being dismantled to assimilate into the acceptance of mainstream art and Hollywood. During the Hays Code period, however, filmmakers needed to find strategies to create Queer stories because of Hollywood’s prohibition of homosexuals stories. As a result of this, they turned to underground cinema.
Three major Queer filmmakers during this period were Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, and Jack Smith. These three filmmakers gave rise to the expression of Queer cinema through the genre of camp— a style of exaggeration that inverts the linear narrative style and artistic aesthetics that are often identified with high art cinema. The genre of camp and its style “connects Hollywood spectacles to experimental cinema, high art, trash cinema and popular culture through citation, appropriation, reception, and recycling.” (Mennel’s Queer Cinema: Schoolgirls, Vampires, and Gay Cowboys). When analyzing Queer cinema, it is the genre of camp that gave artistic value and exposure to Queer cinema.
While Andy Warhol is more famously known for his pop art, his moments as a film director provides an example of this implicit expression of Queerness that rose through experimental and avant-garde filmmaking. Warhol’s Screen Tests (1964-1966) exemplify the absence of Queer identity, as well as the experimental and avant-garde aesthetics. He collected over 500 of these Screen Tests in numerous selections. Andy Warhol’s style can be seen in his minimalistic style of the Screen Tests through the consistent style of closeups and focus of the foreground of his subjects rather than the depths of the frame. Warhol’s Screen Tests are notable examples reflecting Queer artists during this age, and the effect of the Hays Code on production.
Kenneth Anger’s short experimental films, such as Scorpio Rising (1964), Fireworks (1947), and Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) demonstrated the repressed homosexual tensions and Queer aesthetics. Anger’s experimental and avant-garde style touches on masculinity and homoeroticism through camp, and even implies political messages within them. Anger’s Fireworks (1947) was a strong example of suppression of homosexuality in Anger’s fantastical underground short film. Fireworks reflected the excruciation of Queer desires repressed by the Hays Code and society’s paranoia and demonization of Queer people. The short film not only gives insight into Anger’s hidden and repressed desires, but also the films acts as a lens for the expected male role in society. However, like most of Anger’s short films, male subjects are poised in stereotypical male roles, but contradicts these roles with underlying homosexual tensions and desires. Scorpio Rising (1964) highlights the masculinity of young Italian-American bikers and their fetishization of bikes. The short film portrays the homosocial relationship between these men, who are clad in leather, jeans, and chains, through faux violence and homosocial erotic games. In the background of Scorpio Rising, during these games, there are Nazi flags in the background that is never addressed and leaves the audience to interpret the meaning. Kenneth Anger effectively conveys the underlying homoerotic tensions and desires through his short films that were consistently posed in a masculine world, as well as the fetishization of men.
It is no surprise that Queer movies were subjected to the dark and obscure corners of cinema— seen as eccentric, widely theatrical, and odd. The U.S., while booming in terms of economic status after World War II, was in a state of paranoia after Hitler’s reign and destruction. Issues of race, gender roles, and sexuality started to rise and come into question after World War II; the fear of communism and anyone who had the slight suspicion of supporting a political stance was immediately compared to Hitler. Americans, in this paranoid state, feared change and were rampant to those attempting to shake the status quo after the victory in World War II. This paranoia is soon shaken by the battle cries of the Civil Rights Movement and the desegregation of the South. The Civil Rights Movement reminded Americans of the power of change, the battle for equality, and the need to deconstruct the system of dominations in the United States. The Civil Rights Movement further ignites the irefulness of the silent and the discriminated, and incites an almost immediate chain reaction of movements soon after.
Post-Stonewall and New Hollywood (Late 1960s – 1980s)
In the late 1960s to 1980s, Hollywood witnessed a shift in directors as new, young and daring visual storytellers enter the field. This era was dubbed “New Hollywood” for the sudden shift from moderately conservative films to explicitly daring and liberal films. The political and social atmosphere of the United States mirrored what was being expressed in films during this era, and the creative perspective of these young filmmakers.
The end of the Hays Code in 1968 played a significant role in the shift of the implicit to the explicit expression in film. From 1968 and after, America was a zone of political and social movements— protests against the Vietnam War, The Civil Rights Movements, Women’s Rights Movement, etc. As we excavate through Queer history and its relation to Queer cinema, the Stonewall Riots in 1969 is a particular artifact of deconstruction in terms of how it set motion to the battle for equal rights and the LGBT Civil Rights Movement.
The Stonewall Riot was a two-day battle between the police and infuriated Drag Queens of Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York. The riots ignited the flames to the LGBT Civil Rights Movement and pushed for LGBT acceptance and equality. Ironically, as the push for LGBT rights became more and more fervent while the acceptance grew, Queer cinema continued to remain in the realms of underground works and away from the mainstream. With the removal of the Hays Code and reconstruction of the rating system, these new young directors of the “New Hollywood” became bolder and more explicit with the male gaze of cinema (The Graduate and Easy Rider are two examples of this).
Post-Stonewall led to the very first “Pride Parade” on June 28, 1970 in New York City in recognition of the one year anniversary of Stonewall (also known as Christopher Liberation Day). From this moment on, the attitude started to shift from the silence of the early 60s and before, to the raging cries to be loved, to be seen, and to be heard. Post-Stonewall pushed to dismantle the figurative closets and advocated for LGBTQ+ to come out and join the battle for LGBTQ+ rights.
During this period, Queer cinema was not as active as Queer artists were more involved in the movements at the time. The second wave of feminism spurred on the discussion and formations of more groups— such as feminism for women of color, feminism, and lesbianism; fighting for equal pay, and more feverishly during this wave of feminism was birth control and abortion rights. The AIDS crisis was starting to plague the Gay community and was seen as something like a mythical disease until the 80s when the movement for AIDS awareness became public.
Lesbian films during this period were heavily scrutinized with the women’s liberation movement and feminist theories, such as Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, critiquing the male gaze and voyeurism of the female body. There was a slogan during the women’s liberation movement that said: “feminism is the theory; lesbianism is the practice” in which illustrates the political awareness and identity that started to coincide with sexuality. Films, such as Personal Best (1982), conveys this voyeurism and male gaze with the camera shots toward the female athletes in the locker room. Furthermore, the film’s star Mariel Hemingway was also seen on a photo spread of Playboy in 1982, headlining the actress and photos from behind the scenes from the film. Feminist and Queer film theory started to intersect in its analysis of the way women and lesbians were being presented. Desert Hearts (1985), unlike Personal Best, does not conform to heterosexuality and use homosocial relationships as an excuse to express homosexual desires implicitly.
The movie, produced by Wolfe— a company known for LGBT movies— is set in 1959 and focused on the explicit romance and sex between the two female leads. Granted, Desert Hearts plays on several tropes that we know of today in regards to lesbian movies (i.e. an older woman who is recently divorced, and falls in love with a younger woman, etc.), but it was groundbreaking at the time for its happy ending and visibility of lesbians. Desert Hearts demonstrates the change from the stifling and repressiveness of the early 60s to this expressive (both sexually and emotionally) desire for homosexuality.
The Stonewall Riots was pivotal in spurring activism in the Queer community and fiercely bringing in the LGBTQ+ community to the forefront of political and social activism from the 60s to the 80s. The life and death of Harvey Milk has been so integral and inspirational to the movement— the rainbow flag, designed and stitched in 1978, has become a symbol of pride for the community that was inspired by the life and activism of Milk. Gus Van Sant creates a beautiful biopic of Harvey Milk in 2008, sending a powerful message and reminder to a society still riddled with prejudices and social injustices that change is possible.
New Queer Cinema and the Fight for Equality (1990s-early 2000s )
Queer Cinema, prior to the 90s, was decoded through subtext or demonized, sexualized, fetishized, etc. as it reflected the repressive and stringent conservatism of the past. Queer cinema and LGBT films were passing ideas, were obscured, and even inaccessible— the explicit and definitive study of Queer Cinema and the genre of Queer films/LGBT movies were little to nonexistent before the 90s. Queer films and analysis were practiced in regards to media representation prior to the 90s, but it was the 90s that genuinely cemented the title of the study and genre.
The 90s especially brought awareness of Queer movies to the mainstream. While Gay and Lesbian characters have been becoming more present in media, they were often written as one-dimensional and often played on stereotypes, such as flamboyant Gays or butch Lesbians. Notable directors that we know of today, such as Todd Hayne’s and Gus Van Sant, helped propel the art of Queer cinema during this period.
Queer was used more heavily to express the non-normative desire, and to start moving away from the fixedness of gender binaries and sexuality— voicing the vastness of the spectrum of sexuality and identity. The 90s embodied the “in your face” attitude that was associated with the movements at this time. The third wave of feminism took place in the 90s, and was more fierce and rebellious as reflecting the generation at the time. The devastation of the AIDS crisis and lack of response created infuriated activists in the community who no longer took silence for an answer. It was the 90s that culminated the anger of the past and broke out of the metaphorical closet of sexuality to the streets with their voices loud, demanding to be heard from years of being forced to be quiet.
The 90s was also riddled with backlashes to the movement with legislation being passed that discriminated against LGBTQ identifying individuals. The policy “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act were two major legislation that devastated the fight for equality. While DOMA and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” outraged the community, the most devastating was the atrocious, heinous, and unfathomable death of Matthew Shepard. On October 6th, 1998, 21-year-old openly Gay Shepard was tied to a fence and beaten to death in Laramie, Wyoming. The horrific and tragic death of Shepard has been seen as one of the most prominent anti-Gay hate crimes in America. This violence, hate, and prejudice action, while always known, became heightened and it was apparent that it needed to be addressed more seriously. While there wasn’t anything in legislation concretely pushing for the protection of LGBTQ individuals, especially for the youth, media made waves in pushing for this awareness.
Kimberly Pierce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) were two significant films that propelled Queer cinema into the eyes of mainstream audiences. Both Boys Don’t Cry and Brokeback Mountain included big-name actors and directors during a time that aided in bringing them to the spotlight.
Boys Don’t Cry destabilized social and conventional norms with its touching and heartbreaking story of Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank). While the movie did not earn an accolade like Best Picture, Hilary Swank won Best Actress for her portrayal of the young transgender man, Brandon Teena. Boys Don’t Cry is based on the true story of Brandon Teena and Pierce’s dramatization of his life; the movie gripped critics and audiences heart with the portrayal of the pain and violence towards the Queer community (specifically the trans community).
However, most theorist will agree that Queer cinema took a turn to the mainstream with Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. Brokeback Mountain holds the title for changing the tune of Queer cinema through its nominations in the Academy Awards (though it is important to note that Boys Don’t Cry netted a Best Actress award for then up-and-coming actress Hilary Swank).
Brokeback Mountain received eight nominations: Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actor in Supporting Role, Best Actress in Supporting Role, Best Original Music Score, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Out of all of these sweeping nominations, only Ang Lee was able to go home with the Best Director for the film. With Crash snubbing the title for Best Picture, there was an upheaval with the selection, and thus furthering attention to Brokeback Mountain.
Brokeback Mountain also has one of the highest grossing numbers at the box office for LGBTQ themed films: domestically $83 million, while internationally $178 million. According to Indiewire, Brokeback Mountain was the top highest grossing film in the 2000s for LGBT-themed movies. With the success of Brokeback Mountain and the fiery battles on the social and political front of the movement, Queer cinema started to rise exponentially. The rise of activism and acceptance of the LGBTQ community aided in this surge of Queer movies; Barack Obama’s presidency made significant changes that were historical and monumental moments in the fight for equality.
Love Wins in the 2010s
On October 28, 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crime Preventions Act into law, making it a federal crime “to assault an individual because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity.” On August 2010, Proposition 8— which voters in California found same-sex marriage illegal— was found unconstitutional. In 2011, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in 5-4 vote. On June 2015, the Supreme Court ruled the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
The 2010s, with the Obama Administration, made progressive and milestone acts in the social and political movement for LGBTQ+ equality. Several celebrities have openly come out and became leading activists in the fight for equality. With the overwhelming amount of positive exposure and activism from iconic role models in the entertainment industry (Ellen Degeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, Ian McKellen, etc.), Queer cinema has reflected this monumental change and overarching of acceptance in modern-day America.
To start off, The Kids Are All Right (2010) was nominated for four Academy Awards— most notable nomination was Best Picture— and while the movie did not go home with any awards that year, it certainly set the tone for the upcoming years and the inclusion of Queer cinema and representation. The Kids Are All Right shifted the narrative style from the overdone narrative of Queer movies centered on being LGBT, or coming out. The film set itself in modern-day America with two established lesbian partners, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), who have been together for 20 years and raised two children. What was groundbreaking about The Kids Are All Right is that it focused on the value of family and the structure of an LGBT family, which is no different than the “normal” family structure. The Kids Are All Right changed the dark and severe tones of Queer cinema to a more comedic, at times dramatic, and heartfelt narrative.
Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013), while not a U.S. film, gained attention and praise in Hollywood with it receiving the Palm d’Or at Cannes. Queer romance that is realistic, yet touching, like Blue Is the Warmest Color, was being produced more and more to reflect the growing desires and love from society. As the fight for marriage equality was finally achieved in June 2015, films started to change its tune to showcase the acceptance and gripping love stories in Queer romances. In 2015, Todd Haynes returned with Carol (2015), starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Haynes 1950s period drama based off the novel The Price of Salt (1952). Carol was nominated for several prestigious awards, however, was overshadowed by other noteworthy movies.
Finally, in 2016, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016) became the first LGBTQ film to win Best Picture. Moonlight is praised for its breathtaking capture of Queerness, Blackness, and poverty; and it touches on the intersectionality of all these factors in this three-chapter journey of the life of Chiron.
With Moonlight, earning the title of Best Picture over the expected win La La Land, was another major win for the Queer community and finally a win for representation in cinema. After Moonlight, the production and creation of narratives of LGBTQ movies have increased in demand and exposure. Call Me by Your Name (2017) and A Fantastic Woman (2017) were two significant films nominated at the recent Oscars post-Moonlight. And finally, Love, Simon (2018) became the first LGBT movie to be produced by a major studio (Twentieth Century Fox).
The activism and acceptance of the LGBT movement in the United States has helped increase Queer romance and change Queer cinema to embrace love stories rather than tragedies.
Queer Cinema Today
With Moonlight, Call Me by Your Name, and Love, Simon being produced and critically well-received, the future of Queer Cinema is promising. The acceptance, resources, and organizations for LGBTQ+ equality have risen tremendously. Legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States has encouraged other countries to step forward and do the same (for instance, Australia). The creation of foundations in supporting the youth and creating safe places for LGBT has pushed forth activism against the crimes against LGBTQ+ individuals. Laws that enforce safety are being designed to further protect LGBTQ+ from being harmed and discriminated against. Actors, musicians, politicians, etc. that have come out have increased with society becoming more accepting and welcoming, and thus emulating a safe atmosphere that was only dreamt of decades ago.
Queer Cinema has evolved with the LGBTQ+ movement, and will continue to evolve. Films, if one chooses to look close enough, have veiled messages that reflect society today. Trans-inclusive films and roles are becoming more and more open; the opportunities for Queer stories with Queer actors playing Queer characters is an example of the progressive route and representation that Hollywood is on the right path to.
The years from now are promising in what big productions studios will do now that Love, Simon has proven to be a success. The list of upcoming Queer movies continues to grow, and everyone should be excited when Hollywood finally listens and opens the doors to endless opportunities for diverse narratives and representation.