I remember watching Love, Simon for the first time in 2018 when I was in eighth grade. I felt immense joy at seeing a queer character be at the helm of a narrative instead of in the sidecar designated for G.B.F.s, and I rewatched the movie multiple times after its release. Seeing queer characters finally get representation beyond being Reese Witherspoon or Jennifer Anniston’s best friend in a rom-com was very validating. Growing up in a small, conservative town, it was hard to find representation in real life, so what I was watching on Netflix or Hulu became increasingly important to me. Movies like Love, Simon and other mainstream movies featuring queer main characters became an escape for me, and I got to experience a world outside of my hometown.
Love, Simon (2018)
As I got older, however, I started to outgrow these types of films. That’s not to say they’re of poor quality, nor do I wish to diminish their importance — I simply find myself struggling to stay engaged with modern mainstream queer cinema. Maybe it’s because I’m in college now, while these films are often coming-of-age stories about characters navigating the politics of their high school. Furthermore, some modern films that could be categorized as queer cinema do not have openly queer characters but rely on homoerotic tension or subtext.
However, I think the main reason I feel disengaged with modern queer films is because I started watching more queer arthouse cinema. John Waters and Gregg Araki have slowly become two of my favorite directors, and their stories are so unabashedly gay, camp and unique that I can’t help but love them.
Pink Flamingos (1972)
The biggest difference I’ve noticed when comparing these movies to mainstream offerings is a clear divide in the characterization of queer identity. In mainstream cinema, the main character’s queerness defines the struggles they face in the film. In Love, Simon, if you change the fact that his love interest is a guy, the movie loses its entire plot. If you look at a film like Pink Flamingos (1972), however, you won’t reach the same verdict. If you take away the queer aspects, it’s still a disgusting yet memorable film. Although it would lose most of the John Waters flair, it would still be an interesting “exercise in poor taste” (objectively bad cinematography and editing, characters doing crazy and weird things that no normal person would do, etc.).
This use of sexual orientation and gender identity as a crutch for a plot might seem harmless, but it can have serious implications. Telling queer coming-of-age stories is still important, but it is just as important to acknowledge and address the lack of openly gay characters outside of this type of “coming out” narrative. If the only mainstream films with LGBTQIA+ protagonists use these characters’ identities as their only struggle, what is that telling young queer movie-goers? Why must being queer always be a struggle, especially one that only exists within the halls of their schools?
Arthouse queer cinema provides LGBTQIA+ audiences with something more. Instead of putting openly queer characters into situations that only they as a queer person could be put in, these characters are put in situations either anyone could be realistically placed in, or situations that would never actually happen in a sane world.
Take, for example, the two films Female Trouble (1974) and Titane (2021). In the former, directed by John Waters, we are met with the deeply deranged queer protagonist, Dawn Davenport, played masterfully by drag queen Divine. Most of the things that happen in this film are absurd and do not represent what happens in the lives of queer people, yet it’s still a cornerstone of gay film that helped solidify Waters’ position as an auteur of the genre. In Titane, Alexia (Agathe Rouselle), a serial killer with an attraction to automobiles, goes on the run and attempts to masquerade as a missing boy. Julia d’Ocernau’s sophomore feature explores themes of sexual identity and gender dysphoria in a tasteful yet disturbing manner. It provides the horror genre with a much-needed queer-themed movie that isn’t just an unserious, campy flick, like the Fear Street series or They/Them (2022).
When you compare these two movies to mainstream films like Brokeback Mountain (2005) or Carol (2015), the differences are stark. While Female Trouble and Titane are not comedies by any means, they are not tragic love stories where two people of the same sex can’t be together. Instead of being movies with the ultimate theme being “homophobia bad,” Female Trouble and Titane show the consequences of fame, deceit and uninhibited sexual exploration. Thematic ideas like those resonate with queer audiences just as much as the ones revolving around homophobia; to create queer movies that only explore hatred of being queer and not the other facets of being LGBTQIA+ community does a huge disservice to the community.
The reason we see mainstream films only exploring one facet of queer life is because they are largely written and directed by either straight people or white, gay, cisgender men. Obviously, straight people are not able to capture the intimate details of queer life because they are not queer. Meanwhile, white, gay, cisgender men will face the societal pressures of homophobia, but can’t accurately speak to experiences of racism, sexism or gender dysphoria. When homophobia is the biggest struggle faced by someone, the stories they tell can only do justice to a limited number of facets of the queer experience.
Lingua Franca (2019)
Compare Greg Berlanti, the director of Love, Simon, to Isabel Sandoval, the writer and director of festival films like Lingua Franca (2019) and Aparisyon (2012). Berlanti is a white, gay, cisgender man from New York. He has produced a number of DC Comics adaptations, directed several rom-coms and is credited with creating the story for the Wrath of the Titans (2012). His work does occasionally explore homophobia, but does not always feature queer characters or meaningful representation of POC characters. In contrast, Sandoval is a transgender woman born in the Philippines who immigrated to the United States. Often, her work explores the theme of forbidden love. However, instead of making her romances forbidden because of homophobia, they revolve around racial prejudice and class divide. Even when her characters are queer, Sandoval allows their identity to shape but not define them.
These two directors, both queer but of opposite backgrounds, are emblematic of the extreme difference between mainstream LGBTQIA+ stories and the ones that only cinephiles and festival-goers see. Although stories of struggling with identity are central to the queer experience, it is not the only thing that happens or defines a gay person’s life. There is a distinct lack of stories featuring queer characters that do not over-emphasize the sexuality of their characters for the sake of the plot.
Recent mainstream films like Bottoms (2023) and Booksmart (2019) have helped kickstart a revival of films driven by queer characters, yet they still fall into the trap of defining these characters’ struggles by their identity. Of the mainstream movies released in 2022 that GLAAD surveyed, only 28.5% featured an LGBTQIA+ character. How many of those only used their gay character as a crutch to discuss homophobia, or to claim some representation points for major studios? With only 27% of people stating there are enough queer characters on screen, it’s clear that audiences want something more substantial than what they’re being given.
I believe that more mainstream filmmakers who aim to tell the stories of their gay characters to large audiences should seek to explore and understand queer arthouse cinema before creating their movies. Audiences are clearly not satisfied with the representation being delivered by major studios. Hopefully, with upcoming releases like A24’s Love Lies Bleeding and Netflix’s Atomic Blonde 2, movie-goers may get queer stories that are more than a battle with homophobia.