Article written by Maggie Hope and Tyson Burger
The importance of (authentic) queer representation in mainstream films
Art reflects life. But the life it reflects is usually specific to the culture or group that produced it. The norms and values found in mainstream popular art in western society pertain to the dominant groups in that society. The problem lies in these values being unrealistically idealized and presented as “normal.” The more these values are enforced and normalized through pop culture, the more groups that don’t fit the model are alienated and often forced to explain or justify their identity.
This is particularly the case in mainstream film and television, which enforce heteronormative values among viewers. These values are often unrealistic and unrepresentative of most people’s lives—especially those who are gender fluid or not heterosexual. Think about most of the comedies, dramas and action movies you’ve seen. The ending usually involves (or is even centred around) the initiation of a heterosexual relationship. Mainstream films almost always run on the assumption that people adhere to certain traits based on a binary model of gender, which usually involves desiring a relationship with a person of the opposite sex—and in that assumption lies the normalizing aspect. Some examples of this in recent media are It, the second season of Stranger Things and Baby Driver. The plots of these films and shows are driven by universal heteronormativity, which makes it seem natural.
The beginning of relationships at the end of mainstream films often mark the end of the main character’s troubles. This is unrealistic and damaging. For one, people may not always desire a sexual relationship, but if this value is portrayed as natural in most of the media they consume, then they may feel unnatural or inadequate. Also, when the endings of mainstream films display a perfect relationship that ends any depression, insecurities or financial problems the main character had, it establishes expectations in the viewer for their own relationships, which—since their life is not a movie—will not be met. Young people, who are especially susceptible to the cultural values they see in society, should not be socialized to want things that are unattainable.
Folks of all sorts of beliefs, values and gender identities make up our diverse society. It is important to have representation for all kinds of lifestyles in films. It is equally important not to present certain lifestyles as “normal,” but rather as an example of one person’s unique experience. Queer representation in films is important, and we are seeing it more in mainstream films than we have in the past, which is good, but also comes with its own set of problems.
A question that has guided many discussions about queer representation in film—and in other media, for that matter—is whether any representation is good representation. In a podcast titled LGBTQ Representation by Film Comment, writer and journalist Mark Harris articulates that while it is clear queer communities would like to see themselves reflected in more mainstream media, how this could be achieved is another question entirely. For many, any representation is not necessarily a cause for celebration. Stereotypes, exaggerations and assumptions are prevalent throughout Hollywood representations of queer people, and while some may view these characters as progressive, others might see them as half-hearted attempts to temporarily pacify queer audiences.
The answer then must be to push toward broader, more fluid representations of queerness in film. Because of the narrowness of the space that queer characters are given in film and other media, there is not nearly enough room to express the multiplicities of queer experience that exist in reality. In the same way that it’s important to debunk the idea that straightness is “normal” and queerness is “abnormal,” it is also necessary to understand that queerness itself also exists in a variety of ways. This is why it is often difficult for filmmakers and studios—especially those in Hollywood—to represent the entirety of the queer community through the experiences of a few characters.
In a 2016 article titled “Still Looking,” Harris presents another way films can begin to feature more queer characters. “Representation is, of course, an across-the-board struggle, and the fight for inclusiveness usually comes down to two demands: tell our stories (or better still, let us tell our stories), and put us in ‘your’ stories,” Harris writes. He claims that queer authorship, as well as representation through characters, is key to building a more inclusive, well-rounded collection of queer films.
“We’re [here] already; a film doesn’t have to stop a story in its tracks to acknowledge that, or hand itself a humanitarian award for figuring it out,” Harris concludes. All that’s needed is a little more space.
Noteworthy upcoming event:
The Montreal-based “queer film community” fliQs hosts bi-monthly queer film nights at Notre-Dame-des-Quilles (32 Beaubien St. E.) featuring short films by local filmmakers. They are currently accepting submissions for the next edition, which will be on April 23 at 8 p.m. More information can be found on fliQs’ Facebook page.
Graphic by Zeze Le Lin