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by Peter Knegt
December 17, 2012 1:29 PM
14 Comments
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Que(e)ries: Was 2012 a Good Year For LGBT Representation in American Film?

Of the top 25 grossing films at the U.S. box office in 2012 (so far, at least), there are actually three more films that feature Channing Tatum as a lead actor than feature anyone as an openly LGBT character with more than a couple lines. And there's three Tatum films in that top 25 (including "Magic Mike," which is notably the closest thing to gay porn to ever gross over $100 million -- though it does not actually feature an openly gay character).

Now, if we're a bit more flexible with the definition, one can certainly make queer readings of a few major characters in those 25 films. And in a grand Hollywood tradition, they are all effeminate villains. There's Giovanni Ribisi's Donny in "Ted," Sam Spruell's Finn in "Snow White and the Huntsman," Alan Tudyk's King Candy in "Wreck-It-Ralph" and, of course, Javier Bardem's Silva in "Skyfall," who is certainly the most explicit (and most interesting -- especially since you could also queer James Bond himself in the process) example. While this entire column could be devoted to critically delving further into those characters (as this excellent piece over at The Playlist already did), I will instead focus on more unequivocal, seemingly well-intentioned examples and see how they fit into what has truly been a landmark year for LGBT representation in the overall mainstream culture of the United States. 

But first let's consider why and how 2012 was such a big year for American queers overall.

In politics, Barack Obama became the first sitting President to come out in support of same-sex marriage, and he was re-elected after the fact; Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin became the first openly gay U.S. senator; Kyrsten Sinema became the first openly bisexual U.S. Congresswoman; and all four states -- Minnesota, Maine, Washington and Maryland -- with measures regarding same-sex marriage on the ballot voted in favor.

In sports, former NFL player Wade Davis became one of only a handful of football players to come out, becoming an LGBT surrogate for Obama and a member of the GLSEN sport advisory board in the process; Puerto Rican boxer Orlando Cruz -- currently ranked at No. 4 among featherweights by the World Boxing Organization (whatever that means) -- became the first openly gay professional boxer; and Kevin McClatchy -- former owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates -- came out after 30 years in the closet.

In music, Frank Ocean came out via Tumblr, and not only did the hip hop community (mostly) embrace him, he went on to find huge critical and commercial success with the album he released shortly after; another hip hop artist, Azealia Banks, came out as bisexual and no one seemed to even flinch (though female bisexuality is definitely much less taboo in hip hop than its male equivalent); and various other people associated with hip hop -- including Russell Simons, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, T.I. and Ice Cube -- publicly declared their support of same-sex marriage, basically unheard of just a year ago.

Ben Whishaw played an openly gay character in "Cloud Atlas."

All these examples fall into realms where homophobia has historically been rampant. That's what makes them so transgressive, despite feeling so obvious to anyone lucky enough to live in a bubble where homophobia, is rare.

Movies, on the other hand, represent an area of American culture that has been pioneering by comparison. The examples given above with respect to politics, sports and hip hop are all generally first steps in one form or another -- coming out stories or examples of straight people openly supporting the basic rights and/or professional capabilities of LGBT people. It's been a good decade or two since the equivalent of these sorts of narratives felt even mildly revolutionary inside a film.

So then what are 2012's cinematic contributions to LGBT representation? Well, there's certainly no 2012 cinematic equivalent of Frank Ocean. No film that focused primarily on LGBT characters or issues was part of any big pop cultural conversation. When the Oscar nominations come out next month, the closest thing we could possibly have to an actor portraying a queer character is, oddly enough, if Javier Bardem ends up making the cut for "Skyfall" (though we will very likely have as consolation an openly gay adapted screenplay Oscar winner in "Lincoln"'s Tony Kushner). There was no "Brokeback Mountain," no "The Kids Are All Right," no "Milk."

There was "Pitch Perfect," an incredibly entertaining minor box office hit directed by openly gay Jason Moore and featuring Ester Dean as an openly lesbian (supporting) character. There was "ParaNorman," which -- even if it was a very minor plot point -- offered the first explicitly gay character in a mainstream animated film in a very positive way. And there was "Cloud Atlas," which is definitely and admirably the first $100 million budgeted sci-fi epic to feature the romantic relationship between two men as one of its central love stories (even if -- spoiler alert -- their relationship is tragic and ill-fated while their heterosexual cinematic counterparts live much more happily ever after). But these aren't primarily "LGBT films," not that there's anything wrong with that.

14 Comments

  • anonymous | December 19, 2012 2:55 PMReply

    Mainstream films, even independent films, are way behind mainstream television when it comes to this kind of diversity. I don't see much progress.

  • F.P. | December 18, 2012 2:18 PMReply

    If there is a new GLBT cinema renaissance occurring, it's occurring without the Ladies or the Bisexuals or Trangenders being present, if we look at this year's offerings. When MOSQUITA Y MARI is the only relevant non-gay-male narrative in a three page article on an entire year of cinema, I humbly disagree there's a big movement happening, and that's not a knock on the author necessarily, in so much as a comment on what was released or even made well this past year. At least WISH ME AWAY made the airwaves on Showtime this year after winning a number of doc awards in 2011, and not banished to DVD or VOD for only niche audiences to seek out. As for the end-of-year love for KEEP THE LIGHTS ON, sadly it's just another example of the tragic love story in queer cinema history, in a very long list of such depressing examples of queer 'love' on film. The acting is admirable, but given how he lived this film or a version of it, I don't think even Ira Sachs himself would call it a film to feel good about, beyond the ability to survive such a strained, ill-fitted relationship. Two hours of watching another gay relationship quagmire doesn't exactly make for a great date movie or a new movement in the genre; it's no wonder it didn't find a theatrical audience, whereas the scene-stealing Ezra Miller in PERKS is a big part of that movie's success, creatively and monetarily. So while this year's specifically queer films may influence future filmmakers in some vague way (less so than last year's much better and all-inclusive narratives), narrative directors and producers and financiers would do well to remember the last major queer release's key line of dialogue - "You gotta give 'em hope" - if they want to have truly creative or audience breakthroughs. All of the docs in the first Queeries piece were far better films than any narrative this year, in message and expression and execution.

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  • rubi | December 17, 2012 5:52 PMReply

    You could argue Lincoln's a gay or bisexual character based on history, though the movie Lincoln doesn't deal with Lincoln's sexuality at all really.

  • F.P. | December 18, 2012 1:43 PM

    Actually Rubi, not only does Sally Field's first scene in LINCOLN indicate a rather sexless relationship between her and her husband, the Joseph Cross character of Lincoln's assistant has a rather curious late-night bedroom conversation with Lincoln. While neither are explicit - who would expect as much in a Spielberg film? - they can be read as sly nods to the rumored Lincoln sexuality in Kushner's excellent script.

  • Peter Knegt | December 17, 2012 8:40 PM

    Nowhere in this article does it say it does.

  • Jake H. | December 17, 2012 5:39 PMReply

    Thanks for such an extensive, well-written take on this!

  • jeremy wilker | December 17, 2012 4:04 PMReply

    Thanks for the recommendation, Bob, I'll seek that one out. Certainly "Keep the Lights On" was one of the best, most-powerful, films of the year regardless of LGBT "status." Not an easy watch, but damn good.

  • bob hawk | December 17, 2012 3:53 PMReply

    One film which should definitely be part of this discussion is Travis Mathews' I WANT YOUR LOVE. Not only was it an artistic achievement in its evocative visualization of San Francisco locations at various times of day and night and its accurate depiction of a certain slice of a gay milieu found not only in S.F. but around the world (the old specificity/universality syndrome) -- but it incorporated explicit depictions of sexual acts in a natural, sometimes off-hand way. In some ways, a milestone. [Full disclosure: I was a consultant on I WANT YOUR LOVE, but Travis certainly had all the goods in hand before I came on board.]

  • bob hawk | December 17, 2012 5:20 PM

    Peter: Thanks for the clarification. Although IWYL is a 2012 film, I hope more people will have a chance to see it on the big screen in 2013. DP did a great job. And yes, Jeremy, KEEP THE LIGHTS ON -- like WEEKEND before it -- was one of the year's best, "regardless of LGBT status"!

  • Peter Knegt | December 17, 2012 4:27 PM

    Bob: I generally focused on theatrical releases from last year (which hopefully I WANT YOUR LOVE is next year), and more over -- as you know -- I myself was involved in I WANT YOUR LOVE and that made me feel like I couldn't exactly be objective when discussing it critically...

  • Kristian Lin | December 17, 2012 3:37 PMReply

    I just finished watching "Chely Wright: Wish Me Away," an absorbing portrait of just how much harder the coming-out process is when you're famous and your fanbase is full of right-wingers who disapprove of homosexuality and the whole process is dragged out over two months. In her private moments, the singer seems to be losing it on a constant basis, and how many of us would not be under similar circumstances? Would be interested to hear the author's thoughts on that.

  • Christianne Benedict | December 17, 2012 2:45 PMReply

    I was also pleased with The Wise Kids and Tomboy, though both of these are also technically 2011 films. A case could be made for Richard Linklater's Bernie, as well. In the Family was awesome.

  • Peter Knegt | December 17, 2012 2:56 PM

    @Christianne: I ended up removing a whole paragraph about "Bernie" that just didn't fit the rest of the article (did the same with The Paperboy, for what thats worth). It's a very curious case of representation (one I personally quite enjoyed) that perhaps begs its own column.