If Everything’s a Little Bit Gay, What Happens to Queer Film and TV?

There's much to be done in the realm of queer storytelling, and IndieWire has spoken with queer filmmakers and artists who have an idea of what that looks like.

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If the pandemic dealt a blow to screen storytelling on all fronts, that means the already-quenched pocket of stories for and about the LGBTQ community was bound to suffer more than usual. LGBTQ film festivals, hubs of community-building and vital launching pads for emerging filmmakers, were forced to downsize and go virtual. Potentially groundbreaking pop culture event movies like Billy Eichner and Judd Apatow’s collaboration on the gay rom-com “Bros” were put on hold (it’s scheduled to restart production this year). Not to mention all the projects in development that likely got scrapped due to uncertain economic futures.

When producers are losing money, they get even more risk-averse, so where does that leave queer folks?

Luckily, with movies back on screens (for now), TV writers rooms back in action, and storytellers whose lockdowns turned into periods of creative fertility returning to work, the pendulum is beginning to swing in the right direction. “Euphoria,” “Hacks,” “I May Destroy You,” and “The White Lotus” from HBO each feature eclectic ensembles of queer and sexually fluid characters with rich lives separate from their sexuality. Netflix’s trilogy “Fear Street” unspooled a queer story in the guise of a cheeky, gory horror homage to great slasher movies across three hit movies. FX’s groundbreaking “Pose” wrapped its third and final season with a loving ode to the queer community standing up to AIDS in the early 1990s — with trans actors front and center.

But with every stride of progress comes hunger for more representation, and better representation at that. With a bounty of queer stories proliferating on TV, episodic forms have a leg up on mainstream movies, which are lagging to catch up. Much ado was made about Jack Whitehall’s gay character in Disney’s “Jungle Cruise,” though his sexual identity was never mentioned explicitly and only hinted at in passing. Hurray? It’s the same old story, whether it’s the momentary queer kiss in “The Rise of Skywalker,” or “Beauty and the Beast” touting its laughably blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “exclusively gay moment.”

While arthouse fare is just as daring as ever when it comes to sexuality, the relatively small audience for indie film is already spread thin with ever more titles competing for attention. Prestige queer films that find awards attention, such as “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” or “Ammonite,” overwhelmingly lean toward period pieces, emphasizing the struggle and sexual frustration of being queer in an earlier era. Is this a function of which scripts get produced, or which films appeal to top critics (who are majority straight and male) on the festival circuit?

This dual barrier in film has led would-be indie and studio filmmakers alike to try their luck elsewhere, and they’re finding more of it on the small screen. But the explosion of queer storytelling on TV shouldn’t be taken for granted. Here are some key pointers for the industry to keep in mind to ensure a future that keeps the momentum going and addresses some of the issues that have stalled additional progress.

The White Lotus
“The White Lotus”HBO

Don’t make it just because it’s queer. Make it because it’s good.

Gone are the days when queer viewers had to scour TV for that one special episode where they might catch a rare glimpse of themselves, without the help of internet strangers for guidance. From “Batgirl” to “Gossip Girl” to “Genera+ion,” there is no shortage of LGBTQ stories playing out on TV, even when they’re couched in broader (and sometimes straighter) ensembles. But queer characters aren’t always an end unto themselves. Are any of these shows actually good?

Unless you’re 16, the simplistic plotting, expository dialogue, and lack of a unifying aesthetic vision can make series like these tough to get through — though that might be giving even today’s 16-year-olds short shrift. Attempting to capitalize on the name recognition of existing IP, Showtime’s “The L Word: Generation Q” is practically unwatchable, mired in a stew of cross-generational cringe and a bland ensemble that screams “representation box-checking.” Same goes for “Gossip Girl” and “Genera+ion,” which attempt to encompass the whole spectrum of sexual fluidity in ways that stretch toward didactic. A valiant, but strained effort.

There are some wholesome additions to the canon, however, that portend better things to come.

As a continuation of the “Love, Simon” universe, “Love, Victor” is a classic example of the movie-to-TV pipeline, though in this case the Hulu series actually outshines its feature film predecessor. Sure, it’s a saccharine teen dramedy about a Latinx American teenager coming out to himself, his family, getting his first boyfriend, and understanding his place within gay culture. But if representation’s most basic purpose is to show that the possibility of a bright future exists, a young person could do no better than “Love, Victor.” (And for viewers now comfortably out in their late 20s and 30s, it’s hard not to wish a show like this existed a decade ago.)

Slightly less cheesy though lovably wholesome is Netflix’s “Sex Education,” one of the sweetest and funniest high school shows since “Freaks and Geeks.” The charismatic Ncuti Gatwa’s Eric is so much more than the gay best-friend archetype; he’s a fabulous burst of energy that lights up the screen, and has plenty of wild love affairs of his own. And he’s not alone in the world of the show, as there are plenty of other queer characters filling out the 21st-century fantasy prep school. There’s an important lesson here: Look for stereotypical characters in any inclusive script, and rewrite with an eye toward breaking them.

Even more provocative is HBO’s ever-popular “Euphoria,” which introduced one of the best trans characters TV has ever seen. In addition to Zendaya’s Rue fully embodying the kind of tomboyish androgyny that has come to define certain corners of Gen Z, Hunter Schafer’s beguiling waif Jules landed like a shot of adrenaline. Not only is Jules so much more than her trans-ness, all signs point to the new season allowing her to play with desire, presentation, and identity in ways trans characters never have in mainstream storytelling before. Networks and producers should consider the crossover appeal of this show and what it says about the potential for further trans-centric stories down the line.

“Representation-wise, we’re still working on getting trans women who lie on many different ends of the spectrum of conventional beauty, conventional attraction, and conventional ways of navigating gender and sexuality,” Schafer told IndieWire. “There’s a myriad of ways to do that. And many trans people move through all that in that myriad of ways, including myself.”

Enough already: Queer performers don’t only have to play gay, and straight actors don’t only have to play straight.

In the ongoing debate about who should be allowed to play gay roles, everyone has an opinion. Sometimes, even people’s opinions have opinions. But one key challenge that actors say they face is that when they come out, they get pigeonholed. When actor and director Natalie Morales was doing press for “Battle of the Sexes” in 2017, she said it felt disingenuous to discuss playing a queer character without coming out publicly.

“There’s this sort of an underlying mandate to hire queer actors for queer roles, which I think is a good idea, especially from where it started from, which is queer actors getting denied straight roles,” said Morales. “But there’s also an element of that — coming from my own experience — that I think is misguided, which is that it assumes every actor has to come out publicly.”

For Billy Porter, who worked on Broadway for years while struggling to break into film and TV before landing his Emmy-winning turn in “Pose,” there never was a choice. “Who I am and what I am was a liability for a long time for me,” said Porter. “And everybody said it would be, everybody told me it was so, and it was, for decades. My queerness was my liability for decades, and I still chose myself.” He recalls being told to “butch it up” in coded language that he describes as “violently aggressive.” Most times, he couldn’t even land an audition unless the description said “flamboyant.”

Pose Season 3 trailer
Billy Porter and Indya Moore in “Pose”FX

Other longtime actors, like Alan Cumming, aren’t too concerned with who’s playing whom, as long as they’re not actively causing harm.

“The notion of a straight person playing a gay person, I don’t mind in theory,” Cumming said. “I just think they should be good. That’s what pisses me off — when you get people who are not only not very good at it but also reverse the progress we have made in terms of stereotypes. If you’re going to do it, just don’t do it in a stereotypical way. Don’t put the cause back decades by you having some sort of cliché idea of how a queer person is or lives.”

Once the debate over who gets to play gay gets out of the way, it’s possible to tell these stories with more ease. Take Russell T. Davies, who set out to to cast his 1980s-set AIDS miniseries “It’s a Sin” with an entirely queer ensemble. “We made a decision at the beginning of the production, a decision I’d been heading toward for a couple years, to cast gay as gay entirely, or as entirely as we possibly could, which turned out to be entirely,” Davies said. “That’s an interesting decision because, obviously, you’re not allowed to ask whether an actor is gay or not. That’s a very good employment law … that stops the head of a supermarket banning lesbians from being on the tills. But what it creates is a circumstance where we could just be open and say, ‘We’re gay. This is gay. Come join us.’”

Let the flaws in, or: Where’s the gay Don Draper?

It feels increasingly like TV is the best space to reach the widest possible audience in terms of narrative LGBTQ storytelling. And that goes for filmmakers, who are making the move to episodic to craft more honest, complicated, and wide-ranging depictions of queer life (not to mention ones that afford their queer characters more than a split-second of screen time).

Two examples of filmmakers turning their attention toward TV are “Closet Monster” director Stephen Dunn, now heading up the all-queer “Queer as Folk” reboot at Peacock, and “Skeleton Twins” and “Alex Strangelove” director Craig Johnson, who’s currently helming episodes for the second half of “Gossip Girl.” Curiously, both these titles are based on proven-to-be-bankable, preexisting IP, which suggests that the bones for what a model queer story can be already existed, but just needed some brushing up.

“Once Hollywood realized how fucked up it was in its representation of queer people, it then became hypersensitive, and then didn’t allow queer people to then be messy or depicted in a negative way, which is, again, not helpful,” Dunn said. “It is boundary-breaking to center queer stories but not unless you’re going to allow those characters to be as messy as a straight character, your hands feel just as tied.”

Dunn shares in the belief that mainstream movies, for the most part, have failed in regards to representing queer characters as human beings, observing that LGBTQ representation in Hollywood has followed a pretty flat trajectory: villains, saintly martyrs, token sassy office assistants. But you almost never see a queer character as a leading, complicated antihero: Where’s the gay Don Draper? Walter White? Tony Soprano? “Queer people rarely get to be those,” Dunn said.

That might relate to the educational, didactic mystique that tends to exist around queer characters in major movies and TV shows, that they somehow have to speak for the entire community, and explain what it means to be queer to everyone else.

“A lot of our stories have been bound and tied to those about our queerness when gay, queer people have a lot more sides to them and can do other things,” Dunn said. “The reason for this is a lot of queer stories have to be educational. … We’re entering a time now when queer stories and queer perspectives have been centered in political narratives to a degree where hopefully not every queer person has to justify their existence in order to be on the screen.”

Evan Mock, Eli Brown, Zion Moreno, Emily Alyn Lind, Thomas Doherty, Jordan Alexander and Savannah Lee Smith on location for GOSSIP GIRL Film Shoot in NYC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY November 10, 2020. Photo By: Kristin Callahan/Everett Collection
“Gossip Girl”Everett Collection

Don’t smooth down the edges of a risky story just to invite people in.

While there’s no debate that episodic TV (especially in the queer space) reaches a wider swath of viewers than movies, what gets lost in the mainstreaming of LGBTQ stories? There was a certain spiky rebelliousness in the early-1990s New Queer Cinema of directors like Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki, Derek Jarman, and Christine Vachon that, for some filmmakers, gets washed away as queer stories attempt to fit into a more heterosexual mold.

“A certain maverick, ballsy, independent, rebel punk vibe gets lost,” Johnson said. “There is something underground and criminal about queer sensibility in some of those indies. It really was, ‘Let’s throw firebombs into the culture.’ You lose a little bit of that edginess. You could make that same argument about queer culture in general. We can all get married now and have kids, but do we want to? Wasn’t the great thing about being queer that you didn’t have to have a kid, that you could just be having sex in your darkrooms in your 40s? Having a different kind of life. Is progress just parroting heterosexual or heteronormative behavior?”

Gatekeepers should support more provocative queer narratives, the same way they do edgy straight male filmmakers like the Safdie brothers or Robert Eggers. Producers and people in positions to give green lights need to make it known that they’re open to riskier projects, so queer creators will feel empowered to pitch them.

You’re not going to find the next John Waters by playing it safe.

Queer actors don’t have to direct all queer stories. But they always should be a part of the conversation.

In the scramble for better representation, it’s easy to blame writers and directors for shoddy approximations of queer life. Was “Ammonite” stiff and dreary because its director Francis Lee, though a gay man, has never had lesbian sex? Is “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” only better because its director, Celine Sciamma, has? To suggest so does a disservice to her talent as a filmmaker. How does one explain “Euphoria,” though not without its flaws, being written by a straight man?

Here’s a less complicated example: Straight director Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.” Clea Duvall’s lesbian romcom “Happiest Season” was a disappointment, though she is a member of the exact demographic she was portraying and targeting. Art does not abide by such rules.

Many filmmakers feel hemmed in by such narrow expectations.

“Transgender filmmakers should not only feel the burden and the pressure to ceaselessly represent,” said Isabel Sandoval, director of Cannes hit “Lingua Franca.” “I don’t want to make films for the full purpose of being understood by cisgender people. I want to make films that I feel passionate about and a larger type of story that I want to tell regardless of my identity.”

With so few examples, the rare queer stories that gain notoriety often fall under increased scrutiny.

“There’s such a burden of representation that exists for the sculpting of queer characters,” said Dunn. “If a trans character does something messy and it’s the only trans character in spitting distance, there’s a weighted responsibility, an expectation or a criticism of those characters for the fear that that character might represent all trans people.”

"Portrait of a Lady on Fire"
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”NEON

On the other hand, with LGBTQ stories more popular than ever, writers are throwing queer characters into any old script without any cultural awareness. As authentic casting caught on faster than the desire for authentic writers and directors, it often put marginalized actors in an awkward position.

“They are writing new roles for lesbians, but the roles are not being written by lesbians,” said Lea Delaria. The “Orange Is The New Black” star rode the first wave of “lesbian chic” in the 1990s to bit parts in “Friends” and “The First Wives Club,” only to see it roar back with a vengeance, in her opinion. “The parts are not being written by us, the parts are not being directed by us, and the parts are most definitely not being performed by us. It’s all these straight girls. So what’s happening, essentially, is I’m being erased from my own narrative.”

The burden, then, is on the queer actor to amend the script on set. This can be a daunting prospect for an unknown, which queer actors often are, not to mention they rarely get writing credit for improvising their way out of some offensive blunder. (Hunter Schafer is a rare exception on “Euphoria,” though her name as a writer is only attached to one episode so far.) Instead of turning down roles, Delaria learned to exert her influence wherever possible.

“If I say no because it’s not written by a lesbian, then there’s no lesbian influence over this part whatsoever,” she said. “But if I look at it and I see something that I know that no self-respecting butch dyke is going to say in the fucking world, I change it.”

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