By Richard Lawrence-Allen
This week marks the start of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, a time where here at RSVP we look to celebrate all of our LGBTQ+ friends, family and colleagues. Last year, to celebrate Pride, we filled our social media pages with in-house made memes, highlighting our favourite LGBTQ+ heroes and gay icons. This year, our fantastic “Meme Team” will be busy once again, this time making memes for our recommendations of top LGBTQ+ themed films to go back and watch this summer.
Mass media is incredibly influential. While cinema may often reflect the mood of a generation, it can also help shape and mould popular opinion. Portrayals of certain characters, particularly those belonging to oftentimes misunderstood and marginalised minorities (such as those within the LGBTQ+ community), can greatly impact public feeling, and understanding, of those groups.
During the infancy of cinema, filmmakers faced very few restrictions in the content they were permitted to create. Early films did not suffer the same strict censorship that would later go on to plague the artistic freedoms of the industry. The earliest known depiction of homosexuality on film came from William Kennedy Dickson in 1895 in The Dickson Experimental Surprise. This film is commonly known today as The Gay Brothers and features two men intimately dancing together. Homosexuality was not legal at this time and the film shocked audiences as it displayed a clear “subversion of conventional male behaviour”.
The men in Dickson’s film were not depicted as being out of the ordinary, it was simply their behaviour that was perceived as being unusual. This type of depiction of gay men would not last however, and in a world where LGBTQ+ people where seen as second class citizens and criminal deviants, other filmmakers would not be as kind.
By the turn of the 20th century and into the 1920s and 1930s, instances of LGBTQ+ characters in film had been reduced to displaying stereotypes forged by gender-based conventions. Gay male characters were typically portrayed as being overly flamboyant, effeminate and generally lesser than their heterosexual counterparts. These characters were not the central dramatic roles, but sidelined as humorous supporting parts. These characters had high-pitched voices, and were described as having “a flowery, fussy, effeminate soul given to limp wrists and mincing steps”. Homosexuality was something to be mocked in these portrayals, and gay male characters were not well-rounded or developed, but reduced to being called “pansies” or “sissies”, slurs that are still thrown towards gay men by homophobic detractors to this day.
The early depiction of lesbian characters faced equal, yet opposite, stereotyped generalisations in film portrayals. Whilst homosexual men were portrayed as such by imbuing them with characteristics typically believed to be “feminine”, lesbian characters were given stereotypically “masculine” traits instead. Gay women on film had deep voices, were associated with cross-dressing, held male-dominated professions, and were often seen to be emasculating or confusing to heterosexual men.
In the 1930s filmmakers sought to use LGBTQ+ characters to shock audiences and create controversy to stimulate cinema ticket sales. This tactic did meet opposition however, as government officials sought to erase LGBTQ+ people from cinematic storytelling completely. In the early 1930s the United States Supreme Court ruled that filmmakers were not protected by First Amendment rights of free speech as it reigned as a powerful industry that could easily be used for “evil”. Several local governments in light of this ruling took to restricting public exhibition of films they deemed to be “indecent” or “immoral” and moreover church-led boycotts of such films had a huge negative financial impact on the film industry.
In 1934, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) responded to these “moral” criticisms, under the leadership of Will H. Hays, and began strictly enforcing a Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC), or the Hays Code as it became know. The Hays Code was a series of self-imposed supposedly moral guidelines that restricted what filmmakers in major studios were permitted to include in their films. Whilst certain “Dos” and “Don’ts” were already in place before the introduction of this initiative, the Hays Code was enforced as a rigid and unbending Hollywood rulebook for those that did not want to lose their funding. The Code consisted of 36 rules intended to limit the representation, and subsequent normalisation, of characters and behaviours viewed by religious groups as being “unsavoury” or “morally corrupt”.
Films depicting characters openly shown as homosexual or gender non-conforming, unsurprisingly fell foul to the restrictions of the Hays Code. Homosexuality and gender non-conformity were not explicitly mentioned in the Code, however, it did restrict the “depiction of sexual perversion”. It was emphatically understood that LGBTQ+ content was covered under this umbrella, as this community was believed at the time to go against the “natural order”.
The Hays Code did not, nevertheless, prevent filmmakers from trying to sneak LGBTQ+ characters into their work. A period of “queer coding”, as it is known, became ingratiated into the film industry. LGBTQ+ characters were not shown to be explicitly identifying as such, but filmmakers still had an arsenal of stereotypical traits and tropes to draw from to show that a character may be LGBTQ+, much as they had done previously. However, the theoretically moral standards of the Code did have a somewhat sinister impact on this. As filmmakers could not be shown to be promoting “morally questionable” people and lifestyles, no longer were LGBTQ+ characters used as humorous diversions from the main plot, but the were shown as being corrupt, villainous and dangerous deviants or those doomed to a life misery lest they resort to suicide. Gay characters often met untimely ends in film, a common trope known as “kill your gays” that is still seen in television and film today.
The issue with this type of coding in film is clear. If queer people are constantly shown to be evil, ill or worse, this attitude seeps into the the public consciousness. This can damage the mental health of LGBTQ+ individuals who are made to feel that they are lesser or undeserving of love and acceptance. Moreover, with this coding, the heterosexual community are taught to persecute those that are different to them based on sexuality and gender-identity.
A famous example of queer coded cinematic villains include the dastardly Joel Cario in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, with his small stature, slight voice and propensity to fondle his phallic-shaped cane. Moreover, the murderous and unhinged Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho (a director that relished in pushing the boundaries of the Hays Code), was portrayed as a cross-dresser fixated with his mother, both traits often used to code for queer characters.
Favour for the Code in Hollywood did begin to diminish in the 1950s as the film industry faced strong competition with the advent of television. In 1952 the US Supreme Court unanimously overruled its earlier decision and declared that the film industry was indeed protected by the First Amendment ensuring freedom of speech.
Whilst it has always been Hollywood that dominates the global film industry, the first English-language film to explicitly use the word “homosexual” was the 1961 British film Victim, starring Dirk Bogarde. This film tells the story of how a young man’s tragic death helps expose a blackmail plot against several gay men in 1960s London. Distributed in the US in 1962, without approval under the Hays Code by the MPAA, this film was of course a huge step forward to the portrayal of LGBTQ+ people on film. Nevertheless, the film did not show any explicitly homosexual behaviour, and the main protagonist’s same-sex lovers never shared the screen with him at any point.
By the late 1960s the Hays Code had become impossible to enforce and was abandoned by the end of the decade. In its place, in November 1968, the MPAA introduced a film rating system, (similar to the one we use in the UK), indicating to audiences the type of content that a film may have. The first 4 ratings introduced by the MPAA were G (suitable for general audiences), M (contains mature content), R (restricted to persons over the age of 17 only unless accompanied by an adult) and X (contains sexually explicit content). This rating system has been updated since its first iteration, however its foundations remain the same.
Despite this momentous change, to this day, filmmakers still fear that including LGBTQ+ content in their work may harm ticket sales amongst more conservative global audiences and are reticent when it comes to including explicitly LGBTQ+ content for this reason.
Due to this, the queer coding of characters in film has persisted. Even in the case of Disney Animated films made well into their modern renaissance period, villains have been coded as queer. Such villains include (but are not limited to) the wryly portrayed Scar in The Lion King (1994) the overtly flamboyant Governor Ratcliffe in Pocahontas (1995) and The Little Mermaid’s Ursula, whose character design was made to resemble that of famous Drag Queen, Divine.
In most recent years, LGBTQ+ rights and public visibility has come on such a long way, in thanks to the Gay Liberation Movement. With this, a new cinematic phenomenon has come to light, that of “queer baiting”. This is the phenomenon of characters leaning in to exhibition of coded characteristics but their actual sexual or gender identities being left purposefully ambiguous for the audience to read into. This is done to help encourage the so-called “pink pound” (the buying power of the LGBTQ+ community) without alienating conservative audiences. The LGBTQ+ community is often starved of media representation and so will latch upon certain characters/portrayals in hope of seeing people like themselves on screen. However, this isn’t true and honest representation, as when asked specifically, such characters will evade the question or outrightly declare their heterosexual, cis-gender identities.
Whilst it is true that there are more and more well-rounded and human LGBTQ+ characters portrayed on film now, the lasting damage of the Hays Code is still more than evident. Queer coding and queer baiting are rife. We even do still see the “homosexual villain”, “kill your gays” and the “homosexuality/cross-dressing as a punchline” tropes still in effect today, though admittedly somewhat less so than previously. Gay cinema may be a small section of the industry, but it is gaining ground and LGBTQ+ characters in major films are slowly becoming more visible and more realistic to life. We hope that this trend will continue, major motion picture studios such as Marvel Studios (owned by Disney) promising more diverse characters in their upcoming productions.
Other issues that dominate the debate in gay cinema is whether straight and cis-gender actors should be permitted to portray gay and trans roles. Scarlett Johansson (a cis-female actor) famously backed out of a film very recently after the backlash to her being cast as a trans man, similar to the backlash that Eddie Redmayne (a cis-male actor) received when he took on the role of Lili, a trans woman in 2015’s the Danish Girl. Perhaps the answer is yes they can, but only when gay and trans performers are allowed to pierce the pink ceiling and are given the same platform as their heterosexual, cis-gender contemporaries. This though, is a much larger debate than for one blog post to cover!
Representation in media is important, in can make those struggling with their sexuality and/or gender identity feel less alone, feel like they have a place in this world, give them a community and show them that they deserve love.
Check out our social media pages on Twitter and Instagram this month (@RSVPMediaUK) to see our top picks of LGBTQ+ films for Pride this year. Love is love. We love film and we love you all.