Imagine a man having sex with a man. Now imagine a man in a dress. Which one made you less comfortable?
After studying Queer Cinema in class, I’ve been thinking about how audiences view gays and lesbians in movies, which portrayals straight people are comfortable seeing and which make them squirm.
Apparently Hollywood isn’t as liberal as folks think. While there has been great progress in mainstream films featuring gay relationships, movies still keep to heterosexual norms. Mainstream audiences don’t like to see explicit gay relationships (like kissing), or see gay relationships succeed over a straight lifestyle.
Brokeback Mountain was a groundbreaking mainstream film because straight actors played gay lovers. Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger made out and made love, and straight people watched it. Brokeback was not so progressive, though, because in the end the gay couple could not stay together. Ennis and Jack’s relationship is steeped in secrecy, embarrassment, and tragedy. They have to split up in because Ennis wants to be “normal.” His marriage ends in divorce, and Jack is beaten to death by gay-bashers. It’s a great movie and a wonderful love story, but that story had to be tragic to be broadly accepted.
In other films, the gay man is always the “token queer,” only there to add comic relief, or he’s the faghag’s best friend who teaches her how to attract straight men. Think Father of the Bride, Mrs. Doubtfire, or As Good as It Gets. In these movies, the gay man is stereotypically swishy and has a flare for fashion. Aside from snarky remarks about sexual encounters, the gay man in these movies is essentially asexual. He has great one-liners, but the audience doesn’t experience his supposedly perverted lifestyle.
As far as lesbian portrayals go in mainstream film, only Boys Don’t Cry comes to mind, which is actually about a transgendered man. Any other depiction of a “lesbian” character is always the hot bisexual girl that straight men fantasize about.
Surprisingly, cross-dressing is okay — but only for laughs. This means men in dresses, not women in tuxedos, because women in drag just aren’t funny. Oh, and the guy’s “real” sex has to be revealed at the end so he can hook up with a straight woman. Besides those restrictions, cross-dressing is perfectly acceptable.
In Some Like It Hot, from 1959, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon pretend they’re “Josephine” and “Daphne” to join an all-girls band and escape the mob. While Tony Curtis’s character, Josephine, often takes off his dress to hit on Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), Daphne takes a liking to being a woman and the attention “she” receives from an old millionaire.
Everyone has a good laugh seeing Curtis and Lemmon try to walk in heels and pass for women, but in the end, they have to reveal their true biological sex to everyone they’ve fooled in the movie. “Daphne” gets caught up in the fun of being engaged to a millionaire, but reminds herself that it won’t work out since she’s actually a man. As Curtis says in the film, “Why would a guy wanna’ marry a guy?”
Cross-dressing for a laugh also appears a lot in sketch comedy shows. In Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Kids in the Hall, the all-male groups usually found themselves in drag. The Pythons, however, always had Carol Cleveland play the sexy female roles if the character was supposed to be attractive, had to kiss anyone, or show her boobs. The Pythons always played old, ugly women who had terrible falsettos.
The Kids, a little more progressive in this area, cross-dressed differently. While the show was still comedic, the drag usually wasn’t the butt of the joke. It seems the Kids wore dresses simply out of necessity because they had no women in their cast. They played ugly ladies, attractive ladies, and Chicken Ladies. There are many sketches in which the straight Kids kiss each other on the lips or the gay Kid, Scott Thompson, makes out with a male extra, and no one seems to mind the difference.
While I don’t want to argue that a guy in a dress can’t be hilarious, portraying gays and lesbians accurately in film may be a healthy step toward seeing gays and lesbians accurately in real life — as normal people who deserve the same respect and rights as heterosexuals. A gay relationship shouldn’t have to end in tragedy, and an effeminate man shouldn’t always be the butt of a joke. We should be comfortable watching happy, successful, sexually active gays in film. Sure, gender-bending might threaten the “moral” fabric of our society, but only because it will show people that the hetero-normative lifestyle is overrated.