Queerness, Sexuality and Cinema

There are, generally speaking, three types of films representative of queer relationships: those that pretend queerness is inherently asexual, those that oversexualise it and those that actually do a fairly good job of representing a range of sexualities and are widely embraced by the LGBTQ+ community.

The veiled queerness is an old, old trope. It can be found in most films that have a token gay character. Even Mean Girls, as iconic as it might be, desexualised Damian, the cliché ‘gay best friend’. This is not an instance of the movie wishing to remain sex-free: Regina George is filmed rolling around in bed with her boyfriend, there is an abundance of adult references and Cady throws up on the guy she’s about to sleep with. All of these are references, of course, to straight sex. The only time queerness is addressed is when gossip spreads that one of the girls might be a lesbian (although she is generally a desexualised character as well). Both queer characters in the film lack any type of sexual relationships represented instead as humorous weirdos.

The counterpart to this type of representation then is the oversexualisation of queerness, particularly in the case of lesbians. It is common knowledge that most films are written and produced for men, that men control a great part of the cinema industry, and that if lesbians are on the big screen they’re rarely sexualised for other women. This extends to many different genres and types of stories; it can be observed in films big enough for the cinema, as well as in much of today’s pornography. When portrayed by men, women generally serve the purpose of providing something, of satisfying some male need, be it sexual, emotional, violent, or otherwise. When men are taken out of the picture but remain behind the camera, women must still provide something, and so lesbian sex and relationships are never truly exterior to the male gaze but are still expected to be performed for someone else.

Films specifically written and created for the LGBTQ+ community, when making their way into mainstream media, work around these two extremes in a way that is not always well-received. Blue is the Warmest Colour is a perfect example of this, being oversaturated with lesbian sex to the point where viewers were reported to leave cinemas or stop watching halfway through in their homes. Some people believe that the film is meant for men and is not a true representation of queer women; some queer viewers, however, appreciate the natural and straightforward depiction of a relationship between the women and believe the overt sexuality is well-balanced with the more quiet, nostalgic scenes that construct the relationship.

Another film that finds itself in a similar dilemma, although it was much more well-received, is The Handmaiden, a Korean adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith. The film’s sex scenes are very explicit, and the violence inflicted upon the female protagonists by the men in power feels, at times, exploitative. This is perhaps made up for by the final twist in the story, putting the girls in a position of control and power, and revealing their secret knowledge of the situation. Be it as it may, both films give the impression of overcompensating for things that are lacking in the industry: they avoid desexualisation, yet attempt to make the depiction of sex about more than just the pleasure of the male viewer, resulting in being ambiguously positive.

The final – and certainly more obscure – category is that of the niche, independent queer cinema. These films rarely make it onto the big screen, and they mainly reach their viewers through recommendations from friends and internet lists. Granted, the latter more often than not need to be combed through exhaustively before anything of actual quality can be found, but there are many gems to be unearthed in the process. What most niche queer cinema seems to have in common is a gentle and honest representation of queer sex that is closer to that which we find of straight people in most films: it consists of references, embraces, making-out sessions, and simple depiction of lovers lying in bed together talking. It is not over-sexualised, nor does it inherently desexualise queer relationships. Good (and highly recommended) examples include But I’m a Cheerleader and the documentary Dreamboat. The former is a light-hearted take on conversion therapy, parodying heteronormativity in its every aspect. We see characters making out and masturbating, but it never feels uncomfortably sexualised or unrealistic, nor are these scenes overly romanticised and dragged on. Dreamboat, which follows queer men on a cruise ship, discusses loneliness, sexuality and romance in a frank and touching manner, and it does not shy away from filming the men as they dance through the night, attempting to seduce one another. Yet it is never invasive, which is what makes it the queer cinema we need more of.

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June 2022
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