Are They or Aren’t They? A Call For Less “Coding” And More Explicitly LGBT Characters In Modern Film

Recently, I had the pleasure of watching the Tetsuya Nakashima film Kamikaze Girls for the first time. It’s a saturated wonderland of a film. It is as charming as it is creative and I could easily go on about how much I loved its characters and unique costume design. However, in spite of these strengths, I was left with a nagging feeling that persists to this day that something about the film felt off. For all intents and purposes, Kamikaze Girls’ plot is that of a typical traditional romantic comedy – a jaded fashionista who doesn’t believe in love or friendship meets a rebellious biker with whom she begins spending all of her time, eventually going to great lengths to impress them. The issue? Kamikaze Girls is not a romantic comedy. Regardless of the precedent of set up by other similarly structured films that would suggest these two characters be romantically linked by the film’s end, this is not the case in Nakashima’s film.

It could be that Nakashima and the writer of the film’s source novel, Novala Takemoto, simply didn’t want to go this route for these characters, possibly believing that portraying the core relationship of the story as a friendship made more sense. However, I personally believe that it’s more likely the two characters quite literally ride off into the sunset together as just “friends” because they are both young women.

It is interesting to note that both the film and light novel also make a point of creating a male love interest for the biker, Ichigo, and show her crying over him being in a relationship with one of her fellow gang members despite the fact that she had only interacted with him for a few brief moments. In the film, these scenes feel slightly jarring in how much they hammer in her supposed love for the man and really only serve to work against the built up tension for a relationship between she and the film’s other protagonist, Momoko.

For context, the original light novel Shimotsuma Story – Yankee Girl & Lolita Girl was released in Japan in 2002 with the film adaptation Kamikaze Girls coming out in 2004. The story is over fifteen years old and to this day Japan still has not legalized same-sex marriage or adoption, with only two of the country’s forty-seven prefectures having any anti-discrimination laws in place for LGBT people. Although Kamikaze Girls certainly wouldn’t have been the first LGBT film to come out of Japan at the time of its release (far from it) I do understand, to some extent, why the writer and director of the film would choose to go a “safer route” with their light hearted film.

Fast-forward to America in 2019 and my understanding of this practice of “de-queering” characters that could be logically read as LGBT lessens considerably.

This May, the female-led remake of 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Hustle, opened to very little fanfare but interested me personally due to its two leads, Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson. I saw it shortly after it was released and was surprised by the inclusion of the character Brigitte Desjardins, who was minimal to non-existent in the film’s marketing. Brigitte is introduced as a co-conspirator of Hathaway’s character, Josephine, and is presented to be a French policewoman, always dressed in suits. She lives with Josephine, in addition to being her partner in crime, and it’s very clear that the film wants us to question the nature of their relationship – going so far as to have Wilson’s character, Penny Rust, jokes about the possibility of them being together and trying to “hit on” Brigitte in an attempt to get out of jail. This is in addition to Josephine’s frequent verbal disdain of all men and a gag early on in the film in which she claims the French Riviera is almost exclusively home to lesbians in order to dissuade Penny from moving there to swindle rich men. In spite of these jokes and one-liners, however, The Hustle never actually commits to either of the two women being explicitly gay and Brigitte virtually disappears by the second half of the film.

Two women are seen in an ornate room, a large staircase with an intricately detailed railing takes up much of the frame. Coming down the staircase is a woman in a long black dress (Anne Hathaway), to the left of her is a woman standing at the bottom of the staircase in matching business casual attire.
Anne Hathaway as Josephine in The Hustle (2019)

It’s easy to claim that the relationship simply had no place in the story or that a romance would disrupt the narrative, but for a film that frequently uses its main characters’ sexuality to swindle their marks I don’t believe that it would have felt out of place for there to be a mention or allusion to Josephine actually being lesbian or bisexual. Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, the reveal of a character’s romantic or sexual preference does not necessarily need to be in a romantic or heartfelt scene – a “reveal” could be as simple as Paranorman’s one-line mention of a male character’s boyfriend because, as much as that particular scene does feel a little rushed and partial to shock-value due to its inclusion in the film’s last act, it does do its job in confirming the character to be unquestionably gay.

A related phenomena are easily cut, fleeting moments of gayness in major blockbusters, see: the live action Beauty and the Beast (2017) and, more recently, Avengers: Endgame. Although Endgame’s representation was much more overt, having a male character explicitly refer to his boyfriend rather than just showing two male characters dancing together as the former did, the character is effectively a throwaway character. The man in question is unnamed and ultimately irrelevant to the overall story – in other words, he’s easily cut, and has been cut in countries like Russia where “gay propaganda” in media is banned.

We live in a time where the PBS show Arthur had one of its major recurring characters have a gay wedding and several other animated children’s shows showcase gay main or side characters, so why are big corporations so afraid of foreign markets that they obscure their gay characters or make them irrelevant enough to be cut in major films for adult audiences?

We should be past the point of ‘blink and you’ll miss it’  LGBT characters, even if that does mean risking overseas markets for our media. Let Russia miss out on the big Avengers finale because they’re unable to cut a gay moment without it being awkward, let people complain and boycott a film because it’s allegedly “too PC” for mentioning a character is gay, because the alternative is just half-hearted, insulting forms of “representation.”

The coding and hints towards characters being gay that could be understood in the past, and even as recently as Kamikaze Girls, just doesn’t translate well to modern media. Society has changed, and it’s time for films to catch up.