Ennui on the Screen and Remaining Yourself

The challenge of coming out is well known, but a superficial understanding of the concept suggests that it’s a one-time event. Coming to understand yourself and be confident in revealing your self-knowledge is a process, however, that can be much more extensive than it’s implied, whether it’s because your identity doesn’t feel settled or because of bigotry’s weight restricting your grasp of your personal truth. It can be a challenge then, not just to reveal yourself but, in a society keen to keep to the status quo, to continually express yourself authentically. Entertainment sheds light on this struggle.

One of the most well-known allegories for being LGBTQ+ is The Matrix, with its famous red and blue pill dilemma an iconic and obvious representation of coming out. Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) decides to reject all he’s known by taking a red pill and adopting the name of Neo, the adoption of a new identity speaking generally to living authentically or, more specifically, of being trans. Neo’s decision to take the red pill is in response to a sense of unease, the emotion-driving urge to seek a truth about reality that is actively restricted by society. His nemesis, Agent Smith, exemplifies society’s aggressive constraints in a scene where he molds Neo’s mouth shut; a clear metaphor for a society wanting to stop people from expressing their understanding of the depths of reality.

Philosophically, the narrative is a take on Plato’s allegory of the cave, particularly in the challenges involved in perceiving reality for what it is. The true task is not just about seeing what’s in the cave that most of us exist in is untrue, a shadow of reality cast on the wall, but clambering out of the cave to see the true forms projecting those images. The pain of doing that is too much for some to bear: the sense of freedom and possibility are coupled with the hard graft necessary to maintain and enhance them. Neo is frequently encouraged throughout the trilogy to feel that he is still a slave by those reliant on and enjoying the false reality of the Matrix. However, each time he rejects the temptation there, driven by his emotions to prioritise his community above the false comfort that he could feasibly achieve.

Neo’s unintended role as a community leader is a by-product of his search for individuality, something which Ayn Rand – creator of the Objectivist philosophy — recognised as the foundation of a moral existence. Carol perfectly exemplifies the importance and mutually beneficial nature of this pursuit, the title character (Cate Blanchett) a lesbian whose sexual identity is forced into repression but sees her individuality flourish in a relationship. Becoming her authentic self begins when she meets a woman, Therese (Rooney Mara). Both are awed by their respective uniqueness even when they’re hiding their identities. It seems that it’s the recognition of the individuality of each other that allows them to see it in themselves, and despite doubt and strife, they’re able to act as mutual inspiration for liberation.

The path to recognising your own individuality can be hindered by others as much as it can be helped, and Hedwig & The Angry Inch is a testament to the internal strife induced by bigotry. Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) is a trans woman who is perpetually conscious of her outsider status, reckoning with trauma through her music and by mirroring the tour of a more successful musician who is also her bigoted ex-boyfriend. It’s only through meeting her ex again and confronting his fear of intimacy with a trans woman that she’s able to accept herself and to reinterpret her identity. Carl Jung’s idea of complexes comes into play here, that many of our obstacles are knotted together and growing through them requires a wider reckoning.

Perhaps it might seem that being part of a broader community is the easiest way to find the confidence to be yourself, but documented history shows that even liberation groups have the potential to stifle individuality. Happy Birthday, Marsha, in its 15-minute length, succinctly explores the boundless, bold enthusiasm of a Black trans woman, Marsha P. Johnson, as resistance against rejection by authorities from spaces that were once predominantly gay and lesbian. Of course, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson explores this further with archive footage of fellow trans woman Sylvia Rivera and the crushing rejection she felt from people within her own community which manifested in trans women being cast onto the streets. But the allegations against the latter film of utilising the work of black trans woman Tourmaline – co-creator of the former – are reflective of an inability to allow equal room in the nominally allied LGBTQ+ to this day.

Most groups in society, unfortunately, are aware of their place in the hierarchy of capitalist society, and Parasite is probably cinema’s most precise evocation of how capitalism’s inequality encourages us to collectively behave. It follows a poor family who fraudulently all gain themselves employment working for rich counterparts and doing this requires them – immorally, but necessarily – to subdue a couple who are equally impoverished. Liberation groups similarly find themselves with time, action, and an amount of luck, moving up the hierarchy, but the uncertainty of their positions means exclusion is necessary to maintain the status quo. The way our capitalist society is structured is simply to perpetuate harm and eternally morph it into other forms.

Objectivism recognises the tendency to fall into groupthink, a part of our behaviour that Rand, as a staunch defender of individualistic capitalism and opponent of communism, ascribes to collectivism. Humans are social animals, so our formation of defensive, exclusionary groups is a toxic form of individualism that, ironically, curtails our ability to act as individuals or to work successfully together in groups. But where Objectivism fails is that it doesn’t recognise the importance of emotion in driving us away from this sort of behaviour, putting logic on a pedestal as the route towards reasoned action. LGBTQ+ cinema tells us that emotion is the foundation of all change and purpose, and in order to live a life of meaning, all reason has to originate from it.

To reject the tendencies established within the modern world, then, requires us to combine emotion and reason; to reject the binary of success and failure and its intimately joined counterpart of good and evil. Slavoj Žižek recognises, in his book Absolute Recoil, the philosophical imperative of avoiding absolutes, and sees that in order to reach truths we must explore the gaps hinted at by conclusive answers. This approach might include asking who a supposedly inclusive group excludes, not accepting that work is ever done and that a status quo can ever be reached. It’s only with this sort of nuanced outlook on the world that we can live in a progressive society, that we can dismantle the systems that trap us, and that we can be in a society that supports our individual needs rather than giving us an ever-changing array of boxes to fit in.

Solidarity between communities is a Žižekian outlook in action, as it requires both respecting individuality and understanding that we don’t hold all the answers to anything. Pride is a moving example of this idea, a story about a gay and lesbian group looking to support a mining community and both mutually aiding each other in their struggles. A more surprising portrayal of such solidarity, however, can be seen in an episode of the caustic sitcom, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, called “Mac Finds His Pride”. Mac’s (Rob McElhenney) semi-bigoted father figure, Frank (Danny DeVito), suggests all sort of inappropriate ways for him to become more involved with the gay community. It’s when he lets Mac express himself on his own terms, however, that they both grow. Fostering a culture that allows for individuality and self-expression is the root of a healthy society.

If we’re to hope for continued liberation, for those around us and for ourselves, then we have to be passionately engaged with the world around us. We have to seek and understand our place in it, we have to question how others find their place in it, and we have to question how our communities look to support our individuality. LGBTQ+ entertainment gives a great template for how we can help each other as individuals and the path to discovering ourselves, but perhaps we need a different tack in the future too: reminders that unless we’re all free to be ourselves then none of us are free. We need to see on the screen not just comfort and reassurance for the present, but to ask the questions for our future. We need to realise that only through changing in the face of backwards-dragging conservatism can we ever remain ourselves.