Throughout the year, this column has hunted out queer subtext in media; finding the characters or storylines that, though not explicitly gay, definetly represent – intentional or otherwise – our lives. This addition to the series is a little different. Instead of focussing on the interpreted queerness of characters, it’s time to look at the explicitly included queerness and the subtext that still lingers. It’s common knowledge now that diversity is not automatically the positive inclusion it may seem on the surface. How people in minority groups are depicted is still steeped in the murky waters of subtext, which is often more damaging than exclusion. There are particular tropes that are the go to in media for LGBTQ+ characters and the subtext they carry with them is worth analysing and challenging, especially if we do actually want to better the quality of media. Every group has a different set of cliches and unfortunately they are countless and impossible to list in their entirety in this piece. Instead we’ll focus on the big ones that seem to be the most popular in fiction.
Everyone wants a Gay Best Friend, right? We’re just so sassy, and full of useful life advice, and we’re willing to dedicate our lives completely to supporting our straight friend in their pursuit of a guy whose personality is “available and in the vicinity”. To be fair to this trope, this isn’t the worst depiction. We’re written to be loving, supportive, wise and relentlessly funny – we get all the best lines and let’s be honest, the film would be boring without us. The downside is that this trope positions us as accessories to the main character, whose straight life is far more important. Characters like George (Rupert Everett) in My Best Friend’s Wedding, Oliver (Nico Santos) in Crazy Rich Asians, even Damian (Daniel Franzese) in Mean Girls are all there to add a few quips, assist the main character and often get little to no character development themselves. The Gay Best Friend stands in the same realm as the Black Best Friend, mostly sharing the exact same qualities, with the principle one being their unwavering support system for the far less interesting main character. How does this trope depict minority characters? Well we’re the unimportant ones; we’re the people who don’t get our own exciting adventures, our own love stories, our own depth. We’re the side characters and in real life, that’s often how we’re treated. Our rights are after-thoughts. We’re tokens to make others look good. We’re there in the background but we’re not allowed the same autonomy as others.
Of course, not all of our depictions are as seemingly sweetly innocent as a happy, sassy buddy. Ingrained in our childhood is the understanding that anyone who acts flamboyant, campy, extra, or who opts for the spinster life must be a villain. Yep, the big corporate mouse was filling our children’s minds with straight propaganda! Disney villains are the most egregious example of the Camp Villain, whether it’s Hades (James Wood) in Hercules reading folk to filth or the flamboyant Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers) in Pocahontas strutting around in his shiny clothes, most Disney villains give off big stereotypical queer subtext vibes. Technically though, Disney are not the only culprits. As discussed in this column previously, the horror genre often has subtextually queer monsters, which the community celebrate as the outcast underdogs ready to shake up the heteronormaitive world (read more here about Frankenstein’s queerness or here for Alien’s). However, the difference seems to be nuance. Most horror’s don’t actively include queer-coded qualties to their villains and the subtext that’s picked up is more to do with their purpose in the story. With Disney, however, the queer-coding is outrageously obvious and falls into cliche characteristics. Given the young audience they are targeting with these stories, the perception they are creating may be more damaging than they think, perhaps encouraging a dislike to certain qualities or even internalised homophobia. In a hilariously bad turn of events, woke Disney showed us exactly how they perceive queerness when they made one of their first “explicitly gay characters” LeFou (Josh Gad) from Beauty and the Beast – the sniffling weasel-like side-kick to the main villain Gaston. A Camp Villain and a Gay Best Friend – just ticking off those tropes. Now personally, I am not 100% against a queer-coded villain, in all honesty I like them and these cliched qualities are probably the reason villains are always my favourite characters. However, I can still recognise the potential damage they do. Who knows, maybe I wouldn’t have grown up such a bitter, sarcastic pessimist if I had better role models.
Now for the classic trope – where being gay leads you straight to hell (and no I won’t be discussing “Destiel”, get back to 2012 tumblr where you belong). The Bury Your Gays trope dates back to the 19th century, with early examples showing up in Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Upon the trope’s early conception and through the period of the Hays Code in Hollywood, the inclusion of this storyline was often a purposeful warning against those in the LGBTQ+ community. Media with this trope was punishing their queer characters for living their true life and was almost saying, “if you give into temptation and live in sin, you will face consequences”. The trope apparently refuses to die itself, with much of the media – even the progressive ones – continuing to use it to this day. Eventually, online backlash surrounding this popular storyline kicked off when Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey) from the TV show The 100 died in the exact same episode she finally had sex with romantic interest, Clarke (Eliza Taylor). It’s disappointing that even today we have to accept tragedy in our stories and accept the subtext of “this is what you get if you express your love”. The trope is made all the more horrible when we consider the real life tragedy of the AIDs crisis, which predominetly affected the gay community. During this time, being sexually active as a gay man was dangerous and resulted in many deaths due to a lack of understanding of the virus and a government that refused to assist. Many bigots of the day even labelled this tragedy as a reckoning from God against the LGBTQ+ community. Continuing to bury our gays in current media is tiring to watch and only persists the incorrect perception that a life as LGBTQ+ will always only ever be tragic.
Even after the LGBTQ+ community were granted permission to come out on screen, our portrayals were far from progressive. With our identities out and “proud” we instead had our qualities and our stories tainted by their own subtext that still made effort to put us in our place. Without having to outright say it, the media could present LGBTQ+ as the unimportant, the evil, the damned. Sometimes it seems like such a small thing to fight about – technicalities, nuances, hidden meanings – but it’s these things that manipulate our psychology. Shifting the unconscious biases away from the usual negative may help nudge some begrudging perceptions along the right path a little quicker. And if not, it’s at least nice for us to see our stories in something other than tragic cliche.
Header image courtesy of Disney