Can we have meaningful LGBTQ+ representation without showing same-sex public displays of affection? Danni Glover investigates.
I am a voracious consumer of romantic films. I love a good Katherine, be she Hepburn or Heigl. There’s something so comforting about watching a film and knowing that there will be a catharsis, that there will be a conciliatory kiss at the end, and there’s truly nothing better than a good on-screen kiss. My particular favourites are the New Year’s Eve scene in When Harry Met Sally and George Bailey finally giving in to Mary’s flirtations in It’s a Wonderful Life (“He’s making violent love to me, mother,” is one of the funniest line readings in cinema, for my money.) These movies are often methodical, predictable, and a little bit by-the-numbers, never more obviously than the fact that the music will only swell into a kiss when the couple on-screen are a man and a woman. In 2016, when we have broken the taboo of seeing same-sex relationships in films and television, why do we still see so little same-sex affection?
A recent example of this phenomena occurred to me after a screening of Independence Day: Resurgence I recently attended (Yes! I am a committed film blogger.) There’s a scene near the beginning of the film where Dr Brakish Okun, who was left comatose (and not, as the film had suggested, dead) after the events of the film’s predecessor, awakens to find Dr Milton Isaacs in his room. Isaacs fills him in on the events of the last twenty years, they joke about how much older they’ve both gotten, and they seem like two good buddies reunited after a long time apart.
Apparently they’re a couple, but I didn’t know that until reading a Roland Emmerich interview days later.
These movies are often methodical, predictable, and a little bit by-the-numbers, never more obviously than the fact that the music will only swell into a kiss when the couple on-screen are a man and a woman. In 2016, when we have broken the taboo of seeing same-sex relationships in films and television, why do we still see so little same-sex affection?
Now, Roland Emmerich is clearly an entity unto himself, a cis gay man who apparently knows nothing of the history of his community (remember the Stonewall debacle from last year?), but the problem is certainly not unique to his films. The Imitation Game, though exceptional in many ways, failed to portray on-screen any of the homosexuality for which Alan Turing was so disgracefully persecuted. Philadelphia was an era-defining film about homophobia during the AIDS crisis with remarkably few moments of even interaction, never mind affection, between the central couple. Ryan Reynolds’ insistence that he played Deadpool as pansexual in accordance with the comics is great, but he only ever gets with Morena Baccarin and his pansexuality is never even textually referenced. (Comic book adaptations are particularly egregious for minimising or erasing same-sex attraction; Catwoman, John Constantine, X-Men’s Mystique and Watchmen’s Rorschach are all written as queer in the comics but not their respective film appearances).
It’s not enough that same-sex affection and intimacy appears in films that are about affection and intimacy between LGBTQ+ people. It’s important to normalise our hand-holding, our kissing, our sex as part of the background noise that makes up so much of cinema.
We need to acknowledge something though: many people in same-sex relationships feel unsafe making public displays of affection in real life. Research has shown that straight people are uncomfortable seeing a same-sex couple kiss or hold hands in public whereas they rarely even register the same behaviours from a male/female couple (the research appears to focus on cisgender couples only; the representation and real life experiences of trans-identified individuals in relationships is something I would be keen to hear from those individuals about). TV’s most successful current sitcom Modern Family dealt with this in the season two episode ‘The Kiss’, in which Cam complains that Mitch never wants to kiss him in public before realising that his partner has internalised his father’s homophobia, but most of the time when same-sex couples can’t kiss on screen it’s not because of a wider social point. It’s because same sex love is still seen as deviant in many ways.
It’s not enough that same-sex affection and intimacy appears in films that are about affection and intimacy between LGBTQ+ people. It’s important to normalise our hand-holding, our kissing, our sex as part of the background noise that makes up so much of cinema. There are straight cisgender couples visibly loving one another in almost all films, even the ones that are not ostensibly about love or romance at all, and it’s true of films for all ages – The Lego Movie has as much of a romantic subplot in it as The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s important because when people who experience same-sex attraction deserve to see their attraction legitimised on screen and because people who don’t need to not be afraid to see it. If you’ve ever heard someone say that they don’t have a problem with gay people but they don’t want it shoved in their face then that person probably could have socially benefited from this type of representation. Why is the much-feted lesbian couple in Finding Dory an act of shoving sexuality in the audience’s face, but not Woody and Bo Peep from the Toy Story trilogy from the same studio? The representation of same-sex couples on screen is meaningless unless it is accompanied by a representation of our intimacies.
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