Sexuality in cinema: Representation matters

Why we need more queer media

I’m writing all this not even an hour after seeing Love, Simon; a film about a gay teen struggling with coming out to his family and friends and concerned about how being known as the “gay kid” will change his relationship with the people he’s surrounded by. That’s a simplistic summary of the plot, but the film, the first studio teen movie to feature a gay protagonist, is a major step forward in the representation of young LGBTQ+ people in film.

An article published by Time Magazine in March this year entitled ‘Love, Simon Is a Groundbreaking Gay Movie. But Do Today’s Teens Actually Need It?’ garnered a lot of attention and a whole lot of anger, mostly directed at the obviously questionable, somewhat controversial title. However, a quick Google search reveals the author, Daniel D’Addario, whose article prompted so much discourse in the online LGBT+ community, is in fact a married, gay man in his early thirties.

The most interesting part of his article is his final paragraph in which he asserts that Love, Simon feels ‘like a film responding to an entirely different culture, like one in which gay marriage was never legalized’ and concludes that the film ‘simply feels like looking back in time’. I can’t speak to the community or culture under which D’Addario has formulated these ideas, however, I can speak to how inaccurately he understands the queer youth culture of today for someone considerably not that much older.

D’Addario’s entire review rests on the idea that in a world, or rather an America, in which samesex marriage is legalized, we have progressed to an extent in which homophobia does not exist, or at least the fear of judgement when coming out does not exist. However, the decision to legalise samesex marriage was not global, and more crucially, even where same-sex marriage is legal, the law does not necessarily denote universal public agreement or support (does the 61.6% Yes verdict ring a bell?)

The reality of the situation for the majority of LGBTQ+ teens is that regardless of what people like D’Addario may assume, and despite wider society being undeniably more “accepting” than it was ten or fifteen years ago, it still leaves a lot to be desired. There are still parents with “traditional” values, still people who feel “uncomfortable” around people who aren’t straight and still the absolute fear that coming out will change everything about your life. There’s anger too that there is still an expectation to formally “come out”, that to be gay or lesbian or bisexual or however you define your sexuality, you have to declare it first. Almost as though you can’t just be yourself, but rather must give people time to process and accommodate this ‘new’ version of you.

Representation of LGBTQ+ people in film is important because it reflects the shift that is in the process of happening. The fact that a film such as Love, Simon is the first studio gay teen romance is the very reason the film itself, and hopefully many subsequent young LGBTQ+ stories, are necessary. There is endless research that indicates children respond to role models who they relate to in terms of gender, interests, hobbies and as I would suggest here, sexuality. For many children and teens that don’t fit into the cis-gender, heterosexual “norm” and are figuring out how to define themselves, a movie can offer a moment of relief from the stressful surrounds of the uncertain world and give hope that everything is going to be okay.

LGBTQ+ films that aren’t targeted at adults, don’t overtly sexualise their characters and crucially don’t end in heart wrenching tragedy are increasingly necessary to reflect that society is shifting, and that happiness and acceptance, while unfortunately not guaranteed, can be found. While there is nothing inherently wrong with depicting tragedy or loss in cinema there is certainly an uneven tilt towards these themes in LGBTQ+ stories. This has turned the queer film genre from a place of representation to one of manipulation and exploitation of queer characters to garner an emotional and sympathetic reaction from the audience without achieving or inspiring any greater awareness, action or change in treatment of the real world LGBTQ+ community.

LGBTQ+ films that are accessible to a younger audience, such as Love, Simon is, are crucial in normalising and desexualising queer relationships. Certainly, Love, Simon may seem like a pretty standard teen film but it manages to reflect the how even despite being surrounded by a liberal family and accepting friends the fear of rejection or unacceptance still lingers. However, queer films with positive or at least hopeful endings are a great place to begin to show young people struggling with their sexual identity that loving and accepting yourself for who you are and expecting that same respect from others is achievable. And even in circumstances where acceptance from others is impossible, then a film can provide a couple of hours of relief, hope, and escape.

Films have always been, and will continue to be, works that reflect current social circumstances and issues. LGBTQ+ films need to reflect the whole spectrum of the queer experience, stop exploiting tragic stories and start providing more genuine, relatable content. We can’t end up with another generation of LGBTQ+ teens, like mine, who have flocked to the same 5 storylines in film or television for the limited extent of realistic content. If the shift towards telling more “wholesome” queer stories in recent years is anything to go by, then more representation is on its way, slowly but surely – and there is certainly hope in that.

This article appeared in the autonomous queer edition, Queer Honi 2018.