What the Mainstream Can Learn From 2015’s Queer Indie Cinema

This summer, something predictable happened: the Internet’s collective outrage targeted the trailer for a gay movie. The why behind the anger was less predictable, though: the characters were not queer enough, were too whitewashed, and misrepresented the real, varied players in the major historical event the movie purported to recreate. That film was Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall, which happened to tank at the box office — though its gayness had nothing to do with that, I’m sure. The film itself, while bad, is not significant. Emmerich’s public comments about the film, which he made in response to the whitewashing, are:

You have to understand one thing: I didn’t make this movie only for gay people, I made it also for straight people. I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [white lead character Danny] is a very easy in. Danny’s very straight-acting. He gets mistreated because of that. [Straight audiences] can feel for him.

The idea here is that the mainstream is always going to present the least polarizing version of any given thing in order to appeal to the most people and make the most money. That’s what Emmerich should have said, only he didn’t want to say that trans people or queer people of color were polarizing.

The problem is that, even though mainstream viewers have learned to appreciate queer stories, creators still think that a story or its characters’ queerness is enough to create a successful work of art, commercially or otherwise. Or worse, that depicting a character queer in a nuanced way will scare away audiences. But that’s not the case, and it’s becoming obvious. In 2015 there was plenty of schmaltz meant to bring inspirational gay characters to the world, but they didn’t inspire anybody, because nobody saw them. Instead, people saw (and critics loved) smaller queer films with offbeat stories and characters with actual character.

To begin with, in March of this year, HBO’s Looking, created by master of gay male malaise Andrew Haigh, was canceled. (Funny enough, Haigh stated correctly that, regardless of the Wonder Bread gayness of his show, straight people didn’t watch.) Flavorwire’s Moze Halperin eulogized that show, praising it for unabashedly asserting the existence of a  “mainstream gay banality.”

looking

This mainstream gay banality is not a new thing, having existed since at least 1998, when Will and Grace showed everybody’s mom that it was OK to like gay people, and that, while “fab” gay people like Sean Hayes’ Jack existed, “drab” gay people like Eric McCormick’s Will did, too. But now, in 2015, gay banality is not enough. “Gay” or “queer” are not buzzy-enough words to drive a successful film or television show.

Much has been said of the timeline of gays’ evolution on film: the sissy; the mannish woman; the murderous gays (Rope); the anguished lesbian (The Children’s Hour); the murderous gays, again (Cruising); the gay best friend (Sex and the City, Will and Grace). The evolution of gay characters can be tied closely to America’s burgeoning acceptance of homosexuality, a trend perhaps capstoned by the Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage in June of this year. The world was given little more than a century to acclimate to the idea of mainstream homosexuality in pop culture, but it was unexpected that the outrageous “femme best friend” would warp so quickly into the blandness of the “gay white dude” of Looking.

The zenith of the gay male relationship’s utter tediousness came in this year’s Nasty Baby, written and directed by star Sebastián Silva. The film tells the story of Silva and Tunde Adebimpe’s characters, partners and artists trying to have a baby with their best friend, played by Kristen Wiig. For the first hour or so of the movie, it’s presented as a by-the-book indie rom-com, with awkward conversation and great music. The “we want a child” plot is barely handled, and when it finally is, it’s upended by a sudden and gory murder that hijacks the film’s remaining running time. It’s as if Silva stops the movie to look at the audience and say, “These gay wannabe breeders sure are boring, aren’t they? Let’s create some excitement,” and then throws blood at the screen. Nasty Baby is as much a subversion of the rom-com as it is of gay banality, but the basic fact that Silva chose to frame this premise within a gay relationship instead of a straight one — and that it works — is telling of the transformation of gay representation on screen.

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in "Carol"

Take, for example, Todd Haynes’ Carol, which centers on a woman discovering herself through love wrapped in the skin of lesbianism. On the surface, it’s a concept that, 15 years ago, could’ve resulted in a kind of period-set story of forbidden love, in the same vein as Brokeback Mountain. But through careful storytelling and expert craftsmanship from Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, it sailed far above that pastiche, and it did it from the perspective of women. This film, with its middle-aged, female lead, has earned $1.6 million so far in just 16 theaters, with plans to expand to more screens in the coming weeks. Stonewall, with its hot young twink, earned just $187,000 in 129 theaters. So, it turns out, bad films about boring white gay men are not more profitable than great films about complex white women, a fact that even straight folks can appreciate. 

Films that feature trans characters are perhaps the apparent simple antidote to milquetoast queer media, but the trans community is facing its own, very different image problem. Because it remained relatively invisible for so long in the mainstream, the transgender community’s trajectory to pop-culture visibility has been much faster than that of the gay community. As a result, today’s representations of trans characters are all over the map, and many are kind of a mess. 

I Am Cait

It would be easy to blame this current proliferation on Caitlyn Jenner, who has played her own role in giving pop culture what is perhaps its first boring, banal transgender woman, a feat evidenced by the staggering drop-off in the ratings of all things Caitlyn-related (16.9 million viewers for her coming-out interview with Diane Sawyer in April; just 1.3 million viewers for the finale of her reality show, I Am Cait, five months later). But, even though she is partially responsible for the sudden, extreme spotlight on the trans community, there were onscreen trans characters before Jenner. 

In 2005 there was the treacly Transamerica, which starred cis-woman Felicity Huffman as a trans woman who reconnects with her son. Nearly a decade later, things improved (and became less sappy) with Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black seeing Laverne Cox’s Sophia experiencing a redemption arc that would ring true for any prisoner, trans or otherwise. Jill Soloway’s brilliant Amazon series Transparent, which finds the patriarch of the Pfefferman family transitioning to life as a woman, is based on Soloway’s own family and is stunning in its evenhanded portrayal of real characters — gay, bisexual, trans, straight, and otherwise. And that’s the kicker here: the trans aspect of these shows is just one aspect of a multifaceted show, even if “trans” is in the name.

But still, while the relatively highbrow Transparent and Orange Is the New Black stream online, the year’s most harmful trans character appeared on the more populist (and, perhaps more alarming, teen-targeted) Pretty Little Liars, on ABC Family.  This year one of its all-time most-watched episodes revealed that the villain of the show was transgender. This hearkens back to Michael Caine in 1980’s Dressed to Kill, a movie too convoluted to summarize here, but which finds Caine as a tortured transgender psychiatrist whose “female side” is driven to murderous rage anytime a woman attempts to seduce his “male side.” (Pop culture has provided many other harmful images of transgender killers, but few attempt to explain the issue psychologically, which makes Dressed to Kill even more damaging.) The fact that this grave misunderstanding of transgender identity was judged perfect fuel for a murder flick just 35 years ago helps elucidate why, despite all the progress we’ve seen recently, depictions of trans people are still all over the place. Hitchcock made Rope in 1948, after all. And, seeing as gay characters did not become real people in the mainstream until they’d grown fully fledged in the indie world (My Own Private Idaho, Bully, Mysterious Skin, Shortbus, and plenty more), it shouldn’t be a shock that the strongest trans characters are in indies, too, and not on ABC Family.

tangerine

The year’s best trans-centric story on the big screen is Sean Baker’s Tangerine, perhaps one of the most exciting films of 2015, and it’s built around gimmicks. Trans actors (the great Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor) play trans hookers — an unfortunate stereotype that is, here, subverted by the sheer power of personality — scouring the city for a cheating pimp and the woman he’s cheating with, in a film Baker shot entirely on an iPhone. That sentence is a public relations goldmine, especially when trying to sell an indie film. But Baker didn’t rely on those gimmicks: he created one of the best, most thrilling comedy/dramas of the year, and the film’s success has nothing to do with the fact that the characters are trans, or the way it was filmed.

More than Carol and Nasty Baby, Tangerine is a lesson to queer filmmakers that telling queer stories is an asset, but it is not enough. It’s a kind of battle cry from Baker to the elderly gay statesmen of Hollywood (Emmerich, Bryan Singer, Ryan Murphy, etc.) announcing that, yes, queer art is essential, but making that queer art something that goes beyond its own characters’ queerness is even more essential. So, while it’s nice and important to tell the tragic story of a lesbian couple, or the beginning of the gay rights movement, it must be done in a way that doesn’t pander to the Academy Awards. It must be done in a way that tells these characters’ stories, rather than makes their mere existence the story.