A cursory glance at the arbitrary selection of LGBTQ movie posters displayed below leads us to a curious observation. Regardless of the intensity with which any of these films embrace same-sex intimacy, the insinuation of the queer characters’ hypersexuality is often seen, and used, as a marketing ploy to lure viewers before the screen. So where does the media’s fascination with it come from, and how does it affect our society?
In her essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980), Adrienne Rich pointed out that gender and sexuality behave like any other ideology, bringing to mind the way we shape our behavior around religious dogmas and gender norms. The way we label ourselves, and each other, is shaped by the people around us from the moment we are capable of conscious thought.
And so, the continued reinforcement of the order established centuries ago, when religion began to spread and connect the quarrelsome kindgoms of medieval Europe, has led society to accept heterosexuality as its “natural” foundation. It’s interesting to note that the oder that underpins the social structure of the contemporary world still relies on the rules introduced to instil fear in the people of the Middle Ages.
This “compulsory heterosexuality”, as Rich notices, leads to heterosexuality being seen as a system of power, which feeds the patriarchy. In short, we learn how to “perform” our gender, assuming either a submissive role if we’re women, or a dominant one if we’re men.
This may indicate why some people mistakenly think of one partner as “the man” in a homosexual relationship, and the other “the woman”. And of course, it clarifies why, for centuries, men were encouraged to be sexually active and women sexually passive.
This insistance on a “natural” order brings to mind eurocentrism, a 1970s worldview that signaled an apologetic stance toward European colonialism. In particular, the racism that resulted from the “natural” supremacy of the white race. In fact, it was sociologist Carol Smart who suggested that,
Are queer identities hypersexualized because of their perceived abnormality, then? Regardless, using sex and sexual acts as the only way of recognizing queerness only dehumanizes people. What should be highlighted is the importance of reading queer identities and experiences through “non-sexual means”.
This would also alleviate certain parents’ fear that these identities, or even any knowledge about them, will “turn their children gay”, and keep them from worrying about exposing their kids to non-family friendly content. This very link between queerness and hypersexuality, and how subconscious and “natural” it seems, leads us to contemplate the danger that the media’s fixation on same-sex intimacy poses.
We could argue that, especially in the current climate, hypersexuality can hardly be scoffed at. But while exploring the implications of queer representation on social change, Maya Reddy presented an interesting point of view. Historically speaking, minorities have been portrayed with all the grace of an elephant tiptoeing around fine china.
We’ve seen African-Americans as maids and “mammies”, and Asians bouncing around as caricatures of their perceived innate martial dexterity. Similarly, queer characters, when not fulfilling their urgent roles as comedic relief, are seen strutting around in the guise of lecherous villains, eyeing every groin in sight.
These representations, as tedious and oversimplified as they seem today, have already left their mark. Reddy noticed that this tactic helped prevent minorities from challenging the power resting in the hands of white heterosexual men, and tearing down the patriarchal order with what was presented as “sexual deviance”.
It’s no wonder, then, that the 1990s witnessed the birth of New Queer Cinema, which embraced queer identity and sought to portray it in a meaningful way, providing a glimpse into the world of the – often ordinary – afflictions it faces.
Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997), for example, illustrates the loneliness that results from a toxic, codependent relationship. The film teases a single, symbolic sex scene that lacks the amorous whispers and passion fabricated in mainstream LGBTQ movies. It’s coarse and brief, capturing the naturalism of the act.
In comparison, the romanticized, highly stylized intimacy seen in popular productions (see: Elisa & Marcela) brings to mind the difference between habitual sex and the way the act is exaggerated in pornography. Another example of New Queer Cinema would be Cheryl Dunye‘s The Watermelon Woman (1996), which focuses on a black lesbian filmmaker’s research into the life of a 1940s black actress.
The queer woman we’re used to seeing in mainstream productions, even today, appears to serve as an erotic object for the straight heterosexual male gaze, as evidenced by Charlize Theron’s character in Atomic Blonde (2017). This may also be the reason why the representation of transgender characters seems even more dire. In her 2003 article on the transgender body in film, Melissa Rigney noticed how the objectification of transgender characters works.
As with other queer identities, simplifying complex individuals works like a defence mechanism against the “threat of castration” that the transgender body poses. Again, castration anxiety is argued to be a ripple effect of the heterosexual male gaze, which looks for ways of maintaining its power by asserting heteronormativity. Rigney argues that the transgender body seems even more threatening because, unlike the gay female body that retains its femininity, a trangender body intentionally assumes the presence of a phallus.
When it comes to television, Carson Cook noticed that, unlike broadcast television, streaming platforms not only invest in shows with a high number of queer characters, but they contain more displays of affection. And while gay and lesbian representation is stronger than it used to be, bisexual and transgender characters still seem to be swept to the sidelines. What’s troubling, however, is that interactions between children and queer characters are still, for the most part, quite rare.
In conclusion, the media, a tool used to not only stimulate but shape countless minds, plays quite an obvious role in influencing how society views queer identities. It’s true that increased visibility of minorities forces greater awareness and reflection on the part of the majority, but it can go one of two ways.
And, in the end, the fetishization of queer people often leads to the creation of an aesthetic entity, rather than an elastic human being. This keeps guiding us stubbornly away from equality, not toward it.