From Sissy to Villian to Gay Best Friend, Queer Screen Interview

From Sissy, to Villain, to Gay-Best-Friend: The Importance and Future of the Mardi Gras Queer Screen Film Festival.



‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win’.

These immortal words from Gandhi could be used to describe not only the evolution of gay rights but also the evolution of LGBTIQ representation in cinema. In early cinema gay and lesbian characters were essentially invisible to the untrained eye. The great documentary on the history of LGBTQI representation in Hollywood, ‘The Celluliod Closet’ (1995), opens with a clip of two men dancing in a Thomas Edison short named “The Gay Brothers” (1895), showing that gays have always been in the movies since the very beginning, though hidden in plain view. From invisibility cinema evolved to rely on homosexuality as a source of humor creating the stock cliché character of the sissy. The sissy was a joke, a punch line, obliquely gay, designed to make men feel more masculine by occupying the space between men and women. From the sissy of the 20s, 30’s and 40’s came the moral panic figure of both tragedy and villainousness. This tragic villain was self-loathing, duplicitous, untrustworthy, mentally sick, cruel, sometimes evil, sometimes piteous, doomed to madness, despair or suicide. With the 80’s the tragic figure of the ADIS victim was added to this litany of woe. As gay screenwriter of the time Arthur Laurents states: “the fate of the gay character in literature, plays, films, is the same as the fate of all characters who are sexually free; you must pay, you must suffer. Certainly if your gay you have to do real penance, die”. Finally with the late 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s came a gradual change in representation of LGBTQI characters for the better as part of a bitter culture war with gay rights at the epicenter. The emergence of New Queer Cinema in the 90’s creating an entire new genre of film and in the mainstream the emergence of the gay-best-friend or the gay character supporting role can been seen as signs of victory of a kind. But can we say today that the fight in the representation of LGBTQI characters has been won? What does victory in this fight look like and how important is it?


Example of a ‘Sissy’ from 1930’s cinema 

In my interview with the new director of the Mardi Gras Film Festival Queer Screen, Paul Struthers, the representation of LGBTQI characters and stories was nominated as the most important aspect of Queer Screen, particularly for younger audiences. Established by queer students and filmmakers in 1993 as community owned and operated independent organization focused on queer film and screen culture. Queer Screen has become the largest film festivals of any kind in Australia, and one of the top five queer film festivals in the world. It is highly regarded by filmmakers all over the world and is the most important avenue for promoting queer films and characters in Australia.


Queer Screen, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Film Festival 

Although great strides have been made in mainstream culture to represent LGBTQI characters and stories according to GLAAD’s most recent ‘Where We Are On TV’ report 3.3 per cent of series regulars on television will be LGBTQI in 2013 down from 4.4 per cent in 2012. The numbers for cinema, which aren’t measured, would potentially be similar. The quality and variety of gay character representation has improved but the numbers don’t lie: gay representation in visual culture is still rare and low. At a time when increasing segments of society are starting to recognize that much of the success of gay rights over the last decades can be attributed to the normalizing of gay relationships through their depiction in film and TV. US Vice President Joe Bidden, when announcing his support for gay marriage, credited the landmark TV sitcom ‘Will and Grace’ as having done more to shift public opinion on gay rights than anything else.



Scene from the landmark TV show ‘Will & Grace’.

As a 24 year-old gay man and lifetime cinephile, my memories of watching films in my childhood are still fresh in my mind. For me personally the important of gay representation in film particularly for younger people cannot be underestimated. Growing up in a religious household with no access to gay films I was starved for images or representations of LGBTQI people and stories. I felt invisible and alone. I was so hungry for my sexuality to be represented on screen that I became adept at using my imagination by projecting homosexuality onto straight romance. I was holding Jack’s hands in Titanic as he froze. As a young gay man your cinematic vocabulary becomes one of innuendo, subtext, reading between the lines at what is unsaid and using your imagination. Ideas of identity as a young person are formed not from within but from without, by culture and especially by films and TV in todays culture. We learn from the movies what it means to be a man or a woman, what it means to have sexuality. When you don’t see yourself portrayed in films or you see the negative characters of the past, the sissy, the tragic villain you begin to see yourself as being wrong. Art fulfills the need of hold a mirror to life and LGBTQI need and deserve to see someone like them reflected back.

Catering to this important role as a place of positive gay representation for young people Paul Struthers highlights the addition of the film ‘Geography Club’, in this years Queer Screen line up. A 15+ film described as basically ‘High School Musical’ without the music, which happens to have a central gay character. I imagine my 15 year-old self jumping at the chance to see this movie. ‘Rainbow Kids – Beauty and the Beast’ is a suitable for all ages showing of the classic Disney film.


‘G.B.F’ poster 2013.    

Outside of the New Queer Cinema the role of the LGBTQI characters in mainstream Hollywood movies remains a supporting one, particularly with the emergence of the ‘GBF’ gay-best-friend. One of the films in the Queer Screen line up titled ‘G.B.F’, another +15 film, deals with this exact phenomenon, questioning the problematic nature of this new trend. Is this the victory we have been longing for, to go from invisible, to an object of laugher, to be feared and pitied, to finally be a commodified accessory? The G.B.F. is surely a variation of the sissy, tragic villain, a supporting stock cliché character existing only as far as its interaction with the straight protagonist. Perhaps a gay version of the ‘Bechdel test’, the test which asks whether a work of fiction features at least two LGBTQI characters who talk to each other about something other than straight people, should be created and applied to mainstream Hollywood movies.

In posing this question Paul Struthers identifies another important role and objective of the Queer Screen the need to appeal to everyone in the community, not just the LGBTQI community and the nature of representation today. The core of the festival is LGBTQI characters and stories however the line up of films this year features several films with crossover appeal to the wider straight community. The director of the festival contends that there’s a greater need today than merely seeing yourself represented on screen:  “you want to see someone on screen who is gay but that’s not the essential thing, its secondary”. Struthers nominates the popular 2011 British romantic drama film ‘Weekend’ as a perfect example of this because “it was just two people who fell in love, it wasn’t about them being gay, it was centered on their sexuality; those are the types of films I love because all my straight friends love that film as well”. Ultimately for Paul Struthers the main criteria for a films selection into the festival is that is simply must be good, regardless of the gay character representation or storyline.


Scene from ‘Weekend’ (2011)

Perhaps in the current gay zeitgeist of gay marriage and the normalization of gay relationships this is the ultimate victory? When straight people can enjoy a film about a gay couple falling in love, not because they are gay but because they are two interesting characters. A victory that gay characters are so accepted that their sexuality no longer becomes the defining feature about them. There is evidence to suggest that the majority of LGBTQI audiences agree with this position. In 2012 the popular gay film and TV website ‘Backlot’ did a seminal list of the top 100 gay films as voted by the gay readers themselves. Interestingly the top audience rated film on the list wasn’t a grand critical success or classic in the vein of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005), ‘Milk’ (2008) or ‘A Single Man’ (2009) rather it was a small indie film called ‘Shelter’ (2007) about the romance between a young gay man and his best friend’s brother. Unlike the other films mentioned which though beautiful and powerful deal with characters from the past who died tragic deaths, ‘Shelter’ is an upbeat modern day romance with a happy ending that doesn’t make the sexuality of the protagonists the defining feature of the story.


Poster for ‘Shelter’ 2007

This type of gay character representation is a departure from the more alternative ethos of the New Queer Cinema movement founded in the 90’s. The movement defined a form of sexuality that was fluid and subversive of traditional understandings of sexuality. The films shared a rejection of heternormativity and feature the lives of LGBTQI people living on the fringes of society. Arguably if a normalized and more conservative representation of LGBTQI characters is to represent the ultimate victory in gay representation then surely something unique and countercultural in the act of being gay is lost? This difference of opinion in the representation of gay characters highlights both the prevailing zeitgeist in the LGBTQI community towards normalization and the opposite movement in celebration of LGBTQI countercultural uniqueness is being played out on a larger scale in the wider LGBTQI community conversation continuing into the future. From invisible, to sissy, to tragic villain, to supporting GBF, the ultimate victory in the quest for gay representation could be the best of both arguments: fully rounded human beings who can still celebrate the uniqueness of being gay.


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