March 13, 2019 by thewashingteenian
An Exploration of Central Conflict and Queer Representation in Popular Visual Media
by Spencer Thomas, Staff Writer
The past decade has entailed many triumphs for the queer community, including the legalization of same sex marriage in the United States and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” legislation affecting queer individuals who wish to serve in the military. Also among these triumphs is the increased presence of positive queer representation in mainstream television and film. While the impact of this may seem superficial, this newfound representation is vital, as it provides queer people with someone on the screen to relate to and can offer much needed validation to those struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity. However, even despite the benefits, the unfortunate truth about mainstream media featuring prominent queer characters is that much of the conflict revolves entirely around their queer identity. Whether it be the hardship of coming out or the presence of some homophobic antagonist, the constant portrayal of the negative experiences plaguing the queer community denies it the sense of escapism associated with much of the fictional media consumed by the masses. Plots that closely reflect real life have, of course, always been a feature of television and film, but so have aspects of fantasy and idealism. Is it so much to ask for the same sense of unwavering fairytale romance that on screen cisgender heterosexual couples have received since the dawn of silent film?
The dawn of mainstream queer media came at a time when the mortality as well as morality of being queer was threatened. From the 1993 cinematic landmark Philadelphia, to the 2005 adaption of the musical Rent, films centered around the AIDS crisis have presented a cast of characters who are written as queer for the express purpose of being sick. This made sense an era where the call was less for queer people to be portrayed as only fully rounded humans, rather than vessels to promote awareness of the disease. But, as the widespread panic surrounding AIDS was separated from the popular conscious, the disease itself was separated from queer characters living outside a historical narrative, paving way for stories not only featuring queer characters defined by traits other than their health, but with an ever increasing emphasis on the mental rather than physiomedical fallout surrounding homophobia.
One example of a successful modern queer narrative is the 2018 film Love, Simon. Although the plot deviates slightly from that of the young adult novel on which it was based, the overall premise remains the same. “Everyone deserves a great love story. But for seventeen-year-old Simon Spier… it’s a bit complicated: he’s yet to tell his family or friends he’s gay and he doesn’t actually know the identity of the anonymous classmate he’s fallen for online,” explains the official plot synopsis from 20th Century Fox’s website. That is not to discredit the film’s artistic merit. Visually the film is wonderful, and it’s soundtrack thoroughly danceable in its own right. However, as the synopsis makes apparent, it’s no typical story of falling for the mystery boy. Simon and his love interest spend a majority of the film terrified by the implications of coming out, and their fear isn’t exactly helped when paired with scenes of the school’s only openly gay student being bullied and harassed for his sexuality. The main issue wasn’t Simon finding his true love through the fog of anonymity, but finding both himself and his love through a fog comprised of bigotry. Simon’s life takes a detour through a living hell, with pit stops made to be blackmailed and brutally outed along the way, and only at the end is he granted an ounce of happiness in the form of a single intimate scene at the film’s conclusion.
Another recent successful work, the 2016 anime series Yuri On Ice, paved its own way for tackling queer romance. While Japanese media is no stranger to queer representation, the show departed from the conventions of yaoi or “boy’s love”, a niche genre familiar to the west which usually depicts a more sexually charged form of male on male love, in order to showcase a more honest relationship. The show’s main conflict is firmly rooted in the competitive world of professional figure skating, while the two male protagonists fall for eachother unimpeded by homophobia (although their relationship is not without self-doubt, as the title character struggles with nearly every element of himself but his sexuality). Even so, what little of their relationship is explored can prove at times underwhelmingly subtle. Displays of affection are either obscured, as in the case of a pivotal kiss scene, or up to interpretation as to whether they were truly meant to be queer romantic gestures or mere zealous bromance.
Perhaps the biggest roadblock on the path to a queer fairytale is that, in a sense, many of the narratives featuring queer characters are already employing the tropes. It has been argued that every story that can be told, already has been. Indeed, queer narratives have their dragons and damsels in distress; however, instead of being literal dragons, homophobia (internal, external, and otherwise), runs amok. And, if a true love’s kiss can’t break any spell, those elements certainly should not make every queer narrative. Is that to say these kinds of stories should be moved past entirely? Not at all. The argument could even be made that, as familiar as these concepts are to queer media, stories may not even be recognizable as explicitly queer enough in their absence. Even if that is true, it’s time for creators to branch out and take risks. Give queer people literal dragons to slay, and they have the opportunity to rise triumphant not only in any number of tales, but at the box-office as well.