Shove it Down Their Throats - Why Queer Representation in the Media Matters
Queer representation in media has come a long way over the past 30 years, but to say it’s perfect would be a massive understatement. For every Knife + Heart or Hellbent, we also get something like Incident in a Ghostland. As a queer consumer of media myself, I’m constantly looking for people I can relate to in the films and television shows that I watch. Queer characters and creators are just a few of the qualities that I, and so many other members of the queer community, seek out. Those aren’t the only things I seek out in media, of course, but my queerness is the one aspect of my identity that gets judged, rejected and condemned more so than any of the others so it only makes sense that I would seek out positive representations of the very thing that is deemed “wrong” about me by many members of society. Consider it a form of validation, if you will.
A few months ago, Joe Lipsett and I released an episode on Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day for our Horror Queers podcast. Usually (though not always), we discuss horror films with queer elements, be it in front of or behind the camera. In this case Happy Death Day fits both criteria.
***Minor spoilers for Happy Death Day to follow***
The 2017 film sees Tree Gelbman (a pitch perfect Jessica Rothe) get murdered on her birthday, only to realize that she must relive the same day over and over until she is able to figure out who is trying to kill her. One possible suspect is Tim Bauer (Caleb Spillyards), a fellow college student that she previously went on a failed date with. While Tim is not the killer, it is revealed that he is gay and is still closeted. Tree, in one of her attempts to redeem herself from her more mean-spirited ways, gives Tim a pep talk and helps him accept his queerness. It’s a slight subplot, occupying less than five minutes in the 96-minute-long film, but it is important. Also of importance? The fact that the film’s director and co-writer Christopher Landon is a gay man.
Upon releasing the episode into the podcasting void, Joe and I received the following reply (no attempt to correct this person’s spelling or grammar was made):
“I guess I dont get why focus on someone being queer? Why does it matter? Personally to me if you focus on a person's gender, sexual orientation, or skin color it's still negative because youre just giving them attention based on something that has nothing at all to do with their job. And call me crazy but isn't being equal supposed to about treating someone like a person and not caring about who they have sex with? Soon as you talk about someone as gay or straight in a positive or negative way you're still focusing on it. Why give someone special attention for sexual preference? It didn't have anything to do with the movie.”
Stated like a person who has never had to live in constant fear of simply being themself, am I right? How many of us have been asked something like this before? Or how about being told something like “I have nothing against your lifestyle choice, but I just don’t want to see it.” Or “I have no problem with queer people, but I wish they’d stop shoving their lifestyle down our throats.” It’s insulting. It’s embarrassing. It’s degrading, and I’m here to say that it’s time to shove it down their goddamn throats (metaphorically speaking, of course).
Lest you think people don’t hold on to the things they see in the media they consume, be it consciously or subconsciously, rest assured that they do. It’s impossible for all of us to travel the world and expose ourselves to different cultures; so much of what informs our view of the world is through media. How many of us had a very specific idea of what high school was going to be like based on the versions of high school portrayed in movies we watched growing up? Perhaps you thought high school was going to be just like Bates High School in Carrie, or John Marshall High School in Pretty in Pink, or Padua High School in 10 Things I Hate About You or (for the younger readers) North Shore High School in Mean Girls. Those are just some of the more prolific high school movies of their respective decades, but there are plenty of others that could have affected the high school image for any impressionable youth.
Growing up, I had a very specific idea of what high school was going to be like based on the teen movies of the ‘90s. Imagine my surprise when I went to my first high school party and it wasn’t like the ragers showcased in films like Can’t Hardly Wait, American Pie or even The Rage: Carrie 2 (though if you go to a party like the one shown in that one, you’ve got bigger problems than a lack of positive representation in the media).
Just like the portrayals of high school in the media can inform a person’s perception of high school life, so to can the portrayals of queer characters. This is especially true for anyone who doesn’t think they know any queer people (though the odds are they probably do and just don’t know it). If a person doesn’t know anything about a certain subject, the media’s portrayal of said subject fills in the blanks for them. This assumes that there is any representation at all, which is not always the case, but it’s not enough to simply have queer representation in the media. There must also be an accurate, respectful and positive representation.
If someone who claims to not know any queer people is only exposed to forms of media featuring queer stereotypes and negative representations, then that will inform that person’s idea of what a queer person is. What exactly does accurate and positive queer representation entail? When it comes to positive representation, the easy answer is: don’t be an asshole. It’s the “accurate” portion of that phrase that’s slightly difficult to answer. Much like how high school life is different for each person, there are a wide variety of queer characters to be represented and a wide variety of queer stories to be told. It’s no easy task and it also puts a great deal of responsibility on the artist. Just how does one get it right?
If, as a queer person, you don’t see accurate or positive representations of queer people in the media you are consuming, then feelings of loneliness or wrongness can develop. When I was a child, I immersed myself in the world of television and film because I was lonely and I didn’t know why. For queer viewers, seeing themselves represented on screen allows them to not only feel better about themselves, but also contradict the loneliness that they may feel. It’s amazing what a simple 5-minute superfluous subplot in a slasher movie like Happy Death Day can do to make someone feel, if only for a moment, that they are not alone in this world. This is especially true of queer youth, who are still undergoing emotional development while absorbing many forms of media (and why the recent wedding of Mr. Ratburn on PBS’s Arthur is so important). How different my teenage years would have been if I had seen something like that growing up. To see someone like you on camera is a luxury that not everyone has, which is why the people that do have that luxury are so dismissive of the rest of us and our plight.
Our society has more access to media now more than it ever has before. In the era of streaming, we have more films and television shows (both old and new) at our fingertips than we have in any other decade. On the one hand, this is good in that it allows us to reevaluate our past. On the other hand, it means that those problematic portrayals are still readily available for people to watch, and when taken out of context and without consideration of the time period, can easily be misunderstood.
This is especially true of the horror genre, which has had a less-than-stellar track record when it comes to queer representation. It’s a common go-to of the horror films of yore to paint queerness as monstrous. Though this isn’t always the case, it has happened more often than it should. How many times has the villain in a horror film been revealed to be a queer person whose sole motive for their villainy is that they are queer or have developed a psychosis due to not being able to come to terms with their queerness?
Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, Angela in Sleepaway Camp. Marie in High Tension. Even more recent films like the aforementioned Incident in a Ghostland, which is actually pretty good but has a problematic villain (part of that film’s problem is that it’s never made clear whether the villain is transgender or a cross-dressing man), are falling back on these tired tropes of queerness used as a motivator for horrific crimes.
The horror genre has a sizable queer following, and queer horror as a sub-genre is becoming more and more prevalent. At the risk of generalizing, many queer people have a certain spark or anger inside them that has developed after years of oppression. We are able to channel those feelings into art, be it through creating it or through viewing it. This is why the horror genre has proven to be so magnetizing for queer audiences. Though there is a stigma that horror fans lack empathy and get off on watching violence in cinema, if you’re reading this then you know that that is not correct. Horror films provide a necessary catharsis for viewers who are able to handle (or stomach) their content, and this is something that, quite honestly, queer viewers need. It would never be argued that growing up queer is easy, and watching horror films is just one of the cathartic ways (among many others) to deal with the stresses of simply being queer.
Because of its sizable queer audience, it could be argued that horror filmmakers have a responsibility to acknowledge that audience in their films. That’s the conundrum, though. It’s no secret that heterosexual filmmakers outnumber queer filmmakers (much like the heterosexual population outnumbers the queer population….yay minorities!), so that means that many queer stories are being written by non-queer people. This isn’t an inherently bad thing (better to have something than nothing, you know?), but non-queer filmmakers don’t really know what it’s like to actually be queer. This isn’t a call to arms to ban queer stories from non-queer filmmakers, but rather to simply have more queer stories from filmmakers who are queer.
Back to the above anecdote: why does it matter that Christopher Landon is gay? What purpose does it serve to point out that fact in an article written about his film? It adds authenticity to Tim’s story in Happy Death Day. In fact, the Tim subplot might not have made it in the film without Landon’s contributions to the screenplay. That is why it’s important. While some may view singling out that aspect of his identity as a hindrance on the “normalization” of queerness in media, it’s actually doing just the opposite.
To some people, normalizing just means including a queer character without ever mentioning their sexuality but that, dear reader, is actually erasure and it is not the same thing as normalization. While Tim in Happy Death Day is a step in the right direction, it’s still an admittedly superfluous plot in the film. I look forward to the day when we can have a horror film with a queer protagonist released by a major studio. As a society, we’re not quite there yet, but we’re heading in the right direction.
A graduate from the Radio/TV/Film program at the University of Texas at Austin, Trace has been writing for the horror website Bloody Disgusting since 2014 where he covers Fantastic Fest and the SXSW Film Festival. He also co-hosts the Horror Queers podcast for Bloody Disgusting with fellow BD writer Joe Lipsett.