Tragedy Girls is the Queer Subtext We Need

Before I ultimately went with Tethered to the Closet, my intention was to write about Tragedy Girls for Pride Month’s Gayly Helpful fundraiser. I had been planning it for awhile, going so far as running a poll on Twitter back in February that asked the basic question of whether you viewed Tragedy Girls as a love story between Sadie and McKayla or if you saw it as a story of best friends.

I was curious because I personally viewed it as a sorta sweet story about two girls realizing they were in love with each other. And even though no one else seemed to be talking about the queer aspects of the movie, I couldn’t be alone in my thoughts…right?

So I went to Twitter and, well, the responses kind of surprised me.

Is Tragedy Girls about best friends or is it a love story?

https://twitter.com/GaylyDreadful/status/1092924646591213568

Tise very unscientific and small sample size (only 130 responses) showed that people, regardless of their sexuality or identity, didn’t see the same subtext of the movie as I did. I mean, let’s be honest. It didn’t surprise me that those identifying as straight wouldn’t see it (sorry, straight people), but c'mon my fellow LGBTQ peeps! Only 15% of you saw the queer subtext?

This surprised me. We've been trained for years to pick up on the coded queer language of film because, historically, that’s…pretty much the only representation we got.

What I appreciate the most about Tragedy Girls is how subversive it actually is. Consider the men, who are all pretty much the definition of useless. The serial killer Lowell (Kevin Durand), for example, who’s introduced by slamming his machete into Craig (Austin Abrams), Sadie’s (Brianna Hildebrand) date, before being immediately captured by two teenaged girls. When they bring him back to their lair, they discover that Craig is still alive.  “You couldn’t even do that right?!” McKayla (Alexandra Shipp) sneers. This is a trend that continues through the movie and puts the perspective directly on the two women and their relationship.

While Tragedy Girls is a horror comedy and has some fantastically sick kills, it really takes its structure from the romantic comedy subgenre, particularly with the tropes of the best friends who slowly realize they’re perfect for each other. As the narrative begins, the two girls are tight as hell, ride-or-die friends till the end until heterosexual boys in the form of Jordan (Jack Quaid), Toby (Josh Hutcherson) and Lowell complicate their relationship.

Two early scenes establish this hetero-conflict. The first is when McKayla jealously asks Sadie about her relationship with that “mama’s boy” Jordan. Sadie says they’re just friends and then teases McKayla for her jealousy. “I’m not jelly. He just has a pathetic crush on you,” she responds. But McKayla is jelly. She just doesn’t know why.

Yet. 

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Later, we get an inverse of the scene, this time with McKayla hanging onto every word that bad boy lothario Toby has to say. As the inanities keep pouring out of his mouth, Sadie fills with rage at seeing her girl talk to the dumb but handsome boy. A smash cut to a Skype call has Sadie declaring, “We so need to kill him.” In the background, the song “Kryptonite” by Etch, with lyrics like, “Baby, I need you” plays, adding thematic context to her rage.

These two sequences really struck a chord with me as I thought back to when I was a confused teenager, grappling with my feelings. In middle school and into high school, I had a number of really close guy friends who started to drift away as they began to discover girls. I was confused for a couple reasons. We had such great times together and spent weekends, staying up until we passed out, playing games and chatting. So I was hurt and completely confused at how quickly I was dropped for girls.

I also didn’t understand why it bothered me. Why I felt so crushed. But it became quickly apparent I was alone in my feelings. So when Sadie and McKayla took turns shooting each other dirty or hurt looks over the way they were fawning over these heteros, I immediately knew how they felt. The camera would always show their reaction, however brief, and Alexandra and Brianna sell those moments perfectly.

As the first act ends with the body count racking up, their relationship intensifies. They brazenly hold hands while talking to the police chief, for instance. And the second act escalates their kills but also brings them closer together. Unfortunately, before they can both verbalize their love, those pesky boys get involved and the midpoint hits, bringing with it the typical romantic comedy misunderstanding that separates our lovers.

McKayla, confused by the sudden Sadie’s sudden changes, confronts her:

“We need to talk,” McKayla says.
“Not now. We’re at school,” Sadie responds, looking at the group of girls behind them.
“Who cares?!”
“Lower your voice. They’re watching me.”

Obviously, they are discussing their murderous extracurricular activities. But if you strip the dialogue of the murderous context, this dialogue would fit perfectly in a romantic comedy about two closeted friends, trying to grapple with their confusing and conflicting feelings. In horror movies with queer undertones, the queerness is always represented in the villains (e.g., Freddy’s Revenge, The Lost Boys, etc.) so it’s only appropriate that the dialogue would be duplicitous. Here the writers really play with standard queer subtext in movies as Sadie wants to give up the murderous life that, in typical horror context, is associated with her burgeoning queerness. She has decided life would be better, hanging out in the closet with Jordan and she lashes out at McKayla with painful disdain: “I’ve never needed you.” 

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With our lovers broken up, we get a montage of our forlorn exes trying to get on without each other while “Lost” by Sorcha Richardson plays in the background. Tragedy Girls’ song choices continue to inspire, with lyrics like, “It’s over,” “Let’s do whatever to forget her,” “She’s leaving you, just let her” and, most importantly, “Forget that girl who broke your heart.”

As the narrative rushes to the end, we have Sadie at the prom, where she gets her taste of heteronormativity and a glimpse of what life would be like with Jordan. They go through all of the typical high school movie cliches. They’re magically crowned king and queen. They slow dance. Jordan talks about their future, asking Sadie if she’d consider going to Kent State so that they could be close together. It’s all so straight. So boring.

And Sadie realizes that she would have rather been dancing with McKayla. 

In a romantic comedy, the third act always finds a way to bring the two lovelorn lovers back together and Tragedy Girls is no different. The finale brings Sadie and McKayla back, face-to-face and again brings with it a conversation with double meaning:

“We used to be the same, you and me,” McKayla tells Sadie. “Do you remember our first time?”
“M-Kay, don’t,” Sadie responds.
“Don’t what?”
“It was an accident.”

As if that’s not enough, we get McKayla’s tearful monologue that completely cuts to the heart of the story:

“An accident? Is that what you tell yourself? Because we both wanted it … I remember crying and crying the next day...jumping every time the phone rang...scared that I would blurt it all out at the dinner table...And then you abandoned me? ...Him over me! ... That old Sadie, she wasn’t like everybody else. No, she was something real special. And she would agree with me.”

This is a conversation I wanted to have with a number of my male friends as a teenager. It’s a heartfelt and painful admission that McKayla thought they had something special together and doesn’t understand why Sadie would turn away from it. So, yes, while it’s quite literally about the murder sprees they’ve committed over the course of the film, it also rings true of two lovers, finally confronting their attraction and feelings. McKayla ends the conversation by saying she wants to save Sadie.

I’ve mentioned the subversive qualities of Tragedy Girls a lot, so consider this.

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When you look back at the queer coding in horror movies, particularly in films of the 80s, you see the characters ultimately reject homosexuality. In Freddy’s Revenge, for instance, a kiss from a girl forces the metaphor of Freddy as homosexuality back into the closet. In Fright Night, not only does the queer-coded best friend Evil Ed die, but the sexually confused Charley is forced to confront the queer vampire next door in order to finally get with his girlfriend. The found family of The Lost Boys must be vanquished so that the heteronormative, nuclear family can exist. It’s a trend that has continued throughout film history, where any hints of homosexuality is typically relegated to subtext and must eventually be thwarted so that the straights can live happily ever after.

So at the climax of Tragedy Girls, I fully expected a similar denouement as Sadie and McKayla are given a chance to fully embrace the heteronormativity that history tells us that they must accept. Except they don’t. Instead, Mckayla shoots Lowell and Sadie wraps a rope around Jordan’s neck and pushes him off a balcony. It should be a dark moment, but as the two women watch heterosexuality choke out in front of them, the Everly Brother’s “All I Have to do is Dream” plays and we get a hazy montage of a younger version of the lovers chasing each other (“When I want you in my arms…”).

It’s dreamlike and romantic and leads to the climactic shot of the school burning as the two girls stand, hand-in-hand, watching the symbol of their past burn to the ground. Unlike queer subtext in most horror films, Tragedy Girls fully embraces its nature and allows its two leads to self-actualize as queer women.

Forget subtext, Tragedy Girls is the queer text we need.