by Jake Gorman
“My High School had one of those big dictionaries on a stand. And I would go to it, again and again and again, and look up homosexual. It meant I existed.”
– Craig Rodwell, A Pioneer of the Gay Rights Movement
“We’re all cursed Jimmy. It’s called life”
– Ellie Myers in Cursed
The issue of both representation and method of representation have been highly volatile starting points for both homosexual and heterosexual debates about the way minority groups are portrayed in the media. From the early days of the Stonewall riots, to the modern day debate on the issues of marriage, gay rights have fought back against popular culture’s ideology of what it means to be homosexual.
In early film, when the first homosexuals appeared on screen, they were not usually identified as queer by the film’s narrative, rather by the character’s actions and mannerisms. It has been argued that with this appearance of homosexually identified characters in film, there was a step forward in social and public discourse on the topic of gays and lesbians in society. Yet a deeper and more unstable issue is at hand; if those representations are a mirror of public opinion, then what does public opinion say about homosexuality? This matter of images in mass media is taken to a whole new level. Within the early social uprising of gay and lesbian movement, there was a conscious desire to stay away from being portrayed as “just the same” as heterosexuals, yet the struggle for equality often demands it. This duality of representation is at the heart of almost all minorities and their struggle for equality.
“…the nation saw the eruption of gays and lesbians
into mainstream culture (after decades of living on the
margins of society, excoriated by social guardians and
arbiters of contemporary more) as a challenge to (rather
than as an alternative) to mainstream, heterosexual
society.” (Dixon 138)
One recent film to shed light onto the gay rights struggle for equality is Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee 2005) What is interesting about the film itself is that it took a culturally signified “straight” filmic landscape and turned it on its head to create something entirely homosexual. One possible reason the film was as successful in the straight world as in the gay world, was the interesting choice to take something so American (the cowboy film), and make it something more than that; it became the backdrop for forbidden love in a time of hatred.
If a film classified as a drama can be successful in this way, can this type of transformation work with any genre? And what can be said of the representations it portrays? Another Gay Movie (Todd Stephens 2006) attempts a similar narrative reversal within a teen comedy. The film is a moderately successful skewering of straight and gay films, spoofing everything from American Pie (Paul Weitz 1999) to Mommie Dearest (Frank Perry 1981) and Carrie (Brian De Palma 1976) It is able to create a comedy that, not only uses a heterosexual teen gross-out formula as its backbone for a gay teen comedy, but also elaborates by poking fun at just as many gay films.
If Brokeback Mountain and Another Gay Movie are juxtaposed, it is possible to see how both films do a similar thing in different ways. Where Brokeback Mountain attempts to breed equality by showing “sameness” in regards to characterization of the two homosexual characters (they are played “straight” for lack of a better word), Another Gay Movie aims for equality by demonstrating that gay teen gross out comedies are just as crude (if not more so) than their straight equivalents. The gay characters within the film are outlandishly extreme characterizations of what have now become socially acceptable gay stereotypes: the jock (“straight acting”), the socially awkward nerd (“geeky gay”), the “nelly” queen, and the average-joe. They are all not “the same” as those within a heterosexual film; rather, they do just as many gross-out jokes as them. Which then is more successful? How does film ideology fit inherently into this structure of representation? What kind of light does the horror genre cast upon this issue?
Historically speaking, homosexuality has had an interesting past within the horror genre, from James Whale and Frankenstein (1931) to Norman Bates and his “swishing” as he ascends the stairwell in Psycho (Hitchcock 1960), as well as Clive Barker, the openly gay horror writer. In the American film industry it would seem that the horror genre lends itself to both queer textual readings, and as such, seemingly attracts gays and lesbians working within Hollywood. Harry M. Benshoff in Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the horror film, even went so far as to say that “… horror stories and monster movies, perhaps more than any other genre actively invoke queer readings, because of their obvious metaphorical (non-realist) forms of narrative formats which disrupt the heterosexual status quo”⁶. Even with this type of historical linkage between homosexuality and the horror genre, there has been a distinct weighting on the negative side in respect to portrayal of homosexual characters.
How are we able to locate temporally a social ideological perspective then? There have been in resent years both negative and positive displays of homosexuality. Only through an in-depth study of both types of portrayals of queer characters, as well as the emergence of what some have called “Gay Horror,” it is possible to ascertain the moral, social, and ideological viewpoint of homosexuality within the contemporary teen horror film. To list examples of both the repression of queer characters and the ideological stigma put upon them, would be a task to arduous to attempt here. Rather by attaining a viewpoint of one film which appeared recently, and aligning it with two more positive character positions, it will be possible to see how the trends of queer themes are integrated into teen horror films.
One of the decidedly more offensive portrayals of homosexuality as evil and monstrous is in the French film Haute Tension (Alexandre Aja 2003) which Aja created as a tribute to the slasher films of the 1970’s. The films The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Toby Hooper 1974), Last House on the Left (Wes Craven 1972), and The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven 1977) (which Aja remade) contribute heavily to the story in Haute Tension. Aja has, if anything, succeed in his attempt to pay homage to the films by creating a frightening portrayal of a family under siege by a psychopathic killer. As the film opens, two best friends Alex and Marie are driving to Alex’s parent’s country home for a relaxing weekend of study. Shortly after their arrival, a rusty van appears and a psycho mechanic proceeds to slaughter, one by one, the family. Marie alone must save her best friend as the killer drives his van, with both of them in it, through the dark countryside.
The film could have been a study of a character’s sexuality reversed in the modern slasher film, since it presents (though only temporarily) a positive representation of a lesbian hero. Marie exhibits traits of what Carol J. Clover calls the ‘Final Girl,’
“…abject terror personified. If her friends knew they were about
to die only seconds before the event, the Final Girl lives with the
knowledge for long minutes or hours…she alone finds the strength
to either stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or kill
him herself (ending B)…from 1974 on the survivor figure has been female.” (Clover 35)
Marie is somewhat shy and unable to date boys; at the farmhouse Alex asks Marie “What about you? When are you going to finally try your luck?” Alex continues “You’re gonna end up an old maid Marie…You’re just scared, that’s all” Marie here is “…unattached and lonely, but declines male attention…” (Clover 39) Coupled with her boyishness, another trait of the Final Girl role, Marie fits perfectly. Aja is playing within the characteristics of the role. The Final Girl often undergoes a “masculinization” within a Horror film’s narrative. He seems to take it one step further with Marie’s “lesbianization.” The revelation of her true sexuality at the end of the film appears to be a sly wink at the audience’s perceived understanding of the Final Girl role.
Haute Tension could have been a positive portrayal of a lesbian hero. But in the film’s final twist, where we discover that both the hero and the killer are multiple personalities of the same person, all is lost. Besides the fact that the narrative plausibility collapses under its own weight, Marie’s characterization implies both subtly and overtly, that homosexuals and their “lust for sex” are dangerous and mentally unstable. Marie, while having a cigarette outside, sees her best friend naked through the bathroom window. She then proceeds to go to get into bed and masturbate, at the climax of which, her personality splits in two and the masculine side arrives at the front door to gruesomely kill everyone. Social repression could be a significant cause of her rampage; if she can’t have her best friend, no one can. In fact, at the start of the film (which is a flash forward to the end) Marie utters “I won’t let anyone come between us anymore…” repeatedly.
However there is a deeper underlying issue presented in the film; if the gender had been reversed, it would be a hard struggle to find an audience willing to accept this “twist” as plausible, or purposeful. The way the film is set up, the lesbianism lends itself to the supposed narrative plausibility. As one reviewer put it “…if you thought the sexual politics of Basic Instinct were suspect, then Switchblade Romance (European title) will have you dusting off your placards” (Kermode 41).
It is a trend in these types of gruesome film to use both sexually confused, and gender dysfunctional characters in the monster/killer position. “The notion of a killer propelled by a psychosexual fury, more particularly a male in gender distress, has proved a durable one…” (Clover 27) Aja tries to distance himself by having Marie’s masculine side do the murdering, while having her feminine side, do the rescuing. The connection of her masculinity with her lesbianism is impossible to prevent though, as the connection of masculinity and lesbianism is a widespread social one. In most films “…the dyke …is frequently represented as dangerous and threatening” (Dyer 32). Therefore the attempt by Aja to distance himself from the connection does nothing since the connection here is inevitably made by the audience.
The role of female killer takes on a significant dynamic within the film, partly because of its connection with the role of male. Gender distress, as mentioned before, is an entirely male purpose, while “Female killers are few and their reasons for killing significantly different from men’s…their anger derives in most cases not from childhood experience, but from specific moments in their adult lives…” (Clover 29). In Haute Tension, Marie strikes out both because of her confusion over her own sexuality, and her inability to act upon her sexual desire for her best friend. As product of the socially structured heterosexist society, the film attacks homosexuality by using Marie’s inability to express her sexuality in any predefined “normal” way.
By creating a temporarily positive representation of homosexuality and then revoking it, the film ultimately contributes to, and intensifies, the social construct of negative homosexual stereotypes. “…since there are so few ‘normal’ homosexuals on screen in of these horror films, by default the image of the monster queer becomes the image of homosexuality that moviegoers regularly encounter and come to know” (Benshoff 249). Marie’s role as Final Girl takes on a higher importance as a lesbian. Unfortunately, her representation does not live up to its possibilities; it becomes nothing more than perpetuation of the aggressive lesbian stereotype. Her character is portrayed as sexual deviant who, unable to gratify her sexual desire, goes on a killing spree. The film contains a character created entirely as a homosexual for the purpose of furthering the film’s narrative, “…ultimately, if indirectly, give license to the demoralization…” of homosexuality (Wlodarz 73). Built within the film’s narrative structure is a lesbian character who is used to ultimately reinforce social stigmas.
Both Bride of Chucky (Ronny Yu 1998) which appeared before Haute Tension, and Cursed (Wes Craven 2005) which appeared after, are able to counter act the statement that film makes by demonstrating Homosexuals as equals. The surprise element within the third sequel of the Chucky franchise is the creation by writer/producer Don Mancini of an openly gay character who aids in driving the film’s narrative forward. The character David, who is played without the typical effeminate quality seen in other films by Gordon Michael Woolvett, has an integral role in the film’s narrative. Not only is he used to help out his friends when they are falsely accused of Chucky’s murders, he becomes someone for each of the main characters to depend on. David is “out” to his two best friends Jade and Jesse and as such is portrayed with a sensitivity not seen in other films. Lead character Jade, while wondering about her own relationship, asks David about his ex-boyfriend:
You loved him didn’t you?
Ya, I did
His mother’d found a letter I’d written him.
She freaked and we haven’t spoken since.
His response is one which not only draws upon the social stigma forced on homosexuality in mainstream cultural circles, but also family issues which many teenagers struggle with. His relevance within the narrative is important from the opening scene, where David pretends to date his friend Jade in order to help her get away from her oppressive uncle, until his unfortunate meeting with the front of an oncoming Mac Truck. David’s death occurs around the sixty minute marker of the film’s total eighty-nine minute running time. An openly gay character, portrayed within the narrative in a positive light, for more than sixty percent of the film’s total running time is rare in most movies, let alone a horror film.
While it is easy to see that David is present in order to push forth the narrative elements which lead the two heterosexual characters towards mending their fractured relationship, his representation is nothing short of miraculous in a genre well known for its stereotypical comedic gay foils and oppressive representations.
Benshoff, Harry M. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film.
New York: Manchester University Press, 1997.
Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.
Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Dixon, Wheeler W. Straight: Constructions of Heterosexuality in the Cinema.
Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003.
Dyer, Richard. The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation.
2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Edelman, Lee, “The Rear Window’s Glasshole.”
Ellis Hanson, ed. Outakes: Essays one
Queer Theory and Film.
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999. 72-96
Kermode, Mark. “The Razor’s Edge.”
Sight & Sound No. 10 (2004): 40-41, 69.
Wlodarz, Joe. “Rape Fantasies: Hollywood and Homophobia.”
Peter Lehman, ed.
Masculinity: Bodies, Movies, Culture.
New York, NY: Routledge, 2001. 67-80.
American Pie. Dir. Paul Weitz. Universal Pictures, 1999.
Another Gay Movie. Dir. Todd Stephens. Luna Pictures, 2006.
Bride of Chucky. Dir. Ronny Yu. Universal Pictures, 1998.
Brokeback Mountain. Dir. Ang Lee. Focus Features, 2005.
Carrie. Dir. Brian De Palma. MGM, 1976.
Cursed. Dir. Wes Craven. Dimension, 2005.
Frankenstein. Dir. James Whale. Universal Pictures, 1931.
Haute Tension. Dir. Alexandre Aja. Alexandre Films, 2003.
Hellbent. Dir. Paul Etheredge-Ouzts. Sneak Preview Entertainment, 2004.
Hills Have Eyes, The. Dir.Wes Craven. Blood Relations Co., 1977.
Last House on the Left. Dir. Wes Craven. Lobster Enterprises, 1972.
Mommie Dearest. Dir. Frank Perry. Paramount Pictures, 1981.
Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Universal Pictures, 1960.
Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The. Dir. Toby Hooper. Vortex, 1974.