How the Portrayal of Gay Characters On Screen is Challenging Audiences

There was a time when making a film with a gay subject matter was considered taboo. This was followed by an influx of movies about the tragedy of being gay in which the central character often died or experienced immense hardship. And it wasn’t until the late 90s and early 2000s that gay film-makers embraced the hedonism of portraying gay sex openly on screen.

It’s now 2017 and things have moved on considerably. In fact, queer cinema has matured into an often incisive, nuanced, and sometimes painful exploration of what it really means to be gay.

I’m not talking about gay romance. That has been done stylishly on film and TV for many years now. On television in particular, gay romance is often depicted as occurring between two handsome, gym-toned, professionally successful people living the good life in a cosmopolitan city. But in recent years, film directors have moved their camera away from the shallowness of the gay body and pointed it at the infinitely more complex gay heart and mind.

Moonlight (2016) directed by Barry Jenkins is a sensitive and searing look at how an African-American man navigates faith, family, and relationships. Stunningly filmed, it’s an intensely personal film. It has already received widespread acclaim and has been nominated for Academy Awards in the Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay categories.

Hong Khaou’s film Lilting (2014) dealt with the subject of grief. It tells the story of a gay man who struggles to connect to his dead lover’s mother because they don’t share the same language. Lyrical and poetic, Lilting showed gay love and the attendant mourning for its loss at its most unbearably moving. This sort subtle filmmaking allows writers, directors and actors to tell the intimate, personal, and painful stories than make us human, not just gay.

Still, to some extent, gay audiences aren’t used to this. Take a movie like Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011). A quietly elegant and subtle film, many gay viewers were shocked by its naturalism and frank depiction of the emotional and sexual terrain of gay men in the modern world. It’s a phenomenal piece of work but emotionally difficult to watch because it’s so real.

Haigh went on to make the HBO series Looking (2014-2016) which sparked even more debate among gay audiences. While critics thought it a brilliantly perceptive depiction of the normalness of gay life, audiences on the whole rejected it.

Now, some might find Haigh’s naturalistic approach to filming difficult, but a scroll through the comments section of any gay websites reviewing the series will demonstrate that lots of people thought Looking was too close to the bone.

Perhaps there are elements of the gay audience that aren’t quite ready to have their innermost feelings committed to film. Perhaps we only want a carefully curated version of ourselves presented to the outside world.

This is a challenge for queer audiences. While it’s important for us people to present ourselves authentically, warts and all, it’s never easy to look in the mirror and see things you don’t like.

However, the frisson that comes with such scrutiny offers phenomenal scope for queer cinema going forward. There are debates to be had about what’s authentic and what’s not. There are challenges to be met when it comes to exposing flaws and vulnerabilities. It’s a wonderful time to for a queer filmmaker, and ultimately it’s going to be worthwhile.

The more young queer people see real representations of themselves on the cinema and television screens, the better off they’ll be. It’s certainly fun to see the hyper sexualised, idealised beauties, but there’s room for nuance too.

It’s important that shows like Looking exist alongside the glossy depiction of the perfect gay life in other dramas. The challenge for these shows will be to bring gay audiences with them. The next Looking will stand a better chance because the gay audience will get used to the harsh lens they use.

As gay cinema matures, the subject matter which it tackles will get ever closer to the bone. This is a good thing. For years filmmakers have struggled to tell gay stories at all. And now they can — they can tell real gay stories. It would be a step backwards to reject what they’re offering.

It would be a mistake because through this new wave of queer cinema we’re not only learning about ourselves, we’re also showing non-queer audiences who LGBT people are. They’re learning from these films, connecting, starting dialogues, and altering their perceptions in the process.

So we should all be ready for our close up, because the camera and the people on the other side of it will eventually see humanity, not stereotypes.

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