Did we miss a special post-credits reveal in Call Me By Your Name? While talking about his insanely beautiful same-sex love story at the BFI London Film Festival, director Luca Guadagnino said of one of the lead characters, “I don’t think Elio is necessarily going to become a gay man.”
Soooo… the buzziest gay movie of the year doesn’t even star gay characters. Not to blame Call Me By Your Name: to its credit, the heartbreaking tribute to first love starring Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet (as the above-mentioned Elio) is pretty ambivalent about sexual labels in a way that feels more progressive than its mid-’80s setting would imply. But when an elegant, sexy drama with gay themes breaks out of the festival circuit and wins mainstream hurrahs, notice how the men falling in love are inevitably dashingly handsome, heroically masculine and keeping their sexuality top secret?
Last year’s Oscars Best Picture winner Moonlight also told a coming-of-age, same-sex love story between men with no declared preference. This year’s well-received British drama God’s Own Country, about farmhands exploring their same-sex attraction, features two butch leads that don’t know their Kylie Minogues from their Kylie Jenners. Beach Rats delved into the double life of a swaggering teenager who bums around Coney Island sans shirt with his buds by day and secretly hooks up with older men by night. And the granddaddy of gay cinema remains Brokeback Mountain, the love story between two ranchers that don’t know how to quit each other or that their farm-toned muscles could have been helpful during the Stonewall Riots.
Off-screen, LGBTQ+ relationships have never been more prominent, and television in 2017 was happy to celebrate them with shows such as How to Get Away with Murder, Orange Is the New Black, and Sense8 showing proudly out couples wrestling with all kinds of nuanced drama. So why do the most famous gay movies seem to always frame gay love as taboo explorations between hulking, straight-acting and, at best, orientation-agnostic men?
That’s not the only kind of gay story being made—just the kind that makes it to the multiplex. Andrew Murphy, director of programming for Toronto’s Inside Out, the largest LGBTQ+ film festival in Canada, sees all sorts of gender and cultural presentations when he begins screening films at the start of the year. “As far as what films make it to the mainstream, those are always going to lean towards heteronormative,” he says. “That tends to be what rises to the top because that is what is attractive to distributors. They see it as different, but not too different.” (Trans stories in the mainstream, by contrast, seem to celebrate defiantly, inspiringly flamboyant characters such as Jared Leto’s Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club.)
Even though diversity is hot, too much of it can still alienate a distributor, and the kind of unambiguously gay characters that have been so well-drawn on TV (including Riverdale’s Kevin, Orphan Black’s Felix, Girls’ Elijah, 13 Reasons Why’s Ryan and Schitt’s Creek’s David) are considered too niche to carry a film. “Something that is seen as feminine is seen as having less value,” says Andria Wilson, executive director of Inside Out. “A woman’s story is seen as niche despite the fact that over half the world identifies as female. Therefore a queer woman’s story is double niche, a trans woman’s story is triple niche.”
Writer and director Damon Cardasis struggled to greenlight his debut feature Saturday Church, a musical about a genderqueer Black teenager in New York who finds a sense of self among a group of trans women (the film premieres on digital and on demand on January 12, 2018). It has gone on to become the toast of festivals, including winning the runner-up Audience Award, Narrative at the Tribeca Film Festival.
“We would hear a lot, ‘It’s a great script, but it’s a little small,’” he says. “I get that financial people, they are putting money into something, they want to get their money back. But with all the talk about diversity, it’s interesting to see few people put their money where their mouth is.”
Pakistani-Canadian writer and actor Fawzia Mirza, whose rom-com Signature Move—about a reluctant-in-love lawyer who struggles to come out to her Pakistani mother about her new girlfriend, not to mention her other newfound love, Mexican wrestling—finds casting agents have an interesting definition of diversity.
“Even though I am Pakistani, Muslim and lesbian, I have been told plenty of times by casting people that I’m not Muslim enough, Pakistani-looking enough or lesbian-looking enough, whatever that means,” she says. “A lot of times when they want a lesbian character, it’s a heteronormative straight version of what a lesbian looks like. And what that means is long hair, extremely feminine on the outside, but happens to have a female partner or makes out with a woman.” When co-writing the script for Signature Move, which will be on DVD, Blu-Ray and on demand in 2018, Mirza made sure her characters broke this mould.
Mirza argues gender presentation is just as restrictive for queer people as it is for heterosexuals, particularly for men. “If there’s only one way you are allowed to be powerful and seen as a man, I definitely think that is problematic,” she says. “I think it leads to sexual violence, I think it leads to harassment, and I think it leads to abuse and bullying.”
To its credit, Call Me By Your Name does serve alternative masculinities as a side to its main entrée of American beefcake. Hammer may look and act like he just Jumanji-ed out of the pages of a vintage Abercrombie shoot, but that’s what makes his performance as Oliver the perfect confusing first man-crush: the overconfident alpha male who plays volleyball like a superhero and prefers bro punches and wrestling moves to air kisses even as he instigates clandestine sexual encounters with Elio.
Elio’s comfort with this kind of straight-acting gay male is contrasted by his disdain for an older gay couple who dress alike and do not come across as especially good volleyball players. Through them, the film acknowledges there is a thriving gay culture happening in the mid-’80s, it’s just happening off-screen.
In that gap, Wilson sees an opportunity for other queer filmmakers to step forward. “Call Me By Your Name reflects a certain experience of a certain corner of the community,” Wilson says. “It can’t be held up as the representation of all queer experience. That is where we have to keep talking and say, ‘This film opened the door for some folks. What else can we bring with us through that door?’”
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