London: Routledge, 2003.
At the time Richard Barrios published Screened Out in 2003, the cinema going audience had not yet met with Ennis and Jack, the two ‘gay cowboys’ from Brokeback Mountain (2005). At the point of writing this review, we still have to wait for the theatrical release of Milk, Focus Features’ next ‘big’ gay film. Just like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, Milk is directed by a well-respected director (Gus van Sant) and has major stars as its gay protagonists. Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger were praised for their acting, and it is likely that the same will happen for Sean Penn who plays the San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected for such a substantial political office. What makes both these films outstanding is their singularity. Major films that feature gay and lesbian characters as main protagonists remain rare in mainstream cinema. One still has to turn to smaller art houses for independent queer film productions. Homosexuality is often used as a source for stereotypical parody, and although a slight sense of subversion should be encouraged, one could wonder if popular mainstream comedies such as I now pronounce you Chuck and Larry (2007) can make a difference in representing the queer community. Independent film production, world cinema and certainly television production do dare to politically and socially challenge contemporary society’s presumptions on sexuality and identity. But ever-present Hollywood is staying behind in relation to the rest of Western society, portraying a reality where on-screen queer sexualities are often lacking. Of course, some dramedies such as My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) and The Object of my Affection (1998) had a ‘gay best friend’, but major adventure and action films did not yet feature a queer lead.
From this point of view, it is interesting to consider how queers were portrayed in the past – if they were even represented at all. Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet (1981) was the first groundbreaking research into Hollywood and its fictional and non-fictional queers. It was written from a strong minority position, foregrounding the few queers in the history of cinema and underlining the major absence of a substantial queer presence. Russo wrote his book in a period that was marked by the rise of AIDS and a remount of homophobia. In contrast to Russo’s book, that was fueled by anger and indignation, claiming that queers were portrayed as objects of ridicule or homophobia, and without any character complexity. Barrios sheds a more optimistic light on early cinema. One of the main reasons is that Russo did not have access to the same sources as Barrios had, for instance footage of (formerly) lost films and documents by the Production Code Administration (cfr. infra). Based on these sources, Barrios is able to claim that homosexuality was on the screen all along. He rejects the criticism that homosexuality was not mentioned in the early motion pictures, stating that the queer portrayals spoke for themselves. It was only until Western society started defining homosexuality as opposed to normative heterosexuality that former queer representations were forgotten. In Screened Out, Barrios focuses on these forgotten queers while chronologically retelling the history of US gay and lesbian representations, from Edison to Stonewall in fifteen chapters. He strongly emphasizes the role of the historical context, looking at queer representations knowledgeable of the queer community codes from the past. According to him, characters did not need to say out loud that they were gay or lesbian, when they already had ‘queer’ written all over them. He states that homosexuality used to be part of mainstream popular culture and that it was fairly represented, stressing that the stereotypical images of the pansies and the dykes were rather exaggerations than propagated stereotypes. He adds that silent film depended on its actors’ gestures and that they needed to be exaggerated for dramatic purposes. In his opinion, ‘any’ visibility was a good sign. It seems that Barrios embraces all queer representations in early cinema. The first chapter entitled Silent Existences looks upon the few silent queer characters, for instance ‘sissy’ character Algie (Billy Quirck) in Algie, the Miner (1912) who is read as queer only through cinematographic codes such as gestures and mannerisms. This contrasts with the narrative which emphasizes Algie’s heterosexual relationship. One could argue that Barrios’ examples of the 1910s are rather related to sexual ambiguity than to outspoken sexual identities, for instance the gender switching story of A Florida Enchantment (1914). The 1920s did offer an alternative, bringing Franklin Pangborn to the screen and showing how queer characters were well accepted in films that were set in the world of theatre and haute couture. For instance Capra’s The Matinee Doll (1928), which featured David Mir as a queer actor who engages in cross-dressing and who is defended by the members of his company. Barrios adds that while queer men were clearly represented, queer women were out of sight. According to him, the mannish rebellious women in My Lady of Whims (1925) and The Crystal Cup (1927) came the closest to lesbians.
Sound did not change the queer representations as it was only used to underline the mannerisms of the queer. The talkies did stir up the society of the early 1930s, evoking the Motion Picture Production Code – a set of do’s and don’ts concerning film content – which was defied at first. However, from 1934 onwards, it defined the US cinema until the early 1960s. Barrios gives the Production Code Association a central position in the book: A whole chapter on De Mille’s The Sign Of the Cross (1934), a film that used depictions of sex and violence in order to moralize and condemn, is discussed as an illustration for the failing of the first Production Code. The film featured a lesbian dance scene with two non-stereotypical women that caused a scandal. Although the former Code requested heavy censorship, the film was released as intended. The film is considered to be one of the triggers that empowered the self-regulating body of the cinematic industry, the MPPDA, to rule on the suitability of the content, based on the do’s and don’ts of its Production Code. Although the Code strongly restricted any reference to sexual ‘perversion’, sexuality was not easily traced in contrast to on-screen nudity. The representation of sexuality depends on more than visual codes, as narrative elements are equally important. As such, in order to avoid censorship, a broad range of coded queer representations emerged. What did had to disappear, were the codes that pointed to queerness such as words like ‘lavender’ or ‘pansy’ and pansy mannerism. New types of queer characters emerged, for instance the gothic lesbians like Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940) and Miss Holloway in The Uninvited (1944). Although both films passed the Production Code, lesbian audiences picked up on the same-sex attractions and the latter even became a lesbian cult film. This made the Legion of Decency, a coalition of different catholic movements that condemned films that offended decency and Christian morality, wonder about the efficiency of the Code. However, often not only the Production Code Association, but also the studios and producers did not know about the queer subtext. It could only be inscribed by audiences. In Rebecca, the way housekeeper Mrs. Danvers fetishistically fondled the clothes of her dead mistress was such an element that could be interpreted as a queer adoration for the mistress. It seems that even before queer reading became an academically acknowledged practice (see for instance Alexander Doty’s Flaming Classics (2000)), audiences were already queering the ‘preferred’ readings. Barrios does not address the practice of queer reading explicitly, even though his method is mostly relying on it, for instance in his reading of characters such as early cinema’s Algie or Kip on Adam’s Rib (1949) as gay rather than effeminate. Queer readings reveal one interpretation, but it is never the only reading. If polysemy is not recognized, we could end up with essentialist readings in which for instance behavior that relates to gender is automatically linked with sexuality. As such, an effeminate heterosexual male or butchy heterosexual female could become an anomaly, or an impossibility. A famous example is Tea and Sympathy (1956) which tells the story of a sissy-boy who walks with a swish and proofs his heterosexuality by sleeping with the headmaster’s wife, a film that Barrios calls the precedent of gay and lesbian visibility, even though this film is more about hegemonic heteronormativity than about closeted homosexuality.
Towards the end of the 1950s, the Production Code Association began to lose its grip on the content of films, and gay and lesbian characters were shown on the screen, for instance in Girls in Prison (1956), How to Make a Monster (1958) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). The queers represented in these pictures did not only share a queer sexuality, they were all more or less articulated as evil, as being gay posed a (possible) threat to society. Barrios stresses that there were occasionally neutral queer portrayals, for instance Claire in the tropical horror movie Voodoo Island (1957), but he considers these neutral depictions from the late 1950s to be rare. The image of the sad suicidal queer for instance was embodied by two early 1960s features, The Children’s Hour (1961) and Advise and Consent (1962). Although these films forced the Code to adjust their ban on depicting sexual ‘perversion’ (which made it possible to include homosexuality and other sexual ‘aberrations’), it is ironic that hereafter queer sexualities were not treated more liberal, nor did their presence increase. One of the major reasons, according to Barrios, was that these films were not profitable. The mainstream audience did not seem to care to go see these films, especially when ‘queer’ was the main theme. Barrios describes a pattern that started in 1962. Every few years, different producers created major queer films that failed to attract an audience. This was followed by an absence of queer portrayal in mainstream cinema, until the cycle restarted. Barrios ends his book with a chapter on such a cycle in the late 1960s, which featured mostly negative portrayals of for instance lesbians in The Fox (1969) and of gays in Staircase (1969). The last film he discusses is Friedkin’s The Boys in the Band (1970), often viewed as a milestone, but not fully embraced by Barrios. He rather sees this film as yet again a portrayal of gay lifestyle as pathetic and sad. He does acknowledge the diversity in queer characters. Notwithstanding, to a certain audience, this film evokes the eve of gay liberation, but as a mainstream film it turned out to be a financial disappointment.
Mainstream cinema is still locked into this pattern. While the big screen occasionally scores with films such as Philadelphia (1993) and The Birdcage (1996), it lacks a steady queer presence. The small screen, although only recently, has had more success in regularly portraying the queer. Will & Grace (1998-2006), The L Word (2004-…) and Queer As Folk (2000-2005) are critically acclaimed queer series, and popular daytime soaps As The World Turns (1956-…) and Coronation Street (1960-…) nowadays have recurring queer characters. Although Screened Out’s second half is drenched in a more pessimistic tone, Barrios could do more to acknowledge the progress that has been made on television, even during the years when the Code was still in operation. This is in contrast to early cinema, which suffered less gay-bashing, but still only had side characters, often granted little screen time. Their visibility has since then increased. And although I do not fully agree with Barrios when he states that any kind of visibility should be appreciated, it seems contradictory that he himself diminishes the value of films such like The Children’s Hour, which had a major star (Shirley MacLaine) play the role of a lesbian and which discussed openly the social position of queers in a repressive milieu. These are of course relatively minor criticisms launched at a crucial book that offers a substantial alternative to Russo’s work, with an essential focus on the Code’s role in cinema content. I also want to stress the importance of international historical research into queer representations, as the work of Richard Dyer (1990) and Didier Roth-Bettoni (2007) have already shown. What often lacks is a focus on television fiction. Certainly nowadays, with more popular television queers than there are film queers, a look into television’s queer past would be undoubtedly valuable.
Doty, A. (2000) Flaming Classics. New York: Routledge.
Dyer, R. (1990) Now You See It. New York: Routledge.
Roth-Bettoni, D. (2007) L’Homosexualité au cinema. Paris: La Musardine.
Russo, V. (1981) The Celluloid Closet. New York: Harper & Row.
Frederik Dhaenens holds a MA in Communication Studies and a MA in Film and Visual Culture. He is a member of the Working Group Film and Television Studies at the Department of Communication Studies, at Ghent University. He works on a research project entitled ‘Out on Screen: a research into the social and emancipating role of gay and lesbian representations in contemporary visual culture, using the concept of queer theory’.