|Jennifer Beals Is Super Not Gay|
May 1, 2022 / Amelia Kushner
An investigation into the straight minds behind gay representation. Follow the money!
This body of mine is a market.
This soul of mine is a demographic statistic. This mind of mine is a list of Google searches.
This love of mine is a business opportunity for someone else.
Queer is cool now. Gay is fresh! Lesbian is hip! Amazon promotes pride flags made in a country that classifies homosexuality as a mental illness. Inspired by your shopping trends. $6.95.
I am on the come-up. Gay marriage is legal! Tinder never runs out of women in my area to show me! I’ve had all the conversations with my parents, my sister, my cousins, one particular grandparent. I have cut wispy bangs and gone to Goodwill. I have all the prerequisites for being a liberated gay woman in a society that finally accepts me.
It all feels very hollow.
Queer cinema arose out of necessity. In the late 20th century, 20-30-40 years away from marriage rights, when gay marriage was so radical an idea that whichever Guy In Suit got more electoral votes mattered not to the community as it so urgently does now, to be gay was to be countercultural. Gayness was very hush-hush in the mainstream. If you were a celebrity and you were also gay, no you were not. You were one or the other: choose. In cinema, gayness was a shock value tactic or a joke, and then the Real Story quickly moved along.
So the creators and consumers of queer media were queer. They made this media by and for themselves, to see themselves on screen, to tell their stories. These movies were made independently, on shoestring budgets for slightly-wider-shoestring profits or none at all. In the late 90s and early 2000s when the politico-cultural apathy that had defined the HIV/AIDS crisis relented to a wary tolerance of the gay existence, some queer pieces found niche success at the edge of the mainstream (see: Bound , the Wachowskis’ [The Matrix] directing debut; D.E.B.S. , starring Jordana Brewster and Devon Aoki of Fast and Furious fame; and, of course, The L Word [2004-2009]).
The difference, however — the biggest, starkest difference — between these turn-of-the-century minor hits and the insular queer cinema of the decades prior was that the actors weren’t gay. The creators were queer, and all their queer love and passion went into the writing and directing and all the work behind the scenes. But the casting no longer came from within the queer community. The actors didn’t need to be friends of friends working for a sandwich and a good time anymore. With real backing, these queer creators turned outwards, and conducted formal casting processes. And so the first queer faces that reached outside of these insular gay communities weren’t queer at all. At its inception, queer celebrity was straight.
In 2003, lesbian screenwriter and producer Ilene Chaiken sold an ensemble drama about the internal affairs of a group of lesbian women to Showtime with herself as the showrunner. The concept was based on her experiences as a lesbian in LA. She called it The L Word.
The L Word was a primetime phenomenon.
It was catty, it was smart, it was messy, it was honest, it was stylish, it was fun. It defined a generation of gay women. It defined them to themselves — access to positive gay narratives (gay narratives at all!) from the comfort of the couch (AKA, without having to research a movie and go to the theatre) allowed young gay girls to make sense of how they were feeling, and empowered them in their identities. A generation of women came out, looking to the cast of The L Word as inspiration. Our titular character, one Jennifer Beals, the lead and the soul of the show, was my favorite. Her character was successful. She was cool and slick and beautiful. She commanded a room. She was unapologetic.
I wanted to be just like her. And I wanted her to be just like me — I wanted a lesbian to look up to in real life, so that I could live my real life under her tutelage. I wanted to know that someone like me could be someone like her one day.
I pored over interviews, looking for her to say something about her sexuality. I finally found it, buried in a Vulture article. She’s straight. So super-straight. Those were the words she used.
I was pissed! I was pissed off. I was angry in that hot-faced way that’s trying to cover up shame. I was ashamed to be so hopeful and be wrong. I was ashamed of how upset I was. How dare she! I fumed as I was really thinking, how dare I? How dare I demand that she be gay? After all, what is an actor but a pretender?
What is a celebrity but a reflection of that which society esteems?
I desperately looked up the rest of the cast. Two of the eight-plus (more in the later seasons, and more actors as characters came and went) regulars were queer. Two.
I looked them all up on Instagram that night. I thought about how I wanted to see two famous women walk the red carpet together and post for each other’s birthdays and for Valentine’s day. I watched them all with their husbands and kids and felt happy for them. But I also felt very alone, and very small.
A relatively short time ago Hollywood stopped being deathly afraid of conservative opinion (or the people at the top stopped having conservative opinions. Or those conservative opinions stopped being financially viable in an industry heavily dependent on public opinion. Yes, it’s that one). Widespread homo-acceptance began to peek through in news polls around the beginning of the 2010s. These polls indicated that a little over half of law-abiding, movie-ticket-buying US citizens were okay with gays. The reigning oligarchy of studios could begin to tap the gay market — cautiously! very cautiously — without incurring an amount of backlash that would hurt their profit margins. Reward had finally eclipsed risk. Essentially, these studios initiated a long-haul, multi-million-dollar version of the pride merch cash grab every company launches June 1st and unceremoniously kills June 30th.
Up until this point queer media was still being made by queer writers and directors. Up until this point it wasn’t a sound business decision to make big-budget queer projects intended for a mainstream audience. But now it was! For money and for woke points, which turned into even more money.
And so just as the introduction of money kicked queer actors out of the queer movie business, the introduction of even more money kicked queer creatives out of the queer movie business. Queer media was no longer a fringe side hustle studios passively siphoned a bit of profit from. No, no! Now it was for real creatives, for big wigs. For Oscar bait (see: Carol ).
Queer people became a market to which shells of themselves were sold back to. Queer characters were never truly integral to the story, and were often killed off when straight writers got bored or frustrated or they had a big enough audience hooked with the gay plotline that they could scrap it and move on because their numbers were up. The chemistry was usually bad. Every character looked the same (femme, white, skinny — the prevailing Hollywood look). Most portrayals were either entirely sexless or basically porn.
That’s still the current state of the industry. There are a couple of bright spots on the horizon, media for and about young people (a favorite of mine is The Wilds [2020-], in which both queer characters are played by queer actors). But the overall trend is alarming. Often as I’m watching an obvious cash-grab left-field gay plotline I think to myself, Why the fuck am I watching this?
What else am I going to watch?
I need to see myself, no matter how broken, how commodified, how incorrect the portrayal is. I need to feel like I’m not alone. People yearn for community, and so they will commune over anything remotely unifying. I watch two painfully straight women press their mouths together like they’re scared they’ll catch something and remind myself that beggars can’t be choosers.
I am being strung along by an industry that doesn’t give a shit about me. I look for celebrities like me and find enthusiastic allyship. But I don’t want an ally. I don’t want respectful emulation. I want the real deal.
Life is good. I order an iced coffee with oat milk because that’s what the gays do, haha (laugh!). I fit myself into the homogenized expectation that we shriveled up into when the studios brought our media into the light.
Is this what liberation feels like? ■
By: Amelia Kushner
Layout: Emma Weeden
View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.
Layout: Emma Weeden
View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.