Gays in film

by Richard Dyer

from Jump Cut, no. 18, August 1978, pp. 15-16
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

Since the gay movement began we have insisted on the centrality of the media (understood in its widest sense) as a carrier, reinforcer or shaper of our oppression. Sometimes we have gone overboard in blaming the mass media—they are only one of the instruments of oppression. More important, we have tended to condemn images of gayness in the name of aesthetic concepts and values that are highly problematic. We've tended to demand that gay characters and themes be represented according to certain ideas and ideals about what art is, without seeing that such ideas and ideals are straight ones, not neutral or transparent but imbued with a sexual ideology that has anti-gayness as one of its cornerstones. I want in this article to look at some of those notions as they apply to films, to argue that what appear to be "given" aesthetic principles are, in however ambiguous a way, also principles of heterosexual hegemony.

1. Gayness should express itself on film. Many critics, especially in gay publications, are concerned with how gayness expresses itself on film. I am thinking particularly of Jack Babuscio's articles in Gay News. (And let me make it clear right now that what follows is not an "attack." Jack's articles raise central issues in the most widely available non-pornographic forum there is for gays in this country, and his articles have helped me enormously in trying to think through these issues.) Running through all of these articles is the notion of the "gay sensibility." He defines gay sensibility as a creative energy reflecting a consciousness different from the mainstream, a heightened awareness of certain human complications of feeling that spring from the fact of social oppression; in fact, this is a perception of the world which is colored, shaped, directed and defined by the fact of one's homosexuality. (GN 82; p. 15). Many of his articles are concerned with the way this sensibility "surfaces" in films—for example, his pieces on John Schlesinger (GN 74) and James Dean (GN 79).

There is already a problem here with the notion of a gay sensibility. Jack tends to write as if the very fact of being oppressed, and of being able to pass because one's stigma need not show, automatically produces the gay sensibility. I am certainly happy to acknowledge the fact of the gay sensibility. But it has to be understood as something that has been and is produced and praised in history and culture. It is the specific way we (or rather, a relatively "out" minority) have found of coping with and resisting our oppression and our peculiar situation as "invisible" stigmatized people. Oppression does not just "produce" a subcultural sensibility. It merely provides the conditions in relation to which oppressed people create their own subculture and attendant sensibility.

A second problem is that it is in fact rather hard for an individual sensibility to surface in a film. This is partly because of the sheer numbers of people who work on a film, in an often fragmented and long drawn-out organization of production. Even the director has limited room for maneuver. (1) But it is more importantly because any artist in any medium whatsoever is working with a tradition, a set of conventions, which are imbued with meanings that she or he cannot change, and indeed of which she or he is most likely not aware. Even if films did have individual authors, as most "underground" films do (2), it would still not alter the problem. The author may have any qualities you like; but the cinematic language has connotations and conventions that escape the author.

Take a film like THE DETECTIVE (Douglas, 1968). It sets out to be sympathetic, puts a major star (Frank Sinatra) as a liberal defender of gays (in what he says, if not altogether in what he does), and details some of the forms our oppression (and self-oppression) takes. But all the same, it cannot help but reproduce the dominant image of gays. The actual conventions of the film are more powerful than the intentions of scriptwriter and star. Thus the star's unassailable heterosexuality and centrality to the action enforce a narrative function of gay passivity, requiring a straight to act for us. The bleak view of sexual relations in U.S. thrillers like this means that gayness is seen as part of a web of sexual sickness, equated especially with the hero's wife's nymphomania (i.e. she fancies men other than him!). The gay scene can only legitimately be shown at points in the plot relating to crime (why else would Sinatra be interested?), and so enforces the link between gayness, deviancy and crime. And the actual visualization of the gay scene can find no way round the impression of the grotesque. The milieu is sketched in by cutting from bizarre face to bizarre face, accompanied by snatches of dialogue lifted out of context, as the protagonist supposedly looks round and takes in the gay environment. This is a convention of representing the gay scene—compare similar scenes in THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE (Aldrich, 1968), PJ (Guillermain, 1967, USA), THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT (Gold, 1976, UK), etc.

Nor is this problem confined to commercial cinema. Indeed, as Clair Johnson has pointed out (3), the very obviousness of the conventions in commercial cinema may mean that it is easier to manipulate in progressive ways than the hidden conventions of "art cinema." Thus in contemporary French cinema there is really little to choose between the lesbian in EMMANUELLE (Jaechlin, l974), an obvious exploitation film, and those in LES BICHES, directed by critically acclaimed Claude Chabrol (1967), and the feminist film A VERY CURIOUS GIRL (Kaplan, 1969) —except that she is actually rather nicer in EMMANUELLE. This is because in every case the film is made within a straight framework, women seen only in relation to men, and the lesbianism is there as a facet of the heterosexual worldview. In the case of the first two, the attraction of lesbianism is evoked the better to assert the superiority of heterosexuality. In the case of A VERY CURIOUS GIRL, the lesbian seems to represent a "sick" way of being an independent woman over against the heroine's independence via prostitution, which both allows her to revenge herself on men and gives her enough money to leave the village. In no case is lesbianism expressing itself.

In this perspective, Jack Babuscio's article on James Dean is instructive. Babuscio bases his argument on the hints of gayness in Dean's recent biographies. The critic suggests that Dean's gayness informs his three screen roles, giving them "depth," "warmth" and "sensitivity." Thus GIANT (Stevens, 1956) for instance allowed Dean to express "the inability of adolescents to relate to the sexual roles played out by parents." Now in terms of how a particular screen image happened to come about, the role of Dean's gay sensibility in modifying and shaping it may well have been crucial, and it is polemically important to say so. But at the same time one has to see that, as an expression of gayness, it is deformed.

There is never the slightest suggestion in any of his roles that Dean is gay. Plato's "crush" on him in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (Ray, 1955) is by no flicker of recognition reciprocated by Dean's character, and there is no other such attachment in the other two films. At one level of course, Dean, quite possibly through his gayness, did help launch a way of being human and male without being particularly "masculine" (cf. also Montgomery Clift and Anthony Perkins)—and that is a contribution to the struggle against the sex roles. But this struggle could only be shown at the expense of the character's gayness—he had to be seen as emphatically heterosexual. Moreover the films' narrative frameworks implicitly reinforce the heterosexual, sex role norms. The point about Dean's roles as roles (rather than the qualities his performance suggests, which may well be in contradiction to the roles) is that he is, in EAST OF EDEN (Kazin, 1955) and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, the son of, in the first case, a strong mother, and, in the second, a weak father. The stress on the "extraordinary" quality of these parents (Jo Van Fleet in EDEN always photographed in shadow and with dramatic "expressionist" techniques of lighting and camera angle; Jim Backus played for laughs and pathos in REBEL) implies the properness of the ordinary parental roles of "weak" mothers and "strong" fathers.

Dean of course had a following, and it was undoubtedly linked to the kind of non-butch image of being a man that he incarnated. It is an image that gay men have been in a particularly good position to imagine and define—I don't want to deny his contribution nor its gay roots. But this contribution is, inevitably, at the expense of gayness. Moreover, it is in an artistic form where his roles' function in the narrative, and also the construction of other characters through performance and filming, contradict the implications of his image. People may have taken away an image of gentle sensitive ways of being a man, but they may also have taken away a sense of neuroticism born of inadequately performed sex roles. Films, and most art, are usually as contradictory and open to alternative interpretations as this. As long as it is a question of inserting gayness into films as they are, any full, undeformed expression of the gay sensibility will tend within any film to offer a weak counterpoint to the reinforcement of heterosexual and sex-role norms.

2. "Gays as ordinary human beings": A very common stance of straight critics, and alas of many within the gay movement (for we so easily take over straight notions without realizing how inapplicable they are to our situation), is that films should show that gay people are just ordinary human beings. In this line of thought, highest praise is granted to those films where it is apparently "incidental" that the characters and milieu are gay.

Now it may be true that we are still at the stage where we need to assert, to others and to ourselves, that we are part of the human race. But such assumptions assume that there is no real difference between being gay and being straight. Yet, from a materialist standpoint, gayness is different physically, emotionally and socially from heterosexuality. It is physically different not in the sense of involving different genetic factors (the equivalent sexist argument for the fascist arguments of behavioral psychology) but in the sense of being a different physical activity—two women in bed together is not the same as a man and a woman together or two men. It is different emotionally because it involves two people who have received broadly the same socialization (being both the same gender) and have thus formed their personalities in relation to the same pressures and experiences. It is socially different because it is oppressed.

Oppression enters into straight relationships of course, partly through the legacy of puritanism in its various forms and partly through the oppression within straight relationships of women by men. But the heterosexual impulse is not of itself condemned (except in extreme instances) and a space is allowed for it in marriage. We, on the other hand, have nearly always been condemned even for having gay desires, and no real social legitimacy (in a wider sense than mere lack of legal constraints) has ever been allowed us.

I don't wish to imply that we are different in every way from heterosexuals—in terms of aspects of our lives not directly involving relationships, we are, clearly, the same as heterosexuals. Our bodily functions, how we do our work, our intellectual and creative abilities, all these are in no way different from straights … except insofar as they involve relationships. The trouble is of course that they do—so much of life is relationships and even where no physical sexual expression is given to them, the sexual reality of our lives necessarily informs them.

What this boils down to in terms of films is that if you are representing sexual and emotional relationships on screen, it does make a difference whether they are gay or straight. One will not do as a metaphor for the other. Neither will either do as general metaphors for human sexuality and relationships. In assessing, for instance, the kind of power struggles and games portrayed in THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE, STAIRCASE (Donen, 1969, UK), THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VAN KANT (Fassbinder, 1972), THE BOYS IN THE BAND (Friedkin, 1970), one has to decide whether or not these are the power games going on in gay relationships (formed and practiced in a situation of oppression). Or are these are the power games going on in straight relationships (formed and practiced in a situation where men oppress women) transposed to ostensibly gay characters in order to give the verdict of "sick and "neurotic to heterosexual hang-ups by ascribing them to homosexual people? The films I mentioned seem to be so lacking in any sense of reality of oppression (the social situation of gayness) and of gay sexuality (the physical activity of gayness) as to make the second interpretation the more likely.

A further reason for accepting this interpretation is that it is a characteristic of some gay relationships, a minority, to imitate straight "marriages." Thus superficially, seen from the outside, gay relationships can be reduced to the forms of conflict of straight ones, while at the same time implying that it is the tragic impossibility of gays actually being married straights that accounts for the conflicts.

In this way, such domestic dramas of "gay" life are doubly reassuring for the straight audience. They allow this audience to view problems of heterosexuality (which psychologically the audience no doubt needs to) without being shown these problems as rooted in the present structure of heterosexual relationships. The ideal of heterosexuality is preserved when we see how its problems work out so tragically for gays. All this is confirmed by the way straight critics, presented with a similar drama involving heterosexual people, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (Nichols, 1966), promptly turned round and asserted, despite Albee's assurances to the contrary, that it was really a disguised homosexual play.

3. Realism: Lingering behind much of the criticism of the representation of gays in films is the feeling that it is not real, that it does not show gay people as they really are.

Realism is one of the trickiest terms in the whole critical vocabulary. Yet it is endlessly evoked, often with recourse to synonyms like "convincing, "true to life," "plausible" and so on. What this means is that we require films to present us with settings, people, events that as closely as possible resemble daily life, granted a little artistic license. We tend not to recognize how conventional realism is. However, one only has to look at the realism of earlier periods (British 30s documentary, Italian neorealism, Method acting) to see both how stylized all realisms actually are and how each realist style carries all sorts of cultural, historical connotations with it.

The problem with realism is not so much our blindness to the conventionality of the realism of our own times, but the fact that realism is really only capable of capturing the surface of life. Realism cannot "capture" what is going on inside people's heads, nor can it capture the social forces that determine the surface of life.

In fact it is very hard for "realism" to do anything but reproduce dominant ideology. That is, in everyday life, objects and appearances have first an objective status in the bio-physical world. Second, they have a range of potential significances for us individually, although dominant in that range is what our culture has taught us to associate with them. But once objects and appearances are filmed, they can only mean to us what they mean in the film. They are signs whose only bio-physical status is celluloid. It then becomes exceedingly difficult for them to mean anything but what they predominantly mean in culture.

Thus, to show gay people "realistically" on the screen means to show them in conventions of the prevailing cinematic realism. This kind of depiction in turn means to reproduce the ideas and assumptions about how gays really are which prevail in society. Whatever its intentions (and the intentions of realist filmmakers are seldom anything but generous), a "realist" film about gays is unlikely to challenge the assumptions of most of the audience about what gays are like. While we as gays may read the everyday surface represented (perhaps quite accurately) according to our subcultural understandings, the rest of the audience is perfectly free to read it according to its dominant cultural understandings.

Realism can, within its conventions, show the look of gay life, but it cannot show what it feels and what it means to gay people, nor can it show the social pressures that act on gay people and so produce the look of gay life. This I think is neatly shown up by the film VICTIM (Dearden, 1961, UK) which is a mixture of liberal realism and crime thriller. The notion of oppression certainly comes across in the film, but only because of the nonrealist elements. Such nonrealist elements include the fact that it is a major star (Dirk Bogard, then a pin-up) who is got at for being gay and that the thriller narrative clearly assigns villainy to the blackmailers and not the gays (remembering that this is the sort of thriller in which there is no moral ambiguity about who the goodies and the baddies are). On the other hand, the film's depiction of gay life is, in the conventions of the time, realistic enough. But the conventions of the time are such that "real" can only mean the kind of "sickness" view of homosexuality, which the film's title's emphasis would suggest. Thus while film does not reproduce the "evil" connotation of gayness, it does reproduce the "sickness" connotation that the Wolfenden Report was to reveal as the dominant bourgeois view of us.(4)

4. Stereotypes: No term is more frequent in gay criticism of the cinema than "stereotype." Certainly we are right to be angry about the succession of pathetic, ridiculous and grotesque figures that are supposed to be us up there on the screen.

We may define stereotype as a method of one-dimensional characterization —that is, constructing a total character by the very mention of one dimension of her or his characteristics. Thus, to know that a character is lesbian is immediately to know that she is aggressive, frustrated, loud mouthed, big boned and perverse. All art, indeed all our thoughts about the world, uses typecasting. But when we label someone a "grocer" or a "doctor," we usually assume that does not tell us all we need to know about him (and we usually assume it is a man). Whereas it is assumed by stereotypes such as the dumb blonde, the happy nigger, the bull dyke and the camp queen that we know all we need to.

Thus far we can agree that stereotyping is a Bad Thing. However, behind this notion of stereotypes there lingers another notion which may be equally undesirable. This is the idea of the "rounded" character, the type of character construction practiced by nineteenth century novelists and advocated by theorists such as E.M. Forster. This is not the "natural" way of "depicting people" in art, but a particular artistic method for constructing protagonists in a particular narrative tradition. It is a method that has inscribed in it certain of the dominant values of Western society. Inscribed in the concept of the well-rounded character is the ideology of individualism, the belief that an individual is above all important in and for himself, rather than a belief in the importance of the individual for her or his class, community, or sisters and brothers. This cardinal precept of bourgeois ideology as against feudal or socialist ideology is built right into the notion of the "rounded character," who may well feel some pulls of allegiance to groups with whom she or he identifies, but who is ultimately seen as distinct and separate from the group, and in many cases, antagonistic to it. Rounded characterization is then far from ideal when you need (as we do) expressions of solidarity, common cause, class consciousness, fraternity and sorority.

I do think it would be wrong to underestimate the temporarily progressive impact of films which do use rounded characterization for gay characters. This breaks the rules. It is a surprise to find Peter Finch in SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (Schlesinger, 1971) treated with the same trappings of "roundness" as Glenda Jackson). However, what we need is not the replacement of stereotypes by rounded gay characters, but rather the development of positively valued gay types. This is representation of gay people which, on the one hand, functions against stereotypes, for it does not deny individual differences from the broad category to which the individual belongs. But it also does not function just like "rounded" characterizations. It does not diminish our sense of a character's belonging to and acting in solidarity with his or her social group.

What the positions just discussed seem to lack is any concept of the operation of ideology in art. Films are treated as transparent, neutral, a mere medium, and the distorted representation of gayness as a correctable, regrettable fault. As long as the mesh between artistic form and dominant ideology is ignored, no radical critique of gays in films can be accomplished.

Where gayness occurs in films, it does so as part of dominant ideology. It is not there to express itself, but rather to express something about sexuality in general as understood by heterosexuals. Gayness is used to define the parameters of normality, to suggest the thrill and/or terror of decadence, to embody neurotic sexuality, or to perform various artistic-ideological functions that in the end assert the superiority of heterosexuality. We are wrong to assume that anti-gayness in films is a mere aberration on the part of straight society. How homosexuality is thought and felt by heterosexuals is part and parcel of the way the culture teaches them (and us) to think and feel about their heterosexuality. Anti-gayness is not a discrete ideological system, but part of the overall sexual ideology of our culture.

This ideology is complicated. There are many inflections of the heterosexual norms, and much of the analysis of images of gayness has to take this into account. Two examples. The first is gayness in the U.S. thriller tradition called film noir—e.g. THE MALTESE FALCON (Huston, 1941), IN A LONELY PLACE (Ray, 1950), GILDA (Vidor, 1946), and also arguably later in cases such as GUNN (Edwards, 1967) and P.J.. Here, gayness is part of a web of sexual fear and anxiety (especially in the form of sexually potent women who endanger the hero). In the second inflection of gayness, VICTIM is one example of a whole series of British films treating sexual-social issues (such as prostitution, child-molesting, adultery) as "problems" and "sickness." In both genres, how the gayness is represented derives from the particular inflection of the ideology of the time.

Moreover, and here we can take hope, ideology is contradictory, ambiguous, full of gaps and fissures. Straight culture is attracted as well as repelled by gayness, and films do show the differing pressures of these responses. Gay culture, although itself formed and deformed in the shadow of straight culture, does contain oppositional elements within it. Gayness always at the very least raises the specter of alternatives to the family, sex roles, male dominance.

Thus, take an example of an extremely conventional, bourgeois, "well made" film, SUMMER WISHES, WINTER DREAMS (Cates, 1973), a film in which the very briefly shown gay characters are presented as performing ballet grotesques. Not on the face of it a positive assertion of gayness, the film centers on the rifts and cruelties of a heterosexual relationship. At the end of the picture, the gay relationship, although not shown, is evoked as a positive, happy-making one (the fact that it is off screen suggests how hard it is to find images to evoke this). Moreover, the central character's dilemma is structured in the film (as the title indicates) in terms of her dreams (the nightmare of the ballet-gay) and wishes (sentimental reconciliation of son within the family unit). Her anguish is shown to stem not from realities themselves but from how she thinks realities. There is thus an undertow to the film which does begin to raise questions and intuitions about the whole edifice of marriage, sexual relationships and so on.

It is to such undertows that we should look, for they are the most likely sources of a cinema which undermines heterosexual artistic hegemony from within and may in the process create a form of artistic language which comprehends all of human sexuality and relationships.


1. See Ed Buscombe, "Ideas of Authorship," in Screen, 14:3, pp. 75-85.

2. Gays have been particularly influential in the development of underground cinema; e.g. the work of Kenneth Anger, Constance Beeson, Jack Smith, Gregory Markopoulos.

3. See Claire Johnson: Notes on Women's Cinema, London: S.E.F.T., 1973.

4. The Wolfenden Report was a government sponsored report on prostitution and homosexuality which recommended that the latter be made legal between consenting adults over the age of 21 on the grounds that gayness was a relatively harmless and incurable sickness, which moreover could not be successfully policed. It was published in 1957.