In mainstream cinema, are homosexual characters less acceptable than heterosexual characters because of role type or sexuality?
Johnny Birkbeck is a UK based freelance filmmaker and cinematographer. Johnny graduated from the BA (Hons.) Digital Film Production (fast-track) course at Ravensbourne in 2015.
Sexuality in mainstream cinema has been present since the dawn of moving images in the early 20th century. Heterosexual relationships in cinema have been the backbone to some of the greatest love stories of the last century. Homosexuality in cinema, on the other hand, has been the cause of much discussion and criticism. As homosexuality has become more acceptable in society, so it has in cinema, yet for the most part homosexual characters still seem to fill undesirable roles in mainstream films today. By exploring movies that include homosexual characters in various different ways, an understanding can be made on how homosexual roles are typically conveyed in mainstream cinema.
Understanding films that portray homosexuality to an extreme or as a stereotype is an important first step. Linda Seger, the author of the book Creating Unforgettable Characters, defines a stereotype as ‘the continual portrayal of a group of people with the same narrow set of characteristics’(Seger, 1990, p. 196). She also states that ‘Usually a stereotype is negative. It shows a cultural bias toward the characteristics of one’s own culture, painting characters outside that culture in limiting, and sometimes, dehumanizing ways’(Seger, 1990, p. 196). When in relation to film villains, a strong argument can be had that there is no direct link between evil characters and homosexuality. This would stand strong if it wasn’t so present in modern day cinema. For example, in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant the two killers, Alex and Eric, get into the shower together, triggering an implication that they are homosexual. This scene happens prior to them storming their high school on a weapon fuelled rampage. The film is based on the true story of the Columbine massacre. The two boys, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Merritt, Website, 2012), represented by characters Alex and Eric were not known to be homosexual in any form, leaving a question mark for the shower scene in Van Sant’s 2003 film. Similarly, in the 1991 film The Silence of The Lambs by Jonathan Demme, the villain ‘Buffalo Bill’ appears to be portrayed on screen in a manner that heavily implies he is a homosexual. Once more, like Elephant, The Silence of The Lambs is based on a true story. Despite Eddie Gein’s (the serial killer in the late 1950s on whom ‘Buffalo Bill’ is based) brutality and fascination into the murdering of women in order to produce a suit made of female skin, he never showed signs of being a homosexual. Some would argue quite the opposite, as he was clearly fascinated by the construction of women. An article online states ‘his condition was attributed to the unhealthy relationship he had with his mother and his upbringing. Gein apparently suffered from conflicting feelings about women, his natural sexual attraction to them and the unnatural attitudes that his mother had instilled in him. This love-hate feeling towards women became exaggerated and eventually developed into a full-blown psychosis’ (Bell & Bardsley, Website, date unknown).Therefore The Silence of The Lambs also begs the question of why it was felt necessary to make the villainous ‘Buffalo Bill’ a homosexual.
On the other hand, a small portion of mainstream cinema does portray homosexuality as the norm. Films such as Brokeback Mountain and A Single Man demonstrate an alternative representation of homosexual characters, one in which the storyline is based around homosexuality. It is important to note that both films are classed as mainstream and not as Gay cinema. In 2005 Ang Lee directed Brokeback Mountain, a film about two cowboys who fall in love, which was the first of its kind in mainstream cinema to put a homosexual relationship at the forefront of the plot line. In 2009 Tom Ford directed A Single Man, a film set in 1962 about a man grieving the recent loss of his male partner. This film, like Brokeback Mountain, is one of the rarities that portrays homosexual relationships as completely normal within mainstream cinema. What makes it differ from the conventional love story is that one of the lovers is never present in the story. Only small flashbacks bring George (Colin Firth) and Jim (Matthew Goode) together on screen. In fact, the audience would be unaware the character of Colin Firth is gay if it were not mentioned from the start. This is due to the creation of character relationships. For instance, the novelist Leonard Tourney, quoted in Seger’s Creating Unforgettable Characters, states that ‘couples have become increasingly important in fiction and film….it introduces into the story a kind of chemistry, creates a new person, a new identity, something new…people as couples are different from the individual…it’s not conscious, but couples tend to behave differently when they’re together’ (Seger, 1990, p. 91). A Single Man depicts the grief and sadness of a person who has lost their partner. It, like Brokeback Mountain, does not lay emphasis on the sexuality of the characters, merely focus on the impact that loss can have on someone. Brokeback Mountain tells a slightly different story – one of frustration and desire to be with someone – yet it too allows for development of a homosexual character relationship.
Character role is the sole factor that determines how an audience will receive someone on screen. It is plausible that audiences are attracted to films in which they can relate to the central characters. Maya Sharpe mentions in an internet article titled Storytelling Through Film ‘we view and sense this world in our imagination from the perspective of the 3rd person….we try to understand what the main character could be feeling each step of their journey…our acceptance of the elements of the story is necessary in the comprehension of the story, for it is a process of communication’. Comparing Elephant to A Single Man it is entirely feasible that Maya Sharpe’s statement stands true as the audience typically sides with characters that they can relate to and sympathise with. The two killers in Elephant, Eric and Alex, are troubled adolescents with which one would struggle to relate to entirely. Contrastingly, George in A Single Man is a middle aged, soft hearted, deeply saddened man struggling to cope with the loss of his lover. In no way does George meet the typical stereotype of a homosexual character. In conjunction with The Silence of The Lambs and Brokeback Mountain the same can be said as sexuality should not determine acceptance of the character (Sharpe, Website, 2013) but that simply the presentation of the character determines how the audience perceive them. Christine Etherington–Wright and Ruth Doughty write in Understanding Film Theory that ‘the absence of gay cliches may account for its breakthrough in status, as Brokeback Mountain did remarkably well considering its subject matter. Gay films often fail to attract mainstream audiences’(Etherington-Wright & Doughty, 2011 p. 196-197). The phrasing of ‘gay cliches’ can be justified as another means of saying ‘gay stereotypes’.
In conclusion, homosexuality’s acceptance within mainstream cinema is down to the depiction of each character. It is easy to generalise homosexuality in mainstream cinema as it is still rather infrequent, yet comparing films that display different character roles such as the contrast between Elephant/The Silence of The Lambs and A Single Man/Brokeback Mountain it becomes evident that it is something as simple as character representation that instigates approval from the audience. Furthermore, the role of a character determines their importance and the more important the character, the greater the exposure of relationships with other characters. This greater exposure is fundamental in allowing the audience to understand and relate to the character, regardless of sexuality, by something as simple as role type.
Etherington-Wright, Christine & Doughty, Ruth (2011) Understanding Film Theory. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan
Seger, Linda (1990) Creating Unforgettable Characters. New York: Holt Paperbacks.
Merritt, Rich (2012). Myths From Columbine, Part One – What You Think You Know [Online] Available: http://richmerritt.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/
columbine-and-the-crucifixion/ (Accessed 28/2/14)
Bell, Rachael & Bardsley, Marilyn (date unknown) Eddie Gein [Online] Available: http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial_killers/
notorious/gein/bill_1.html (Accessed 28/2/14)
Sharpe, Maya (2013) Storytelling Through Film [Online] Available: http://projectinkblot.com/storytelling-through-film/ (Accessed 2/3/14)
The Silence of The Lambs (1991) Directed by Jonathan Demme [Film] USA: Strong Heart/
Demme Production and Orion Pictures Corporation.
Elephant (2003) Directed by Gus Van Sant [Film] USA: HBO Films, Fine Line Features,
Meno Films, Blue Relief Productions and Fearmakers Studios
Brokeback Mountain (2005) Directed by Ang Lee [Film] USA and Canada: Focus Features,
River Road Entertainment, Alberta Film Entertainment and Good Machine
A Single Man (2009) Directed by Tom Ford [Film] USA: Fade to Black Productions, Depth of Field and Artina Films