The rise of queer theory (not to be confused with queer studies which is a much broader critical theory of gender identity and sexuality) as critical discourse can find its historical roots in gender studies, lesbian and gay studies and feminism (to name a few) but its essence can be traced back to the cultural renaissance of the 1950s and 1960s. Queer theory concerns itself primarily with gender representation and the homophobic undertones of society throughout history. One of the principle societal issues undertaken by queer theory is that of gender labelling as a defining characteristic.
The reference of someone’s sexuality (or racial background) as a descriptive term is still frequently employed in modern society and is prolific in both literature and film media. People are often referred to in this manner, for example ‘that gay guy’ or ‘that black girl’, giving undue prominence to this aspect of their being. Queer theory sees this practice as illogical and anachronistic due to the multitude of character traits that make up each individual, meaning that such labelling becomes non-categoric as it is not sufficient to describe (and therefore, define) a person by their sexual orientation or race (Jagose, 1996).
The term ‘queer theory’ is attributed to Teresa de Lauretis who coined the phrase at a conference in the early 1990s (de Lauretis, 1991). Whilst de Lauretis herself abandoned the term a few years after (due to its employ by the institutions she originally had originally intended it to critique), ‘queer theory’ has come to unite and define a range of discussions regarding the representation of sexuality in society and the arts (Sullivan, 2003).
It is also important to clarify that the term ‘queer’ in this context does not denote the pejorative or slang connotations of some previous use but is employed because of its ambiguity in this context and its ability to be used in reference to any one of a number of sexual identities deemed incoherent with mainstream (chromosomal) sexual or gender practices (de Lauretis, 1994). The recent rise of queer theory has become an important tool in the analysis of gender representation in the world of literature and film.
The combined studies of gender representation, not only in the arts but in society as a whole are important devices in the continuing struggle against prejudice which has been prevalent throughout history. The evolution of homophobia throughout this time is prolific and there are many sources over the past two thousand years which illustrate the persecution delivered to those who undertook homosexual practices, or displayed characteristics which were of the time deemed out of character with contemporarily accepted gender practice.
It is argued that this continuing maltreatment has now come to define the very concepts of man and woman in society which in turn leads to further negative attitude and oppression (Fone, 2000). Suggestions of homosexual relations have existed in cinema since its creation. Early cinema was still regarded as an artistic and innovative art form and gender representation in film has subsequently undergone several transformations.
A short time after the turn of the twentieth century many films lauded homosexual ‘behaviour’ as a commonly accepted comedic theme. As Russo (1987) points out, from ‘the very beginning, movies could rely on homosexuality as a sure fire source of humour’. This strategy continued allowing the public’s association of effeminacy with male homosexuality to become engrained. As movies became big business mainstream production companies became increasingly wary of ideas that would buck the trend of what was publicly accepted and therefore profitable.
Whilst the practice of placing effeminate or camp characters into the movies as comic foils was commonplace in Hollywood right up through to the 1950s, European cinema’s increasingly risque themes caused a shift in the output American cinema which felt compelled to compete in order to keep the interest of the adult audience. Whilst the 1960s saw a rise in the representation of homosexual relations in vaguely accepted contexts, it was not until the 1980s that movies really began to depict same-sex practices in a positive manner or, at the very least, for the primary viewership and interest of a homosexual audience (Russo, 1987).
Whilst in the present day it is not at all uncommon for a film from either side of the Atlantic to feature multi-gender or challenging themes relating to gender representation these are infrequently attempted to appeal to mainstream audiences (the majority are low-budget and independently produced). This has a lot to do with the difficulty involved with the removal of the established codes of cinematic representation for these groups. Stereotypes exist across the arts and media in many forms. They can efficiently outline a collection of themes which can be united to form an instant opinion or association in the mind of the audience.
But for the same reason they are effective they can also be problematic since they depict large groups of people as united by common themes when the contrary is invariably the case. It also stands to reason that the groups in question often have little say in the form this representation takes, which in many cases of gender representation is often negatively delivered and perceived. They can revise ill-informed or harmful assumptions into a perceived reality for the viewer but they can also reinforce already existing prejudices (Savin-Williams, 2001).
The representation of gay characters throughout filmic media is indicative of this, often being portrayed as marginal, flamboyant, unrealistic or troubled. As Russo asserts: In a hundred years of movies, homosexuality has only rarely been depicted on the screen. When it did appear, it was there as something to laugh at—or something to pity—or even something to fear. These were fleeting images, but they were unforgettable, and they left a lasting legacy. Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gay people… and gay people what to think about themselves (Russo, 1987. 258)
Russo’s analysis is accurate and his sentiment poignant. The strict guidelines of output which began to break down in the 1960s and 1970s came in tandem with the rise of both the women’s and gay rights movements, during which time homosexual portrayals in film became increasingly negative. As previously highlighted, there are many strands of discourse which have now come to be associated with Queer theory. There is a fundamental dichotomy which exists within Queer theory, largely due to its grounding in gender studies, between the essentialist and constructivist viewpoints.
The essentialist argues that sexual orientation is intrinsic to the being of the individual and thereby inherent or essential to their universal make up whilst the constructivist would posit that any sexual preference within the subject would be a construct of their given set of extraneous experiences and circumstances (Sullivan, 2003). The essentialist argument discusses the existence of innate qualities within the sexes such as male aggressive dominance and a nurturing, caring female.
The constructivist’s argument dismisses that these aspects of personality are internal and rather they are constructed primarily from outside sources such as environment and individual incident. Modern queer theory has formed itself mainly from post-structuralism and more specifically the deconstructionist movement which has developed in tandem with the rise of queer cinema (Schippers, 1989). Queer theory in relation to modern cinema now attempts to challenge the dominant ideologies of normalised heterosexual practice and in particular the representation of marginalised genders alongside these paradigms.
In the film Brokeback Mountain (2005), the common custom of reserving the protagonist roles for straight characters (due to their macho characteristics and signs) is toppled. Conversely, the representation of gender issues in Almodovar’s film Bad Education (2004) says a lot about the specific progression of queer European cinema alongside that of Hollywood. Almodovar, a self-taught film maker whose formative years were forged out of the new found liberty of post-Franco Spain, is no stranger to the representation of challenging and non-mainstream issues and frequently confronts established ideologies when doing so.
Many critics applauded Almodovar’s Bad Education as his masterwork and a worthy homage both to Hitchcock and the Noir genre (D’Lugo, 2006). Bad education fits neatly into the post-structuralist components of queer theory. The narrative elements throughout consistently call upon the established signs and codes of classical cinema (such as the femme fatale) to be revisited and revised whilst challenging the viewer’s conceptions of gender representation in these roles.
The graphic depiction of transsexual identity is indicative of Almodovar’s intended visual affront to the sensibilities of those who are not accustomed in the practices of the characters portrayed. The narrative’s undertones covertly display the story of a group who are marginalised in societal terms but are merely an ironic and allegorical representation of the transsexual community itself, as opposed to the historically regular depictions of the transsexual gender role as negative or even sinister (Schippers, 1989).
Ang Lee’s 2005 film, Brokeback Mountain was widely received as a critical success and made itself an exception not only in queer theory but in the Hollywood tradition. Up until this point the cowboy movie had been sacrosanct in its portrayal of the all-American rugged stereotype, consistently casting the lead roles as straight and classically masculine, whilst the more effeminate male roles were portrayed as a negative deviation from this accepted norm. The male gaze throughout the film adopts that of the protagonists and becomes the homosexual gaze.
The characters are not portrayed as aspirational models for the gay audience but are depicted in a romanticised manner. Bad Education creates an irony (that of the existing negative gender representation in the media) and uses it to confront and challenge the established structural devices of its medium by using this narrative structure to hold a mirror to the real-life situation. Brokeback Mountain’s confrontation of these same contemporary (and indeed, historical) issues exists within story structure itself. The fundamental narrative is one which has stood the test of time and appeals to a wide audience.
The film follows this classic story form where the narrative invariably tracks the inception and ensuing relationship of two star crossed lovers as it develops into a situation that society, or elements of society, will not accept. This ultimately results in the destruction of the relationship and the happiness of those involved. The subversion of the gender roles is not explicit so as to be jarring but done in such a manner that allows a classic story structure (boy meets girl) to contain these non-classical elements (boy meets boy) in a way that was previously unacceptable simply because it hadn’t been done in Hollywood before.
The strategy with which the anachronisms of Hollywood’s past representations of gender issues were confronted in this film was to not acknowledge it in any way. In stark contrast with Bad Education which, as previously mentioned, deals with this explicitly, the irony of the Brokeback Mountain story is extraneous to the narrative in that the one of the main reasons the protagonists cannot succeed together is largely due to the real-life representation of people like them in the very medium their story is being told through.