Blog Post #3: The Celluloid Closet–Watch Between the Lines

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Image Credit:  Thirteen: Brandy Eve Allen

          I found The Celluloid Closet (1995) extremely enlightening.  Never before had I considered the complex history between homosexuality and film censorship.  I am aware of Catholicism’s sexual stringency.  After all, masturbation—sex with oneself—is deemed a mortal sin.  So religious opposition to homosexual passion, while disappointing, surprised me not.  I didn’t realize, however, the influence the Church held over cinema nor did I grasp the power of The Hays Code enforced in Hollywood following the pope’s threat of mass boycott.

I commend early filmmakers whose sharp wit and bravery worked around the stifling system.  The documentary reveals black-and-white pictures with subtle portrayals of queer craving.   To evade censors, homosexuality was indirectly explored through gender-bending wardrobes, characters who transgressed conventional treatment of masculinity/femininity, intimate friendships that hinted at more, as well as play with phallic objects such as guns.  I’m sad that the majority of explicitly queer characters in early films are murderers, monsters, or mad.  Such poor representations suggest an inherent link between homosexuality and mental illness.  Nor am I a fan of the sissy trope which likens gay men to impotent wannabe-women.   Constant death and punishment of gays in cinema while reflective of real world prejudice still disturbs me.  Persistent sad-endings suggest to gay viewers that their lives will ultimately end in misery.

Still, negative visibility is better than invisibility.  To acknowledge LGBT existence is in itself a feat given the puritanical constrictions of heteronormative society.   Hope is what I took away from the film.  Audiences have the power to inject their own persona into the projections shown on screen.  We have the responsibility and capacity to alter the future of film in the name of equality.  Shows like The Fosters, Glee, and American Horror Story depict LGBT members in a positive light, granting viewers characters for whom to root and with which to identify.

But despite progress, many films still rely on indirect condemnation.  Silence can be unsettling.  In Thirteen (2003), virginal Tracy is corrupted by seductive BFF Evie.  Tracy’s obsession with Evie is erotic.  While kissing a boy, Tracy watches her friend the entire time.  Her decline into drugs and delinquency is tied to the intimacy she shares with the beautiful femme fatale played by Nikki Reed.  Similarly, films like Hot Chick (2002) perpetuate negative stereotypes.  Popular teen Jessica wakes up in the body of a grungy man.  As a result of her girly mannerisms, everyone assumes she—now in male form—is gay.  In the film, being a woman and being gay become inseparable, denying gays their status as “real” men.  We still see same-sex kisses used as assaults.  In American Hustle (2013), Jennifer Lawrence aggressively plants a wet one on Amy Adams.  Change comes slowly.

Same-sex desire isn’t a product of the 21st century; it’s a force as primal and essential to the human species as hunger or thirst.  Originating with the dawn of man while preceding the flame and wheel, “queer” is everywhere.  Time to open our eyes and watch between the lines.

The Celluloid Closet. Dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Perf. Lily Tomlin. TriStar Pictures,

1995. Youtube. 15 Nov. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?

v=rhygdCjYrdk>.

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3 comments

  1. I am intrigued by the point that you bring up from _Celluloid Closet_ about audience members being able to “inject their own persona” onto the images shown onto the screen. I think audiences are more active than we give them credit for, and can be very interactive and creative in the process of viewing a film (the age of the internet has allowed us to see exactly how creative audiences are with mashups and re-edits of scenes from popular films being created and posted on YouTube). Audience members can identify with all kinds of characters on screen (not just the characters they are “supposed” to identify with), they can turn things around so that negative characteristics can be seen as powerful (think Sharon Stone in _Basic Instinct_), and they can even change storylines in their minds so that homophobic narratives end more to their liking. Of course, this isn’t to suggest that we should accept homophobic films because we can adjust them in our minds, since for people who aren’t even aware how toxic these representations are, the films can influence the way they see the world and the way they see and treat other people.

  2. I really enjoyed your style of writing! While I agree with most of your points especially those about the Church’s role in film during the time as well as the “sissy” trope that is used in such negative terms, something I found in your post that I would like to possibly challenge your thought process about is in regards to negative visibility being better than invisibility. I completely agree that it is better to be heard than not at all, as silence is often a horrible discomfort to bear. Despite this, when I was watching the film, actor and writer Harvey Fierstein calls himself a sissy after making the statement that negative representation is better than none at all. When he called himself a sissy, I was very put off as it felt like he was completely contradicting himself by conforming to the very issue that he is fighting against. In watching The Celluloid Closet, we learned that the term “sissy” provides a lack of sexual identity and reality in homosexuals. Do you feel that in teaching the film world about properly representing homosexuality that perhaps we must go farther than the realm of filmmakers and writers and go as far as to reach some homosexuals themselves that have given way to these negative and misrepresented conventions that society has made acceptable?

  3. Azania2010 and Krame119, thank you both for your thoughtful comments! While the interactive experience attached to viewing cinema does provide hope for marginalized communities whose stories otherwise are ignored on screen, films with explicitly positive messages must still be created. Azania2010, I agree that progressive interpretations are lost on many mainstream viewers who just take images at face value, viewing stereotypes negatively without the slant toward tolerance.

    While film does provide a medium for social growth, the root of oppression—whether racist, sexist, classist, or homophobic in nature—must be met head on outside of the theater as well. People can become their own worst enemies, internalizing the demeaning tropes and stereotypes created by the machine to keep them down. We begin to police our own actions, conforming to confining social scripts. Self-loathing & prejudice is internalized while treatment as the “other” becomes the norm. Krame119, your point: negative visibility is not necessarily better than invisibility—especially when portrayals provide sickening stereotypes that aid widespread prejudice—is very much appreciated. While the spectrum of human experience should be addressed, it is vital to have positive representations of the LGBT community. Viewers need models to emulate and skeptics need to be challenged. I appreciate your insight!!!

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