Yehuda Duenyas

Yehuda Duenyas

Yehuda Duenyas

June 19, 2024

June 19, 2024

June 19, 2024

🌈 QUEER REPRESENTATION IN FILM 🌈

🌈 QUEER REPRESENTATION IN FILM 🌈

🌈 QUEER REPRESENTATION IN FILM 🌈

From 1894 - 2024

As queer narratives become more prominent in film and television, our role as Intimacy Coordinators becomes increasingly important. Intimacy Coordinators not only ensure that intimate scenes are conducted safely and respectfully by providing supportive environments for actors and filmmakers; Intimacy Coordinators are trained artists that can hold space for queer experience, allowing stories space for authentic and nuanced depictions of intimacy that respects the boundaries and identities of all involved. That word nuanced is important. 

The evolution of Queer representation in film has undergone significant transformation over the last 130 years – from invisibility, to stereotypes, to a broader more nuanced portrayal of LGBTQ+++ lives. Given our current cultural climate it may be difficult to see the forest for the trees, or the fire through the smoke, however we at CINTIMA can sense that this evolution reflects a broader cultural shift towards visibility and acceptance for queer identities. From early cinema experiments of the late 1800's, to the impact of the Hays Code in the early-mid 20th Century, to the renaissance of Queer stories and indie films of the 1990s, we can trace an evolution of acceptance through the stories we tell, through the lives we depict.

As Intimacy Coordinators in today's film industry we find it especially crucial to hold space for Queer stories, and to push for accurate and nuanced representation - emphasis on nuance. It’s in the nuance that we grow and evolve. 

Early Cinema: A Glimpse of Queer Possibilities

Much of the pleasure and wonder of early cinema came from what was simply put in front of a camera, an audeince's encounter with a screen that capitalized on surprise and shock. As droves of people moved to American cities, either from internal migration or immigration, film became a significant cultural force. One notable early example is Edison's invention of the kinetoscope, a peep show machine with sound, which featured an early short film experiemnt called the 1894 Dixon Sound Experiment.

In the short, a man plays the violin and sings while two men dance together. Although the narrative context and their relationship are not known to the audience, the image of two men dancing in a documentary film from such an early period represents a moment of speculative fascination. For contemporary queer audiences, it symbolizes both visibility and possibility, expanding our understanding of public intimacy. (See Ellen C. Scott - Cinema and Civil Rights Regulation, Repression, and Race in the Classical Hollywood Era.)

The Pre-Code Era: Subversive Beginnings

The pre-Hays Code era, spanning from the early 1900s to the early 1930s, saw remarkable freedom in film content, including depictions of same-sex desire. One significant example is the German film “Mädchen in Uniform” (1931), directed by Leontine Sagan. This was a groundbreaking drama of its time, and centers on a young girl who falls in love with her female teacher at a girls' school. Despite being banned in several countries for its frank depiction of lesbian desire (note that it wasn't banned for inappropriate boundary violations of teacher/student relationships, but for being about lesbian desire), the film was a commercial success and was permitted to show in the U.S., though it never secured widespread distribution.

Another notable figure from this era is Marlene Dietrich, who worked often with director Josef von Sternberg. Their films often depicted intimacy in unconventional ways, eschewing traditional marriage plots for more complex expressions of desire. In “The Scarlet Empress” (1934), for example, lavish set designs and elaborate costumes convey a sense of forbidden intimacy and power dynamics, hinting at queer subtexts without explicit representation.

The Hays Code: Censorship and Suppression

The implementation of the Hays Code in 1934 marked a period of stringent censorship in Hollywood. The Code prohibited explicit depictions of same-sex relationships, forcing filmmakers to employ subtext and coded imagery to suggest queer themes. This era saw a reduction in overtly queer characters and storylines, pushing queer representation to the margins.

The Fall of the Hays Code: A New Era of Freedom

The Hays Code began to lose its grip on Hollywood in the 1960s, with its official demise in 1968. This shift opened the door for more explicit and diverse representations of queer life. The post-Code era saw an increasing willingness to tackle LGBTQ+ themes head-on, though it would take several more decades for these stories to gain mainstream acceptance.

The 1970s: Breaking the Silence

The 1970s saw the gradual breakdown of the Hays Code and the rise of the New Hollywood era, which embraced more controversial and diverse themes. William Friedkin's "The Boys in the Band" (1970) is notable for being one of the first American films to focus on gay characters and their lives, offering a more candid, tangled depiction of Queer experience.

European cinema also played a crucial role in advancing queer representation. Directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Germany and Pier Paolo Pasolini in Italy created complex, openly queer characters, contributing to a more authentic and varied portrayal of LGBTQ+ individuals. Fassbinder’s Querelle and Pasolini’s Teroema explored sexual repression, homoerticism and the complexity of sexual identitites.

The 1990s: A Turning Point in Queer Representation, from Indies to Mainstream 

The 1990s marked a renaissance in queer cinema, driven by independent filmmakers who brought fresh, unapologetic perspectives to the screen. So many filmmakers contributed to the explosion of creativity of this era. Some notable names contributing to this movement include Todd Haynes, Greg Araki, Cheryl Dunye, and Stephene Winter, with production houses like Killer Films led by  Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler who changed the landscape of Queer cinema (and Independent Cinema) as we know it.

Todd Haynes's “Velvet Goldmine” (1998) is a glam rock odyssey that explores bisexuality and the fluidity of identity. Inspired by the lives of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, the film's vibrant style and bold narrative celebrate queer culture in a way that had rarely been seen before.

Greg Araki's films, like “The Living End” (1992), are known for their raw portrayals of queer life. Araki's work often deals with themes of alienation, rebellion, and the search for identity, capturing the angst and exuberance of a queer experience.

Cheryl Dunye's “The Watermelon Woman” (1996) is a seminal work in queer cinema, blending documentary and fiction to explore the life of a black lesbian filmmaker. The film delves into the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, challenging both historical erasure and contemporary stereotypes.

Stephen Winter's "Chocolate Babies" (1996), Follows a band of queer, self-described “raging, atheist, meat-eating, HIV-positive, colored terrorists” fight back against homophobic conservative politicians on the streets of New York, blending exuberant camp and searing political anger into a radical statement of Black queer power

The 1990s also witnessed significant strides in queer representation in more mainstream media, with films exploring a wider range of queer experiences and identities. Stephan Elliott’s "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" (1994) and Mike Nichols’s "The Birdcage" (1996) brought queer characters into mainstream comedy, while Kimberly Peirce’s "Boys Don't Cry" (1999) offered a poignant portrayal of a transgender man’s struggle.

Queer cinema also gained critical acclaim, with Jonathan Demme’s "Philadelphia" (1993) winning Academy Awards and bringing the story of a gay man with AIDS to a broad audience. The decade marked a turning point where queer characters began to be depicted with more depth and complexity, reflecting the community's diverse experiences.

The Aughts: Broader Acceptance and Diverse Stories

In the 2000s, queer representation in film continued to expand, both in independent and mainstream cinema. Ang Lee’s "Brokeback Mountain" (2005) became a cultural milestone, breaking box office records and winning numerous awards. Its portrayal of a romantic relationship between two men was groundbreaking for its emotional depth and mainstream acceptance.

Films like Gus Van Sant’s "Milk" (2008) and Duncan Tucker’s "Transamerica" (2005) further diversified queer narratives, bringing stories of queer political activism and transgender experiences to the forefront. The increasing visibility of LGBTQ+ characters in film paralleled the growing acceptance and legal recognition of queer rights globally.

The 2010s and Beyond: Representation and Recognition

The 2010s saw an explosion of queer representation, with films exploring intersectional identities and a variety of genres. Barry Jenkins’s "Moonlight" (2016), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, highlighted the intersections of race, sexuality, and poverty, offering a nuanced and tender portrayal of a young black man's journey to self-acceptance.

Other notable films include Luca Guadagnino’s "Call Me by Your Name" (2017), a sensual and introspective love story, and Yorgos Lanthimos’s "The Favourite" (2018), which depicted queer relationships within a historical context. Transgender representation also improved, with films like Sebastián Lelio’s "A Fantastic Woman" (2017) featuring the talents of transgender actors and telling authentic stories.

The Ongoing Journey and the Importance of Queer Representation

Why does any of this matter? We’ve noticed that when we look at the human experience with nuance, when we get beyond the binaries, beyond the gay/straight stories, to a deeper place of feeling, we start to experience one another in a new way, we start to see one another with new eyes. This brief story of queer representation in cinema speaks to the struggle our media wrestles with to depict intimacy and connection in a way that avoids sensationalism and exploitation, yet is raw and honest and uncensored. We’re standing at an important point in history, a point where people in the industry concerned with intimacy, and engaged in the telling of intimate stories can do more than just manage consent. We feel we can begin to make intimacy –  even at its most nuanced more knowable for both viewers and performers. Through the telling of these nuanced stories we can begin to explore more types of intimate connection. Today, as the industry becomes more inclusive, there is greater potential to explore these diverse and complex queer narratives, making cinema a powerful platform for visibility and change.

At CINTIMA, our experience is that Queer representation in film betters society by exposing the public to more nuanced depictions of the spectrum of human sexuality. These portrayals foster empathy, challenge stereotypes, and celebrate diversity, contributing to a more accepting and equitable world. The strides made over the past decades offer hope and inspiration for the future, ensuring that the full spectrum of human experience is seen and valued.

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