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Editorials

‘Birds of Prey’ & the Curse of Being Casually Queer

February 22, 2020

I’ve been burned before. The promise of queer representation dangled, cruelly, in front of me before it’s swiftly pulled away and edited out for China. Routinely, we’ve seen big studios get a lot of press by announcing the first ‘gay character’ in their particular franchise. It happened with Star Trek Beyond, Independence Day: ResurgenceBeauty and The BeastAlien: CovenantFantastic Beasts: The Crimes of GrindlewaldAvengers: Endgame, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker to name a few. First, a fuss is made in the gay media and mainstream news, people on Twitter cry that ‘WOKE PC CULTURE IS RUINING CINEMA’, and then the film comes out and… well, it was all for nothing. There’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kisses, hand brushing, suggestive looks, or single lines (or worse, jokes) that simply hint at a character’s sexuality. It all passes you by so discreetly that most people don’t even notice.  

In some ways Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) does better. Sure, it approaches the bisexuality of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn with an easy-to-miss millisecond in the film’s opening animation and the much-talked-about relationship between villains Black Mask and Victor Zsasz (played by Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina, respectively) is nothing to write home about (even if Zasaz’s bleach-blond dye-job screams ‘gay man in distress’.) All that being said, it does have Renee Montoya, played by Rosie Perez; a jaded queer cop with a penchant for speaking in 80s cop clichés. It’s revealed, in voice-over, that Montoya has an ex-girlfriend (played by Ali Wong) who works for the DA in Gotham. Montoya is far more rounded and substantially queer than anyone in those movies mentioned above but it still doesn’t quite feel like enough. I’ve seen countless muscled white dudes kissing different skinny white women in almost every superhero film ever. I’ve seen men and women, in all kinds of romantic scenarios, kissing while they run from volcanoes, spaceships, or supervillains. I was even recently subjected to Rey and Kylo Ren’s horrendously odd kiss in The Rise of Skywalker. It’s all there, right in your face, all the time. So why, when it comes to LGBTQ+ characters, does it all feel so, well, casual? 

Birds of Prey
Birds of Prey / Warner Bros. Pictures.

Whether it’s categorised as queerbaiting or seen as studios trying to ‘toe the line’ for the elusive and hard to define ‘Middle America’, it always comes down to money. If not for those in ‘the middle of the country’ then the problem is outsourced to other countries, like Malaysia or China, who won’t spend their hard-earned cash on LGBTQ+ content. It seems the big studios, and those in charge of franchises, want to have their Queer Cake and eat it too. A little deniable queerness please, they say, but not too much that it might genuinely mean anything. Mass appeal is the driving force but ultimately that means that queer people, who are so used to watching straight folks copulate on screen, get a whole lot of nothing.

LGBTQ+ relationships, romances, and experiences are frequently side-lined in this system. They’re never central to a film’s plot so it can be recut and still make sense. But what is the overall effect? A feeling of being second-class to heterosexuality? A lack of worth? When queer characters exist on the fringes, in fleeting moments, in the subtext, it sends a message: these stories, these people, are not worth the airtime compared to their straight counterparts. I mean, the most prominent TV show of the last decade, Game of Thrones, featured a substantial amount of straight sibling-on-sibling action. How does incest play in ‘the middle of the country’ I wonder? A whole lot better than a two-second gay kiss, I guess.

Is there hope for the future? Who can say? Patty Jenkins has been spotted filming scenes featuring the ‘Silence = Death’ protest signs for her upcoming Wonder Woman 1984 and Kevin Feige has promised an LGBTQ+ character in The Eternals, a story about God-like entities from space. While recent Oscar-winner Taki Waititi has teased that Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie will finally take flight as a fully-fledged, and explicitly acknowledged, bisexual woman in Thor: Love & Thunder.

Everybody's Talking About Jamie
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie / (20th Century Fox/Twitter)

But hope, well hope is a dangerous thing for a queer like me to have. These promises, the big studios waving their rainbow flags on the horizon, don’t inspire much trust. I know we have Ryan Murphy on Netflix with his adaption of Boys in the Bandfeaturing an all-gay cast of actors. We also have Murphy’s grander adaption of the Broadway musical The Prom, with a (mostly straight) all-star cast including Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Keegan-Michael Key, and Kerry Washington to name a few. Actual real-life queer woman Kirsten Stewart is also set to star in a Thanksgiving-themed lesbian Rom-Com from Clea Duvall, and Britain promises to unveil its film adaption of the drag based musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie this Autumn but who can say how big any of these films will hit. It doesn’t feel obtuse to suggest that it won’t be on the level of any major franchise.

At the 2020 Independent Spirit Awards, a clip of the Gay Men’s Choir of Los Angeles singing about ‘The Gayest Moments in Other Films You May Not Have Realised Were Gay’ went viral. Its appreciation of the queer lens, of Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers and Laura Dern’s entire career was funny, accurate, and unmistakably the product of Gay Twitter. Even so, it was a little sad to think that so many queer people are, out of necessity, watching and claiming things that weren’t made with them in mind. Of course, there is power in reclamations, in queering the narrative, in forcing yourself into a place that didn’t consider you and making it your own, but it shouldn’t have to be that way every time LGBTQ+ people watch a blockbuster. Will that ever change? I’m not holding my breath.

Also Read: Where Are All The Young Moviegoers?

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