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The film Carol, a portrayal of two women in a relationship in the 1950s, starred Cate Blanchett as the lead and was nominated for Best Motion Picture Drama at the 2016 Golden Globes. Yet it had no LGBTIQA+ (queer) actors. Queer representation in film is an issue that spans more than just casting, it includes how queer characters and issues are portrayed to a non-queer audience. In film we are beginning to see queer main characters, rather than tokenistic representations.
Blue is the Warmest Colour won the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, but prestigious film awards do not reward accuracy in showcasing queer topics. Despite being a lesbian film, Blue is the Warmest Colour had no openly gay actors in its two lead roles and had a male director, Abdellelatif Kechiche. Despite winning the Palme d’Or it was heavily criticised for its negative and fake portrayal of lesbian relationships. Julie Maroh, the creator of the graphic novel from which it is based, called the film pornographic and critiqued its artificial representation. The film has extensive close-ups of sexualised parts of the female anatomy and lengthy sex scenes, with one lasting over six minutes! Parts of the film seem more like pornography than a lesbian film. One of the lead actresses Léa Seydoux described the extensive time Kechiche spent on shooting sex scenes and said she felt as if she was a “prostitute.” Regardless of who was cast in it, Kechiche’s film exemplifies the cisgender-male obsession with lesbian sex and unfortunately, to the non-queer audience, could be passed off as an accurate portrayal of same-sex female relationships.
Other widely released films have managed to provide realistic depictions of same-sex relationships. Freeheld, rather than focussing upon desire, depicts a couple that is forced to fight for legal equality. One of the protagonists (a police detective) is diagnosed with cancer, and finds that her same-sex spouse cannot receive her pension in the same way that a heterosexual married spouse would. We see a more honest depiction in this film, of a lesbian couple who want similar things to a straight couple. It also grapples with keeping the relationship a secret in order to avoid the negative judgement of colleagues. Confronting homophobia is more central to Freeheld than Blue is the Warmest Colour—the latter has only one scene engaging with homophobia, when Adèle (main character) is the target of slurs from her friends when they see a “Tomboy” waiting outside school for her. Freeheld also has romantic scenes, but they are not sexualised to the extent of Kechiche’s film and they are free of close-ups on sexualised parts of the female anatomy. Furthermore Freeheld features an openly lesbian actor, Ellen Page, as a lead character, Stacie. Same-sex relationships in films do not need to be needlessly over-sexualised to be considered for awards.
The Danish Girl presents issues of gender dysphoria and transition to a non-queer audience. As the film progresses the lead character Lili can only bear to live as a female and not as Einar, who she was born as. The film communicates the euphoria of being Lili and the dysphoria associated with being Einar. Reasonably early in the film a scene shows her dressed like a male, as she was assigned at birth, running off to the arts academy to dress herself as Lili. Criticism was placed on the film for its casting of a cisgender male actor, Eddie Redmayne, as Lili in the film because it shows being transgender as dressing in drag. While this presents a valid concern for films it does present how unbearable it was for Lili being trapped in the wrong body of Einar. Directors seem reluctant to cast transgender actors into major roles in movies. In stark contrast to this is Tangerine, a low-budget film presented at Sundance, which probably received more attention for being shot on iPhones than for casting two transwomen of colour in its leading roles. The supporting actor Mya Taylor is the first transwomen actor to receive a Gotham film award and she also worked as a sex worker after being unable to find other work. Despite its budget, Tangerine has a sense of a genuine story. It does not necessarily reflect negatively on a film if transgender actors are not cast as transgender characters, however more must be done to showcase transgender talent, like Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black.
Tangerine illustrates issues of transgender sex workers by following two trans women on Christmas Eve, one of whom has just been released from prison that day. Instead of dysphoria, Tangerine places an emphasis upon transphobia in wider society. There are many transphobic comments made by minor characters about being born males and labelling relationships between men and transwomen as homosexual, and a car pulls over and yells transphobic abuse at Sin-dee, one of the main characters, and urine is thrown at her.
Showcasing LGBTQIA+ talent in major roles in films should not be our sole litmus test for queer representation. Ultimately it matters less to inform a non-queer audience about queer culture and lives if directors and writers are going to be providing inaccurate representations anyway. While these films are not without their problems, hopefully we will continue to see progress towards accurate and positive representations in future.