While the written word has been around so much longer, the audio-visual arts have burst forth to offer a unique and very popular manner of storytelling, but one thing that becomes difficult for a visual medium: portrayal of sexuality.
Before we get any further, let me take a moment to m̶a̶n̶s̶p̶l̶a̶i̶n̶ define a few terms and how I will personally be using them. Also consider reviewing/throwing some clicks at my essay "Where All The Femme Fags At?" Disproportionate Queer Hyper-Masculinity On The Screen, Femme Fear, and 'Love, Simon'" which covers some similar but mostly different ground.
The internal manner in which someone identifies who/what/when/where/why they feel sexual attraction.
Expression and Behavior
The outward manner in which someone behaves. Their actions.
If you picked up on that binary opposition, you may already have figured out the first hurdle to portraying queer characters on the screen:
Sexuality is internal, and the camera only picks up the external
So how do we get around that problem?
Common external character features used (intentionally or unintentionally) as shorthand to deliver information.
Basically, you can go the Suicide Squad route and literally list out character traits for the audience on screen:
Or you can use coding. This can be anything from, putting a character in a uniform so you know their job, having a character speak with an accent so you know where they're from, or having a man wear tight fitting clothes and short shorts so you know that they're gay, European, or in the case of Bruno, both.
It's important to know that in an academic sense, coding is not bad. Coding is a tool. You can use a hammer to build a shed, or you can bash someones head in. Its the way you code that matters.
It's also important to know that coding relies on
A term covering everything an audience member carries to the theater in their head that isn't part of the movie, book, television show ect. Understanding of history, culture, prejudices, ect. (it also can refer to stuff like, the poster for the film and the text on the back of the dvd, but I don't care about that).
For example, when you look at Bruno's short shorts, clawed hand, and catwalk, you bring with you the paratext of:
That's not something that American Heterosexual men do of their own will
A baby fresh out of the womb will lack both the necessary paratextual understanding and rudimentary language skills to understand that Sacha Baron Cohen is queening it up.
For a more realistic and contemporary example (that I'm stealing directly from my friend Christina who brings with her Mexican paratext) there's a scene in Coco where Miguel is offered food (by his grandmother I think? I haven't seen the film yet, don't fight me) and he declines. He is then shot down immediately and given more food.
According to Christina, at her theater experience, when Miguel turns down the food, there was immediately laughter from the audience members that brought with them the Mexican cultural paratextual real-world stereotype of grandmothers overfeeding their family til they burst.
Once the grandma actually shoots Miguel down, there was a second round of laughter from the audience members that didn't bring with them that cultural understanding.
Certain coding also relies on:
The Other and Otherness
This one I'mma rip straight from Wikipedia:
"the state of being different from and alien to the social identity of a person and to the identity of the Self."
In the context of coding, coding is only necessary if the identity you're trying to code is an Other.
If Bruno was straight (you wouldn't have a movie) there wouldn't be any need to give him the sassy clothes and attitude because - for better or for worse - at this point in time an audience expects every character to heterosexual until proven otherwise.
This doesn't really apply for stuff like occupation, because that has true diversity in, if you have a naked character with no other coding features, nobodys gonna be like 'ah yes, he's probably a farmer because that's the normal job everyone has'. Introduce that character in an expensive suit, yeah then there are gonna be expectations and the status of farmer is gonna be somewhat Other.
Lastly, I often use the word 'drag' as a synonym for 'codes' or 'codifiers'. Just as this stock photo model put on the codifiers of a suit, laptop, and office to code as a businessman, a drag artist may put on a wig, dress, and makeup to code as a woman.
So, that being set, let's launch onward.
No, this isn't a joke, I think it's important to look at straight representation so we can compare it to queer representation.
Heterosexual representation is everywhere. There are straight characters of every age, nationality, occupation, and height. You do not need to do a web search to find a straight character that's an electrician, or a straight genius, or a straight lawyer who fights sexism while retaining her femininity and aesthetic.
That is the cultural sphere we live in. In describing that, I am not condemning it. This is the canvas that we have to work with when we throw queer on it.
Because straight is the norm, artists are forced to balance coding and dialogue to get across the message of 'this character is queer.'
Dialogue is important because it's one of the only ways we can get a look at the characters internal identity. You can code a character to hell and back, but that only gives you external validation of stereotypes.
To make things icky with dialogue, you run into the problems of: characters, like people, don't have to be telling the truth; the character could be lying for safety, acting in a role, or making a joke.
A real world example: there are many male pornographic actors that identify as heterosexual, but perform in homosexual scenes for any number of reasons. So in real life, you can have a man quite literally performing a sex act with another man and openly screaming 'I identify as queer, I identify as queer, I identify as queer', but in reality doesn't actually identify as queer.
Like honestly, since the whole concept of sexuality operates depending so heavily on the nuance of language and personal understanding, I think the only way you can really you can empirically and definitively let an audience know without a doubt that a character is queer is to construct an all-knowing supreme being or omniscient narrator that just flat out says it.
Like, even in real life, there's no way you can take a test to see what your true sexuality is. Plus, people are dynamic and as language develops and people develop, so do the ways people use language to describe how they feel.
Hell, in my living memory we've already vastly changed the language we use to describe trans identity. There's still an ongoing debate over how to describe the identity of queer activist and icon Marsha P. Johnson, who passed before contemporary trans language was developed. At the time she identified as a drag queen. Today many consider her to be a trans woman, while others stick with the language of gender nonconforming.
We no longer have her thoughts or voice to figure out her identity, we only have the language of her time, and the documented history of her personal expression.
We don't have that
So we walk three different lines with queer characters which I will regrettably try to represent in 3-dimensional space.
You could probably identify more axis, but I'm not about to try to f*** with four dimensional space, so this is what you get.
Let's look at some characters.
Dumbledore is a great example here, especially because we have a book to screen adaptation.
Harry Potter is a bit of a mess of what we consider to be the text of the books or films, and what we consider paratext. Is Pottermore canon? Are Rowling's tweets canon? What about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child?
It's sloppy and messy and that makes it good for sand castle building.
I'll posit this as a given: almost nobody identified Dumbledore as gay from reading the books.
There was no dialogue surrounding his queerness.
For the sake of coding, I'll actually give Rowling a pass here. Dumbledore is both old and a wizard, both of which screws with any paratext that could be used for coding.
Unless you wanna go full on lisp, older gay men don't have the same Bruno-esque stereotypes, and to make things worse, Dumbledore is a wizard.
Dumbledore is introduced in the first book as wearing high heeled boots. In any other scenario, high heels on a man are code for gay. However, Dumbledore is a wizard. There's magic and s*** going on. We don't know what the rules are. This is the first book.
Do all wizards wear high heels? What's going on?
Same goes for the films. We have no dialogue or code to let us know that he's gay. So why is Dumbledore gay?
JK Rowling just sort of let us know outside of the books and movies.
Let's say for the sake of discussion that she had written that as narration in the book or in the movies he drank some Veritaserum and went to a gay club or something.
We have no dialogue - no coding - only the word of god, like once, and then again and again on Twitter if you poke her hard enough.
Dean Winchester, from the CW's Supernatural is a textbook example of what many call 'queerbaiting'. In his case, he is a combination of mild coding - no dialogue - no god.
Queerbaiting does involve a little ad hoc intent assumption, but it is generally agreed that Dean is queer coded as a business decision to gain queer viewers. It's a perpetual 'will they won't they' except between the show and the viewers hoping that some day they will be satisfied with a confession from Dean that will never happen. (There's also definitely some queer fetishization going on in that fandom but that's another essay).
Basically the best you get is a couple of stares, some deep breathing, and a couple playful moments of accidental body contact. It's lead to some AGGRESSIVE theorizing from the fandom that so desperately wants to tote the character as canonically bisexual. This post from bisexual.org even asks "At what point does canonical evidence for a character’s queerness outweigh the writers’ and creators’ denial?"
In a very similar light, we have:
Josh Gad's LeFou
Same as Dean, Josh Gad's Lefou from the 2017 live action remake of Beauty and the Beast has some coding - no dialogue - no real god.
A little bit of a fake god?
The internet was a buzz with the 'LeFou is gay' theory almost as hard as Supernatural fandom. A lot of content creators stated LeFou's queerness as fact, while Disney didn't say anything.
This is because Disney follows the 'no gays, no ghosts' rule of Chinese movie marketing.
With such a financial motivation of the growing Chinese movie market, Disney isn't going to include dialogue or god outing a character, but coding is perfectly fine.
And also, any 'queer' coding that people picked up on LeFou is lowkey also just 'buffoon' or 'fool' coding that was already present in the animated feature, and that's a little problematic.
A Brief Note On The Completely Separate Extra Issue Of Female Queerness On The Screen
Most if not all of what I've talked about with male characters operates with female characters too, but what female characters also get is...
Put very simply, if a man kisses a man on screen, he has betrayed his heterosexuality, Othered himself, and is now gay to the audience.
If a woman kisses a woman on screen, this is just some hot and heavy action.
Female sexuality is invalidated enough as is, but queer female sexuality is just a mess in media representation. Since lesbianism has been so aggressively fetishized, it's almost the culturally assigned normal for a woman to be bisexual less as an identity, and more as an vehicle for promiscuity that we can watch and enjoy.
So since male heterosexuality is so rigid with its ties to rigid masculinity, a character is Othered pretty quickly if they accidentally wear shorts that are a little bit too short.
On the other end, women have to all but fight to have their sexuality recognized.
It's a mess.
One easy cop out that resolves a lot of issues is the portrayal of real-life queer-identifying people.
Here, rather than the empirical truth of the characters sexuality lying somewhere in the coding, dialogue, or god, the audience already carries that fact to the theater in the paratext. The film creators aren't taxed with expositing that information, so they can manipulate the code - dialogue - and god as much as they want.
In the case of Milk, his queerness is pretty integral to the plot so it's fleshed out pretty hard including a full on oral sex scene, but the thing is that they don't have to do that to get the point across, and we know that every feature in the movie serves another purpose other than to just let the audience know that the character is queer.
Portraying a real life queer individual also gets rid of the awkward responsibility for an actor to decide where to fall on the 'super gay' to 'straight man' spectrum. They can just look to the real life individual and behave exactly as they did.
But obviously this isn't a solution for all queer representation.
Well Then Mr. Unhappy About Everything, What Are We Supposed To Do Then? It Sounds Like There's No Good Way To Do Anything.
I've intentionally left out any direct value statements of 'this representation is bad' or 'this representation is good' save my click baity checks and exes in the cover photo. That's because I don't want to pretend to have a standard for where 'good' representation lies in this stupid cube I made.
One character might be right in one universe and completely wrong in another, and it's definitely not for me to say. What's important and what I want to highlight is that...
There is no need for this monster cube to exist for straight characters
This isn't really news, but if you think about it, the sexuality of straight people is just as internal and evasive as queer sexuality. The only difference is assumption and Otherness.
Since queer characters are so often the sole queer character in the universe they inhabit, they unintentionally speak for all queers in that universe.
That dynamic isn't at play with straight characters because there are so many of them. Which brings me to my conclusion/solution.
Conclusion/Solution: Break The Rules, Stack The Deck, Fill Your Universe With Lots Of Queers
You may have noticed Nichols from Orange Is The New Black chilling out in the cover photo.
Orange Is The New Black doesn't have to deal with this tightrope walking because you can throw a rock in any episode and it'll bounce off at least three queer characters before it hits the floor.
The weight of how to represent a queer character and what the queer character represents is taken off because there are so many other in universe characters to compare them too.
Is this character obnoxiously vocal about their queerness? Doesn't matter 'cuz that one over there is super quiet. Does this one act too butch? Nope that's fine 'cuz we have ten other femmes as foils.
The show is so full of queers that I would posit that it f***s with the paratext or expectations that an audience member brings in.
With a higher volume of queers, no longer do we assume that characters are straight until proven queer. That standard is thrown out the window. The show's representation throws you in the deep end right away with Piper's unsure sexual identity and with a hundred queers. Our expectations are completely different.
If I flick on an episode of Friends, the last thing I'd expect is for Monica to start having sex with Rachel, but throw them into OITNB and my expectations are different.
(That's not a joke about people becoming queer when they go to prison, but that is an existing belief that they even discuss in the show)
You don't need to code Otherness if your universe breaks down the idea that a queer individual is an Other to begin with.
In OITNB sexuality identity becomes like the idea of a character having a job. You know they have one, and you know it's one of a number of choices, but you don't really have expectations going in.
I'm not here to tell you you're bad for liking media that you like or that you shouldn't like media. Media is dynamic and you're gonna be hard pressed to find something ideologically pure with perfect representation.
Also everything I wrote here is just the tip of an incredibly multi-faceted inter-sectional discussion of gender-culture-optics-business-ethics and so on.
Instead I part unto thee a simple wish for more queer characters in media, and conversely more queer writers to write them.
Happy Pride Month!