"Where All The Femme Fags At?" Disproportionate Queer Hyper-Masculinity On The Screen, Femme Fear, and 'Love, Simon'
If you're reading this, you're probably one of the millions of people that has consumed - willingly or unwillingly - part of the aggressive marketing campaign for the new gay coming of age film Love, Simon.
A moment of congratulations for that marketing team. The combination of skill and money you have at your disposal made this film something I literally couldn't go online once without seeing.
So, hoping that it would make the ads go away, I watched the trailer for this film. As someone who was once a young closeted queer individual, there was an impulse to check it out.
Here's the trailer if y'all haven't tripped and fallen into it yet. (yes, I know this essentially makes me part of the marketing campaign, and yes I hate that).
After my initial reaction of "why do all these youth have perfect skin. Where is my acne-ridden oily-faced youth representation. #AcneRepresent" I couldn't help but dwell on the fact that the title character of Simon, played by Nick Robinson, is fairly masculine.
You could argue that he's masculine leaning, and that's fine, but he's definitely not is feminine. And that's what I want to focus on here.
I can hear the reader hesitation already.
Femininity in queer men is important because a large part of the queer experience, and a large part of discrimination in the queer experience, comes from how you act.
I like to say that in high school, I was never bullied for being attracted to men, I was bullied for "acting faggy."
It was my higher-pitched and overly-emotive voice; it was my participation in theater; it was my lack of interest in sports; it was my only hanging out with girls; it was my deviance from traditional masculinity that opened me up to ridicule.
Bullying kids for "acting faggy" happens even before they've come out to the public, and frankly before they've even come out to themselves. In his title essay from his collection If You Knew Then What I Know Now, essayist Ryan Van Meter writes, reflecting on a childhood bullying experience:
So when I see the trailer for Love, Simon, and I see how masculine he sounds and masculine he looks, I just feel a little disappointed. Does it have to do with the fact that a straight actor is playing the character? Maybe a little, but I've seen fantastic queer performances by straight actors in the past. Is that disappointment probably intertwined with my own childhood issues that are messy and hard to untangle, most definitely.
On one level, I'm a little bothered, but on another level, I also get it. If we assume that US media consumers are still in a state of still-getting-used-to-queer-people-and-characters, it makes sense to butch up the gay kid. Going full super-sayan femme-gay would alienate all the cishets immediately. This film is definitely a step in the right direction for the future acne-ridden femmygayboi fantasy films I dream of. Calling for a boycott of the film is (1) something that's way too dramatic even for me (2) something I don't have the audience for, and (3) something that would limit progress. So go out and support queer cinema.
After I recognized that it probably takes a more masculine queer character for audiences to swallow, I came to thinking, wait. femme queer characters aren't non-existent? And then I started thinking of those characters, and I started noticing a terrifying trend.
The following alignment chart that I made is pseudo-science/psychology that disgusts me. I hate categorizing people, but these are fictional characters, so I'm giving myself a bit of a break. This is to illustrate a point and to illustrate a point only. There may be many mistakes, and everything in it is open to interpretation. I wanted to vomit when I found myself wondering who's more feminine, Mitch from Modern Family or Blaine from Glee.
The following is a survey of 18 queer male characters that I've seen in television since 2005 (well, Oscar doesn't come out until season 3 of The Office [US], so I'm not sure how to categorize that).
I want to say gay male characters, but because I'm not looking to comb through hours of footage to find quotes proving specific identifications, I'll stick with "queer".
These characters assigned two variables, place on the masculine-feminine binary line (when subscribing to traditional cultural expectations of masculinity and femininity. The Sandy-Danny dynamic) and place on the serious-comic binary line. (I was going to have it labeled as dramatic-comic, but unfortunately a 'dramatic' gay male character means something completely).
This survey is also entirely from television, rather than film! My excuses are: I watch more television than film, television is more accessible to a common audience, television arts are longer form and allow for a more developed audience-character relationship and character development. Points against me: My entire intro was about film. So I hereby expand this conversation to media as a whole, and nitpick my data to television.
Here's a rundown if you don't know the characters. They are organized by show run date.
Sens8 | 2015-present
Lito Rodriguez | Miguel Silvestre
Hernando Fuentes | Alfonso Herrera
I'll admit I haven't watched this entire show, so I only have aesthetic judgement. I'm also not an expert on Queer Mexican masculinity, so I don't think I'm allowed to draw conclusions.
I will point out that they're both ripped, have traditionally masculine voices, and could definitely beat me in a fight.
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt | 2015-present
Titus Andromedon | Tituss Burgess
Hyper femme and comic, but the entire show is comic, and there are moments where he is allowed sincerity. 3 points awarded.
How to Get Away with Murder | 2014-present
Connor Walsh | Jack Falahee
Connor is the womanizer trope, which is funny because he's gay. So we'll say he's the 'aggressively promiscuous' trope. He is masculine in vocal tone and physical presence. He's coy, but I don't know if that's part of the essential handbook of traditional femininity.
Oliver Hampton | Conrad Ricamora
Oliver is the nerd trope, nerds aren't traditionally masculine, but he has a low voice and no outward coding of being feminine.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine | 2013-present
Captain Raymond Holt | Andre Braughter
The joke here is that he's hyper masculine but also gay. It's not portrayed in a negative light.
Orange Is the New Black | 2013-present
Desi Piscatelli | Brad William Henke
Essentially the same deal as Captain Hold, except Piscatelli is an evil masc gay.
Modern Family | 2009-present
Mitchell Pritchett | Jessie Tyler Ferguson
10 points for Mitchell, he's femme, and only 50% of the time a comic character. He definitely gets real dramatic "heartwarming family" moments.
Cameron Tucker | Eric Stonestreet
2 points for Cam. He's more feminine than Mitchell, but he's a comic character 85% of the time.
Pepper Salzman | Nathan Lane
Very fem, only comic.
The Middle | 2009-2018*
*final season will air in May
Brad Bottig | Brock Ciarlelli
Very fem, only comic however in later seasons he gets more serious of a role that isn't always comic. 1 point.
Glee | 2009-2015
Kurt Hummel | Chris Colfer
20 points for Kurt. Kurt is very fem and has a big enough role where he is regularly humanized. There's enough camp in the show where he isn't the fallback joke.
Blaine Anderson | Darren Criss
Less femme than Kurt, but also not always a joke. 10 points, on par with Mitchell.
David Karofsky | Max Adleron
Closeted Evil Masc Gay
30 Rock | 2006-2013
Devon Banks | Will Arnett
Evil Comic Masc Gay. Half a point.
Ugly Betty [US] | 2006-2010
Justin Suarez | Mark Indelicato
Femme gay, bildungsroman, 20 points.
Marc St. James | Michael Urie
Chaotic Neutral Femme Gay, part of almost every joke, but has some tender moments. 5 points.
The Office [US] | 2005-2013
Oscar Martinez | Oscar Nunez
Closeted Masc/Neutral Gay, comes out but is never femme. Half a point.
I think it's crazy that I name more gay characters than I have fingers. Obviously you could name more straight characters than you have hairs on your head, but television has definitely come a long way.
Because of that, I'm not intending to talk trash about these characters, I'm just pointing out an odd trend.
And if it's not clear by now, the trend I'm seeing is that serious gay male characters are masculine, whereas effeminate gay male characters are treated as comic. And only a select few shooting stars break the mold.
In a perfect universe, I would like to see more effeminate gay male characters in serious roles. Serious roles humanize people, and with that as one part of a multi-faceted solution maybe we can get to a point where "acting faggy," is a normal accepted behavior. Until then, go see Love, Simon in theaters if it tickles your fancy, even if he doesn't have a face full of acne.