It’s a Friday afternoon, and my Zoom classes have just wrapped up for the week. I could be thinking about what I have to look forward to (another weekend alone) or what I’m missing out on (a fulfilling college experience), but instead I look out the window to see if I’ll need a raincoat for my walk. This is the routine I’ve developed: school until noon, then walk, then tea and finally, a queer movie.
You’re probably wondering why I’ve added “queer” as a qualifier. While most people have turned to gardening, baking or biking, my isolation projects have been more abstract. One of them is, in essence, an investigation that revolves around a single question: Is there such thing as the perfect queer film?
No is the easy answer. I recognize that one film can’t capture every variant of queerness, because our community’s experiences are so disparate. I’m not suggesting that there should be one film to serve as a font of wisdom and strength for all; it’s actually the particularity that often makes queer films resonate with the identity groups they portray. Nonetheless, the inquiry is useful, because during my so-called investigation, I’ve found many cinematic interpretations of queerness to be inaccurate, disparaging or inauthentic.
Ironically, the most troubling thing about a large portion of queer representation is that it is not really about queer people. “Disclosure” (2020), a documentary I watched this summer about trans representation, compiles a laundry list of films that perpetuate transphobic ideas and tropes. Included in this list was the 1994 comedy “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” which struck me as particularly heinous. At the end of the movie, the titular character realizes that a woman he has kissed is trans, and his reaction is comically outsized: he retches into the toilet, viciously scrubs his tongue with a toothbrush and burns a bucket filled with his clothing.
This is an extreme example, but the scene is in keeping with a strong tradition of centering queer representations around the reactions and lives of straight and cisgender people. Whether it be the trope of the gay best friend (“Mean Girls” (2004), and “Clueless” (1995)) or the affair/home wrecker (“Free Fall” (2013), “Giant Little Ones” (2018) and “Alex Strangelove” (2018)), queer people’s cinematic lives are measured by the convenience of their gender or orientation in the rhythms of straight cisgender society. We don’t often get to watch them live their lives because they aren’t allowed to exist beyond conflicts relating directly to their sexuality.
As I continued my weekly screenings, I found a few notable exceptions. “The Way He Looks” (2014) is a film about a blind boy searching for independence from his parents while also pursuing a relationship with a male classmate. “Paris is Burning” (1991) is a documentary about ballroom culture, which expands upon the lives of queer people of color beyond that which directly threatens them by showcasing their creativity. These films aren’t perfect, but they are authentically queer. Finding them, and the reasons that they feel so right, has been an unexpected silver lining of my isolation.