Films have had little space for the queer community. The light, when it meets with the silver crystals of the reel, has often failed to manufacture a rainbow.
While the queer community is celebrating 53 years of Stonewall with pride on the streets, the studios in Hollywood continue to mask queerness in their frames. After the latest season of Stranger Things, the discussion surrounding “queer-baiting” has taken prominence online with the portrayal of Will Byers (essayed by Noah Schnapp). Queer-baiting is a marketing technique used by production houses in which creators hint at, but do not actually depict same-sex or other LGBTQIA+ communities. Subsequently, this discussion brought the topic of “queer-coding” in cinema under the spotlight, which is the subtextual queer portrayal of characters in media. This means that the characters’ identities are not explicitly revealed.
These phenomena find their roots in the roaring 20s. The Jazz Age saw Hollywood rocked by multiple scandals, such as the murder of William Desmond Taylor and the alleged rape of Virginia Rappe by popular movie star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle which earned them scorn from religious and political organisations. Subsequently, legislators in over 37 states introduced censorship laws. Frightened at the thought of having to comply with over a hundred inconsistent laws, the people of Hollywood chose to censor themselves.
It was during this time that Hollywood adopted the Motion Picture Production Code, popularly known as the Hays Code, which was named after William H. Hays, who was the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). The Hays Code was a set of self-imposed guidelines by the industry in line with the social and cultural code of conservative America. The Code prohibited profanity, nudity, violence, sexual persuasions and rape. The rules governed the use of crime, costume, dance, religious and national sentiments, and morality. This resulted in films for the next three decades catering to the sensibilities of a white straight men.
Filmmakers who tried to circumvent and defy the code were soon pushed out of business. The creators then had to shift to adapting a certain code language such as making queer characters perform certain expressions or adopt a certain body language.
John Huston’s 1941 crime drama The Maltese Falcon, based on a book written by Dashiell Hammett, is a proponent of the film noir and is one of the earliest examples of films depicting homosexual characters post the Hays Code. The character of Joel Cairo in Hammett’s novel is homosexual. However, to navigate the Hays Code, his character was downplayed and other characteristics were used to hint at his sexuality. In the film, Cairo’s calling cards and handkerchiefs are scented with gardenias. Cairo is very particular about his clothes and gets easily upset when blood from a scratch ruins his shirt. Cairo has attributes of a “sissy”, a stereotype that to this day is used by creators to hint at a male character’s sexuality.
These characters are often men who are artistic, sensitive, and emotional with a penchant for dressing and make-up.
The sphere of influence spread all the way to India; Indian cinema to this day incorporates the stereotype of sissy diligently: dean Yogendra Vashisht in Student of the Year, Sameer Gazi in Dishoom and Puppy Bhai in Golmaal 3 all tread in the footsteps of Cairo. No plot points involve them and their character arcs stayed unrefined.
While Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is showered with praise for revolutionising the horror genre, its best-kept secret is the queer identity of Norman Bates. Anthony Perking, who was known to be gay but was not officially out, stated that he purposely played Norman Bates as gay or bisexual. While Hitchcock brings a queer character to life on-screen, we are served a stereotype that is dangerous to the community — that of a sadist.
The censors were said to be more lenient when homosexuality was represented as perverse, like in the case of Psycho. Queer characters only served as a cautionary tale or a comedic relief to the audience; they did not have plot points and character arcs dedicated to them.
Disney too played a part in queer-coding its villains from Scar in Lion King and Jafar in Aladdin to Captain Cook in Peter Pan.
The stereotype, dear to Indian production houses, saw Mogambo, one of the most infamous villains in Bollywood, also being queer coded. Kya yeh Mogambo ko khush kar dega? (Will this make Mogambo happy?)
The Hays Code was replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) system rating a year prior to the Stonewall riots. However, the struggle for queer representation did not end here.
With rainbow capitalism plaguing the market, especially during the pride month, production houses have not started teasing queer audiences with the possibilities of characters being queer in their shows and using clever marketing techniques post-production.
Recently, the latest season of Stranger Things faced a backlash from the queer community for the show’s portrayal of Will Byers. The possibility of Will being queer was hinted at since the first season, with Joyce Byers mentioning that homophobic slurs were being thrown at her son. While the hints about Will’s sexuality have increased manifold, the show’s refusal to address his sexuality has upset the queer community.
In interviews leading up to the release, the topic of Will’s sexuality was brought up with the cast only for them to neither confirm nor deny Will’s sexuality.
The director of The Beauty and the Beast (2017) mentioned of an “exclusively gay moment” in the film, during the run-up to the premiere, only for the audience to realise that his statement was in reference to a very short sequence of LeFou (Josh Gad) dancing with another man, paired with euphemisms throughout the film about his feelings for Gaston (Luke Evans). Many TV shows such as Supernatural and Sherlock Holmes are also rife with queer baiting.
While a self-imposed code kept queer people out of cinema in the 20th century, a lack of respect for the community and queer characters, and a lackadaisical attitude towards inclusivity in writing rooms and production houses is keeping true representation at bay in the 21st century.
Queer stories are not a taboo anymore with shows and movies like Moonlight and Schitt’s Creek demonstrating that cinema centred around queer characters can not only win hearts, but go on to create history by winning Academy Awards and Emmys.
It is time the studios made way for the pride parade.