In 1930, following rising public outcry over lewd content in movies, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (now known as the Motion Picture Association of America), introduced a set of rules for Hollywood studios to follow, lest cinema become synonymous with promoting delinquency. Films made after 1930 were expected to portray “correct standards of life.” Religion was to be depicted without derision, crime was not to be glorified and in scenes where (heterosexual) sex was suggested, the woman character was to keep one foot visibly planted on the floor. The sanctity of marriage was to be upheld and “perverse” relationship dynamics were not to be featured at all. In addition to the erasure of interracial couples, this meant queer relationships were essentially outlawed.
Although the Hays Code’s influence began to deteriorate two decades later, a standard of homophobia – one that continues to suffuse today, albeit maybe more discreetly, depending on who you ask – had been implanted in the entertainment industry’s rule book.
In the new documentary Queering the Script, premiering this weekend at Toronto’s Inside Out Film and Video Festival, audiences are given an education in the continuing impact of this erasure. If you’ve never struggled to find a film or television character who shares your identity, the unwavering ecstasy and commitment of the film’s fan convention interviewees could come across as excessive, just as the YouTube reaction videos of fans watching tragic scenes from their favourite queer television shows could come across as extreme. But the arrival of characters who are queer without innuendo is, for those who’ve never seen themselves represented on screen, deliverance to the valid and human longing to be understood.
While Queer Eye, Killing Eve, RuPaul’s Drag Race and other popular queer television shows currently occupy prime real estate in the arenas of fandom and online discourse, Queering the Script importantly reminds us that queer representation on television did not come without a fight.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t have any queer people in my town who I could look to. I didn’t have any queer elders who could show me the ropes,” says Riverdale writer Britta Lundin, in the documentary. “I was a gay teenager who was obsessed with TV. … And everybody on those shows was straight.”
For the uninitiated, Queering the Script explains the concepts of fan fiction and slash fiction in a way that affords them the opportunity to be understood as a radical survival tool: If television provided no queer characters, fans were going to defiantly make them. Similarly, queer audiences have long imposed subtextual narratives upon the main texts of shows where the characters weren’t defined as queer but winked at the audience to say they weren’t necessarily straight.
In the final episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, for example, Gabrielle delivers water to Xena’s mouth in a sustained almost-kiss that certainly seems gay without the show’s producers – perhaps still internalizing the Hays Code’s "correct standards of life” – taking the risk to label it as such. (Many more tropes and subtextual narratives are unpacked at the website LGBT Fans Deserve Better.)
“It can actually cause harm if you don’t see yourself represented," says Queering the Script’s producer, Steph Ouaknine, in an interview. “It’s symbolic annihilation. You stop imagining what your world could be like.”
According to the documentary, between 2015 and 2017, just 2.5 per cent of regular characters on television identified as lesbian or bisexual, but lesbian or bisexual characters made up 27 per cent of character deaths. (Between 2015 and 2017, 62 queer female characters were killed on scripted television.)
“No matter what the story line is or how the show runner justifies the death, there is a subtle message in the community … that says, ‘you are not worthy of living. Your stories aren’t worthy of being told and you are not worthy of being a character,’” says Christin Baker, founder and CEO of Tello Films, in the documentary.
“Straight characters get killed off all the time. But when you have 1,000 straight characters and a handful of them get killed, but you have maybe six gay characters and four of them get killed, it’s pretty demoralizing,” adds culture critic Dana Piccoli.
The conversation around queer narratives has certainly evolved since 1930. Still, it’s easy to forget that major companies, such as Wendy’s, pulled their ads when Ellen DeGeneres came out on Ellen in 1997, or that in 1990, ABC withheld an episode of thirtysomething from its rerun schedule due to controversy over the show’s characters discussing AIDS. Just this week, a Calvin Klein campaign featuring model Bella Hadid kissing Internet-famous female robot Lil Miquela was widely accused of “queer-baiting.” (The Calvin Klein brand has now issued an apology.)
According to Queering the Script director Gabrielle Zilkha, the chronic mistreatment of queer characters in pop culture would be alleviated by hiring queer writers and producers on shows that capitalize – whether overtly or not – on queer stories.
“That doesn’t happen when you have queer people in the room," says Zilkha of heteronormative missteps. “That doesn’t happen when you have those voices representing themselves. Sure, gay people will die. … We should have these plot lines just like anyone else. But what you don’t do is step on a land mine without knowing it or tell jokes that are tired to queer audiences. It’s not going to change overnight. But it is becoming harder to get away with having a room full of people that are not reflecting the people they’re writing about.”
Queering the Script premieres May 26, 12:15 p.m., TIFF Lightbox as part of Inside Out.
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