Queer Theory in Film

What is Queer Theory? [Definition & Film Examples]

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Queer theory in film is a way of breaking stereotypes and questioning gender identity. Before the start of this movement, you would struggle to find queer themes on your screen. In addition, many filmmakers relied heavily on stock characters and misrepresentation.

Films should show fair diversity and challenge false attitudes towards gay culture. In this article, we look at queer films in detail and how they have changed throughout time. We have also included film examples and thoughts on the future of gay cinema.

What is Queer Theory?

To begin with, the word queer is a catch-all term for everyone in the LBGT community. Since the beginning of cinema, filmmakers have explored queer topics. For example, The Blood of a Poet 1930 is a French avant-garde film featuring gay characters and themes.  

However, queer cinema has always has always been the target of censorship. It wasn’t until the 1980s that filmmakers began to challenge the topic of gender and sexuality on screen. As a result, it’s now common to see gay characters in mainstream films.

What is Queer Theory in Film?

When we talk about queer theory in film, we include all films that explore sex and gender identity. This movement challenges the idea that there is a right or wrong way to be queer. In particular, the idea is that gender is fluid, and there is no fixed sexual identity.

Feminist theory wants people to reject gender stereotypes. When you use character tropes and cliches in film, you can lean into bias and prejudice. Queer Theory is similar in that it wants filmmakers to show a diverse range of characters and storylines. Next, we explore some examples of gay cinema and how audience feedback has changed through time.  

Examples of Queer Theory

Since the beginning of cinema, there has been a lack of gay characters presented on screen. Then, in 1927, the Hays Code banned all depictions of homosexuality in films for 30 years. When they lifted the code in 1968, filmmakers were able to start telling queer stories again. Let’s look at how queer theory has changed cinema and its depictions of gay culture.

1. Pandora’s Box (1929)

Pandora’s Box is a German Expressionism film that features a lesbian subplot and sees the lead actress, Louis Brooks, wearing a tuxedo. The film underwent significant censorship in many countries including a major edit in France that cut out all lesion scenes.  

Due to its gay themes, Pandora’s Box had largely negative reviews from film critics. However, in recent years the film has been considered a classic example of the German silent film genre. Notably, Quentin Tarantino listed it in his ten greatest movies of all time. 

2. Victim (1961)

Next, we have a British suspense film about a man blackmailed for being gay. Before 1967, homosexual acts were illegal in England and Wales. As a result, gay men were often targeted and criminalized. The BBFC had trouble certifying the film and cut many scenes.

Nevertheless, they released the film with an X rating, which at the time was for erotica or horror films. The BBFC stated that the film implies that homosexuality is a choice, saying that ‘it’s is a dangerous idea to put into the minds of teenagers who see the film’.

3. Paris Is Burning (1991)

By the 90s, filmmakers could make independent films with freedom over story. Paris is Burning is an example of an indie film that took risks and explored gay culture. It follows the New York City underground ball scene and features many LGBT characters. 

It’s one of the best documentaries of all time because it took risks. As a result, it introduced people to gay culture in a positive light. New York Times reports that the film is an important tool for LGBT youth and students to examine topics of race, class, and gender. 

4. Brokeback Mountain (2005)

The Hollywood studio system avoided gay cinema even after the lifting of the Hays Code. One film that overcame this bias was Brokeback Mountain, a Western romance with a worldwide release. The film stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as gay lovers.

Despite being post-code, the film still sparked debate about queer theory and the inclusion of gay characters in cinema. Still, Brokeback Mountain set the scene for mainstream movies by showing that films with gay characters can have box office success and win awards. 

5. Moonlight (2016)

Moonlight is a coming-of-age drama about a young man exploring his sexuality. It follows Chiron a black man struggling with his identity and changing himself to fit the views of others. The film is an example of gay cinema that explores queer black masculinity.

The film received highly positive reviews and uncut release worldwide. The New Yorker said, the film ‘undoes our expectations as a viewer and avoids overblown cliches’. Despite the film’s low budget, it was a box office success and even won an Oscar for best picture.

New Queer Cinema

In 1992, film critic B. Ruby Rich coined the term New Queer Cinema. The famous film magazine Sight and Sound reprinted her article on gay cinema. At the time, Rich identified that there was a wave of films at festivals that had queer characters and themes.

These films no longer depicted queer characters as the victim. Instead, they told complex stories that tackled issues such as AIDS and race. They also avoided stereotypes and included positive stories on gay themes, which were rare in cinema previously. 

Since the beginning of the 2010s, gay cinema has evolved a more universal audience appeal. It’s not uncommon for films from both Hollywood and worldwide to feature gay characters. B. RubyRich predicts that the future of gay cinema will likely keep up this positive trend.

Final Thoughts on Queer Theory in Film

To sum up, queer theory is about making films that are inclusive to people from the LGBT community. By doing this you avoid bias and create more exclusive movies. Before this movement, it was almost unheard of to see openly gay characters in cinema.

As a result, in the past 30 years, gay cinema has grown, and now many films worldwide have themes on gay culture. It’s up to filmmakers to keep making films that avoid negative stereotypes and write screenplays with a diverse range of storylines and characters.

Amy Clarke
Amy Clarke
Amy is a content writer at the Video Collective. She is a former script supervisor and writes about careers in the film industry. Follow her on Facebook.
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