Don’t Congratulate Yourself Yet: Queer (Mis)Representation

Still from Stonewall (2015). A crowd of young gay men stand in a dark street, looking up into the sky as the man standing furthest forward, Danny, throws something in a rage.
Roadside Attractions

I casually go through life making mistakes on purpose, it’s a fact. For example, every Pride month, I try to watch LGBTQ+ films to find good and positive queer representation. And also because I like making lists. And in these past years, I’ve seen a lot of movies, some becoming instant favourites, others instant regrets. That’s not the mistake I’m talking about. This year, I decided to go for the bad ones only. I’ve decided to cut the chase and go for the worst. Now that is the mistake.

And it was easy. Too easy. Because as much as Hollywood wants to think that they’ve fixed their issues regarding representation by giving 421 projects to Ryan Murphy, it’s not fixed yet. But Queer misrepresentation seems to have evolved. What started with zero representation or harmful tropes, has changed into cheap attempts and a lot of patting on the back for the effort, even when that effort is the bare minimum.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t need every queer movie to be a perfect, intense work of art like Moonlight or Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Because as much as I love them, and I do, I also want stupid comedies, funny musicals, and great coming-of-age stories. I want films that don’t require a single thought from me. I want more than what they are trying to give me now. But the problem is, for every brilliant Moonlight, we get five terrible stories.

Still from Stonewall (2015). A gang of seven young people stand on top of an empty police car on a darkened street, raising their fists in the air. A fire is burning behind them.
Roadside Attractions

I started this journey with Stonewall. Which, as you may have guessed, I do not recommend. In fact, it was the film that inspired this whole article. Stonewall, by Roland Emmerich, came out in 2015 and it has everything wrong when it comes to bad queer cinema. All the seemingly good intentions were put in the wrong place. It’s a retelling of the events of 1969, but takes away the importance of trans women of colour only to put, right in the spotlight, young Sam from Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. An ode to the Stonewall riots’ unsung heroes (which in the film happens in a single night), it goes to great lengths in making Marsha P. Johnson the comedic relief of the film.

It strips a fundamental moment in queer history and takes away its soul. It’s a glorification of the white saviour and exploitation of minorities disguised as activism. Four minutes in, they show a trans woman preying upon our “hero”. It gets worse from there. Uncharismatic characters turned into easily identified tropes that add nothing to the plot. It could’ve worked as a simple and cheap coming-out-coming-of-age story if they hadn’t put the characters in the centre of the Stonewall riots. For any historical film I’d much rather watch Pride. Even if it’s not about the same topic, it is at least a nice film.

My second film isn’t any better, which I know is the point of this whole thing. But nevertheless, I feel I was robbed of two hours I will never be able to get back. I always thought Ben Affleck would be my villain origin story. Gigli confirmed it.

Still from Gigli (2003). Gigli and his friend stand beside a car on a sunny street, and he gestures towards Ricki, a girl walking away from him but who turns to smile at him.
Sony Pictures

Named one of the worst films in history, every second of it drags to the point of having no point at all. I intended to watch it because I wanted a film where queerness wasn’t the main focus but there was some kind of representation. Having seen it, I wish there wasn’t any representation in it, and I really can’t say what the plot of the film is. I suspect there isn’t one.

Gigli is not queer cinema. The only significant LGBTQ+ character is played by Jennifer Lopez. Ricky, who identifies as a lesbian. I think she’s helping Gigli with a job (again, the plot didn’t stick with me). The point is, he likes her, and obviously, “turns her” into liking men. Imagine the audacity. The other queer character is Ricky’s girlfriend, who, in a jealousy fit, cuts herself in front of everyone. Yes, that is an actual scene in the movie, which, by the way, they play off easily. Gigli is everything wrong in this world and then some (not even mentioning how they represent and mock disabilities). It also gives the idea that a lesbian is a lesbian because they haven’t met Ben Affleck yet.

Gigli is a significant example of bad representation when it comes to the lesbian community. Cinema and TV often depict the worst type of tropes when it comes to women-loving-women. The range goes from deaths (usually very violent) to fetishisation. It is as harmful as it is dehumanising. Hollywood easily takes women’s experiences and sexualises any scenario, whether it is through violence or sex itself. The root of most lesbian films is ultimately subjugated to the male gaze, creating false expectations and a lot of toxicity about the topic. Such cases are Blue is the Warmest Colour or Room in Rome, where the protagonists almost always share an explicit sex scene that helps the over-sexualisation of the collective. I would much rather watch Happiest Season which was made by an actual lesbian (and for Aubrey Plaza), The Handmaiden which at least is good, Lil Nas X’s Call Me by Your Name on repeat, or, honestly, paint drying.

Once I recovered from the abomination that was Gigli, I faced two of the things I hate the most: people whispering and the exploitation of trans trauma and stories for your benefit and cheap Oscar bait. I watched The Danish Girl.

Still from The Danish Girl (2015). A close up of Gerda and Lili in profile. Gerda is facing away from Lili, who stands close behind her, looking over her shoulder in a tender moment.

This is the true story of Lily Elbe, a Danish painter, and her wife Gerda, who made Lily her muse. Now, this movie is bad. And offensive. And clearly uneducated about a lot of topics regarding gender and the trans community. The only thing worth mentioning is how good Alicia Vikander is in it. Other than that, it’s a forgettable movie that tried to cash in, like many others, on the trans experience. I’m a cisgender woman and I have no place in this conversation other than in criticising the lack of acknowledgment the director and writers gave to actual trans people. And to recommend you all to watch Disclosure, which should be mandatory viewing at this point.

From constantly misgendering Elbe, to the cheap wig on Eddie Redmayne (a cis man), The Danish Girl has trauma porn written all over it. It is a trans story written by and for cis people. And it only works for those who take the bait and accept it as it is. Which, at this point, should be no one. It is more likely for a cis actor to play a trans character than for a trans actor to get any role. Redmayne is not the only one. Far from it actually. Just look at Jared Leto winning an Oscar, Felicity Huffman being nominated for one, or Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother. The few roles that exist for the trans community are tinted with violence and misconceptions. With a few exceptions, of course, like Tangerine or A Fantastic Woman. The trans community is not only mistreated in real life, but the media doesn’t give them any favours either. This harmful attempt of representation translates to real-life easily.

The examples don’t stop there. Constant queer-baiting from the biggest production companies nowadays (yeah, Marvel and Disney), normalising violence and sexualisation, exploitation of race and trauma, harmful stereotypes that are engraved in our daily lives. It is, at this point, impossible to say that media, and thus, representation, has no real effect on society. Because at the end of the day, every single piece of media we consume ends up forming our ideas and opinions about everything. It suddenly becomes a collective responsibility, to be able to critically consume media and knowing how it may affect not only us but others as well. And even more so, it is the industry’s responsibility when it comes to green-lighting future projects that may (mis)represent the queer community.

by Andrea de Lera

Andrea de Lera (she goes by her mother’s surname because it sounds better, sorry dad) is a graduate in English Studies and Communication from her hometown University of Oviedo (Spain) and spent a year at Leeds Uni. Someone told her once she was funny and she knew about movies and TV so she based her life around that. Her favorite movies include Singin’ In The RainSome Like It HotThe Rocky Horror Picture Show or When Harry Met Sally. Find her on Twitter and IG @andreadelera, on Letterboxd or her blog

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