Growing up, many of us young LGBT+ audience members have struggled to find ourselves represented in mainstream television and movies. In recent years, it has become easier with television shows and movies explicitly having LGBT+ representation like "Love Simon," "Princess Cyd," "POSE," "Brooklyn-Nine-Nine," and more. What did LGBT+ viewers do years ago when the media was not as accepting?
"Morocco" (1930) was one of the first US films to show a kiss between two women. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
“The term ‘male gaze’ coined by Laura Mulvey (1975) is the concept that films depict women as sexual objects forheterosexual male pleasure.” The 1995 documentary "The Celluloid Closet" offers a new perspective on the cinematic concept. The film proposes that a phenomena similar to the “male gaze” occurs in queer audiences which they see themselves in “straight" characters. The documentary features many men and women in Hollywood who offer their thoughts on the idea that LGBT+ characters have been represented in film.
Queer content has a history of being banned onscreen. The Hays Code was issued by the Motion Picture in 1930, and was in practice until 1965. It introduced the concept of censoring films with 36 “Do and Don’t Rules” which banned scandalous content such as lustful kissing. It also set certain standards such as “No silhouettes of nudity,” or weirder ones like, “Keep one foot on the floor in bedroom scenes.” With all of these rules in place, LGBT characters remained taboo. Before the code was put into place, LGBT characters were shown only if they were heavily stereotyped.
One of the earliest movies that is featured in "The Celluloid Closet" is the 1930’s movie "Morocco." It is one of the earliest films that features a kiss between two women, but the scene is not as romantic as one may think. "Morocco" is a war-time love story between a heterosexual couple, but the movie is most famous for one particular scene with Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich is performing for a crowd, dressed in a male’s tuxedo and the crowd watches as Dietrich takes a flower from a female audience member and swoops in to kiss her. It is clear that Dietrich is portraying a heterosexual male, and this is most likely why a movie pre-code was able to be so explicitly gay.
One movie that was explored in the documentary that struck me was Howard Hawks’ "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953). The musical number “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love,” performed by Jane Russell, features Russell surrounded by shirtless Olympic athletes wearing flesh colored briefs, working out and not remotely interested in Russell’s character. The scene is very homoerotic, as it suggests that the near-naked men are not even phased by Russell’s sex crazed character and are just there for her visual enjoyment. Audiences can view it as homoeroticism due to the men interacting with each other and not being interested in Russell.
Flashing forward to now, movie filmmakers have a long way to go in featuring more explicitly LGBT+ characters. However, looking back at where we came from, it is clear that we have made a lot of progress within the last century. We live in an era where LGBTQ+ people can find displays of love, inclusivity, and acceptance in the media.
Jane Russel in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.