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Monday, May 21, 2018

My latest essay for Laura's Pride Guide:


To begin, since I have a captive audience, I must discuss the most high profile LGBTQ film of the past year, Call Me by Your Name. This was the second year in a row where an unapologetic depiction of gay desire was feted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: in 2016, Moonlight won Best Picture, and many other awards as well. CMBYN was the winner of the Best Adapted Screenplay (by James Ivory, from the novel of the same name by Andre Aciman) and nominated for three additional Oscars (Best Picture, Lead Actor, and Original Song). The film was also the recipient of many other nominations and awards, including winning a BAFTA (often called the British Oscars) for Best Screenplay, and Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for its stars, Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer. The film was also honored by the Independent Spirit Awards, as well as receiving a GLAAD media award, and awards from GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association).

Despite all these accolades (and perhaps partly because of them), I was sorely disappointed in this film. Don’t get me wrong, I like a gay coming of age romance as much as the next pansexual woman, probably more so. I know I am at risk of angering many (maybe most of) my readers, but here it is: I’ll admit that I thought CMBYN was long (over 2 hrs), slow, and not very romantic. (And I don't think a director should get any credit for making Italy look beautiful!)

Although the casting was much admired, in the book, Armie Hammer's character, Oliver, is 24, but Armie Hammer is 31, and he looks it, and those extra years make the relationship somewhat less appealing, IMHO. In this era, we are much more aware of the exploitative implications of romance when there is a large age difference between the people involved. I was not the only viewer who was uncomfortable with this aspect of the film.

I was also not the only viewer who found Elio (played poignantly by Timothee Chalamet) unapologetically privileged and rather spoiled (he spends most of his screen time pouting and glowering at everyone); as an audience member, I wasn't very invested in his getting his supposed heart's desire. In addition, (SPOILER ALERT) he’s having sex with a local girl who he dumps quite unceremoniously once his prospects with Oliver improve. Even worse, she forgives him completely, because, well, he did it for True Love (the female characters in general are underdeveloped and serve mostly as props). As a fan of the romance genre, I can say that I have seen many films that I think portray that first love experience much more authentically and in a more compelling way for the audience. From its rapturous reception, I expected something much more lovely and moving. If this is your genre of choice, I would recommend you watch the 1996 British film, Beautiful Thing, or another recent movie: Love, Simon (based on the popular YA novel, Simon vs the Homosapien Agenda by Becky Albertalli).

Love, Simon is also a flawed story, IMO, but it’s also the first film featuring a gay teen lead character ever released by a major studio (20th Century Fox). Simon is a high school senior, and gay, but afraid to come out (despite being surrounded by the most supportive and loving friends and family ever assembled in movieland). Simon is ably portrayed by heartthrob Nick Robinson (who also appeared in the interracial teen romance released last year, Everything, Everything, co-starring rising star Amandla Stenberg, and also based on a beloved YA novel). The theater where I saw Love, Simon was filled with teenage girls who were audibly delighted by the movie’s long-awaited (and fairly chaste) kiss at the end. The film is effective romance and a rather charming coming out story. The filmmakers were motivated to portray those experiences in an admittedly idealized way because, as we all know, representation matters.

Which brings me to the point of my essay, and why I titled it as I did.

My teenage daughter is a major fan of the DC universe (also called the Arrowverse) as portrayed on the CW television network in such programs as Arrow, Supergirl, and The Flash. The other day she was watching another favorite CW show, The 100. (I would watch more of these shows if I had the time, but I dip a toe in from time to time, just to keep track of what she’s being exposed to.) The 100 is really dark and gritty and sci fi, so I said, “If you like this show, you should watch the Battlestar Galactica reboot” (currently available to watch on Hulu, but not Netflix). And she said, “Does it have any gay characters?”

This got me thinking. She genuinely expects her entertainment to include LGBTQ characters. And not just token characters, she expects couples - fully formed LGBTQ characters with relationships portrayed with depth. She expects it. And if you look at the shows aimed at teens, they have them.

While I was turning my attention to teen offerings, I noticed something else. The teen entertainment landscape is littered with what I think of as “remakes,” but they are really reimaginings of characters and worlds from previous eras, sometimes going pretty far back, but giving these reboots moderns twists and sensibilities. And LGBTQ inclusion is part and parcel of those sensibilities.

When I was young, there wasn’t anything that represented the idealized and asexual teen experience more than the Archie comics and animated TV show. Even those born much later than I will hum (or sing) along with Sugar, Sugar, the smash hit song (in both the US and the UK) produced for the TV show in 1969 (and often pointed to as the epitome of the Bugglegum Pop phenomenon). The song has been utilized relentlessly since, in commercials, TV shows, and movies, as both a punchline and background music (see, for example, The Bee Movie and Orphan Black).

The Archie universe has been recently reimagined as a TV show constructed around a murder mystery (!) and other dark doings in the fictional town of Riverdale, starring none other than Disney channel perennial, Dylan Sprouse, as Jughead Jones. Archie (KJ Apa), Veronica (Camila Mendes), and Betty (Lili Reinhart) are present as well. Riverdale, as with most current teen entertainment, features a deliberately mixed race cast, and, as has also become standard, prominent LGBTQ storylines. The new show is also far from the chaste presentation of teen life highlighted in its 1960s counterpart, with frank portrayals of all types of sexuality.

Is it fair to call the latest incarnation of the long-running Canadian series DeGrassi a reboot? It’s been in production almost continuously since 1979 (except for a break in the 1990s), dealing with teen issues from abortion to online bullying. Its early incarnation was broadcast on PBS and the longest-running, Degrassi: The Next Generation, aired for 10 years on TeenNick. In 2016, it was reimagined, recast, and renamed for Netflix, as DeGrassi: Next Class. Perhaps because it came from Canada, all the versions of Degrassi have included lesbian and gay characters and storylines, and in recent seasons have also featured trans and genderfluid characters as well.

Though it landed with a thud, it’s still notable that the Paramount network attempted a recent reboot of the 1988 teen “black comedy” (referring to the style of humor, not a reference to race) Heathers. The original film was radical at the time, presenting a darkly skewed vision of teenagers, which pulled back the curtain on high school life thus far portrayed in teen films, and conveyed teens’ darker desires, including revenge on the popular (read: tyrannical) clique. It also introduced to the American lexicon such useful phrases as “What’s your damage?” and “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw.” A musical version of Heathers ran briefly Off Broadway in 2014. (Meanwhile, Heathers’ darling Veronica, Winona Ryder, is appearing in this generation’s off beat obsession, Stranger Things. But I digress.) The new version of Heathers, which is no longer available to view online (or anywhere as far as I can tell) still tried to say something radical about teen life: the 3 Heathers in this version are a gay guy, a genderfluid woman, and a black girl. They terrorized the students and teachers in their school with their unapologetic lifestyles and their witty one liners. Teens stayed away from this show in droves and much ink was spilled by critics pointing out how very, very much the writers had missed the point.

However, my point is that entertainment has come so far in a relatively short time that a show in which the heretofore bullied are portrayed as the bullies was created, cast, produced, and broadcast. No, that’s not my point at all. My point, and I do have one, is that my daughter’s generation expects to see characters of all races, all genders, and all sexual proclivities portrayed in their entertainment, and that gives me hope for the future.

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