In the 1990s, a wave of indie films dubbed ”New Queer Cinema” was produced by queer people for queer people. The films’ storylines centered around LGBTQ+ characters, fleshing them out as well-rounded individuals rather than solely defining them based on their sexuality or gender identity. While the number of movies produced was minimal compared to the current queer canon, New Queer Cinema was a defining era of film that highlighted the power in queer expression.
In contrast, mainstream twenty-first-century movies often fail to accurately represent the LGBTQ+ community; queer storylines are an easy way for large production companies to profit from subculture groups. According to GLAAD, an LGBTQ+ media monitoring organization, of the twenty-two LGBTQ+ inclusive films made by major studios in 2018, only nine featured a queer character for more than ten minutes. As for the rest, 56 percent of queer characters appeared for less than three minutes, with 21 percent of them showing up for less than one (2020 Studio Responsibility Index). Even if the canon of contemporary films is larger than that of New Queer Cinema, the quality of queer portrayals has diminished due to reliance on tropes and stereotypes. For some audiences, it may feel gratifying watching LGBTQ+ storylines as a method of affirming progressive beliefs, yet this does little to help marginalized groups. Therefore, filmmakers must reflect upon the successes of New Queer Cinema in creating unabashedly LGBTQ+ storylines that combated tokenizing representations of queerness as a method of discouraging passive viewing from straight audiences.
Since queerness is a multifaceted subject, it is essential to hone in on specific subcategories to offer in-depth comparisons between New Queer Cinema and contemporary films. Keeping in mind the variety of LGBTQ+ identities and experiences, three main topics arise as predominant storylines in both categories of cinema: camp as a tool to express queerness; portrayals of people with HIV/AIDS; and portrayals of lesbian relationships. Together, these attributes establish the impact of misrepresentation on both the individual viewer and society. In terms of solutions, systemic structures such as the Vito Russo Test ensure positive and diversified queer representation centered by establishing a baseline for the media to surpass.
When referring to LGBTQ+ art that is unabashedly queer and not tokenizing, camp is the aesthetic that resonates with many. Camp is an important style used to describe the queer community’s disconnect from the mainstream, yet it can easily be presented in a manner that does not align with its purpose. In her seminal 1964 essay, Notes on Camp, writer Susan Sontag defines the essence of camp as a ”love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration” (1). Essentially, camp is the use of something outrageous or kitsch as a celebration of transgression against the mainstream. The term has grown synonymous with queer culture, as even Sontag explains, ”homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard—and the most articulate audience—of Camp” (Sontag 13). Historically, camp was utilized to express flamboyance associated with gay men.
However, towards the end of the New Queer Cinema movement, the 1990 film But I’m a Cheerleader revolutionized the term camp, making it both applicable to gay women and defiant to expectations. The rom-com story follows a teenager sent to inpatient conversion therapy after her parents suspect her of being a lesbian, and depicts the conversion camp’s five-step program methodology. Despite the serious nature of its subject, the film avoids realism, instead choosing to implement a technicolor aesthetic in all aspects ranging from set design to costumes. Straight characters exclusively wear muted tones, whereas the out gay couple is only seen with rainbows. The conversion campers are shrouded in the color that matches their gender identity—blue for boys and pink for girls. The extreme theatricality of the production not only pokes fun at heterosexuality but pushes against constructed gender roles by blatantly satirizing stereotypes. But I’m a Cheerleader employed camp to help spread queer messaging, as its style is a tool that enhances the transgressive nature of its themes.
However, camp has often been misconstrued by subsequent films as an attempt to pander to LGBTQ+ audiences. In terms of pandering, the 2020 film The Prom capitalizes on the connection between camp and queerness as a way of falsely proclaiming itself as a celebration of the LGBTQ+ community. The story centers around a teenage lesbian couple struggling with homophobia, yet much of the focus is taken off the protagonists and placed onto the theatrical production design of musical numbers. Despite being the protagonists, the lesbian couple only appears onscreen together in five scenes, with most of the film instead showing storylines surrounding gay male or straight characters. Given so little screen time, the role of queer women is diminished in favor of showcasing songs with extravagant choreography and cinematography. By hiding behind the traditionally queer spectacle of camp rather than the actual queer characters, The Prom markets itself as an LGBTQ+ film but fails to tell a story that advocates for the community. It is essential to recognize the difference between the two, as camp should be used as a tool to enhance LGBTQ+ storylines rather than capitalize on falsified expressions of queerness.
In a similar vein, stories regarding HIV/AIDS often fall into similar separations between those that dilute or those that celebrate queerness. In a 1994 study on the importance of HIV/AIDS representation, it was found that ”the majority of Americans have not (knowingly) interacted with people with AIDS on a regular basis and have been forced to rely heavily on mass media images for their social knowledge about HIV/AIDS and people with HIV/AIDS” (Hart 78). With cinema and media playing an increased role in affecting the way the public views people with HIV/AIDS, it is essential then and now that the work produced considers the educational and representational impact it holds.
One independent New Queer Cinema film that took the issue of accurate representation head-on was The Living End (1992). Directed towards a queer audience, this classic piece depicts the crime spree of two HIV-positive gay men who form a relationship as they flee from the law and society. Neither protagonist conforms to societal expectations of HIV-positive men, as they are not fearful of their diminishing mortality but instead use their rage as fuel for their transgressive spirits. As a result, director Gregg Araki has been praised for how The Living End ”jeered at the notion that an HIV-positive man was by default a victim” (Davidson). This mindset allows the exploration of the various reactions to receiving an AIDS diagnosis, ranging from despair to sheer rage. The explicit queerness of the film does not attempt to make characters palatable for mainstream audiences, as it was an expression of the complexity of people with HIV/AIDS.
In contrast to the explicitness of The Living End, the Tom Hanks-led film Philadelphia (1993) proved to be a negative representation in contemporary cinema, as it used its protagonist as an educational tool for straight audiences by diluting the intricacy of queer characters. Upon its release, Philadelphia was one of the first major studio films to discuss HIV/AIDS. The story follows Andrew Beckett, who sues his law firm after being fired for incompetence when in reality, it was due to his homosexuality and AIDS status. The film attempts to avoid the stigma surrounding sexuality by making Andrew a model citizen of sorts. This, however, represents an attempt to cater to straight audiences: ”To make a gay character’s homosexuality acceptable and normal, a character overcompensates for the stigma of homosexuality (and, in Andy’s case, his HIV status as well), by being hyper-idealized in every other characterological aspect” (Dean 367). By attempting to normalize HIV/AIDS individuals through a romanticized lens, Philadelphia focuses on gaining audience sympathy by disregarding the aspects of queer life that would likely be deemed unfit by mainstream society. While the protagonists of Philadelphia and The Living End all have HIV/AIDS, the former solely defines its character as a victim of the disease, whereas New Queer Cinema does not diminish queer individuals’ value after a negative diagnosis.
While gay men are often used as tools to gain sympathy in film, queer women are either celebrated or objectified by the industry. An example of a film that explores the diverse experiences of lesbianism in a positive light is New Queer Cinema’s Go Fish (1994). With experimental storytelling and editing techniques, the film explores the relationships between a group of lesbians in Chicago and how queerness can express itself in a myriad of ways. It does not stray away from explicitly discussing issues plaguing the queer community and how lesbians are affected by societal standards. The characters discuss the intersection between their lesbian identity and sensuality, stances on monogamy, gender expression, and stigmatization in a heteronormative society. This choice was mainly due in part to the production team’s belief, as expressed by Professor Maris Pramaggiore in her article ”Fishing for Girls: Romancing Lesbians in New Queer Cinema,” that ”lesbian images that affirm lesbian cultural production and materialize lesbian existence in the heterosexual imagination [are] a powerful political act” (65). The script holds no shame in lesbianism while embracing the different expressions of queer women. This forces straight or gay male audiences to either adapt to the realities of living as a queer woman or move on. Whereas New Queer Cinema compels viewers to challenge their preconceived notions of queerness, mainstream cinema allows for passive viewing under the guise of perceived social awareness.
When attempting to find a contemporary film to compare with Go Fish, I found that there are few lesbian movies that center around a relationship and take place in the twenty-first century. There are, however, more films centered on such relationships set in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By setting the stories in the past, as Oxford University student journalist Natalie Vriend explains, ”viewers have no need to confront the discrimination raging on around them yet feel rewarded for pretending to do so by watching” (Vriend). Historical dramas allow filmmakers to do the bare minimum of expressing lesbianism, such as having characters hold hands or caress each other’s faces, as such actions would have been revolutionary in previous eras. This approach proves to be concerning, as it allows for films to be produced through the male gaze unknowingly to the audience. Doing so promotes the sexualization and fetishization of toxic lesbian relationships that lack any emotional substance. Eliminating the modern context from lesbian films also makes it so that audiences do not have to question the way lesbians are presented since they often do not have the frame of reference to distinguish the stereotypes from historical accuracies. In comparison to Go Fish, the recent rise in period dramas demonstrates the shift away from unapologetic lesbian portrayals and towards a reliance on male-approved stereotypes.
By depending on false, male-centric representations of queerness, such films negatively impact the way LGBTQ+ viewers perceive their own identity and reinforce misconceptions about the queer community. Actress Laverne Cox expressed this concept with her viewpoint as a transgender woman saying that ”the ways in which trans people have been represented on-screen have suggested that we’re not real, have suggested that we’re mentally ill, that we don’t exist” (Disclosure). Especially for young LGBTQ+ individuals, media exposure to queer topics acts as a guiding principle for coming to terms with their sexuality or gender. Seeing elements of oneself belittled in cinema can create a sense of internalized homophobia or transphobia. It is challenging to grow to accept such attributes if they are presented negatively to those at a young and impressionable age.
In conjunction, unsatisfactory representation proves to be even more problematic regarding people outside of the LGBTQ+ community, as many establish their understanding of unknown topics based on what they see in the media. This influence is especially true for pieces of fiction, with studies showing that ”the consumption of narrative fictions depicting gay people in an affirmative manner enhance positive attitudes toward gay people and weaken the correlation between self-positioning and homosexual bias” (Madžarević 923). Narrative media is an extremely powerful tool since it is a medium that appeals to the empathy of its audience. Viewers see the world through the protagonist’s eyes, allowing for widening perspectives and implementing new understanding to real-world scenarios. When cinema fails to portray queer characters and storylines accurately, it perpetuates the community’s stigmatization and halts societal progress.
The issue of societal stagnancy resulting from misrepresentation in the film industry is rooted in intolerance and enforces the notion that being LGBTQ+ is inherently wrong. But rather than attempting to push boundaries, as the New Queer Cinema movement has done in the past, mainstream cinema uses formulaic structures and plotlines to create a facade of diversity. Utilizing stereotypes is a common trope in contemporary cinematic production: if ”film attempts to mirror society, stereotypes are an easily available way of presenting generalized characters” (McLearen 2). The reliance on stereotypes in major production companies is due to their attempt to reflect and reinforce societal ideals that promote commercial success. Such improper LGBTQ+ representation enforces the idea that ”heterosexual relationships are superior to homosexual relationships” and portrays the community in a shameful light by focusing on stereotypes around ”concealment of sexual orientation, psychological distress, and internalized heterosexism” (Annati 10). For queer viewers, cinema that solely centers around stereotypes of LGBTQ+ suffering can be psychologically traumatizing because it communicates that queerness is unfavorable compared to heterosexuality and negates the positives. It is quintessential to tell queer stories that cover a wide variety of topics, as the experience of LGBTQ+ people should not be defined as an inherently tragic way of life.
Failure to expand the limited queer representation in film is detrimental to normalizing the LGBTQ+ community in broader society. In a study conducted by the University of Southern California on the effect of media representation, it was discovered that there is a ”positive relationship between exposure to on-screen gay characters and the endorsement of gay equality” (Gillig and Murphy 3830). This correlation is promising, as it validates the media’s power over changing people’s perspectives. However, for such progress to continue, cinema must reevaluate the accuracy of its portrayal of queer topics, as the work produced is influential in spheres outside of media. With critical issues at stake, cinema is vital in educating the masses on political matters. Considering how society has become increasingly politicized in recent years, the responsibility of cinema has become augmented since onscreen portrayals directly impact how audiences apply their perception of queerness to the real world. This societal responsibility requires examining the industry and society’s standards for media representation. The complexity of LGBTQ+ characters must be upheld to ensure that depictions of the queer community do not have adverse effects on policymaking or political discourse.
Since the number of LGBTQ+ characters in cinema has increased, it is possible to infer that LGBTQ+ representation as a whole has improved as well. In a study conducted by GLAAD on film diversity in 2020, 27 percent of the forty-four films produced by major studios featured an LGBTQ+ character. In comparison to 2019, there was an increase of 4.1 percent; however, they note a decrease in films studied due to COVID-19 production delays (“Overview of Findings” 14-15). The data shows an increasing number of queer representations in cinema, as studios are including more LGBTQ+ characters in their storylines. As a result, many believe that the issue of queer representation is solved. While seeing more queer characters is very important, and the positive trend of queer stories on screen is promising, the quantity of portrayals is not as important as the quality. It is not enough to simply measure representation through numerical statistics, as that does not consider if the topics presented are done in a way that benefits the community.
Instead, a set of standards that consider the importance of queer characters and topics must be established to ensure that films are produced in the best interest of the LGBTQ+ community. One suggestion that has been proposed is the ”Vito Russo Test.” Created by GLAAD and based on the Bechdel Test, the Vito Russo Test is a system used to determine whether a film meets the standards for LGBTQ+ representation based on three criteria: 1) the film must contain a character who is identifiably queer; 2) their sexuality or gender identity cannot solely define them; and 3) they must be significant to the plot (”Vito Russo Test” 11). The test does have some limitations, as it has minimal expectations for films and does not ensure that the characters are portrayed in an unobjectionable manner. Nevertheless, the system is a baseline for a movie to strive to be LGBTQ+ inclusive. While it may not cover all facets necessary for proper queer representation, it is a good start to promote more inclusive media.
Systematic structures such as the Vito Russo Test are necessary, but to positively improve mainstream LGBTQ+ films, cinema companies must also reflect on the creative aspects and spirit of defiance that made New Queer Cinema successful. From a production standpoint, hiring queer management teams, writing multifaceted queer characters, and using storylines that are unabashed expressions of queerness are all ways to ensure that LGBTQ+ voices are heard both on and off-screen. These strategies would prioritize the issues of the community rather than looking at them through a heteronormative lens, as doing so has proved in the past to create false representations that do not focus on authentic aspects of queerness.
Alongside production elements, contemporary cinema needs to recognize how New Queer Cinema understood the necessity of projecting subcultures in a manner that did not conform to preconceived notions of queerness but expanded the limits placed on the LGBTQ+ community. Director Andrew Ahn expressed his perspective on the necessity of combating complacency in current queer cinema since failure to do so leads to the ”mainstreamification of culture—how that can and has abandoned like parts of our community that aren’t necessarily cis, white, or privileged” (Ward). The success of New Queer Cinema was its willingness to display the issues and characteristics of the LGBTQ+ community that the heteronormative society wished to conceal. This notion of audacious expressions of queerness is essential for the preservation of diverse storytelling, as it allows for the normalization of queer stories without compromising the ideals that are integral to various orientations.
Upon reflection of the differences between mainstream films and those from New Queer Cinema, it is apparent that successful LGBTQ+ representation is dependent on candid expressions of queerness and input from queer creators on the issues that matter to the community. Of the specific plot points surrounding camp aesthetics, HIV/AIDS, and lesbian relationships, New Queer Cinema offers incomparable portrayals that embrace the multifaceted nature of such issues and act as a standard by which future films should follow. More than simply meeting the minimum requirements, it is essential for cinema to continue to push boundaries, as media holds immense power over societal mindsets, culture, and politics. If film production companies were to reevaluate their reliance on stereotypes when portraying LGBTQ+ issues and identities, it would open a broader dialogue on how media depicts marginalized communities at large.
“20 Years Ago, But I’m a Cheerleader Reclaimed Camp for Queer Women.” The AV Club, 5 June 2020, https://www.avclub.com/20-years-ago-but-i-m-a-cheerleader-reclaimed-camp-for-1843738537.
2020 Studio Responsibility Index. GLAAD Media Institute, 2020, https://www.glaad.org/sites/default/files/GLAAD%202020%20Studio%20Responsibility%20Index.pdf.
Annati, Arienne. “The Frequency of Stereotypical Media Portrayals and Their Effects on the Lesbian Community.” Honors Thesis, Bridgewater State University, 2020, https://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1312&context=honors_proj
But I’m a Cheerleader. Dir. Jamie Babbit. Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment, 2000.
Davidson, Alex. “From Philadelphia to 120 Bpm: The Changing Face of Aids in Film.” The Guardian, 6 Apr. 2018, www.theguardian.com/film/2018/apr/06/from-philadelphia-to-120-bpm-the-changing-face-of-aids-in-film.
Dean, James J. “Gays and Queers: From the Centering to the Decentering of Homosexuality in American Films.“ Sexualities 10.3 (2007): 363-86.
Disclosure. Dir. Sam Feder. Field of Vision, 2020.
Gillig, Traci, and Sheila Murphy. “Fostering Support for LGBTQ Youth? the Effects of a Gay Adolescent Media Portrayal on Young Viewers.” International Journal of Communication 10 (2016): 3828-50.
Go Fish. Dir. Rose Troche. Samuel-Goldwyn, 1994.
Hart, Kylo-Patrick R. “Representing men with HIV/AIDS in American movies.“ The Journal of Men’s Studies 11.1 (2002), 77-89.
Lane, Anthony. “Planned Alcoholism in ‘Another Round’ and Weaponized Camp in ‘The Prom.’” The New Yorker, 10 Dec. 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/12/21/planned-alcoholism-in-another-round-and-weaponized-camp-in-the-prom.
The Living End. Dir. Gregg Araki. October Films Strand Releasing, 1992.
Madžarević, G., and M. T. Soto-Sanfiel. “Positive Representation of Gay Characters in Movies for Reducing Homophobia.” Sexuality & Culture 22 (2018): 909-30.
McLearen, Catherine. “Homophobia in Film.“ Political Analysis 18 (2016): article 2.
“Overview of Findings.” GLAAD, 15 July 2021, https://www.glaad.org/sri/2021/overview.
Philadelphia. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Tristar Pictures, 1993.
Pramaggiore, Maria. “Fishing for Girls: Romancing Lesbians in New Queer Cinema.” College Literature 24.1 (1997): 59-75.
The Prom. Dir. Ryan Murphy. Ryan Murphy Productions, 2020.
Sontag, Susan. Notes on Camp. Penguin Classics, 2018.
“The Vito Russo Test.” GLAAD, 15 July 2021, https://www.glaad.org/sri/2021/vito-russo-test.
Vriend, Natalie. “Damsels in Distress? – the Rise of the Lesbian Period Drama.” Cherwell, 15 Nov. 2020, https://cherwell.org/2020/11/15/damsels-in-distress-the-rise-of-the-lesbian-period-drama/.
Ward, Ben. “Watch This: Nearly 30 Years Later, Filmmakers Reflect on the Birth of New Queer Cinema.” Sundance.org, 6 May 2021, www.sundance.org/blogs/new-queer-cinema-anniversary-panel/.
About the Author
Shea Campion is a rising sophomore at Fordham College at Lincoln Center. She is majoring in Communication and Culture with a minor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Shea is passionate about social justice and intends to one day work for an LGBTQ+ nonprofit. She hopes this essay inspires readers to reflect on the importance of representation in media.