Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Cinema

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Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Cinema


The study of gay and lesbian cinema became a growing concern in the wake of 1970s feminist film theory and the discipline's increasing attention to issues of representation—of women, of racial and ethnic minorities, and eventually of gay and lesbian people. While there had been a few attempts to discuss onscreen homosexuality prior to that period (such as Parker Tyler's Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies [1972]), the seminal text on the subject was Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (first published in 1981, revised and updated in 1987). In it, Russo examined over eighty years of film history, exploring the ways and means in which gay and lesbian people had been portrayed at the movies. Those images carried considerable cultural weight; for many people, these images were all they ever "saw" or "knew" about homosexuality before the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

The so-called Stonewall Riots that occurred in New York City in June 1969 are sometimes said to be the start of the modern gay and lesbian civil rights movement—the fight for civil rights and an end to discrimination. Before that time, gay and lesbian people were routinely fired from their jobs, denied housing, harassed, or arrested simply for being homosexual. They were classified as mentally ill by the psychiatric and military communities, and during the Red Scare of the 1950s they were considered national security risks. Like the struggle for racial or gender equality, the fight for gay and lesbian equality continues to this day, and the images that popular film and television create of homosexual people continue to influence both public perception and governmental policy.

In the last twenty years, the study of gay and lesbian cinema has expanded greatly beyond simplistic image analysis. Within academia, the development of third wave feminism and queer theory across many disciplines in the humanities has sought to rethink basic concepts about human sexuality, demonstrating the complexity of a subject that encompasses not only personal orientation and behavior but also the social, cultural, and historical factors that define and create the conditions of such orientations and behaviors. The term "queer," once a pejorative epithet used to humiliate gay men and women, is now used to describe that broad expanse of sexualities. Queer should thus be understood to describe any sexuality not defined as heterosexual procreative monogamy (once the presumed goal of any Hollywood coupling); queers are people (including heterosexuals) who do not organize their sexuality according to that rubric.

Recently, many of the theoretical issues raised by queer theory have found their way into gay and lesbian independent filmmaking, within a movement known as New Queer Cinema. Queer theory also helps us interrogate and complicate the category "gay and lesbian cinema." For example, the very meaning of the words "gay" and "lesbian"—how they are used and understood—has changed greatly over the decades, as have the conditions of their cinematic representation. There are great cultural and historical differences between films made by queer directors in 1930s Hollywood and those made by early twenty-first-century independent queer filmmakers. The characteristics that mass culture has used to signify homosexuality have also changed. While present-day films can be relatively forthright about sexuality, older films could only hint at it in various ways. Thus, many classical Hollywood performances, directors, and genres might be considered queer rather than gay, in that they do not explicitly acknowledge homosexuality, but nonetheless allow for spaces in which normative heterosexuality is threatened, critiqued, camped up, or shown to be an unstable performative identity.


Classical (and pre-classical) Hollywood films (those produced between the 1910s and the 1950s) had little interest in dramatizing homosexual lives or homosexual issues. The very structure of Hollywood narrative form was and is heterosexist: it almost always contains a male–female romance, regardless of story line or genre. If and when homosexual characters appeared in Hollywood films prior to the sexual revolution, they were almost always relegated to walk-on parts or small supporting roles. One notable early exception was A Florida Enchantment (1914), a comedy wherein female characters eat magical sex-changing seeds that turn them into women-chasing lotharios. Much more common was the stereotype of the "pansy," an effeminate male supporting character—often a butler, designer, or choreographer. When the Hollywood Production Code (which specifically forbade the depiction of what it called "sex perversion") was put into effect in 1934, these characterizations were forced further into the realm of connotation. Hollywood cinema under the Code continued to suggest queerness via the presence of effeminate men and mannish women, but these characters were never explicitly acknowledged as homosexual. Actors such as Edward Everett Horton (1886–1970), Eric Blore (1887–1959), and Franklin Pangborn (1888–1958) made careers for themselves by playing such roles.

Female characters in pre-Code cinema were stronger and more sexually forthright than in post-Code cinema, and occasionally they too gave off a queer aura. For example, Greta Garbo's (1905–1990) Queen Christina (1933) wears pants, runs a country, and kisses her chambermaid rather passionately on the lips—before she falls in love with a man. Similarly, in Morocco (1930), Marlene Dietrich's (1901–1992) character wears a tuxedo and vamps both men and women. Both actresses—Garbo and Dietrich—had large queer fan bases and many rumors surrounded their "real life" sexualities. Obviously, many queer actors and actresses worked (and continue to work) in Hollywood. Leading silent film stars Ramon Novarro (1899–1968) and Billy Haines (1900–1973) were gay, but as the Production Code was enforced and Hollywood grew more homophobic, their careers faded. Haines was fired from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer because he refused to go along with studio publicity designed to hide his homosexuality. Such arranged publicity stunts included dates and even weddings—the so-called "marriage of convenience." For example, Rock Hudson (1925–1985) was briefly married in the 1950s to persuade his fans that he was indeed heterosexual.

Queer people also worked behind the camera in Hollywood, many in costume design (Orry-Kelly [1897–1964], Adrian [1903–1959]), set decoration (Jack Moore [1906–1998], Henry Grace [1907–1983]), and choreography (Charles Walters [1903–1982], Jack Cole [1911–1974]). There were also successful producers and directors who led quiet homosexual lives, including David Lewis (1903–1987), Ross Hunter (1920–1996), Mitchell Leisen (1898–1972), Edmund Goulding (1891–1959), Irving Rapper (1898–1999), Arthur Lubin (1898–1995), James Whale (1889–1957), George Cukor (1899–1983), and Dorothy Arzner (1897–1979). The last three of these are the best known, perhaps because their film work does show more obvious touches of a homosexual sensibility. Whale directed four of Universal's classic horror films (Frankenstein, 1931; The Old Dark House, 1932; The Invisible Man, 1933; and Bride of Frankenstein, 1935) with gay wit and innuendo. Arzner, one of the few women to direct in Hollywood during the classical era, made films such as Christopher Strong (1933) and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) that showcased strong women and celebrated the bonds between them. Cukor, one of the classical era's most prolific directors, became known chiefly for his women's films and musicals, including Camille (1936), A Star Is Born (1954), and My Fair Lady (1964). Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett (1935) managed to skirt the Code's injunctions against "sex perversion" even as it featured a cross-dressing heroine (Katherine Hepburn as a young woman impersonating a boy) and all sorts of same-sex infatuations.

Queer filmmakers and fans were often drawn to the musical and the horror film, two genres that often acknowledged queer characters and seem to be steeped in queer sensibilities. The musical, although almost always containing a (highly contrived) heterosexual romance, creates a bright carnivalesque world in which fantasy and reality shift and blur. Real-life hatreds and biases are banished, and people are free to be expressively emotional and physical in nonviolent ways. The Wizard of Oz (1939), starring gay favorite Judy Garland (1922–1969) and a cast of misfit effeminate men, has become an iconic film in gay culture. The horror film often uses queer traits to characterize its monsters and mad scientists. For example, in Mad Love (1935) Peter Lorre's effeminate madman quotes Oscar Wilde, and vampires (like Dracula's Daughter, 1936) are almost always queerly sexual, seducing both men and women with their unnatural kisses. In fact, the lesbian vampire was the most common image of lesbians on American film screens before the 1980s. The need for queer spectators to rewrite such distorted images and reappropriate others

b. Hollywood, California, 15 May 1939

Barbara Hammer is by far the most prolific lesbian filmmaker, having made over sixty films and videos since the late 1960s. Hammer's films are excellent examples of New Queer Cinema practice. They cross borders (between documentary, fiction, and experimental filmmaking), and focus on the complexities of human sexuality—especially the ways in which those sexualities have been socially constructed across time and place. Hammer's films explore love, sex, identity, humor, community, relationships, nature, and spirituality. Almost all are deeply personal, drawing on autobiographical elements and centering on the filmmaker as well as her friends and lovers.

Hammer's earliest films are set in and around San Francisco and reflect the mythic femininity that many lesbian-feminists of the 1970s were trying to reclaim. For example, Menses (1974) makes use of bold symbolism (blood, eggs), optical printing, and sound loops in order to exalt the essentially feminine process of menstruation. Superdyke (1975), in which a group of self-identified "Amazon" women wearing "Superdyke" T-shirts joyously overrun San Francisco, is even more playful in tone and form. In Women I Love (1979), Hammer experiments with pixilation (the animation of objects) as dancing fruits and vegetables unveil their inner selves to the camera, just as do the women in her life.

By the 1980s, Hammer was exploring and experimenting with digital technology. In No No Nooky TV (1987), she used computer-generated sounds and images to investigate technology's male biases, as well as to suggest how those forms might be reclaimed for lesbian feminist goals. She tackled the AIDS crisis directly in Snow Job: The Media Hysteria of AIDS (1986) and more indirectly in Endangered (1988), an abstract aural and visual collage that draws a connection between endangered species and the precarious nature of her own experimental film work wherein media technologies threaten to eradicate their living subjects altogether.

In the 1990s, Hammer made a series of longer, more theoretically informed films that investigate lesbian representability. The first of these, Nitrate Kisses (1992), begins with a consideration of how the American novelist Willa Cather's sexuality has been erased from history. The film explores queer sexualities hitherto hidden, including lesbian relationships during the Holocaust and gay male iconography of the 1930s. Hammer counters those historical musings with contemporary treatment of sexualities still considered taboo (even by many queers), including footage of two older women lovers and a sadomasochistic duo. As an interracial male couple has sex, Hammer overlays the written text of the Hollywood Production Code, in effect forcing that document to confront what it had censored for so long. Funny, complex, thoughtful, and challenging, the work of Barbara Hammer expands our notions of both film form and human sexuality.


Dyketactics (1974), Menses (1974), Superdyke (1975), Women I Love (1979), Our Trip (1980), Sync Touch (1981), Snow Job (1986), No No Nooky TV (1987), Endangered (1988), Nitrate Kisses (1992), Tender Fictions (1995), History Lessons (2000)


Dyer, Richard. "Lesbian/Woman: Lesbian Cultural Feminist Film." In Now You See It: Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film, 2nd ed., 169–200. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. "Barbara Hammer, an Interview: Re/Constructing Lesbian Auto/Biographies in Tender Fictions and Nitrate Kisses." Post Script 16, no. 3 (Summer1997): 3–16. Reprinted in Experimental Cinema: The Film Reader, edited by Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, 283–297. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

Haug, Kate. "An Interview with Barbara Hammer." Wide Angle 20, no. 1 (January 1998): 64–105. Also includes a critical essay, filmography, and bibliography.

Weiss, Andrea. "Transgressive Cinema: Lesbian Independent Film." In Vampires 161. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Harry M. Benshoff

gave rise to the camp sensibility, the practice of ironically decoding and making fun of heterocentrist culture. As such, many gay men of the pre-Stonewall generation simultaneously mocked and venerated Hollywood stars such as Maria Montez (1917–1951), Bette Davis (1908–1989), Joan Crawford (1904–1977), and Lana Turner (1921–1995), actresses who always seemed to be performing—even in their real lives.


Hollywood responded to the nation's changing sexual mores throughout the 1950s and 1960s by slowly amending and then eventually replacing the Hollywood Production Code with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Ratings System. In 1961 the Code Administration agreed to allow onscreen homosexuality, as long as it was treated with "care, discretion, and restraint." What that really meant was that homosexuality could be represented, but that it should also be condemned. For example, the British import Victim (1961), which centered on a gay blackmail case and argued that social prejudice against homosexuals was wrong, was denied a Seal of Approval. The first few American films dealing with homosexuality that were approved by the Code suggested that homosexuality would only lead to tragedy. For example, in Advise and Consent (1962), a past gay relationship is shown to be cause for suicide, and in The Children's Hour (1962), a young woman hangs herself after admitting that she is a lesbian.

Throughout the 1960s, homosexual innuendo became a staple of smarmy sex comedies (That Touch of Mink, 1962; Staircase, 1969; The Gay Deceivers, 1969), and functioned as a signifier of ultimate villainy in action and adventure films (Lawrence of Arabia, 1962; From Russia with Love, 1963; Caprice, 1967). A few films attempted to deal with sexuality in more complex ways: Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) and The Sergeant (1968) centered on (repressed) homosexuality in the military, even as their queer characters still met death and destruction. Two of the most famous (and least offensive) Hollywood films dealing with homosexuality during this era were The Killing of Sister George (1968, about lesbians in the British television industry) and The Boys in the Band (1970, about a group of gay friends in New York City). Both of these films had been based on successful stage plays and explored issues of romance, the closet, the possibility of blackmail and job loss, internalized homophobia, and the burgeoning (but still mostly underground) gay and lesbian culture of many cities. While these films may seem overly melodramatic or stereotypical by today's standards, they did capture a certain slice of reality for many urban homosexuals of their era. Perhaps most importantly, no one died at the end of them.

Throughout the 1970s, as homosexuals were becoming more visible in the real world, they once again retreated from American movie screens. Queers were occasionally seen as minor supporting figures, when they were seen at all. Then, in the early 1980s, another small cycle of gay-themed films appeared. Several of these reworked the old queer psycho-killer stereotype: in Dressed to Kill (1980), Cruising (1980), and The Fan (1981), queers slashed their way onto multiplex movie screens. Perhaps to atone for such images, Hollywood also released a handful of films that featured sympathetic queer characters. The World According to Garp (1982) featured a male-to-female transsexual, while Personal Best (1982) dramatized a lesbian relationship and issues of bisexuality. Twentieth Century Fox released Making Love (1982), a melodrama about a married couple coming to terms with the husband's latent homosexuality. By far the most popular of these films was the old-fashioned musical sex farce Victor/Victoria (1982), a film that featured Julie Andrews as a cross-dressing nightclub performer and Robert Preston as her flamboyantly gay best friend.


Gay and lesbian concerns and characters often found more varied (and less pejorative) representations outside the Hollywood industry, in foreign, experimental, and documentary filmmaking. One of the first films ever to feature homosexual love as its theme was the Swedish film Vingarne (Wings, 1916), directed by Mauritz Stiller (1823–1928; who was himself homosexual). Carl Theodor Dreyer's Mikaël (1924), filmed in Germany a few years later, was drawn from the same source novel. In fact, Weimar Germany was home to gay directors like F. W. Murnau (1888–1931) (Nosferatu, 1922) and produced the first film to make a plea for homosexual rights and freedoms. Anders als die Anderen (Different from the Others, 1919) was made in conjunction with early sexologist and gay rights pioneer Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1934). A few years later G. W. Pabst's famous film Pandora's Box (1929) featured a lesbian subplot. Perhaps the most well-known German film of this era to deal with homosexuality was Madchen in Uniform (1931), a film about a schoolgirl's crush on her teacher. It should be noted that if and when these films played in America, they were often censored in ways that elided their homosexual content.

French avant-garde filmmaking also offered an alternative to Hollywood form and content. Poet and playwright Jean Cocteau's (1889–1963) film Le sang d'un poète (Blood of a Poet, 1930) explored homoerotic themes, and Jean Genet's (1910–1986) Un chant d'amour (Song of Love, 1950) centered on the homoerotic bonds between men in prison. One of the first American avant-garde films to deal with homosexuality was James Watson (1894–1982) and Melville Webber's (1871–1947) Lot in Sodom (1933). In the postwar era, Kenneth Anger's (b. 1927) Fireworks (1947), a surreal psychodrama about a young man's homosexual desires, both scandalized and inspired a new generation of filmmakers. Although Anger lived abroad for most of the 1950s, he returned to America to make his most famous film, Scorpio Rising (1964), a film that combines found footage, contemporary pop songs, and a host of other cultural artifacts to examine the homoerotic cult of the motorcyclist. Also making queer avant-garde films in the 1960s were Jack Smith (1932–1989) and Andy Warhol (1928–1987), two artists who were associated with the New York underground film scene. Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures (1963) featured characters (slave girls, vampires, Roman guards, etc.) and overly dramatic music drawn from exotic Hollywood melodramas. Andy Warhol's films (including Haircut, 1963; Couch, 1964; and Lonesome Cowboys, 1967) also parodied Hollywood style and conventions; his actors (many of whom were drag queens) called themselves "superstars" and behaved as if they were Hollywood royalty.

In the 1970s, prolific lesbian feminist filmmaker Barbara Hammer (b. 1930) began to make short experimental films. Her early work, made in and around San Francisco, captures the feel and spirit of the 1970s lesbian feminist community as it was then defining itself. Other lesbian feminists of the 1970s, including Greta Schiller (b. 1954) (Greta's Girls, 1978) and Jan Oxenberg (Home Movie, 1973), made films that documented the movement, and more recent experimental work by Su Friedrich (b. 1954), Michelle Citron, Michelle Parkerson (b. 1953), and Sadie Benning (b. 1973) forge important links to the New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990s.

The burgeoning gay and lesbian civil rights movement of the 1970s and 1980s was not confined to America: many western European nations and Canada also began to produce films that acknowledged or reflected the movement. In Germany, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1946–1982) directed over forty films about race, class, and (homo)sexuality, while Rosa von Praunheim (b. 1942) and Ulrike Ottinger (b. 1942) made even more surreal excursions into the politics and pleasures of homosexuality. In England, Derek Jarman (1942–1994) made a series of highly stylized films (Sebastiane, 1976; Jubilee, 1977) that critiqued sexual repression and the British Empire. In Spain, Pedro Almodóvar (b. 1949) became one of the world's best known queer filmmakers, repeatedly winning international film prizes for his films. In Canada, John Greyson (b. 1960) made a series of short films and then features (Moscow Does Not Believe in Queers, 1986; Pissoir [Urinal, 1988]) that dealt with homophobia and the AIDS crisis. While a few foreign films dealing with homosexuality (including La cage aux folles [Birds of a Feather], 1978; and Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1985) became art-house hits in America during this era, many of the more queerly provocative works made abroad remained very difficult to see.

Starting in the 1970s, documentaries made by and about gay and lesbian people began to be produced. One of the first and most important of these, Word Is Out (1978), was made by a collective of gay and lesbian filmmakers, and told the stories of a cross-section of queer Americans. (The film remains a fascinating time capsule of 1970s culture and the nascent gay liberation movement.) Since then, gay and lesbian documentaries have brought to light stories and issues that mainstream media routinely ignores. Some of these films, such as Before Stonewall (1985) and Silent Pioneers (1985), documented forgotten aspects of gay and lesbian history. The Oscar® -winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) chronicled the rise to power of the first openly gay city supervisor, as well as his eventual assassination by an unhinged right-wing politician. Other documentaries, such as Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989) and Silverlake Life (1993), explored the AIDS crisis, and activist video collectives made pieces that helped spur education and organization. Marlon Riggs's (1957–1994) personal video documentary Tongues Untied (1989) remains the definitive statement on what it was like to be a black gay man in the 1980s. Countless other documentaries, such as One Nation under God (1993), Ballot Measure 9 (1995), and It's Elementary (1996) continue to explore gay and lesbian lives and issues.


The production of foreign, experimental, and documentary films that centered on queer issues eventually helped spark the production of gay and lesbian independent feature film production in America. The first batch of these films, including Buddies (1985), Parting Glances (1986), and Desert Hearts (1985), used realistic storytelling conventions to explore coming out, romance, and AIDS. Then, in 1991, a new crop of gay and lesbian films made waves at several international festivals. These films (including Poison, Swoon, Paris Is Burning, The Living End, Edward II, and My Own Private Idaho, all released in 1991) were made by more activist and theoretical filmmakers: Todd Haynes (b. 1961), Tom Kalin, Jennie Livingston (b. 1960), Gregg Araki (b. 1959), Derek Jarman, and Gus Van Sant (b. 1952). The films, many fueled by 1980s AIDS activism, engaged with concepts being formulated within queer theory, and collectively they became known as the New Queer Cinema. Christine Vachon (b. 1962), who has been dubbed the "Godmother of New Queer Cinema," produced several of these first films and has since then produced many more, including Go Fish (1994), Postcards from the Edge (1994), Stonewall (1995), Boys Don't Cry (2000), Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), and Far from Heaven (2002). Other important New Queer films include John

b. Los Angeles, California, 2 January 1961

One of the most successful writer-directors of the New Queer Cinema, Todd Haynes was raised in California and studied semiotics and other aspects of cultural theory at Brown University, where he began to make short films. Haynes's work, like most New Queer Cinema, explores the cinematic representation of queer desires by foregrounding both history and film form.

The first Haynes film to garner widespread attention was Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), a 45-minute biopic that explored the life and death (from anorexia nervosa) of 1970s singer Karen Carpenter. Audaciously, Karen Carpenter's life is enacted in the film by Barbie dolls, and is intercut with documentary-like inserts that describe and explore the medical and social implications of anorexia. While the very premise of Superstar creates a campy tone, the film is far from facile or condescending. Instead, the film asks its viewers to consider the connections between the ideals of feminine beauty, celebrity, mental illness, and middle-class repression. Its unlicensed use of the Carpenters' music (and perhaps its unflattering portrait of Karen's family) led to a lawsuit, and the film remains very difficult to see.

Haynes's first feature-length film, Poison (1991), was one of the defining films of the New Queer Cinema movement. It recalls the audacity of Superstar, and was itself the center of considerable controversy. Poison interweaves three separate but related stories, each shot in a different cinematic style. The first, "Homo," is based on the writings of gay writer Jean Genet, and explores the violent sexuality of men in prison. The second, "Horror," is about a scientist who accidentally ingests a sex-hormone serum, and is filmed as a pastiche of 1950s monster movies. The third story, "Hero," is a pseudodocumentary about a young boy who shoots his father and miraculously flies away from the scene. Poison was publicly denounced by some members of Congress (it had received some funding from the National Endowment for the Arts) even as it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

Haynes's next feature, Safe (1995), starred Julianne Moore as a woman suffering from a viral-like illness that may or may not be psychosomatic. Exploring issues of contamination, isolation, and the toxic atmosphere of everyday life, the film was both an AIDS allegory and a critique of American self-obsession. Velvet Goldmine (1998), another queer art-house hit, examined the 1970s "glam rock" phenomenon in relation to sexuality, celebrity, and style. In 2002, Haynes's Far from Heaven (2002) was nominated for several Oscars®, including Best Original Screenplay. The film invokes the visual style of a lush 1950s melodrama, but explores issues that were taboo for films of that era: interracial romance and repressed homosexuality. As with the best of his work, Far from Heaven explores the intersection of film form and film content, showing how the discourse of cinematic style can create, contain, or otherwise influence the representation of queer desire


Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), Poison (1991), Dottie Gets Spanked (1993), Safe (1995), Velvet Goldmine (1998), Far from Heaven (2002)


Haynes, Todd. Far from Heaven, Safe, and Superstar: Three Screenplays. New York: Grove Press, 2003.

Naismith, Gaye. " Tales from the Crypt: Contamination and Quarantine in Todd Haynes's Safe." In The Visible Woman: Imaging Technologies, Gender, and Science, edited by Paula A. Treichler, Lisa Cartwright, and Constance Penley, 360–388. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Saunders, Michael William. Imps of the Perverse: Gay Monsters in Film, 75–134. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998. Also includes an interview with Todd Haynes.

Wyatt, Justin. Poison. London: Flicks Books, 1998.

Harry M. Benshoff

Greyson's Zero Patience (1993) and Cheryl Dunye's Watermelon Woman (1996).

New Queer Cinema has been called "Homo Pomo," because the movement's films make use of postmodern styles and ideas (as does queer theory itself). In most of these films there is a focus on permeable formal boundaries—the crossing of styles and genres. New Queer Cinema often questions essentialist models of identity, and shows how the terms "gay" and "lesbian" are inadequate when trying to define actual human experience. New Queer Cinema simultaneously draws on minimalism and excess, appropriation and pastiche, the mixing of Hollywood and avant-garde, and even the mix of fictional and documentary style. For example, The Living End reappropriates the Hollywood buddy/road movie for HIV-positive queers, while Zero Patience is a ghost story musical about AIDS. Watermelon Woman is a mock documentary about an African American lesbian actress who played "Mammy" roles in 1930s Hollywood; the film is a witty interracial lesbian romance as well as a thoughtful meditation on queer visibility and historical erasure.

New Queer Cinema is not without its detractors. Some have accused the movement of recirculating negative stereotypes such as the queer psycho-killer. Although films like Swoon and The Living End attempt to show how social forces and sexual repression can and do cause violence, some filmgoers still saw them as reconfirming harmful stereotypes. New Queer Cinema has also been charged with elitism, since it is frequently engaged with issues of queer and postmodern theory. As such, New Queer Cinema can be rigorous and difficult both thematically and formally, and many queer spectators, like straight spectators, prefer "feel good" Hollywood-style movies with happy endings.

Those "feel good" movies are also now being made by gay and lesbian independent filmmakers. For example, The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995), Beautiful Thing (1996), Edge of Seventeen (1998), and Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss (1998) draw upon the conventions of Hollywood narrative form and the genre of the romantic comedy, placing lesbian and gay lovers into previously heterosexual roles. Films such as Love! Valour! Compassion! (1997) and The Broken Hearts Club (2000) mix humor with a few tear-jerking moments, and represent predominantly upper-middle-class white male characters. Independent lesbian films remain fewer in number, although films like Better Than Chocolate (1999) and But I'm a Cheerleader (1999) have been hits on the film festival and art house circuits. Queers of color and transgendered people have also been the subjects of recent American independent features, in films such as Latin Boys Go to Hell (1997), Punks (2001), and the Oscar®-nominated films Before Night Falls (2000) and Boys Don't Cry.


The rise of New Queer Cinema did not go unnoticed by Hollywood, and they briefly tried (unsuccessfully) to market a few films that explored more open parameters of sexuality, such as Three of Hearts (1993) and Threesome (1994). For the most part, when dealing with queer characters (which it still rarely does), Hollywood still prefers its previously succesful formulas and comfortable stereotypes. Queer gender-bending traits are still used to signify villainy—even in Disney films like The Lion King (1994) and Pocahontas (1995). The social problem film Philadelphia (1993), while a major critical and box office hit, was still a variation on the "tragic-homosexual-who-dies-at-the-end-of-the-film" stereotype. And drag queens are center stage in occasional comedies like To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995) and The Birdcage (1996). But in an era of nostalgic Hollywood blockbusters based on fantasy novels and comic books, Hollywood films that deal with actual gay and lesbian lives and issues are relatively rare.

A few new trends dealing with queer issues in Hollywood briefly surfaced in the late 1990s. The first was the reworking of the Hollywood buddy film formula so that it now comprised a straight female lead and her gay male best friend (allegedly bringing both women and gay men to the box office). Films such as My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), The Object of My Affection (1998), and The Next Best Thing (2000) explored the close bonds of friendship that often exist between gay men and straight women. (This is also the formula of the popular and award-winning TV situation comedy Will and Grace [NBC, 1998–2006]) While no one dies tragically in these new-age buddy films, and some of them have been moderate box office successes, they still tend to chafe at Hollywood films' need for happy heterosexual closure. Another recent trend in Hollywood's treatment of homosexuality is represented by a handful of films that explore the destructive dynamics of internalized homophobia. American Beauty (which won many Oscars® in 1999 including Best Picture) dramatized how repressed homosexuality can lead to vicious homophobia, violence, and murder—a theme also found in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), several recent documentaries, and even the Comedy Central TV show South Park (premiered in 1997—). Most recently, the highly acclaimed film Brokeback Mountain (2005) poignantly dramatized how homophobia and heterosexism can destroy human lives.

In Hollywood today, being openly gay or lesbian remains difficult for most actors. Many actors (and their agents and advisors) still fear that the public will not accept an openly gay or lesbian actor in a heterosexual role. However, in the late 1990s, a few Hollywood stars, including Ellen Degeneres (b. 1958), Nathan Lane (b. 1956), Rupert Everett (b. 1959), Rosie O'Donnell (b. 1962), and Sir Ian McKellen (b. 1939) led the way in being openly queer media personalities. Still, the vast majority of queer Hollywood actors remain in the closet, a fact that reinforces the notion that there is something wrong or shameful about being gay or lesbian. Behind the camera, more and more Hollywood queers are finding the space and acceptance to be who they are, making films and especially television shows in unprecedented numbers. The popular situation comedy Ellen (ABC, 1994–1998) broke down many barriers and has made television more gay-friendly than Hollywood film. Furthermore, subscription TV channels such as HBO and Showtime, because they do not have to sell their projects to America one film at a time, have also been able to produce more queer-themed work in recent years, including More Tales of the City (1998), Common Ground (2000), Queer as Folk (begun in 2000), If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000), and Soldier's Girl (2003). Mainstream Hollywood film, so often behind the rest of the media industries in relation to these issues, still continues to marginalize gay and lesbian lives and issues.

SEE ALSO Camp;Gender;Queer Theory;Sexuality


Aaron, Michele, ed. New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003.

Bad Object-Choices, eds. How Do I Look?: Queer Film and Video. Seattle: Bay Press, 1991.

Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin, eds. Queer Cinema: The Film Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.

Creekmur, Corey K., and Alexander Doty, eds. Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Essays on Popular Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.

Dyer, Richard. The Culture of Queers. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

——. Now You See It: Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2003 [1990].

Ehrenstein, David. Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928–1998. New York: William Morrow, 1998.

Fuss, Diana, ed. inside/out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. London and New York: Routledge: 1991.

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Harry M. Benshoff