• Sun. Jun 23rd, 2024

Does good representation matter?

ByIsabella Santini

Feb 27, 2023
Illustration of Rocky Horror Picture Show by Chloe Anderson

‘Representation’ has been the word most often bandied around with the release of every new film featuring queer stories, no matter the genre. It makes sense – Hollywood has a long history of both erasing and vilifying queerness, most egregiously through the Hays Code, which banned depictions of LGBTQ+ individuals and any film that might suggest these things were “permissible.” The code was active from 1934 to 1968, but its effects were felt for many decades after. The queercoding of villains and the persistence of the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope are largely thanks to the Hays Code, and in an attempt to combat these relics we have increasingly held “good representation” up as the goal for queer films. But is good representation really what we should be striving for?

I don’t intend to argue that good representation is unimportant; on the contrary, it’s deeply necessary to redress the prejudiced depictions that have dominated the silver screen for so long, and cinema is all the richer for that media which has met the standards of “good representation.” Films like Love, Simon show LGBTQ+ people as individuals who, like everyone, want to love and be loved, and in a cinematic landscape where such characters are normally punished by the narrative, its happy ending can be very cathartic.

I take issue, however, with media analysis being reduced to a simple checklist. There is no single set of criteria that will allow us to determine whether a film is good or bad, helpful or harmful. In trying to shoehorn films from a huge variety of perspectives and genres into this one framework, we overlook and even denigrate great art. A prime example is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which has by some younger members of the LGBTQ+ community been criticised for using outdated language and for presenting Dr. Frank-N-Furter as “predatory”. This analysis ignores not only the way this film has provided LGBTQ+ people with community and a space to be themselves through midnight showings, but also the incisive commentary of the film itself. Rocky Horror actively critiques compulsory heterosexuality and sexual repression; Frank-N-Furter’s actual behaviour matters far less than the fact that he is the means through which the quintessentially heterosexual Brad and Janet explore their own sexualities and are liberated.

While an iconic example, Rocky Horror is not the only film that suffers under this analytical lens; countless others are similarly branded problematic based on the portrayal of individual characters or plot points divorced from context – John Waters’ entire filmography and his politics of filth are outright radical, yet certainly tick all the boxes for bad representation, and Mädchen in Uniform, the Weimar film that directly challenges Nazi homophobia, has, like Rocky Horror, been dismissed as predatory for its depiction of a teacher/student relationship.

None of this is to say that these films are above criticism, but when good representation is our only criteria for what makes a good queer film, we end up missing the forest for the trees and excluding real LGBTQ+ voices because they don’t conform to an abstract idea of ‘good’. In seeking to fix the harm caused by the Hays Code, we have prioritised respectability above everything else and have essentially been telling our stories with straight people in mind rather than each other. Imperfect stories with messy characters and messier relationships are important because they reflect life and emotional truth, and I believe that meaningful equality in film will only be achieved when we have queer stories for all ages, across all genres, ranging from wholesome to downright messed up. I’m so glad that LGBTQ+ teens have Love, Simon, but give me Pink Flamingos any day of the week.

Illustration by Chloe Anderson