Stories are the first way we learn. Across the country, parents read their children Dr. Seuss, grandparents tell their grandkids stories about what it was like when they were growing up, preschool classrooms are filled with toddlers singing and dancing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Stories teach morals, values and ways of living better than facts and figures will ever be able to.
Uri Hasson from Princeton University studies the way our brains react to hearing stories. He describes the brain of the storyteller and the story-consumer as “synchronized”; activity in both brains were the same throughout the story, even as the activity moved throughout different parts of the brain.
“By simply telling a story,” Hasson said, “the [storyteller] could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.”
A story can have a profound impact on its audience. And, throughout history, the primary way mainstream media has portrayed life as it has been, as it is and as it will or should be, has been through the perspective of those in power. The lack of realistic representation of marginalized groups, therefore, could be attributed to the ignorance of those creating mass media. But the characters in major film projects, and the way those characters are treated, stems from a historical code of conduct promoted by leading financial supporters of cinema in the 1900s.
The Hays Code
In 1930, the Motion Picture Association of America, an organization that represents major film studios, published the Motion Picture Production Code, otherwise known as the Hays Code. The code limited content filmmakers could cover. It stated that those who abided by it must not include even inference to “sex perversion” or encourage the audience to sympathize for characters who have “sinned.” Although not a legal mandate, straying from the Hays Code would significantly prohibit filmmakers to reach mass audiences, as all major producing and distributing companies only backed films that strictly abided by the rules set by the code.
The establishment of the code itself was abominable but, even worse, the creators of the Hays Code were fully aware of the profound effects it would have.
In the section of the code that justifies the standards they outlined, the writers noted the intimate effect entertainment has on consumers, even stating that it “touches the whole of their lives.” The code argues that film can be directly responsible for incredible moral progress of entire populations. And yet, the Hays Code saw to it that entire groups be shut out of film, instead of used to open minds. It placed the responsibility of storytelling and affecting social change into the hands of the most privileged, and forbade them from seeking out new perspectives.
The Hays Code, as predicted by its creators, did have incredible impacts on American culture.
For a long time, queerness was rarely portrayed in major cinematic projects. We look to stories as examples for how to act and the way our lives should go, so if an entire group of people isn’t shown in mainstream media, it’s not seen as a valid way of life. LGBTQIA+ people watching films have no way of knowing that other people feel the same way they do. Excluding queer people from cinema cuts them off from the rest of society. It can make them feel alone, somehow less-than.
As same-sex love was a considered sin in the Hays Code and, based on the code, sinners must be met with tragedy, characters who were explicitly queer ended up unhappy by the resolution, or worse, killed. There are countless scenes of queer characters admitting to their “sin,” begging for forgiveness and , expressing how disgusted they are with themselves. When the only representation of queer people showcases how miserable they are, being LGBTGIA+ seems to viewers something that would inevitably lead to despair.
Some filmmakers, however, still wished to represent the queer community without giving them tragic ends, but were now unable to do it explicitly. Therefore, they began to hide hints in their projects that characters were gay: effeminate men, predatory and masculine women, crossdressing, high or low-pitched voices. This reinforced negative stereotypes about the queer community.
Although it was abolished in 1967, we still experience the legacy of the Hays Code. The LGBTQIA+ community continues to be starved for representation, grasping for straws and celebrating every bit of queerness portrayed in film. Tragedy was the inevitable end for a queer character, and there are still people who pity queer people because they assume queerness is an affect of trauma. A man once relayed to me his certainty that queer people’s fathers beat their mothers when they were in the womb. He believed that gay men identified the way they did because they empathized with their mothers and became soft, and that lesbians were not straight because they were angry at their fathers and became hard. As recently as 2016, fans began rallying against the exorbitant number of gay and lesbian characters killed off in television shows; Twenty-five lesbian and bisexual characters died that year alone. Queer fans would denote 2016 as the year of “Bury your gays.” Furthermore, tropes in the media continue to harm the queer community, even if the characters embodying those stereotypes weren’t intended by the filmmakers to be queer.
Throughout history, some of the most commonly known villains have characteristics that coincide with common stereotypes about LGBTQIA+ people, a pattern that has been defined as queercoding.
Disney has often been accused of portraying its villains similarly to queer people. John Ratcliffe, the wealthy coloniser from “Pocahontas,” often wore bright pink and purple colored clothing and bows in his hair, spoke theatrically and in an exaggerated manner and was obsessed with gold, jewels and glitter, all tropes that can be associated with effeminate gay men. In Disney’s version of the Pocahontas story, Ratcliffe symbolized greed and selfishness and promoted the slaughtering of Native Americans.
The 2012 film, “Wreck-It Ralph,” introduced the villain King Candy, a short man with a high-pitched voice, who wore a bow and surrounded himself with wealth and extravagance. There was even a scene in which the protagonist, Ralph, commented on King Candy’s femininity. When he was captured and brought to King Candy’s palace, Ralph looked around at the walls and said “I see you’re a fan of pink,” then called King Candy a “nelly-wafer.” Nelly is a slur often used to refer to effeminate gay men.
In “The Little Mermaid,” the evil octopus, Ursula, has many attributes similar to a stereotypical lesbian: short hair, a muscular and heavy-set build, a deep voice. The film shows Ursula taking advantage of young women and portrays her as predatory. There’s even a moment in her song, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” where she attempts to touch Ariel’s face and Ariel grimaces and dodges her hand.
Even at a young age, the American public is unconsciously encouraged to associate stereotypical traits of queer people with villainy. And as LGBTQIA+ youth begin to grow into themselves and their sexuality, they notice there is something missing from the media with which they are surrounded.
This means that queer audiences are starved for any kind of depiction in cinema, so when a character is hinted at being queer, it attracts this underrepresented group. Major filmmakers have realized this, and many of them have begun manipulating their queer fans for publicity.
In recent years, queerbaiting has become quite popular in the film industry: throughout a film or television show, characters will drop hints about them identifying as LGBTQIA+, or the way they interact with comrades of their same-sex will mirror the romantic buildup of straight couples on the show. This type of misrepresentation is all about marketing. Filmmakers want the views, the money, the votes. And with a little clever camera work or flirty exchanges between characters, they know they can get them.
During marketing for the third film in the franchise, “Pitch Perfect 3,” an advertisement showed two of the female leads, Beca and Chloe, leaning in to kiss each other then stopping abruptly to look at the camera and say “swipe up for more.” However, in the film itself, neither character was explicitly queer. In fact, one of them ended up in a relationship with a man.
In the television show “Rizzoli and Iles,” actress Angie Harmon, portraying the heterosexual Jane Rizzoli, says the show deliberately accentuates the romantic undertones between her character and another of the same gender. “Sometimes we’ll do a take for that demo,” Harmon said. “I’ll brush by her blouse or maybe linger for a moment. As long as we’re not being accused of being homophobic, which is not in any way true and completely infuriating, I’m OK with it.”
In an attempt to get more votes in the Teen Choice Awards from their queer following, the show “Teen Wolf” released an advertisement of two of the male leads LGBTQIA+ viewers suspected were queer, waking up from a nap on a boat. One of the actors said “We’re on a ship, literally.” He followed to hint that if fans voted for the show in the awards, they would get the representation they so desperately needed, baiting a marginalized group for petty accolades.
As fans began to see through queerbaiting and accused filmmakers of manipulating their audience, members of the film industry started writing LGBTQIA+ characters into their pictures.
Or so they say.
There are two forms of queercatching, the first of which takes the form of actors and other film staff talking to the press during the production of the project about having queer representation, then not following through, or including such inconspicuous queerness, viewers could miss the scenes producers pointed to when justifying their claims of having representation. Queercatching, then, is the perfect middle ground for a filmmaker; Queer fans can watch the movie or show and feel represented, yet a homophobic fan could watch the same film and not notice that characters were LGBTQIA+.
During production for the new “Power Rangers” movie in 2017, actress Becky G spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about her character’s queerness. The magazine reported that the film would be “the first big-budget superhero movie to feature an LGBT protagonist.” However, the Yellow Power Ranger never made any mention to her identity in the movie or had any same-sex partner. The only scene that pointed towards potential queerness was one in which a male lead asked the the Yellow Power Ranger if she had “Boyfriend troubles.” When she said no, the boy asked if she had “Girlfriend troubles.” The Yellow Power Ranger did not respond to this question and, instead, began describing how her parents didn’t understand her.
“Star Trek” is seen as a show in the film industry with a progressive nature and has even been described as “groundbreaking,” as it portrays many different kinds of people working together towards a common goal and was one of the first shows where Asian and African American viewers saw themselves on screen. In the early 2000s, the show began receiving critique from fans regarding their lack of queer representation. At the time, writers and producers who were asked about this admitted that they should begin introducing gay characters. Despite it’s progressive reputation, it took “Star Trek” 15 years after that, 50 years after the franchise began, to have its first queer character in the 2016 film, “Stark Trek: Beyond.” That representation, however, was incredibly underwhelming: a split-second shot of a character, Sulu, looking at a picture of a man and child, then another of him hugging that man and child in the resolution of the film. That man and child are only confirmed to be the Sulu’s husband and daughter by actors and other staff working on the film when they were asked about it directly. No mention of it is made in the movie itself.
The second form of queercatching presents itself as leaving the identity of a character ambiguous in a completed project, then, afterwards, claiming that character was queer throughout the piece. Throughout J.K. Rowling’s book series, “Harry Potter,” the character Dumbledore’s sexual orientation was never addressed. However, after receiving criticism from her readers that her books lacked diversity, Rowling began telling fans that representation of marginalized groups was in the series the whole time, she just didn’t explicitly state they were black or queer. She claimed that Dumbledore was gay, although nothing in the book points towards queerness. And, more curiously, supported fans in suspecting Hermione was black — from her twitter: “White skin was never specified,” and “Rowling loves black Hermione” — even though sections of the book describe the character’s “white face.”
Queercatching allows major filmmakers and other storytellers to obtain the title of “progressive” or “pioneers” but keep queerness undetected by their fans who might not support it.
John Bargh, a social psychologist at Yale University, performed a study which linked seemingly trivial details to the way we perceive a person. In summarizing his experiment, Bargh said:
“The experiment began when the experimenter, seemingly struggling with an armful of folders, asks the volunteer to briefly hold their coffee . . . The coffee was either hot or iced. Subjects then read a description of some individual, and those who had held the warmer cup tended to rate the individual as having a warmer personality, with no change in ratings of other attributes.”
Every little thing we experience about a person, and other people we associate with them, has a direct impact on our attitude towards them.
Subtle hints towards queerness in Disney villains, exploiting LGBTQIA+ fans for limelight, giving queer characters disproportionately tragic ends — it all shapes the way the public views, and treats, LGBTQIA+ people.
The way the queer community is treated tends to get overlooked and is often, still, outrageously violent. According to the Williams Institute of Law, although only 4.5 percent of the American population identifies as LGBTQIA+, 17.9 percent of hate crimes were based on sexual orientation or gender identity bias in 2018. But it gets worse: FBI data stated that hate crimes against LGBTQIA+ people were on the rise as of 2014 and the National Crime Victimization Survey reported in 2019 that queer Americans are victims of more than 200,000 hate crimes every year.
The way the mainstream media portrays queer people has a massive impact not only on the way straight people view the LGBTQIA+ community, but on the way that queer people view themselves.
Determining how one identifies, if a label is deemed necessary, is already a great internal struggle for many queer people. It’s hard enough being at war with yourself, but when characters in the mainstream media who look, act or identify like you are pointing towards a life of misery, social isolation and cultural oppression, it should be of no surprise that LGBTQIA+ people are among those who struggle most with mental health. High school students who identify as queer are nearly five times more likely than straight teenagers to attempt suicide. Not only that, but Mental Health America reports that research suggests LGBTQIA+ people are much more likely than others to believe they are unworthy of civil and human rights.
Not only has the film industry contributed to intolerance of queer people from straight people, but to widespread self-hate among queer people.
I casually mentioned my sexual orientation (lesbian) to my parents and sister during a family dinner the fall I was 14. I anxiously waited months to come out to my closest friends the winter I turned 15. It was with great apprehension that I buried my face in my blankets — I was far to afraid to look them in the eyes — as I said to them, my voice quite muffled, “I’m gay.”
I grew up watching Ursula prey on young girls, then Cynthia Rose in “Pitch Perfect” sexually abuse another female lead for laughs; In coming out to my friends, I worried they would forever see me as dirty, evil and even predatory. The reactions I got from friends, however, were incredibly apathetic. A few muttered “Okays” and one awkward “That’s cool.” I didn’t receive much hate or scrutiny for my sexual orientation at all until I left Ann Arbor.
It wasn’t for a while after that night I came out that I realized that wasn’t the hard part. For months before I even told my family, I spent hours in the bathroom sitting on the counter and crouching over my phone screen, careful more than ever to lock the door, as I watched hours of coming out videos and LGBTQIA+ short films. The idea of the media addressing the issues that came with identifying as non-straight was so new to me. I was transfixed. There were so many people whose issues and internal struggles mirrored my own; I didn’t feel alone anymore.
Admitting my queerness to myself was more difficult than admitting it to others could ever be.
Once I saw there were others like me — who, at one time or another, had been confused and scared — I knew my sexual orientation wasn’t something that made me inherently dirty, evil or predatory. It just made me me. This, however, took a lot of work. I had to reverse 14 years of nearly inconspicuous social cues telling me that I was wrong, destined for a life of tragedy.
And I’m still working on it. It would just help to know that the film industry was working on it too.