The Erasure of People of Color in LGBTQ+ Films

By: Alyssa Oropez and Alexis Wolfe

Many films within the film canon fail to accurately portray LGBTQ+ characters of color by confining LGBTQ+ characters into ideals of hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity. Both hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity favor white, middle-class, able-bodied, and conventionally attractive people according to Western standards, which neglects people of color and people with diverse and intersectional identities. It is important to recognize that LGBTQ+ characters that are confined to standards of hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity further propagate these dangerous ideals and expectations of these concepts in American society.

LGBTQ+ Characters in Film that are Confined to Ideals of Hegemonic Masculinity and Emphasized Femininity

While many LGBTQ+ films feature relationships in which regardless of gender, one partner is expected to conform to ideals of hegemonic masculinity and the other is expected to conform to emphasized femininity, many LGBTQ+ films feature relationships where both partners aren’t forced into this heteronormative dynamic and instead both partners are forced to represent either expectation of hegemonic masculinity or emphasized femininity. While it is meaningful that these films stray from the stereotype that in an LGBTQ+ relationship one partner conforms to gender roles of men and the other conform to gender roles of women, the representations of hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity in these films is still problematic as it doesn’t accurately portray diverse and intersectional LGBTQ+ identities.

Image from: The Independent

In Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, the two lead characters (Jack and Ennis) struggle with the expectations placed on them to conform to hegemonic masculinity. In “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept,” Connell and Messerschmidt describe hegemonic masculinity as being the “pattern of practice…that allow[s] men’s dominance over women to continue” (Connell 832). While these characters are representative of white, cisgender, middle class, and able-bodied men, they struggle with being able to understand and accept their sexualities as expectations of hegemonic masculinity expect these men to identify as straight. This film depicts the dangers of hegemonic masculinity being idealized as these characters experience how hegemonic masculinity is institutionalized in social structures, which further propagates societal expectations of hegemonic masculinity.

In the popular 2017 film Call Me By Your Name, the summer romance between a precocious teenager, Elio, and his father’s doctoral student, Oliver, served as a primary example of LGBTQ+ representation that year. The still from the film depicts an intimate moment between Elio and Oliver as they discover their love and attraction for one another. While the film’s sincere portrayal of a central LGBTQ+ relationship is an important piece of representation, it is another instance of the absence of queer people of color in mainstream film as well as reinforces many ideals of hegemonic masculinity. Both Elio and Oliver are conventionally attractive white men that are able-bodied, cisgender, affluent, and well-educated which are all characteristics idealized by hegemonic masculinity. The frequent inclusion of this type of white representation of LGBTQ+ diversity and the failure to include people of color is likely “to lend to the gay community an air of respectability, and the portrayal of whiteness lends to the myth of the affluent gay male, which is a created market to attract advertisers to gay and lesbian media outlets” (Campbell, 308). To ease audience’s hesitation of such prominent LGBTQ+ representation, it seems that gay couples such as Elio and Oliver are continually reinforcing traits of hegemonic masculinity because it offers a sense of familiarity to audiences. (Image from: IMDB)

Image from: IMDB and them.

Based on the young adult book Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, the film Love, Simon (2018) tells the coming out story of Simon a seemingly typical white, cisgender, suburban teenager. Simon is another example of a leading gay character embodying many aspects of hegemonic masculinity in order to appeal to an audience’s expectations of what type of men films predominantly feature. Even within the film, it is made clear that Simon is a privileged white cisgender man that is conventionally attractive and has an idyllic upbringing with loving friends and family. The only aspect of Simon that is nonconventional is his sexuality but it is an attribute that is made acceptable because he is the ideal male teenager in every other way. It should be noted that Love, Simon does differ from other common white portrayals of LGBTQ+ representation in its inclusion of two black gay characters, Simon’s surprise love interest Bram and the only other gay man at school Ethan. However, the role of Bram and Ethan are only to enhance and contribute to Simon’s coming-out narrative. As seen in the still of Simon and Bram at a Halloween party, Bram is in close proximity to Simon but not the focus of the frame thereby not the focus of the film. Moreover, the still of Simon and Ethan talking in the principal’s office depicts Ethan comforting Simon by sharing his own hardships growing up and coming out as gay. Both Bram and Ethan’s identity of black, as well as Ethan’s more feminine presenting attributes, do not fit the ideals of hegemonic masculinity so their stories are pushed to the side in the narrative for Simon’s more white and masculine gay story. 

Image from: The New Yorker

In Todd Haynes’ Carol, the two lead characters feel weighed down by the expectations of emphasized femininity while also being nearly perfect representations of emphasized femininity. While both Therese and Carol face hardships and must hide their relationship out of fear of discrimination, these women are perfect representations of emphasized femininity in the way that they are white, cisgender, middle class, able-bodied, and conventionally attractive women. Carol fails to present a lesbian relationship that doesn’t contribute to and idealize emphasized femininity. By not representing diverse, intersectional, and non-conforming identities, Carol further perpetuates the idea that emphasized femininity is the idealized standard for women to attain.

The critically acclaimed French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) is set in eighteenth-century France and depicts the passionate romance between Marianne, a painter, and her portrait subject, Heloise. The image from the film captures Marianne and Heloise embracing each other with love and care in the wake of realizing that their time together is nearing its end. Marianne and Heloise reinforce emphasized femininity in film both in their physical attributes as well as their submission to the expectations of how women are to behave in a patriarchal society. In terms of physical and characteristic representation, Marianne and Heloise are both beautiful white women that are cisgender, able-bodied, thin, affluent, and caring which all contribute to the depiction of emphasized femininity. Additionally, their love story is tragically brief because, although they possess strong feelings of love for one another, they part ways in order to go back to their expected societal roles. Marianne returns to her life as an unmarried artist and teacher and Heloise accepts her fate to marry into the aristocracy and have a family. Thereby the women in Portrait of a Lady on Fire only briefly challenge emphasized femininity but ultimately conform to societal expectations of beauty and participation in patriarchal ideals. (Image from: Vanity Fair)

LGBTQ+ Characters in Film that Defy Ideals of Hegemonic Masculinity and Emphasized Femininity

When analyzing how hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity are presented in film, it is important to recognize that these concepts are “multilayered processes of acting out gender publicly [in] socially excepted, defined, and appropriate ways” (Currier). In the following film, we can analyze how “hegemonic masculinity usually takes hold in ‘core’ social institutions that both reflect and affect the gender norms of the culture at large” (Currier).

Image from: NPR

In Dockendorf’s Naz & Maalik, hegemonic masculinity is defied in the way that its two lead characters (Naz and Maalik) are black, Muslim, and gay. This film depicts how these two characters are punished by society for not conforming to ideals of hegemonic masculinity and they must hide the parts of them that don’t conform to these ideals, such as their sexuality and religion. In “What’s Hegemonic about Hegemonic Masculinity? Legitimation and Beyond,” Yang discusses how hegemonic masculinity notably dominates “gay men, with political and cultural exclusion” (Yang). While this film depicts the harmful expectations of hegemonic masculinity, it is important to recognize how the majority of men do not “embody the hegemonic ideals, but they still benefit from the ‘patriarchal dividend’ that advantages men in general” (Yang). This film is significant in the way that it meaningfully portrays romance with LGBTQ+ characters that defy expectations of hegemonic masculinity and have diverse and intersectional identities.

LGBTQ+ Characters in TV that Defy Ideals of Hegemonic Masculinity and Emphasized Femininity

Where film fails to represent accurate portrayals of LGBTQ+ characters that are also people of color, television is more successful at portraying diverse and intersectional LGBTQ+ characters and relationships.

Emphasized femininity can be defined as the “pattern of femininity which is given the most cultural and ideological support” and it favors “patterns [of] sociability…compliance… [and] sexual receptivity” among women (Currier). In Black Lightning, we can see a portrayal of a lesbian relationship that doesn’t constrain these two characters (Anissa and Grace) into fitting within the ideals of emphasized femininity. These two women are both people of color that identify as lesbian and are far from being compliant towards men in this show. This portrayal of intersectional and non-conforming LGBTQ+ characters is significant in the way that these characters are not confined to or measured against white and heteronormative ideals of emphasized femininity. (Image from: TV Line)

Conclusion

As seen in the numerous provided examples of white LGBTQ+ characters in films, popular cinema tends to favor depictions of LGBTQ+ characters that adhere to ideals of hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity likely to mitigate hesitation towards prominent queer representation. Primarily portraying white, cisgender, able-bodied, and middle-class images of queerness in film erases people of color and other minority identifications from sharing their experiences that are subject to harsher intersectionality. The failure of diverse LGBTQ+ representation also reinforces patriarchal ideas of white narratives being more valid and respected in Hollywood. To improve this erasure of LGBTQ+ people of color in films, stories such Naz & Maalik (2015) and Barry Jenkins’ Academy Award Best Picture Moonlight (2016) should continue to be highlighted and supported financially so similar stories are celebrated and normalized. The lack of representation seen in all of the films discussed is likely due to the all white, cisgender, and largely straight filmmakers behind the scenes for each film. Diversity on camera begins with diversity behind the camera so elevating the voices of LGBTG+ people of color in key production roles such as directing, writing, and producing will ensure that genuinely inclusive stories will be told. Lastly, when representation fails in film there is the bright hope that the diversity seen in current television due to its broad medium and decreased pressure to be financially viable will be incorporated into cinema. 

References

Campbell, Christopher. The Routledge Companion to Media and Race / Edited by Christopher P.

Campbell. New York ; Routledge, 2017. Web.

Connell, R. W., & Messerschmidt, J. W. (2005). Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the

Concept. Gender & Society, 19(6), 829–859. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243205278639

Currier, D. M. (2013). STRATEGIC AMBIGUITY: Protecting Emphasized Femininity and 

Hegemonic Masculinity in the Hookup Culture. Gender & Society, 27(5), 704–727. 

https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243213493960

Yang, Y. (2020). What’s Hegemonic about Hegemonic Masculinity? Legitimation and Beyond. 

Sociological Theory, 38(4), 318–333. https://doi.org/10.1177/0735275120960792

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