The latest instalment of the Bond franchise not only marks the 50th birthday of the world’s most famous spy, it’s also the first time 007 has faced-off against a gay villain.
It might be a first for Bond, but cinema is no stranger to the ‘gay psycho’ theme.
While community attitudes have changed considerably since Sean Connery first ordered a martini in 1962, shaken not stirred, Hollywood still has a long way to go in terms of providing more diverse representations of homosexuality on screen. In fact, negative stereotyping of same-sex attracted people through film is older than James Bond himself.
Hitchcock’s 1951 film Strangers On A Train typifies Hollywood’s traditional take on gay characters. Two men meet randomly. One develops an unhealthy obsession with the other and both their lives are turned upside down.
It’s a theme revisited in 90s’ hits Single White Female and The Talented Mr Ripley. Even Judi Dench gave it a go in the noughties with Notes on a Scandal – cast as an ageing lesbian obsessed with her much younger, straight female colleague.
Thrillers and horror films are best understood as modern allegories and the message is always the same; play with fire and you’re going to get burnt. Badly.
In this context, gay relationships are presented as being fraught with danger – synonymous with obsession, unrequited love and misery. Such representations reflect the traditional belief that homosexuality (especially among men) is somehow threatening to heterosexuality.
In recent years these representations have changed. The dangerous psycho has evolved into the insipid handmaiden to a usually female protagonist. In fact, the perennially single gay character with acerbic wit has been a mainstay of virtually every romantic comedy since My Best Friend’s Wedding.
While the harmless gay friend may be a step up from the ‘gay psycho’, there is hardly cause for celebration here. Such characters add a dash of colour (and gratuitous fashion advice!), but they never pose any serious threat to the dominance of their heterosexual peers. Their own life-stories and romantic desires are usually airbrushed over as they live vicariously through their female friends.
The gay character of the rom-com may win social acceptance, but he only achieves this by being captive to the agendas of heterosexuals.
There have however been some notable exceptions in recent years. For instance, Milk and Brokeback Mountain were both commercially successful films that offered different depictions of gay characters.
There are also some notable examples on television. Since Ellen came out (both on screen and off) in 1997, gay characters have been central to a range of sitcoms, including Will & Grace,Modern Family and Glee.
A step-up from their two-dimensional peers on the big screen, these characters generally enjoy positive relationships that are respected by their families and communities. In so doing, they potentially build acceptance for same-sex attracted people and their relationships.
Despite these advances in television, film continues to lag behind. The silver screen generally presents just two, equally unflattering representations of homosexuality: ‘predatory sociopath’ or ‘harmless half-wit.’ Gay men are either to be feared or ridiculed. They can’t be strong and intelligent without being crazy, while lesbians are practically invisible.
So why are these depictions important? Indeed, gay and lesbian people are not the only population group to face unflattering characterisations on screen. The difference is that in the instance of same-sex attracted people, these characterisations are rarely balanced by more positive and realistic representations.
When a group is largely absent from popular culture, negative characterisations are all the more powerful. Here film has the potential to not only reflect existing social anxieties and attitudes but magnify and even legitimise them. Cinema is a remarkable medium, one that can both mirror society and project a version of society. In doing so, it shapes social values and attitudes.
This social and cultural power is evidenced in the depiction of women on screen. While the 70s may have been a period of women’s liberation, the 80s and 90s saw a backlash through cinema as ‘career women’ were all too often presented as emotionally unstable and dangerous. Fatal Attraction is perhaps the most famous film of the genre. While cinema has certainly diversified its female characters in recent years, many of these stereotypes still endure in contemporary culture and have the potential to influence social attitudes today.
While gay and lesbian people have achieved some positive human rights advances in recent years, if cinema is anything to go by, the battle is far from over.
It’s time for Hollywood to move beyond the straight and narrow and better reflect the diversity of the community. Finally creating gay characters with the popular appeal of James Bond (rather than his nemesis) would be a good place to start!
* This piece was first published on the the Drum Online on the 7th of December 2012.