You Kill That Man, You Die Next

In the largely forgotten 1994 film Sleep with Me, Quentin Tarantino shows up for one scene to explain the gay subtext of Top Gun. “It’s a story about a man’s struggle with his own homosexuality,” he says, explaining that Maverick is torn between “the gay way”, represented by Val Kilmar and the fighter pilots, and heterosexuality, represented by Kelly McGillis. “The more he talks, the more plausible his theory sounds,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review. By the end of the scene, initially sceptical Todd Field is enthusiastically on-board.

Despite gay subtext’s long history in literary studies, it’s recently gotten a bit of a bad rap, in part due to the over-extension of the term queerbaiting. Queerbaiting, a fandom-coined term, refers to media, usually in serial formats like TV shows, teasing characters as LGBT or forming same-gender relationships in order to pander to LGBT fans but with no intention to follow through. Queerbaiting is definitely a thing that has happened on occasion – the TV show Supernatural, mostly – but it’s a term without nuance or historical root, that requires both projecting intent on the creators and flattening the relationship between subtext and text into a simple dichotomy.

But the relationship between gay subtext and overt gay text is complex and contingent. When Moonlight won the Oscar for Best Picture, many news outlets called it the first LGBT winner, and it made me feel vaguely uneasy. It is true, in some sense: there definitely hadn’t been a Best Picture winner that portrayed gay relationships as openly as Moonlight. But is Midnight Cowboy an LGBT film? Many of these articles rationalise that it is not because Joe (Jon Voight) only has sex with men for money, but that’s equally true of Keanu Reeves’s character in My Own Private Idaho, often listed as an unfairly snubbed LGBT film in these same articles. In one scene, Joe is unable to get an erection when with a female client, so they play Scrabble, and she spells out “G-A-Y”. The relationship between Joe and Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) is one of intimate partnership: I think often of Joe wiping Ratso’s face with his shirttail and Ratso clinging to his bare belly. Hoffman asked director John Schlesinger (a gay man) why they weren’t sleeping in the same bed, and Schlesinger said, “Oh God! Please! It was hard enough to get the financing.” After Midnight Cowboy was awarded Best Picture in 1970, John Wayne infamously called it “a story about two f*gs” and a “perverse movie”.

A decade earlier, Biblical epic Ben-Hur won Best Picture, into the screenplay for which Gore Vidal had consciously written a homoerotic subtext. A decade before that, All About Eve won, a film that only makes sense if Eve is a lesbian. (All About Eve has been criticised for homophobia while simultaneously achieving cult status among gay audiences, in no small part due to Bette Davis’s fabulousness.) At the very first Oscars in 1929, one of two Best Picture awards was given to Wings, the first film to portray a man kiss another man on the lips, accompanied by the title cards, “You – you know there is nothing in the world that means so much to me as your friendship” and then, “I knew it – – all the time – – ”

But whether a film has a gay subtext is ultimately a question of whether the viewer can make a legitimate case that it does. Something doesn’t have to be widely agreed to be present in a film for it to be present. Three years after John Schlesinger couldn’t have two men share a bed in Midnight Cowboy, Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) share a bed in Mean Streets, a film almost no-one thinks has a gay subtext. But as one of those few and proud: the film cuts from Charlie and Johnny in bed together to Charlie sleeping with his girlfriend, in a kind of displaced homoeroticism. Later, there’s a scene where two gay guys get into the car with Charlie and his friends, and it’s a bizarre, meaningless and pretty homophobic detour unless you think that the guy flirting with Charlie has clocked him – LGBT people recognise each other in a way cis straight people do not – and Charlie’s discomfort is his unease with his own sexuality.

It can be easier to make the case for the homoerotic undercurrents of Midnight Cowboy or Ben-Hur because we know that people involved in their production were LGBT – John Schlesinger and Gore Vidal, respectively – but meaning exists in the piece of art itself, it is not just injected into it from its surrounding context. If a higher burden of proof is placed on gay readings than on other interpretations, it eliminates the possibility of stories from the closet – whether that means art about closeted characters, or art that is itself closeted. It’s rooted in the assumption that all people are straight until they disclose otherwise, and cuts the contemporary moment off from all historical precedent. It paternalistically reduces the glint of recognition in the eye of the LGBT audience to being hoodwinked.

“You can watch any movie, and it doesn’t matter what the director was thinking, or what the people making the movie was thinking, if you can make a case for it, you can lay in a subtext into a film, make it a… much more enjoyable way to watch the film,” Quentin Tarantino told Craig Ferguson in 2010, “Like gay subtext! Gay subtext for instance. Always makes every movie better.”

Which brings us to Reservoir Dogs.

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The Best of The Sundae #2

It’s been over a year since we first took a look back at our work and picked the best of it for your easy reading pleasure. A lot has happened since then. We’ve gone through two whole Oscar and Emmy cycles. We each had an essay published in Bright Wall/Dark Room – Dean on Blade Runner and Ciara on Weekend at Bernie’s II. Marvel fired James Gunn due to an alt-right smear campaign and now he’s writing Suicide Squad 2. We were shortlisted for an Irish Blog AwardJonathan Chait got BOFA’d.

But, most importantly, we kept writing and publishing, and now we have even more stuff to choose from for our second best-of round-up. So, if you’re a long-time reader, here’s an invitation to revisit the classics. If you’re a recent reader, catch up on some stuff you might not have read. And if you’re a brand new reader, take a crash course in what we’re all about.

Here’s the best of The Sundae so far. Again.

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Cancelled Too Soon: Sense8

This article is the part of the Cancelled Too Soon series. Previously, The Booth at the End.


There was a time not that long ago when Netflix could have had an actual identity instead of trying to become all of television by churning out exponentially more content than anyone else. It was a brief moment, between the initial excitement of the binge-viewing boom and the current glut of infinite trash when there were signs that Netflix, whatever else it was, could be the place to find the most innovative and exciting television anywhere in the world. Freed from the content limitations of traditional television, disinterested in dominating the direction of their original series, for a second there, Netflix was making television that was unlike anything else you’d ever seen. Some of it was thematically groundbreaking – Orange is the New Black, BoJack Horseman, Jessica Jones – and some of it was blowing up what we thought television could be as a medium – Lady Dynamite, The Get Down and, more than any other, Sense8.

But now it’s the future and the ones that were redefining the medium are all cancelled and Jessica Jones is gone to shit and Netflix’s brand is just excess for its own sake. When someone tells you about a new HBO show, HBO’s reputation tells you what the pull is: high production values, name actors, writer-driven shows with dark and complex themes. When you hear about a new Netflix show, there’s no sense of what it might be, because you’re already thinking about how you’re not going to watch it because you still haven’t watched the fifty other shows Netflix released in the past twenty minutes.

I mean, you haven’t even watched Sense8 yet, and Sense8 is one of the greatest television shows ever made.

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To Love Pure and Chaste From Afar: Queer Coding in The Mary Tyler Moore Show

“Queer coding” is one of the more interesting ideas in media analysis to be almost exclusively applied to the same thinkpiece about Disney villains over and over. It’s not a well-defined term but I’d describe it something like this: characters and relationships in art are queer-coded when they have traits that read as queer to at least some of the audience, but are not explicitly so. It’s slippery and subjective and can easily get muddled up with other ideas. It’s sometimes used interchangeably with ideas like queer subtext (when queer themes run under the surface of a piece of art otherwise not overtly queer) or queerbaiting (when writers tease that characters are queer and may form relationships to pander to LGBT fans, but never follow through). Queer subtext has a long history in literary studies, e.g. The Great Gatsby as a story of Nick Carraway’s unrequited love for Jay Gatsby, while queerbaiting is a very recent term, originating in fandom and mostly used in reference to serial formats, e.g. TV shows like Supernatural (with baited characters Dean and Castiel) or film series like Pitch Perfect (with baited characters Beca and Chloe).

Queer coding is different: it doesn’t need to hold up to scrutiny like an argument for subtext does, and it doesn’t have to be deliberate on the part of the artist like an accusation of queerbaiting does. It gets at something narrower and subtly distinct – queer coding often describes stereotypical traits (e.g. limp wrists) but it can also refer to ineffable qualities that aren’t burdened with connotations of queerness in larger society. Taking it back to Disney villains for a second, sometimes I totally see where people are coming from when they read them as queer. Jafar from Aladdin is unmarried, wears winged eyeliner and has a lisp, I get it. But then someone says Hades is like a sassy gay guy and it just doesn’t connect at all. We’re into something altogether more subtle and subjective, because there are lots of “sassy” or “snarky” character archetypes – black women and Jews spring to mind – and characters can even be those things without fitting into or referencing archetypes. That can just be their personality. Yet, even without anything in the story that implies it’s the case, there’s something that makes Hades read queer to some people and not to others. (He reads Jewish to me, for the record.) And while a lot of queer coding can be explained as a kind of glint of recognition in the eye of an LGBT audience, that’s not exclusively the case. Characters and relationships can come off as queer to straight people too.

I’ve been thinking about queer coding a lot ever since I watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

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RuPaul’s Unreliable Editing Race

The first time I clocked a deceitful edit in RuPaul’s Drag Race was my second viewing of the show’s sixth season. During preparation for that season’s iteration of Snatch Game, a challenge in which the queens impersonate a celebrity, RuPaul cast doubt on competitor BenDeLaCreme’s plan to portray Dame Maggie Smith. Three shots follow: first, Ben looks at RuPaul while audio from one of Ben’s confessionals plays over it (“Ru does not seem into my idea.”); next, a shot of Ben’s wig on a foam head while the audio continues (“I’m shaken–my confidence is definitely shaken, but, I–”); finally, it cuts to the confessional itself where a puffy-eyed Ben is speechless, either just finished crying or just about to start.

Except that last part isn’t true, because, later in the episode, Ben talks about his adolescent struggles with body image and his mother’s death from cancer when he was thirteen. “I just–”, he begins to describe the loss in voiceover, and then it cuts to a much longer shot of Ben speechless in the same confessional from earlier. It’s clear in this longer shot that Ben is stumbling over his explanation of how he felt when his mother died, not Ru’s lack of enthusiasm for his Maggie Smith impression, especially since he actually won Snatch Game. The editors had blatantly cut footage of Ben crying as he recalled his grief and moved it earlier in the episode to make it look like Ru had shaken Ben to his core.

Ever since, I’ve been completely sceptical of the Drag Race edit.

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Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor in I Love You Philip Morris

Written in the Stars or Some Crap Like That

I Love You Phillip Morris is the lost film of the noughties, a masterpiece of filmmaking that no one remembers less than ten years later. Everyone who loves film has a movie they champion in the face of an indifferent world, and I have several, but none so much as I Love You Phillip Morris. Wikipedia calls it a “black comedy drama” but I Love You Phillip Morris is one of those rare multi-genres films that layers each element so perfectly the result is pure alchemy, a work of art so inexplicably magical that even an accurate label can only ever be a reductive one. I Love You Phillip Morris is a biopic, a caper, a black comedy and a tragedy, but if it’s any kind of film, it’s a romantic comedy, and not just a romantic comedy, but one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time.

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