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When coming to terms with parts of our identity, we often look towards the media for role models. Seeing elements of ourselves reflected on the “big screen” can have such a profound effect – it can make us feel accepted and loved and provides a sense of optimism that being LGBTQ+ is not always doom and gloom. However, negative representation is just as powerful, giving people a sense of rejection from society for being themselves. That is why positive representation is something important in films, despite being historically few and far between. Not all stories are happy ones but there are still elements of beauty within the truth. It is why positive representation matters so much. It allows us to explore our own identities through the safety of the camera lens. It is important to note that while not all positive representation is “happy”, it is telling the stories of LGBTQ+ folk who have been silenced too long. Whether fictional or non-fictional, all stories take root in reality.
One example of this is Carol (2015), based on the 1952 novel by Patricia Highsmith. Presenting the growing relationship between two women in 1950s America, both of whom have male partners, it subverts the typical queer genre by having a happy ending. Despite the character flaws of both Carol and Therese, their love is visible regardless of context. Of course, with that comes the constraints of 1950s patriarchal society. Carol is threatened from pursuing a lesbian relationship on the basis she will lose shared custody over her daughter. Similar to this, a comparison can be made to The Children’s Hour (1961) which presents the stigma around queer relationships at the time. However, this film does not have a happy ending, giving rise to interpretations of how LGBTQ+ people are restricted by small-minded societal views. Carol features heart-breaking dialogue and passionate scenes with a palpable tension between the characters. Further examples include Summerland (2020) and Ammonite (2020), both set in historical time periods and reflect the restraints of the time on LGBTQ+ relationships and featuring lesbians that did not conform to the ‘butch’ stereotypes. Queer subtext makes the characters relatable, especially when viewing older films.
Subverting stereotypes by having a male character dress in ‘feminine’ clothing has often been met with ridicule (often for comic relief). However, embracing such things in a positive way implies the reality of many of the LGBTQ+ community: gender identity and gender expression are not the same things. Such positive representation in films highlights the varied spectrum of gender and challenges the simple ‘binary’ concept. Many are familiar with The Danish Girl (2016) for its transgender representation. Other examples are Rent (2005), and Paris is Burning (1990). The latter is a documentary film that focuses on the predominately African American centred drag ball scene, which has a significant place in the history of ‘gender-bending’ and transgender individuals. Positively presenting the reality of lived experiences of the ball scene, films like Paris is Burning highlight the importance of LGBTQ+ history – especially within a widely accessed medium.