Queer theory is a complex, multi-faceted subject that’s difficult to cover in a single post. So we’re going to try to break it down into more digestible pieces. We’ll give you a basic overview of Queer Theory, but mainly we’ll provide some examples from films and TV shows that have been groundbreaking in terms of Queer representation.
Introduce yourself to Queer Theory
So, what is Queer Theory?
Queer Theory basically says, “Hey, remember how we were all taught that blue is for boys and pink is for girls? And that ‘normal’ families have exactly one mommy and one daddy? Yeah, that’s complete rubbish and we need to re-educate ourselves.”
Before we get to some of the pertinent language and terminology, let’s start with a Queer Theory definition.
QUEER THEORY DEFINITION
What is Queer Theory?
Queer Theory subverts traditional institutions of society that are based on the heteronormative model of human sexuality, and acknowledges the broad spectrum of sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
In other words, Queer Theory gives us the option of believing that Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie are a married couple rather than two platonic friends sharing an apartment.
So, Queer Theory subverts heteronormative power and messaging (e.g., “Queer bad/Straight good”) by offering positive representations of Queer characters in media like television and cinema.
QUEER THEORY EXPLAINED
Queer Theory terminology
Let’s continue with some terms we use to talk about Queer Theory. You've probably heard most, if not all, of these terms but it's important to establish these concepts as we move forward.
While historically a derogatory label, Queer Theory has reclaimed the word to acknowledge the wide spectrum of human sexuality and gender identity. The following video explains this really well.
In our society, we have been conditioned to see other humans as either male (masculine) or female (feminine), and heterosexual (“Straight”). As a result, we have been taught that sexual relationships are “normal” only when they exist between two people of the opposite sex.
To quote Eugene Wolters, "The ideas we have in our head about what constitutes male-ness, female-ness, and what constitutes "normal" are all socially constructed."
Queer Theory actively subverts this conditioning. In fact, some Queer people feel that Gay and Lesbian people are too “assimilated” into the heteronormative social construct.
Non-binary folks identify as neither male or female, Gay or Straight, masculine or feminine. Or they may identify as all of those simultaneously. Non-binary is also called genderqueer or genderfluid.
The opposite of transgender. Someone who is cismale or cisfemale has had male or female sexual organs since birth.
EXAMPLES OF QUEER THEORY
Watch Queer Theory in action
Queer Theory shows us that there have always been Queer characters in cinema, though in the early days, Queer characters were often “coded” to be hidden in plain sight.
Until recently, openly Queer characters were nearly always portrayed as camp buffoons, predatory deviants, or tragically doomed to die before the final credits.
One notable exception is the film The Maltese Falcon (1941).
Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) is introduced to the story as decidedly Queer. True, Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) takes advantage of Cairo’s smaller size and roughs him up a lot. But Sam’s abuse of Cairo has nothing to do with Cairo’s Queer identity and everything to do with him being part of the criminal gang that tries to cheat, frame, and kill Sam.
Ma Vie En Rose
This Belgian-French film is arguably the best representation of transgender children ever depicted. 7-year-old Ludovic has always known she was a girl even though she was born into a boy’s body. The film portrays the family’s struggle to come to terms with Ludo’s gender identity as they face being ostracized by their friends and community, and even Ludo’s attempt at suicide to give her family peace.
The ABC sitcom Ellen had the title character, Ellen Morgan (Ellen DeGeneres), come out publicly. This made Ellen Morgan the first openly Queer lead character on network television.
It might be difficult to understand what a huge deal this was at the time. But both Ellen — and Ellen — broke through the Queer barrier and created space for other Queer characters to exist in mainstream media. Let’s look at some of them.
Todd Chavez — BoJack Horseman
Todd Chavez (voiced by Aaron Paul) is one of the first openly asexual main characters. People who are asexual (called the “ace” community) don’t experience physical sexual desire. The character's self-discovery was an important ongoing storyline.
The eponymous Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) in the BBC series of the same name was also depicted as asexual. While one could argue about why Sherlock is asexual — that his is a conscious choice (“I don’t do that!”) to keep his mind “pure” and undistracted — but the modern BBC version of Sherlock Holmes is asexual nonetheless.
Sophia Burset — Orange is the New Black
Sophia is one of the first transgender characters to be portrayed by a transgender actor (Laverne Cox). Sophia’s story is one that helped a lot of people understand what it means to be transgender, and spotlighted the issue of being transgender and incarcerated.
The FX network show isn’t the first mainstream series where multiple characters are Gay, Lesbian, or transgender. But it is the first where all the Gay, Lesbian, and transgender characters are played by Gay, Lesbian, and transgender actors. This is a direct influence of the showrunners being Gay, Lesbian, and transgender themselves.
The overtly Queer themes in this award-winning, animated sci-fi fantasy are important for Queer children learning to navigate their own sexual identities. Queer kids get both positive representation of loving relationships, as well as happy endings for characters they identify with.
Marshmallow — Bob’s Burgers
Marshmallow (voiced by David Herman) is a transgender sex worker whom Bob (H. Jon Benjamin) befriended during his brief stint as a cab driver. Marshmallow has since become a recurring character and is always happy, friendly, and just as supportive of the Belcher family as they are of her.
In general, Bob’s Burgers is a network TV show that routinely shows the Belchers to be unfazed by a character’s sexual identity or sexual orientation, which is a stark contrast from the usual sitcom treatment.
Elena Alvarez — One Day at a Time
Elena’s story is drawn directly from the personal experiences of the show’s writers. As a teenager attending a Catholic high school, Elena goes through the stages of coming out to herself, coming out to her religious and conservative family, and coming out publicly.
Throughout this storyline, the show depicts Elena’s family as being wholly supportive of Elena even while they may be privately confronting their own prejudices. More importantly, Elena is allowed to have the same relationship failures and successes as any other sitcom teenager.
Bree — Transamerica
Transamerica (2005) uses the road trip genre to spotlight the numerous challenges transgender people face, not the least of which is the bureucracy they must wade through in order to receive sexual reassignment surgery.
And though Bree is portrayed by a cisfemale actor (Felicity Huffman), the character Bree is fully developed and three-dimensional without ever being reduced to a punchline.
David Rose — Schitt’s Creek
David’s (Dan Levy) sexuality is never an issue in the entire CBC series. The comedy regarding his relationships is approached in the same way as that of his sister Alexis (Annie Murphy), a lot of which emerges from any sexually active adult living with their parents and siblings.
In one storyline, besties David and Stevie (Emily Hampshire) discover that they’re both dating the same guy, Jake (Steve Lund). David and Stevie argue over which one of them has to dump Jake, but eventually they both do when Jake suggests they all become a “throuple.”
David ultimately finds true happiness with business partner and later husband Patrick (Noah Reid). Again, David’s character arc is directly connected to showrunner Dan Levy being Queer himself.
Practice Queer Theory
Think about what we’ve learned
It’s important to understand that demographics are rapidly changing. People understand and are more accepting of every stripe of human being than ever before, and inclusivity matters.
This opens up incalculable opportunities for new stories to be told and new characters to be revealed. And with the flood of new distribution points like Disney+, AppleTV, etc. the demand for content is higher than it has ever been.
Telling Queer stories in a realistic way is a natural progression of cinema, but it requires experience of and connection to the Queer community. That means hiring Queer writers to reveal those stories, Queer directors to bring those stories to life, and Queer actors to represent the real people whose stories are being told.
How to avoid stereotypes in movies
In today's more progressive landscape, stereotypes in movies and TV are being identified and addressed like never before. Here are some tips on how you might recognize and avoid making any unfortunate assumptions and generalizations that lay the foundation of stereotypes.