Four score and many moons ago, I wrote my graduate dissertation on, I kid you not, “Homosociality and the male anti-hero in A Clockwork Orange and Romper Stomper”. Inspired by the theories of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, I argued that in both of those films, the male leads were repressing their homosexual desires and/or more stereotypically feminine aspects by exaggerating their macho behavior. That their hyper-masculinity was as much a performance as personality trait, there to mask desires and behavior that weren’t socially acceptable at the time. Both of those films are quite avant-garde, making the homosocial aspects of their lead characters’ relationships with their friend(s) explicit, but falling short of making this subtext text. Give the eras in which both films were made and the filmmakers involved, this is hardly a surprise.
But, as my new Prime Minister recently said, “It’s 2015,” and at least some of the recent/upcoming bromances need to become genuine onscreen romances.
This fact was underlined by two recent pop culture events: the releases of Victor Frankenstein and the Captain America: Civil War trailer. In the former, a gonzo steampunk reinvention of the Frankenstein story, Daniel Radcliffe plays a brilliant but innocent young Igor as a Dickensian waif with mad surgical skillz. He is rescued from near-enslavement by dashing James McAvoy in Byronic mad scientist mode. The most compelling thing about the film is the chemistry between the two, as Victor seduces–though not literally–young Igor into helping him with his experiments, then turns on him when Igor grows a conscience. The best scenes in the film are where they banter, flirt, fight, share intimate details about their lives, nerd out over science. It’s a romance in everything but name.
There is, of course, the obligatory love interest (for Igor–Victor is far too self-absorbed to notice anyone not of use to him). Since she’s the typical girlfriend character, she’s boring and pointless, there to get injured and be saved, criticize Igor when he makes poor life decisions and support him when he finally decides to do the right thing. But how much more interesting would she have been if she was not there merely to support the lead, but was a participant in their activities as a platonic friend and character of equal merit. And the dramatic stakes of the film would have increased tenfold if Igor was scared he was losing not just a friend and employer in Victor, but his lover to ambition and madness.
Kosofsky Sedgwick derived her theory of the homosocial in part from 19th century novels, where the two male rivals for a woman’s affections would be the most well-defined characters, to the point where the beloved they were fighting over became superfluous. Given how women are still marginalized in modern cinema, especially in genre cinema, couldn’t we redefine both male and female roles by freeing women from the ‘girlfriend’ part and giving them more agency, and deepening the male relationships by having them actually be in one?
A significant portion of the audience is already clamoring for it. After the Captain America: Civil War trailer hit, highlighting Cap’s efforts to save his old friend Bucky from both friends and foes who want his head on a pike, the online response basically amount to: “Please, please, please, can they make out?” As beautifully illustrated in this sketch by @hunktears:
And amazing articles like this: http://comicsalliance.com/super-stucky-steve-bucky-civil-war-trailer/ In it, Andrew Wheeler argues that:
“Yet if Bucky Barnes were a woman, this would be a love story, played out with all the same narrative beats. If Peggy were the brainwashed assassin kept frozen through the decades, this movie would definitely end in a kiss. Everything about the love, pain, and intimacy of the Steve/Bucky relationship on the big screen is typical of a romance, and that’s something fans are right to respond to — something the filmmakers may even be playing into, though surely not with any formal sign-off from Disney.
The world is increasingly more free, fair and tolerant for people in same-sex relationships, especially in countries like the US. Yet imagine this; if we lived in a world that had no hang-ups about same-sex relationships, no hate, no prejudice towards the idea of two men or two women together; do you doubt for a second that this movie would actually be a romance?
If everything else about this movie were the same, but we were different, wouldn’t it make sense for Steve and Bucky to kiss?”
It does make sense, and we are ready for it. (And, for my money, the filmmakers are deliberately playing on this in the trailer.) Who is Captain America’s romantic foil if not Bucky? They are the only two people in existence who have lived yin-yang versions of the same experience, who have fought each other and have died for each other, have been friends, comrades, enemies, and saviors, have a deeper connection than any two other characters in the MCU… so explain to me why they can’t be lovers. There isn’t even a token love interest standing in their way. Cap’s entire argument in this trailer seems to be, “Bucky is my friend, so don’t you dare lay a finger on him.” [Note: the details of the disagreement between Cap and Iron Man are undoubtedly more complex than this in the actual film, but this trailer is keeping those secrety secrets hidden, and for good reason.] It’s very Captain American to go to impossible lengths for friendship. But think of how much more powerful it would be if he went to war with his friends for love.
Film after film, it’s there in the subtext. It’s time to take a risk and turn these homosocial relationships into homosexual relationships. Why can’t Bucky and Steve be lovers? Why isn’t the new twist on Frankenstein that Victor and Igor have a tryst that turns tricksy? Why can’t Batman have given Robin a home because they have similar backstories *and* he has a thing for twinks? Why can’t Trish Walker be Jessica Jones’ ex-girlfriend, creating a love triangle between the two of them and Luke Cage? (Hands up who wants to see that threesome do a love scene!) Why can’t Jessica Chastain try to seduce Mia Wasikowska away from Tom Hiddleston, or want them both, in Crimson Peak? Why can’t The Vision be a trans or intersex character in Avengers: Age of Ultron–in fact, why does The Vision have a gender at all?
It all comes down to the same question, the one more and more people are demanding of their genre cinema: why aren’t there more queer characters, queer stories, queer superheroes and aliens and vampires and witches and shape-shifters and zombies and Gothic heroes/heroines?
Why isn’t there more queer representation in genre cinema?
Because, filmmakers, you subtext is showing.
[Note: Artist’s name for the top image of Steve and Bucky in bed is in the bottom of the frame. This is not my drawing, and I take no credit for it. If you know who the artist is, please contact me.]