Or a hundred thoughts I had while watching Rocketman
I saw Rocketman today and I LOVED it! I’m not exaggerating that, I adored every minute of it. I cried pretty much the entire way through and they need to just give Taron Egerton the Golden Globe and Oscar for best actor now and save everyone else the trouble of even trying – that’s how brilliant he was. I also am feeling very soft towards Taron because of the way he’s gone to bat for the queer* community and our right to be able to claim this movie for ourselves; I will be forever grateful for that interview I read where he said he wouldn’t have taken the role if he wasn’t going to be able to make a movie we could take ownership of (unlike some other actors, he actually seems to get it *cough*RamiMalek*cough* Who said that? I didn’t name names…. Ahem, moving on).
So, in saying that, I do not want anybody to misunderstand the things I’m going to say in this blog. This is going to be partially a gushing review of Rocketman and the brilliance of Taron Egerton, Richard Madden, and Jamie Bell. Mostly, it’s going to be a serious discussion, using Rocketman as a jumping off point, about Hollywood’s very serious issue with straight gaze and LGBTQ+ representation. At no point do I want anybody to think I’m placing blame on Taron or Richard for the things I’m going to say – they have been frankly fantastic – or Rocketman itself, because it is genuinely brilliant and I highly recommend everyone goes to see it.
First of all, let’s talk about Rocketman and what I think it did perfectly from Taron’s singing, to Richard’s ability to make me forget how much I loved Robb Stark and make me hate his face so much I actually watched The Red Wedding just to watch him get stabbed because John Reid deserved it,
to how much I cried during the rehab scene and the beginning of the credits talking about Elton’s life and career. Also, some of the lines in this movie were solid gold. I am forever going to love, despite the dismal context of it, the line “rock and roll isn’t being blown by your secretary in front of the pool boys!”
Rocketman is, at its heart, a love story. It isn’t a traditional love story, though, by which I mean romantic. No, the love story painted across the screen is between Elton and his music, and Elton and himself. The heart of this movie is a boy who wanted to be loved and also loved music who became a man who still just wanted to be loved and loved music. Taron Egerton plays a lost little boy stuck in the world of a superstar, looking for love in all the wrong places so perfectly. It was heartbreaking to watch the interaction between Taron’s Elton and Richard’s John Reid, knowing that Reid couldn’t give a fuck about Elton, and only cared about the dollar signs flashing above his head, and seeing how besotted Elton was with him.
The most heartbreaking part of the movie, though, was watching Taron’s depiction of Elton John’s rehab sessions and coming to realisation that he is enough. That there is nothing broken in him and he, as a person, is enough as he is. He doesn’t need another person to love him, he just needs to accept himself and make music. That scene where Bernie hands him new lyrics and he actually manages to make music… I have to get a new bundle of tissues. You don’t see the process of him learning to love himself, but you see the start of it and that is so incredibly moving.
And because love is the overarching theme of the movie, of course you can’t shift away from Elton’s sexuality. And because his toxic relationship with John Reid was such a defining factor in his self-destructive tendencies, you can’t overlook it. But – boy is there a but here – but despite the fact that the movie included it, despite the fact that Elton being gay was part of the story’s focus, it still doesn’t hit the right notes for me to be fully satisfied with the representation.
It isn’t the actors’ fault, it isn’t even really the writer’s or director’s fault. It’s the fault of a larger issue within Hollywood that ties into the arguments people make about trans* people playing trans* characters, and gay people playing gay characters, and having queer* people write and direct queer* stories.
Own Voices creators are the only thing that can combat this issue that pervades every mainstream movie and TV show that tells queer* stories, and it’s even prevalent in the writing industry. Despite how splendid Rocketman is – and it truly is – it does highlight Hollywood’s larger issue with LGBTQ+ stories and telling them in a tone for the LGBTQ+ community, which is why I’m using it to talk about this problem. Not out of any anger with this movie – unlike… other… movies about queer* icons that… came out… recently… not naming names *cough*BohemianRhapsody*cough* who keeps doing that?!
I don’t want to talk about anything except this: queer* representation is a problem in Hollywood, on tv, and in books, and I blame it on straight audiences and straight creators and straight execs. The LGBTQ+ community wants proper representation but straight people, for the most part, don’t know what that means or how to deliver it, or they simply do not want to because they want straight audiences to consume media.
This next part might seem like a weird segue, but bear with me.
Here’s something important: straight people are obsessed with queer* sex: gay men, lesbians, trans* people – straight people are weirdly and uncomfortably fixated on queer* people’s sex lives. It’s weird. Please stop. Please. And that isn’t a hyperbole. Whether it’s fetishising it, asking stupidly inappropriate questions that they would never ask a fellow straight person, or using it as the focus for their homophobia, I have yet to meet a straight person who wasn’t weirdly focused on queer* people and sex.
When I used to run a queer* group, we had an open question forum with an anonymous online question box. We knew we would get inappropriate questions but the volume of inappropriate questions versus ones with substance was about 80-20 percent wise. And let me tell you, when I get a man asking how two women have sex, all I hear is ‘I have never given a woman an orgasm’ and when a woman asks, all I hear is ‘I have never had an orgasm’, and both are just very sad to think about so I try not to.
Here’s a radical idea: not everything is about sex! When we ask for more and better queer* representation, all straight people hear is ‘we want near-pornographic gay sex scenes!’ And no. Just no. Don’t get me wrong, equal representation does mean that if a movie was about a straight couple and the writers would put a sex scene in without question, then when they’re writing a movie about a same-sex/queer* couple (if neither is asexual) then they should damn well put a sex scene in because queer* people are not sexless dolls! But, that isn’t the only thing we mean when we talk about representation, it’s just what straight people think about because, as stated, they’re obsessed with queer* sex.
Good and equal queer* representation means: no heteronormativity, no cisnormativity, no transmisogyny. Tell as many queer* stories as there are queer* experiences and people in the world and stop telling the exact same queer* stories with the same queer* characters over and over again. Stop hiding characters’ sexual orientations and genders, stop throwing them in for bonus diversity points, stop creating two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs of stereotypes to fulfil your diversity quota, stop treating queer* people and their relationships as straight people and straight relationships because they are different, stop making queerness implied and swept under the rug. And yes, include sex scenes that actually matter and aren’t glazed over for the sake of straight people. And most of all: STOP TELLING QUEER* STORIES FOR STRAIGHT AUDIENCES AND TELL THEM FOR QUEER* AUDIENCES!
That is the heart of the problem: the straight gaze cast over a majority of queer* stories, characters, and issues in movies and television shows.
If you don’t know what straight gaze is, think of male gaze. Male is gaze is the process of presenting female characters, stories, and sex in a way that appeals purely to heterosexual men. So, straight gaze is the process of presenting queer* characters, stories, and sex in a way that is palatable to straight people. Both of these issues alienate the people who should be the target audience for those characters and stories. Unfortunately, Rocketman is a very clear example of this, despite how much I loved it – though it isn’t as bad as other movie biopics about LGBTQ+ icons…
While it is true that they didn’t shy away from Elton being gay, are we supposed to be grateful they included the gayness of a gay man in a movie about his life? That’s a bit like being grateful they included spaceships in The Martian, a movie about space travel and exploration. Elton’s realisation that he’s gay is so glossed over because what do straight people care for the painful and confusing process realising you’re queer* can be? They only care about queer* characters for a few reasons, and the emotional and psychological journeys a vast majority of queer* people take to come to terms with themselves is not one of them.
In fact, Elton’s realisation of being gay is played for laughs (the soul singer announcing it to everyone, the moment Elton realises he’s right, when his girlfriend finds out, all supposed to be great big jokes). The only touching part of it is when he attempts to kiss Bernie, his best friend and lyricist, and the very gentle, and touching way Bernie turns him down, cementing their bond for life. And another moment with a gay character played for laughs: when the bar owner in LA hits on Bernie. Predatory gay behaviour is gross and not okay, for starters, and secondly, stop using gay characters’ gayness for comic relief. It’s insulting and homophobic.
Now, the big one. That sex scene we heard so much about, that they had to fight to keep in, is probably one of the biggest examples of this whole issue. It’s so… tame. If you want to see an actually explicit gay sex scene, go watch the US version of Queer as Folk. Even the sex scene between Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer’s characters in The Normal Heart was more risqué – but that movie was based on a play written by a gay man and the movie was directed by a gay man, and Matt Bomer is a gay man; own voices people, it does wonders for a story.
I don’t mean to demean the sex scene in Rocketman, it was important to the movie, Taron and Richard did an amazing job, it was beautiful, and I am so grateful they fought to keep it in, but they never should have had to fight for it. That’s the point. It’s so freaking tame, it’s less explicit than most heterosexual sex scenes you can find in any random M rated movie you pull off a shelf. In fact my movie ticket came with the warning of ‘a sex scene’ which I rarely see on M rated movies anymore, you just kind of expect sex scenes in them – that is such a micro-aggressive thing to do, to be perfectly honest. My point is, the fact they had to fight to keep in such a tame sex scene is incredibly problematic and indicative of Hollywood’s desire to keep neutering queer* people, but especially gay men. They do this in order to market a story about a queer* character to straight people, so they can see the movie without being made to feel “uncomfortable” with the content.
I’ll give you two examples of the above:
Glee, season 4, episode 14. The episode shows a bunch of couples going into hotel rooms to have sex. We see Rachel and Finn undressing and getting under the covers to get it on. We see Artie and a female minor character whose name escapes me, naked under covers afterwards. We see Quinn and Santana naked, wrapped in rumbled sheets, hair mussed up (hello, male gaze, we meet again). But Kurt and Blaine? They’re both almost fully dressed with neat hair. The only indication they even had sex is the rumpled bedding (and tissues on the bedside table if you look closely). The comparison is laughable. And when the episode aired on television in Australia: THEY CUT OUT KURT AND BLAINE’S SCENE! BUT NOT QUINN AND SANTANA’S! WTF?! (Can you tell I’m still mad about the combination homophobia and male gaze/fetishisation here?)
My second example is Spartacus: War of the Damned, episode 3. Agron and Nasir’s only actual sex scene in the two seasons they’re together. One of only… two or three male/male sex scenes in the entire show. You can view the entire uncut scene as a deleted scene, it’s about one minute and 20 seconds. The scene in the episode, however, is cut down to about 30 seconds and all of the most passionate parts are completely cut out: you don’t see them undress each other, you don’t see Agron biting Nasir or wrapping him so tightly in his arms you can’t see much of him. When you compare that scene to, from the same season, Spartacus and Laeta’s scene, or the scenes between Marcus and Kore (which, ew, she is a slave, he owns her, ewwwwwww), the difference is ridiculous.
Hollywood. Wants. Gay men. To. Be. Sexless. Dolls. So. Straight. People. Aren’t. Uncomfortable. And. They. Want. To. Make. Lesbians. Super. Hot. So. Straight men. Get. Boners. What?
And this is the thing, there is no in-between. It’s either completely glossed over and made to be harmless and non-threatening, or it’s totally fetishised. Sex between queer* people is never treated normally and it is such bullshit. All done to make straight people happy.
What do you think queer* people have been watching and reading our whole lives? I have seen every possible iteration of two straight, white people falling in love imaginable. I have to literally scour lists online to find queer* movies, tv shows, and books to give me the content I want. And so much of what is available is created for straight people and you can tell, because half the time I don’t connect completely with the queer* characters who are supposed to be showing experiences from my community.
This is why Own Voices artists are so important. The only way you can erase things like straight gaze and male gaze, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, transmisogyny and everything else along those lines, is to allow the people who have lived those experiences tell those stories. People who can directly understand the stories and the characters. That, and straight creators listening to the voices of the groups whose stories they’re telling. Actually listening. When they don’t listen, we end up with movies like Rocketman, or even worse, Bohemian Rhapsody (yes, this time I named it without being stupid), that are supposed to be about queer* people and their stories, but instead are framed in a way that is better suited to telling a straight person’s story. Because they’re trying to tell the story for straight people, instead of who should actually be the intended audience.
In conclusion: if we’ve had to live our entire lives consuming media geared towards straight people, then straight people can suck it up buttercup, and deal with media told for queer* audiences. We want media we can actually connect with, that tells our stories in a way that speaks to us and doesn’t shy away from who we are. That’s equality, people, true equality.
Thank you for coming to my Ted talk.
Love, a really exhausted gay woman xoxo
[Side Note: I make no apologies for the shots I fired at Bohemian Rhapsody. I wasn’t trying to be subtle because I find that movie insulting, quite frankly, but more than the movie itself, I find the responses of those involved to the criticism of the queer* representation to be tone deaf and utterly ignorant. If a minority group is telling you overwhelmingly that you are doing something wrong, goddamn listen to them. No, “it was about the music” is NOT a valid argument; if they made a movie about, say, Gene Simmons, there would be SO MANY sex scenes, regardless of the fact that it’s about his musical journey, why? Because he’s straight. The point is, it was a biopic about Freddie Mercury, not Queen, therefore it was not okay to ignore his queer* identity when he was such a huge inspiration to so many queer* people and he was unashamedly queer*.
And no, straight people do not get to decide the acceptability of Freddie’s characterisation in that movie. The same way those without uteruses shouldn’t get a say in abortion laws, men in discussions about what is misogyny, and cisgendered people in trans* discussions. If you are not a part of that group your opinion is completely irrelevant. I am a gay white abled cisgendered woman. I get to talk in queer* issues and women’s issues. I do not get to talk in race issues, or non-binary and trans* issues, or disabled community issues; in those instances, I get to sit down, shut up, and listen. And that is what straight people need to do when queer* people are talking about Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman in relation to their LGBTQ+ themes and queer* representation in general. This is our conversation, you get to listen and hear what we’re trying to tell you.]