MAINSTREAM GAY FILMS are afraid of sex, in love with an anodyne beauty. That’s what film and literature scholar D. A. Miller argued recently in a review of Call Me By Your Name here on LARB. It’s not hard to see why — finding examples of gay sex in mainstream film is difficult, even as straight sex saturates most movies. To get around the problem of showing gay sex, LGBT movies take an aesthetic turn: the beautifully shot scene or the beautiful body papers over the messiness of sex. As a result, viewers imagine the bodily and intimate contact experienced by the gay characters on screen, but remain unconfronted by genital contact between men, much less shit, spit, or semen. The tendency to preference the beautiful scene or body over the actual fact of sex evinces, as Miller puts it, the “classically abstract liberal way [that] all is approved of on condition that nothing be looked at.” And, true to form, movies like Call Me By Your Name follow the familiar procedure of anticipating sex as the material validation of the desire of gay people, only to pan away from the troubling fact of sex itself.
Miller isn’t alone in detecting a contemporary retreat back into the celluloid closet. More recently, Tom Joudrey laments on Slate that contemporary films like Call Me By Your Name, the British drama God’s Own Country, a Brokeback Mountain–esque film about two farmworkers in rural England, and the almost painfully normal Love, Simon, about upper-middle-class high schoolers in suburban Atlanta, elide queerness’s history. These films, in combination “eradicate [a] culturally transmitted queer sensibility,” Joudrey argues, by erasing the “sensibility of dissident theatricality” that forms a core component of LGBT culture. The cultural history of drag balls and the over-the-top performativity of films like The Boys in the Band become instead a “bleached-out ideal of niceness” that neutralizes queerness’s defiance. Instead, another form of anodyne queer cultural production greets us, leaving the challenge of queerness in the cold.
Priorities in gay life have shifted in recent times, and the rubric Miller and Joudrey apply, while diagnostically accurate in one sense, misses the target in another. Both critique a familiar type of gay movie — that centered around somewhat privileged gay white men by referencing Call Me By Your Name or the hilariously normal upper-middle-class teen drama Love, Simon. When both wrap Moonlight into the mix, the diagnosis goes off base: in generalizing about queer film primarily through narratives of white queers, they miss the novelty offered by recent queer films and TV centered on explicitly political questions of community, marginalization, representation, and the intimate lives of queer people of color. Along the way, they neglect how contemporary queer films — even problematic films like Call Me By Your Name — refocus attention from the idea that gay sex activates queer identification, and toward the need for a more complex understanding of queer intimacy. In bemoaning the absence of a certain kind of queer dissidence in contemporary LGBT film, Miller and Joudrey miss the appearance of another.
Two recent shows address the problems and offerings of queerness, sex, and beauty in the present: Falling for Angels (Here TV, 2017–’18) and Vida (STARZ, 2018). The shorts of the anthology series Falling for Angels, each by a different director, explore queer life in Los Angeles, but focus on the parts left to the side of L.A.’s media image: Boyle Heights, Leimert Park, and Koreatown especially. In the move to places and people underrepresented in Hollywood, Angels takes the opportunity to explore the intimacy and visibility needed for communities often on the media periphery. Set in Boyle Heights, Vida follows Mexican-American sisters, Emma and Lyn, on their journey of personal, sexual, cultural, and political self-discovery in the neighborhood where they grew up. Together, both Angels and Vida use sex to amplify queer experiences not often given equal voice — and bring the tension between refusal, dissidence, and acquiescence to the fore of a queer aesthetic.
Falling for Angels: Boyle Heights and Vida both begin with unsettled arrivals. Boyle Heights follows Jesse, a Tejano lawyer, and Steven, his white partner, who have just bought a house in Boyle Heights. Though Steven insisted on the neighborhood, Jesse seems unsettled by it. First complaining of noisy neighbors, Jesse expresses mounting irritation when confronted for patronizing a gentrified coffee shop. Leo, the Latino Boyle Heights native and activist who confronts him, catches Jesse’s attention, however, and Jesse begins to rethink his attitude and obligations toward his new community. Jesse’s change in perspective stems in part from the disinterest Steven feels in their sex life, but also from a vague sense of misunderstanding about their different racialized experiences. The short seems to be heading in one direction: Jesse’s (re)discovery of Chicano politics and culture, and his movement away from a white boyfriend who seems dismissive.
But the episode doesn’t follow this expected trajectory: while Jesse attends a fundraiser Leo organized at his house, the two seem at odds. Jesse’s professional demeanor clashes with Leo’s activism, which seems especially evident when Leo recites somewhat awkward spoken word poetry about the political struggle for the neighborhood. (Admittedly, parts of the setup here are cloying.) Nonetheless, they share an attraction; soon enough Jesse and Leo retire to Leo’s bedroom, make out and seem about to fuck. The camera lingers on their bodies and pans to the items from Leo’s youth that connect him to his neighborhood and activism, yoking Jesse to that history by virtue of their shared erotic attraction and physical contact. But Jesse stops them; the encounter switches to conversation about intimacy and racial displacement, as Jesse shares experiences of racial marginalization he felt growing up in Texas. Sexual desire changes its object, becoming a moment of shared vulnerability that ties both men to a shared politics.
The short ends with a resolution between Jesse and Steven: Jesse comes home, the two kiss and retire to their bedroom to fuck, and the shot fades out. The following scene shows the comfort of their post-coital moment, emphasizing the safely monogamous domesticity of their bedroom. On the one hand, this surely reads as a reinforcement of homonormativity and monogamy for the home-owning couple. On the other, the episode isn’t retreating from sex as much as it notes how sex isn’t the solution to the alienation Jesse feels. Where sex in gay narratives is often linked to an awoken political awareness, this episode instead emphasizes the importance of emotional support outside of sex itself. What seems most surprising to me about the encounter is the way Jesse and Leo’s conversation prompts a kind of intimacy that scales outward to Jesse and Steven’s relationship. In the end, the show triangulates these three characters into a queer network across class, politics, space, and race in more nuanced ways than a particular sex act or partner could represent alone.
In basic structure, Vida has strong parallels to Boyle Heights: it offers contemporary commentary through confrontations in front of the gentrified coffee shop, spoken word and street activism, community meetings, and sex. But Vida differs in scope and depth: the show turns into a reckoning on the past for Emma, a high-powered consultant living in Chicago, and Lyn, returning from San Francisco, adrift between white hippie boyfriends and failed boutique business ventures. Coming home, Lyn and Emma discover their mother’s marriage and relationship to her surviving wife, Eddy, and Vida opens a host of questions intertwining sex, intimacy, gender, and heritage. The plot really gets in gear when Emma and Lyn face a choice between sale of their mother’s building for profit and the eviction of the building’s long-term residents, and the prospect of staying home to protect a community both had disavowed.
On the one hand, Vida contends with identity: what it means to be from Boyle Heights, from an economic periphery now being treated by white residents of Los Angeles as an exotic novelty and investment opportunity, and to be of minority status on the basis of race and sexuality. The show’s producers aptly steer the way, in part by reaching out to members of the Boyle Heights community where much of the show is filmed, and in part by staffing the writers’ room with a majority of queers and people of color. The result is an attention to the deep history and cultural of Boyle Heights, both aesthetically and topically, that adds a richness, vividness, and beauty undeveloped in Angels. Vida’s tableau is both an archive of a community and a testament to its durability and evolution.
Against this backdrop, the way Vida addresses sex and identity takes a complicated turn, in part because of the way Emma and Lyn confront the memory of their mother and the sexuality they chose not to see in her. The exploration of sex and sexuality deepens after Emma comes out to her sister. When Lyn responds that she supports however Emma chooses to identify, Emma rejects identification as the question at hand. We get the sense that Emma’s refusal of identification is a kind of avoidance strategy: when the episode opened, we saw Emma in a hot, relatively graphic sex scene with another woman, only for Emma to refuse all intimacy and leave abruptly. Emma’s disavowal of both her family and the neighborhood where she grew up seems to intersect with her sex life, foreclosing her intimacy and implying the need for a personal reckoning.
Vida seems to find no comfort in a particular identification. Instead, sex becomes an occasion for grappling with complicated forms of feeling about home, family, and emotional vulnerability. When Emma hooks up with another woman and then leaves her, viewers celebrate the liberation of their sexual contact and the fact that sex itself doesn’t have to signify anything beyond sex. At the same time, viewers also contend with Emma’s aura of damage and loneliness. When we find that Vidalia had sent Emma to Texas because she feared her daughter was gay, we confront a genealogy of gay women that is both in the open and closeted, shaped by trauma but also out and visible.
Though there are fits and starts, where Boyle Heights and Vida succeed is in conceiving of queerness as a process without a concrete end point or stable identification, as something opened by and related to sex, but also more expansive. The greater issues at hand concern navigating ruptured family intimacy, vulnerability, and cultural heritage, among others. Both shows ask what it takes to build the kinds of sexual and emotional contact that can be healing in a world hostile to queerness, people of color, and the disenfranchised. Both examine the kinds of minoritized experience that still need to be argued for as a central, not peripheral, aspect of queerness. They are less concerned with the transgression of sex than in using queerness as a platform for addressing issues — from racial marginalization, family trauma, economic exploitation, to the sadness of homonormativity — that are increasingly vital in our contemporary moment.
What are we to make, in the end, of sex and beauty in these pieces? That’s where location plays an important role. Los Angeles is a dirty, sometimes ugly place, whose most notable architectural features are the strip mall and parking lot. Nonetheless, as movies like Tangerine show, Los Angeles’s ugliness can also offer unusual queer beauty. Yet, the beauty here is not what Miller complains of in Call Me By Your Name’s Italian idyll. In Vida, you might see the shots of Downtown L.A. as an over-aestheticized beauty, or those of Emma smoking on the fire escape after she fucks her hookup as a distraction from the queer sex act. In Boyle Heights, the pan away from the coupling, muscular male body coexists with Leo’s history and childhood, which Jesse discovers in their abortive encounter. Both shows redirect attention to seemingly neutral, domestic surroundings. By binding sex and location together, however, Vida and Boyle Heights show how non-neutral those surroundings are. They make sex conditional on their environment in East Los Angeles; both shows draw racialized, economically marginal experience together as contingent aspects of a queerness that does not have the cultural currency of Boys in the Band or Greta Garbo to gesture back to. Vida and Falling for Angels draw that inequity into the foreground. They offer sex and beauty as the opening salvo: both to a vision of the role sex and culture play in the intimate world of queer people of color, and to a version of queerness not centered around the experience of queer shame but on the possibility and complications of emotional connection.
And this is where Miller and Joudry miss the mark in critiquing queer erasure in contemporary gay film: they minimize the need for exploring and communicating intimacy in the LGBT community, especially around groups that have historically suffered through lack of representation. That is why wrapping Moonlight into a genealogy of “mainstream gay movies” neglects its unique contributions to understanding race, queerness, and wounding: Chiron’s struggle seems less about his sexuality per se than about the intersecting traumas of disinvestment, poverty, segregation, and loss in the aftermath of the crack epidemic. In a world that affords little interiority to black men, that targets black bodies in public and fetishizes them in private as objects of consumption, to show sex between Chiron and his childhood friend Kevin would not in itself be a radical act. Instead, to withhold that contact from public view seems radical — it preserves the space for their sex and their intimacy, focusing our attention on the fact of their intimacy and the manner of its navigation, rather than some presumption that sex itself would shatter — as Leo Bersani famously put it — the self into something new. Vida and Falling for Angels concur: there is a need for vulnerability beyond sex and sexual identification alone, and a need for a more expansive cultural genealogy of queerness alongside it. In that light, they investigate a cultural periphery that queer history and many provocative perspectives on gay sex in TV and movies have done a poor job of exploring outside of the confines of whiteness.
At the end of the day, the whole point of queerness is its ideal: it isn’t a particular sex act, behavior, or even discrete identification. Neither is it a particular narrow set of cultural practices, which often have their own exclusionary histories. Vida and Angels expand a mainstream vision of queerness through cultural histories often left at the margins of queer film and TV. Along the way, they question the emancipation offered by sexual shattering and the transgressive power of queer sex to, in itself, queer our lives. Expanding beyond the limitations of queerness’s sometimes problematic history offers new forms, new expressions, contexts, and experiences. What we need now more than ever is art about intimacy that privileges minoritized experience as the primary object of exploration. That, to me, seems something that queerness done right makes possible — and that art like Angels and Vida makes uniquely available.
Will Clark is a lecturer in the English Department at UCLA. He is completing a dissertation that examines the literary representation of citizenship and sexuality from the Civil War to the Great Depression. His interests include queer theory, the US novel, and US legal and political history.