There are a few obvious trends that we could spot immediately: strong narratives from Latin America with gay male or transgender protagonists (In the Grayscale, Mariposa, Carmín Tropical, among many others); fascinating stories emerging from areas like the Balkans, which have rarely produced queer work (Sworn Virgin, Love Island, Xenia); a spate of bracing documentaries about North American athletes, created in the wake of Michael Sam, Jason Collins, and the Sochi Olympics (Game Face, Out to Win, To Russia with Love).
But there’s one development that has taken me a bit longer to identify as it isn’t as clear-cut. Call it the Year of the Bad Queer.
Some of the most memorable North American narrative films of the past year have featured GLBT protagonists—not side characters, but principals—who are deeply, irredeemably flawed. I’m not talking about the traditional flaws of antiheroes—quirks and oddities, suspect motives, disarmingly human failings. I’m talking about polarizing, problematic, occasionally awful people who happen to be gay. Their journey is at the center of the film, so we are asked to care about their fate, but their behavior is offensive, they are morally impoverished, mean, vain, passive-aggressive, violent, immature, or, in more technical language, generally fucked up.
Some examples of the Bad Queer phenomenon would include the following, all of them quite accomplished films with theatrical distribution deals in place or at least a lot of festival accolades and buzz.
• The screenplay of Sebastián Silva’s Nasty Baby is almost sadistically constructed so that its central character—a garden-variety Brooklyn performance artist, played by Silva himself—transforms (spoiler alert) from likable prospective gay dad in the first half to brutally violent criminal in the second.
• In Joey Kuhn’s debut feature Those People, the film’s most volatile, charismatic gay character is Sebastian Blackworth, a self-absorbed, manipulative, Upper East Side socialite who may have abetted his swindling father’s crimes (think Bernie Madoff).
• Lily Tomlin’s title character in Paul Weitz’ Grandma, while admittedly a fierce and admirable advocate for her pregnant granddaughter, is mean, self-pitying, occasionally violent, and a self-described “asshole.”
• The irreverent Canadian black comedy Guidance is about a self-loathing, alcoholic former child star who’s in denial about his homosexuality and, in career desperation, lies his way into a job as a high school guidance counselor, offering the children vodka shots and such affirmations as “I want you to be an inspiration to all the other sluts.”
So why this sudden proliferation of queer jerks and nasties? (Okay, there have been a few such characters in the past, like Aileen Wuornos in Monster or Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley, but they were once the exception.) I believe we’re seeing a new generation of writers and directors who are eager to create characters that veer away from the well-worn track of indie queer protagonists to date. Ironic and unsentimental, these filmmakers have moved beyond brave teens coming out to disapproving parents, misunderstood rural folk heading for the big city, or anything smacking of martyrdom for a gay cause. They’ve seen enough episodes of Modern Family to know that America may not need another likable homosexual on the screen on whom the audience can project its sympathy or approval. They’re feeling emboldened, or even entitled, to present what might be considered offensive gay or lesbian characters. Perhaps they wish to be seen as provocateurs as well as auteurs. They certainly show a healthy disregard for accusations of “internalized homophobia” (which have been leveled by some critics of these films). And they seem to trust the audience is ready to embrace stories that aren’t, in the end, an exercise in community pride.
As a result, queer film audiences finally have a narrative pleasure that has long been afforded to straight audiences since the dawn of film noir: a central character who is highly problematic, but fascinating.
Could we be witnessing an analogous “bad queer” moment now, even as we witness the onset of marriage equality and I Am Cait? I suspect we are in for an extended run of “gays gone bad” on the big screen, if only because screenwriters now need something spicier than vanilla queerness to flavor their films. Expect a rash of Patricia Highsmith adaptations (two are already around the corner) and, who knows?, maybe another biopic about J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Cohn, and Jeffrey Dahmer.