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When the rainbow isn't enough.
With Matt Damon’s blinkered admission that he uses anti-gay slurs casually in front of his kids and DaBaby’s attention-seeking on the backs of outraged gay men through the use of deliberately inflammatory language, it hasn’t been a very fun week for the gays on the pop culture front. We figured we’d do our part and try to be as offensive as possible, just to get in on that outrage action. Okay, no. Not really. But we are going to poke at a sacred cow of queerdom because recent events and conversations have made us aware of something we couldn’t quite articulate before now. And besides, we just adore cow-poking.
In the recently released Disney’s Jungle Cruise, straight actor Jack Whitehall (who plays Emily Blunt’s brother in the film) is coded as gay. We say “coded as gay” because Disney can’t bring itself to actually write characters as gay. And by that we don’t mean that they have to stand up in the middle of the film and have some sort of coming-out moment. We mean that the film uses a bunch of stereotypes to make certain segments of the audience (i.e., the adults watching) assume a character is gay without actually expressing an attraction to someone or introducing a romantic partner of the same sex, presumably so as not to offend conservative audiences both in America and in the international market. Instead, Whitehall’s character is shown to be fussy, into fashion, shallow, histrionic, and wimpy. And look, we could write a hundred newsletters and essays on why presenting gay people this way without allowing them to actually be gay on camera is offensive and damaging and plays into anti-gay prejudices. But so many other writers have tackled that exact topic and if there’s one thing we hate to do as writers, it’s publish a piece that doesn’t say anything new. Suffice it to say, it sucks and it’s bad and Disney should stop coyly queerbaiting their audiences like it’s 1933 or something. If they’re gay, say it or show it. Shit or get off the pot, as one of our grandmothers used to say.
We should pause here and note that the also-recent Cruella featured a gay-coded character and we didn’t find that version particularly problematic, even though he embodied similar stereotypes (wore makeup, into fashion). That character, played by gay actor John McCrea, similarly did not get a moment where his gayness was articulated. Instead, there was dialogue about “being different” and an acknowledgment that flamboyant queer men like himself can often have a tough time out in the world. On the surface, the reticence to state his gayness is similar to Whitehall’s character, but instead of being presented as a fussy, wimpy person who got in the way of the action, his character of Artie was presented as devastatingly cool and fabulous; someone the lead character wanted to emulate rather than someone the lead characters considered a hindrance to their adventuring (as in Jungle Cruise); someone whose queerness felt aspirational, as opposed to Whitehall’s character, who wore his undefined gayness as a burden. And it should be noted that a gay actor can often fill an underwritten gay character with enough nuance that any shortcomings in the writing can be overcome by the performer’s charisma and understanding of what the character’s really feeling and thinking. Jack Whitehall is a charming actor and while we can’t say his performance was offensive, it lacked the kind of depth that a gay actor might have been able to bring to it.
But that’s not even the point here. Disney gonna Disney, so it’s probably unrealistic to expect the studio to release any sort of product that shows fully rounded, totally out gay people who are comfortable declaring their gayness. In Jungle Cruise, Whitehall’s character has a much-celebrated scene with Dwayne Johnson in which his gayness is (VERY) obliquely referenced. He explains that he follows his sister on her adventures because society expects him to get married and that’s not an option for him because of “who I love.” There is no further explanation, let alone any reference to an actual person he loves. That is, of course, by design. He’s not meant to have an actual love interest and that’s not what his dialogue is referencing. “Who I love” is a stand-in phrase for literally any person of the same sex that he might potentially fall in love with, if he were allowed to so onscreen. It’s as deliberately vague and passionless as possible, because what he’s really saying here is that society has no place for him because of who he wants to fuck – and therein lies the problem. Or at least the thing with which we have a problem.
We’re not mad at Disney for phrasing his gayness that way. After all, Disney rarely lets its heterosexual superhero characters so much as kiss, let alone express themselves sexually and the supposed romance between Blunt and Johnson was as chaste as anything you’d have seen in Mary Poppins nearly sixty years ago. A Disney film is simply not the place to look for nuanced or realistic depictions of gay people (let alone references to same-sex desire) and besides, the “love” phrasing itself is the acceptable and LGBTQ community-approved manner of framing and defining gay life in the modern era. THAT’s what bugs us here.
In activist circles, among artists and journalists, with our allies and in the queer community itself, the most common way to frame queerness is through the popular phrase “Love is love.” You see it painted on walls in gayborhoods, waved on flags and worn on shirts during PRIDE or protest events, hear it in acceptance speeches at every entertainment awards ceremony from the Oscars to the Tonys, and in countless speeches by politicians when they want to appeal to their queer constituents. It is ever-present, to the point that its repetition has become rote and (sorry to be blunt here but also not sorry) mindless.
The problem is that the phrase is literally meaningless. Substitute “love” with literally any other noun to see our point (“Car is car.” “Dog is dog.”). Or better yet, substitute any other emotion (“Sad is sad.” “Angry is angry.”). As a phrase, it offers nothing. As an observation, it’s as pointless as can be. As a way of defining a community/orientation/identity, it has virtually no value at all. Yeah, love is love. No shit, Sherlock. What’s your point?
Obviously we, as a married gay couple together nearly 25 years, have no issue with conflating love and gayness when it’s applicable to individuals. But as a way of shorthanding (and thereby defining) a vast community of queerness, the phrase is so broad as to have no meaning and so specific that it leaves a huge number of queer people out of the definition. To be queer is not necessarily to be filled with love. To be gay or bi is to be sexually attracted to people of the same sex. To be trans or nonbinary is to declare that your gender is not the one society imposed on you. There is no love in those definitions and there are countless gay, bi and trans people who are not (or may never have been) in love. Are those people not queer?
Modern LGBTQ thinking holds that a person is gay regardless of whether they have had sex with another person of the same sex, just as it holds that a person is trans regardless of whether they make any physical representation of their true gender. The queerness is inside us and it doesn’t require love to exist or even to be expressed. Imagine being a young, inexperienced queer person who hasn’t truly felt loved, either by a romantic partner or by their own families. Imagine how that feels when the community you belong to defines itself in a manner that doesn’t represent your experiences. Imagine you’re a more mature queer person who likes to have an active and well-populated sex life and who thinks marriage and monogamy are nonsensical vestiges of a conservative patriarchy you have no interest in engaging. “Love is love” does nothing to recognize those lives or points or view. It desexualizes gayness and de-genders transness. It defines LGBTQ people by avoiding any qualities that are particular to their lives. There is no uniqueness in the phrase. It feels as anodyne as any cereal-box aphorism or “LIVE LAUGH LOVE” Instagram caption. A queer person and a straight person have the exact same capacity to love and largely the same likelihood of having a life filled with it, which means “Love is love” is, at best, a universal statement about humans; not an effective way of defining queerness.
If you’re an ally who has used the “Love is love” phrasing to show your support, please continue to do so. We’re not here to make anyone feel bad for expressing love or following the community’s lead on how to refer to itself. We’re not even here to tell queer people to stop using the phrase. It would be a fool’s errand to do so; like trying to de-gay the rainbow symbol. We’re just here to say that when you hear the phrase used next, consider how easily it gives outlets like Disney (not to mention politicians) free rein to be as oblique and anodyne as possible when portraying or discussing queer people and note how little it does to represent the broad experience of queerness. After all, a rainbow isn’t a series of clearly defined lines. It’s a spectrum of colors. Countless queer people live and thrive in the blurred areas and more of them than you might think would reject the idea that their queerness is made out of love.
[Photo credit: Yoav Hornung]