Films move beyond entertainment; there is more to a film than the audience’s enjoyment. They have the power to engage with and to open discussions with people and to influence their level of consciousness and understanding toward what’s being shown or how it’s shown.
In the case of LGBTQ+ representation in the media, one issue that has been widely discussed is the improper or lacking portrayal of queer people in films. Within the local context, homosexual characters were first introduced in the 1950s, six decades after the onset of Philippine cinema. Since then, films tend to present homosexual characters seemingly using a repetitive and rather lacking template—flamboyant parloristas, sassy gay best friends, butch lesbians—despite them having a multitude set of identities, personalities, and struggles in reality.
“Media shows how gay people should be femme, and if you’re not femme then you’re not simply ‘gay enough’,” Nick* (I, AB-PHM) comments, mentioning that as a bisexual, he can feel the stereotypical standard being latently promoted in films. He emphasizes how having LGBTQ+ characters in media does not automatically equate to representation because “correct context and intent should always be
He appeals that though there are films presenting queer themes, some, if not most, of which are only borderline representation. They seem to box queerness in specific images—away from variety and authenticity. Being gay is not always about being the source of entertainment, having woeful stories, or having a miserable ending. Continuance of this kind of portrayal may not only stagnate audience’s understanding of queerness, but it may also corrupt their impression and treatment of queer people.
Chronicle of hackneyed images
Dr. Mikee Inton-Campbell, an Assistant Professor from the Communication Arts Department of the University, mentions that stereotypical images of homosexual characters in Philippine films were pushed into popular culture by Dolphy when he created a gay caricature in his movie Jack and Jill in 1954. Since then, usual narratives about gay characters are centered on comedy and flamboyance. Inton-Campbell explicates that this portrayal was pushed through generations because this specific image appealed to the Filipino audience—making these characters a form of comic relief.
Having these stereotypes and narratives displayed on the big screen decades after decades also pervades long-standing stereotypical views on queer people. “It conditions non-queer audiences to look at queerness from a certain vantage point; in a vantage point that is privileged, in a vantage point that basically dismisses the humanity of queer people,” Inton-Campbell asserts. She mentions how typical plots and themes are given to homesexuals on the big screen—violent, pitiful, tragic endings of gay or lesbian characters—despite them having diverse experiences and gender identities. “There’s no space for bisexuality, pansexuality, gender non-binary people,” she argues.
On a good note, themes about LGBTQ+ people on films have changed to some degree overtime. Inton-Campbell cites My Husband’s Lover as a “positive” representation of gayness, as both gay characters did not conform to the usual standard of being feminine. Vice Ganda’s Petrang Kabayo also took a different view in presenting a particular trope—when fathers dunk their gay sons into a drum. Unlike in the earlier Dolphy movies where gayness is coded as wrong, Petrang Kabayo used the same act to present the father’s act as wrong.
Despite this particular development, Inton-Campbell insists that queer themes are still faintly portrayed and represented, “There are a lot of queer characters in film, but they’re always in the fringes, and they’re always problematic characters.” This only emphasizes that there are gaps that are yet to be filled and images that have to be expressed more realistically and accurately.
Rebel with a cause
Addressing these gaps would mean breaking free from the tokenism that has plagued most of the queer characters we see onscreen. We need queer characters whose arcs do not revolve solely around their queerness, but are actually well-rounded and allowed to be silly, carefree, and colorful—something that is a given for heterosexual characters.
Filmmaker Cha Roque’s body of work speaks of vibrant lives—the fact that they happen to be queer is just cherry-on-top. Her 2016 documentary Slay offered a glimpse into the life of Floyd Scott Tiogangco, a homosexual trans-androgynous gender-queer Filipino performance artist as he goes through his day; while the visual poetry film Intercourse with Words offered a tender depiction of intimacy between two women. “Yes, our lives may be hard and we face a lot of trials just for being who we are, but we also have triumphs—the same triumphs that straight people enjoy,” Roque says, explaining her incorporation of queerness in her films.
Her 2017 experimental documentary What I Would’ve Told My Daughter if I Knew What to Say Back Then reimagined her coming-out to her 3 year-old daughter, an act which was disclosed to have been stolen from her. Describing it as her “most personal work”, Cha’s powerful and poignant reclamation of her agency, through her film, deeply resonated with the audiences. She even recalls a particular moment when a heterosexual father approached her and said, “I don’t even think it’s a lesbian film. Your kid is doing the exact things my kid did growing up.” To that, Cha replied, “That’s the point, our families are no different than yours.”
The bigger picture
Celebrating queerness as utterly human and innate and not as some great, tragic other is a revolutionary act in itself—breaking free from the mold of confined portrayals. However, there are many sides to consider, including the deep-seated perceptions held by those in the position to create media content. Cha believes that proper Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE) discussions for media practitioners could go a long way toward accurate queer portrayals and eventually, dispelling wrong perceptions about queerness.
Another aspect is the veto power of movie studios; even if there are nuanced queer content and characters and willing filmmakers, profit is still the priority. Most of the time they do not consider queerness to be as marketable as their plethora of teen love teams. This would mean additional obstacles for those wanting to create more realistic and honest films about the LGBTQ+: funding, marketing, and support. With this in mind, demanding better queer representation on screen isn’t as straightforward as it seems—perhaps we need to demand for a system that looks past financial gain.
*Names with asterisks are (*)pseudonyms.