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Queer Media After Moonlight

by Megan Mulligan

Photo Courtesy of A24 Films

Moonlight won Best Picture at the Oscars, although not before La La Land was almost given the award by mistake spurring confusion and memes. However, jokes aside, Moonlight’s win also incited celebration and also discussion about the way marginalized and minority communities and their experiences are documented in the media.

Moonlight, at first glance, appears to cover all of its bases: the main character is a poor, black, gay man. The plot follows his story as he grows up and how he fits into these different boxes. The tropes we’ve come to expect from LGBT and “films of color”— missing parents, slurs, violence—are all present.

The film is about the queer black experience on the surface, but beyond the “normal” plot are also questions about vulnerability, the importance of being genuinely human and “soft” and how that contrasts with harsher notions of the black experience typically generated in the media.

Along with shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Grace and Frankie, Moonlight appears to usher in a new genre of media, specifically LGBT and queer media that challenges trope and stereotype. These films and television shows are often run or created by members of the community themselves. Yet, they are not exclusively intended for members of the community, but are meant for a more mainstream audience.

One perceived perk of this show development direction is the ability to take queer media out of a niche and into the mainstream: to be consumed and enjoyed by members both in and out of the communities involved.

“Gay people watch TV shows featuring entirely or mostly straight casts all the time,” sophomore Pamela Fourtounis (COM ’19) said. “Why is the situation any different when the roles are reversed? Anyone into fashion and the performing arts can appreciate drag and branch out from their usual TV.”

Productions like “Moonlight,” which appears serious and harsh, or even RuPaul’s Drag Race which is more lighthearted, present the queer experience through the context of a person of color, by queer people, for queer people and straight people alike. There is no baiting: both examples are based on true life stories, ones that unfolded or continue to unfold.

“It would be truer to the mood and spirit of this breathtaking film to say that it’s about teaching a child to swim, about cooking a meal for an old friend, about the feeling of sand on skin and the sound of waves on a darkened beach, about first kisses and lingering regrets,” said New York Times film critic AO Scott in a review for Moonlight, as published in Oct. 2016.

The Times noted the personal depth of the film, which manifests itself in questions about manhood and being “soft” in a world that seeks to characterize people based on gender, race or self-presentation.

“Perhaps the most beautiful thing about Moonlight is its open-endedness,” said Scott, “its resistance to easy summary or categorization.”

By the same token, shows like Drag Race present personal stories with a bit of dramatic effect, but on the whole are conveying real stories, experiences, hardships and successes.

“Although the competition may seem cutthroat, RuPaul is adamant that LGBT people and allies support one another and act as one big family no matter what hate may face them in society,” Fourtounis said. “There is an emphasis on the hardships LGBT people go through like bullying, depression, discrimination, struggling with their gender identity, being disowned by their families, and more.”

One popular scene from Drag Race’s behind the scenes show Untucked is the reunion between a son, a contestant on the show, and his father, who had once disowned him for being queer and participating in drag culture. The video circulated on the Internet between both fans of the show and people who had never seen the show, both drawn in by the raw honesty and emotion of the scene.

Reviewers believe that honest, personable content involving queer characters (rather than writing them in as side-characters or to please fans) will bring queer media into the mainstream. By diversifying characters and plots, it makes them less of a perceived “political statement” than an observation and relay of facts and experiences.

Guy Lodge, a film critic for variety and The Guardian, remarked in an article after the Oscars that Moonlight’s win was just the precipice of the beginning of queer media, “leaping further” into the void, the unexplored territory and all its potential.

Moonlight is not a highly radical work in the annals of queer cinema, but it shall now forever be regarded as a pathbreaker,” Lodge said. “[It’s] the film that got LGBT stories fully past the establishment.”

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