A Kiss As An Assault: History of LGBT+ Representation In Cinema

“I think the fate of gay characters in American literature, plays, films is really the same as the fate of all characters who are sexually free.” – Arthur Laurents

LGBT+ characters have a long history in Hollywood movies. Since the 19th century, cinema followed mostly dominant notions of homosexuality.  In this context, LGBT+ history in film is a history of laughter, pity and fear. It has also been full of misinformation and negative portrayals of all kinds. 

Mirroring western culture, Hollywood’s reflection can be delusional, even mythical in its nature, which may emphasize the industry’s role in creating a certain public image and of how LGBT+ people perceive themselves.  Starting with the early 20th century, showing a sissy or a pansy as a flowery, feminine or an asexual male, played into the stereotype of homosexuals as a safe source of comedy. The Great Depression in the 1930s brought financial struggles for movie theaters. In order to bring back audiences, movie makers began spicing it all up with themes of prostitution and violence. Naturally, this provoked an immediate reaction from the Catholic Church and conservative politicians who were concerned about the negative influence of movies on American society. 

Often, LGBT+ characters were presented in a negative light, such as, individuals suffering from mental illness (The Rope, 1948), and only some wiser directors could bypass the rules, by showing something in between (The Maltese Falcon, 1941). Unfortunately, the 1950s were no better for LGBT+ characters in cinema. “Real man” were supposed to be masculine and full of machismo, so the slightest hint of sensuality in a male would be interpreted as homosexual. Movies continued to support this stereotype, again with the ‘’hidden meaning’’ of their characters (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953). 

Unlike the previous decades, the 1960s marked a significant liberalization of censorship. In 1961, The Victim was the first English language movie to use with word “homosexual” followed in 1964 by The Best Man which also used the word ’’homosexual’’ for the first time in American film history. We also shouldn’t forget The Pawnbroker, which depicted a more complex homosexual character played by Brock Peters. 

The Victim (1961)

Movies have the power to influence societal changes. So, the rise of gay characters in 21st century cinema is important and offers an opportunity for filmmakers to portray LGBT+ characters in a way that spurs greater acceptance for the community.

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