What a nice surprise this moment in pop culture is for those who care about seeing gay people on screen. A crop of gay-themed movies and television shows sprung up like a nonfatal fungus in recent weeks—something that seemed extremely unlikely just a few months ago, depending on how closely you were listening to the death knells accompanying the underperformance of Bros last fall. Marketed less for its contribution to comedy and more for what it meant to society as the (arguably) first major studio romcom centered on gays, Billy Eichner’s movie made less than $5 million its opening weekend. Its flop status was then rendered indelible in a series of (now-deleted) tweets from Eichner, who groused, “Even with glowing reviews, great Rotten Tomatoes scores, an A CinemaScore, etc, straight people, especially in certain parts of the country, just didn’t show up for Bros. And that’s disappointing but it is what it is.”
Eichner had been so vocal about his art’s importance in the months leading up to its release that his open disappointment smacked of entitlement and, worse, impatience for immediate success. Bros is clever enough that it struck me as something that could find its audience over time. Openings are important, but legacy is everything. Perhaps Eichner felt the very fate of queer representation was riding on his film, so he couldn’t just let it die; when I asked him about the optics of the first openly gay romcom focusing on two cis white men, he told me: “The whole point of this is that we make a movie that’s so funny and so relatable and so moving to all audiences, straight and LGBTQ, that the industry and other major studios are encouraged to make more movies and from different perspectives.”
Things continued looking bleak when Spoiler Alert, a rather bland adaptation of television journalist Michael Ausiello’s 2017 memoir about his relationship with a man who died of cancer in 2015, came out a few months later and went with little notice. At least Eichner’s tree fell where people could hear it. That this occurred against a backdrop of renewed right-wing attacks on queer people and culture made the situation look that much more dire. The lack of interest audiences had in consuming mainstream gay stories could be interpreted as a passive reification of conservative disdain—disdain that many of us felt we had moved past and was otherwise so irrelevant as to be ignorable. Now, we’re not so sure. It’s like the gay character Andrew (Ben Aldridge) says in M. Night Shyamalan’s recent Knock at the Cabin: “They hate us, they hate that we exist.”
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In light of recent queer-themed failures, Knock did something remarkable last weekend—it debuted at No. 1 at the domestic box office with a healthy $14.1 million gross. Unlike any major horror film that came before it, Knock focuses on a gay couple (Jonathan Groff plays Andrew’s partner, Eric) who are told by four seemingly whacko conspiracists that they have a choice: Sacrifice a member of their family, which also includes their adopted daughter, or the world will end. There’s the rub, right? The continuation of the human race depends on the rupture of this queer family unit, which just happens to be the first of its kind centered in such a movie. Though Knock’s four horsemen characters assure Andrew and Eric that their sexuality did not make them targets (their abundant love did, explains one played by David Bautista), their gayness is not merely incidental to the plot. Family rejection, homophobic violence, and a decidedly binary depiction of their roles in the relationship are all key features of this tropey story. It feels very much like a straight auteur’s attempt to do justice to an experience he’s only heard about.
Still, Knock is remarkable for being one example of a post-Bros rash of mainstream pop culture that is focused on queer people, specifically gay men. After feeling underfed for so long, the sheer breadth of the current spread is worth taking in. What a marvel. The white whale of a piece of pop culture that neatly and virtuously represents a group in its entirety remains elusive, by definition, but the more truth is attempted, the higher the chances of achieving something, anything that seems lifelike.
While Knock hinged the future of civilization on an agonizing decision imposed on a gay couple, a much more moving depiction of gay life at the end of the world materialized out of thin air on last week’s The Last of Us, in a kind of side-quest episode that spent most of its time focused on gay couple Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett), who happened upon each other as civilization shut down. Its narrative thrust (and source of poignance) lies in showing something that is still too rare to see gay people doing on screen: surviving. Though their story is ultimately tragic, Bill, a survivalist, finally finds in Frank something actually worth living for until the very end. The episode, titled “Long, Long Time” (after the Linda Ronstadt song), practically dared viewers not to relate to an extremely pure depiction of love worth braving the apocalypse for.
Like the armageddon-themed gay story that closed out last week, the one that opened it also suggested that right/left divisions are less rigid than they might seem. We have more in common than that which divides us, “Long, Long Time” and Knock posited. For one thing: guns. While, obviously, there are gays who own guns, gun ownership is so politicized that depicting it can never be matter of fact. The problem with representing the underrepresented is that narrative decisions can come across as tactics, not truth, and putting guns in the hands of gay characters seems like a suspicious way to forge a bridge from the right to the ostensible left.
Guns aside, “Long, Long Time” adhered to a template of many a great contemporary gay story—like Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady, Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country, and of course Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, it found love in a decontextualized place. These stories captivate because they replicate the feeling that nothing else matters besides love by placing their characters in environments that are otherwise desolate—the relationship is represented as a refuge from harsh realities. You don’t have to be in the middle of nowhere with your man to feel this, either. In some ways, the bullshit that you put up with for love and sex is culture itself; this is true not just of homophobic hegemony but of gay culture, which has as many minuses as pluses. MTV’s new reality show The Real Friends of WeHo—a series that says, “Real Housewives, but make it gay men”—is all culture, a little love, and no sex. From its announcement, it was controversial, particularly among gay men. After its premiere, a video showed the hosts of a viewing party for its lead-in, RuPaul’s Drag Race (still in many ways the single most relevant depiction of gay life), turning it off to the cheers of the attending crowd. The knee-jerk disdain was itself a trope—Logo’s short-lived and little-watched Fire Island faced much the same reaction in 2017.
If the truth hurts, Real Friends is a real pain in the ass. I’ve witnessed a lot of gay men carrying themselves like Real Housewives, simultaneously hand-wringing over and delighting in drama, and comparing their adult experiences to high school. The falseness is real, and Real Friends, which gathers some influencers, stylist Brad Goreski, and gays with skin-care lines, captures it. Refreshingly, there’s barely a discernible fourth wall—the cast talks openly about how their personal brands might benefit or suffer from doing the show. When Goreski’s husband asks if he’s going to eat a burger at an imminent party, Goreski candidly answers, “No. On camera? Eccch.” During an argument, Jaymes Vaughan (who openly admits to being cast on the show because he’s the husband of Jonathan Bennett, of Mean Girls fame) tells influencer Joey Zauzig: “I know you’re trying to play your part to do the TV show ‘cause you wanna be the star of this and that’s fine. I don’t care about that stuff. I care about us as human beings.” At last, someone who is here to make friends—or at least wants us to believe that.
While I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who took one look at this show and hung his head in shame for his culture, I don’t think the problem with Real Friends is one of optics. The show lays bare a lot of what’s annoying about hanging out with a group of gay men, specifically a status-obsessed subset who care less about exchanging ideas and more about social intricacies. No, the problem with Real Friends is that its plotting is as deathly dull as a bathhouse during a biblical flood. Still, in an Eichner-esque move, cast member Todrick Hall responded to the backlash in a series of handwritten letters (the first in fonts that varied page to page, which was distractingly confusing) that were then photographed and posted on his Instagram. “We fight for representation then fight against it when we get it, because it doesn’t come in the form we’d hoped,” read part of the first one, which bemoaned gays’ negative response by reporting that “the call was coming from inside the house.” Maybe if everything gay got a Real Friends response, Hall’s words would hold more water, but a more practical reading of this situation is that savvy gays spotted a dud and dragged it. They were right. Too bad, so sad.
I’m fairly certain that no one was screaming out for DILF and twink sexual representation, and yet OUTTv’s newly launched Love Island-esque For the Love of DILFs has been met with an ecstatic response. The Stormy Daniels-hosted reality show attempts to find love, or maybe just hot sex, between older, beefy guys and younger, smooth ones (referred to on the show as “himbos,” but really they’re just twinks), and it, too, breaks the fourth wall to comment on the ridiculousness of the scenario, mostly via a wisecracking, omniscient narrator who says things like, “Here are some reality TV establishing shots of our multimillion dollar mansion,” and, “Whoever said gay men are vapid and sex-crazed are about to be proven…somewhat correct.” Through the absurdity, the show manages to portray a convincing spark between many of its contestants—they make their initial connections when the himbos select the DILF’s underwear (presented anonymously) that most appeals to them. “Can I smell ‘em?” asks one himbo, which is both hilarious and a valid way of ferreting out potential chemistry.
There’s a lot of life in For the Love of DILFs’ multivalence—it works on several levels, firing many cylinders. Like everything else mentioned in this piece, it was clearly in the works before Bros; perhaps we have not yet felt the effect of Bros’ flop. But at least in its wake, these examples of gay-centered media are taking some of the pressure off. This comes from without the community, too—Beyoncé’s Renaissance paid explicit tribute to the Black, queer creators of disco and house music, a conversation that hasn’t often been able to compete with the steady thump coming from straight white artists. And there’s more on the horizon that will help clarify how far we have (or haven’t) come: Of an Age by You Won’t Be Alone director Goran Stolevski is yet another intimate two-hander along the lines of Brokeback and its ilk. The casual intertwining of sex and culture, a reality rarely nailed in media, was very well achieved in Sebastian Silva’s Sundance film Rotting in the Sun.
I point this current crop of queer-themed media out not as proof that we’ve somehow achieved enough—clearly, we haven’t, when the focus is still on cis gay (and often white) men. No matter how diverse representation becomes, it will always need to be more diverse. But through a panoply of options, there’s a much greater chance of the broadcasting of truth. Some of these truths, like those in the tacky Real Friends of Weho, may be hard to look at. Others are made easier by the sheer aplomb of their vessel, like For the Love of DILFs, which takes gay sex seriously by showing how silly many of us look in its pursuit. And for all of Knock at the Cabin’s unsavory messaging, at least it and the third episode of The Last of Us envision gay people lasting long enough to make it to the end of the world. That is representation we have been so lacking, ridiculously enough.