The Modern Celluloid Closet

A couple weeks ago, I watched an HBO documentary called “Vito” at the 2012 Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. I highly recommend it to anyone if they get a chance to see it. The documentary chronicles the life of a man named Vito Russo, a pioneer in LGBTQ rights in America, and the author of a book called The Celluloid Closet.

In the book (and lecture series), Russo talked about how in the early days of cinema, gays were portrayed as perfectly normal people. It wasn’t until the mid 20th century that gays disappeared entirely. Over the years, they were slowly brought back, but always portrayed as villains, comic relief, or mentally unstable people. It wasn’t until very recently that the LGBTQ community has come full circle to be portrayed as normal people again.

Watching the movie and hearing about Russo’s work has really opened my eyes to the marginalization of the LGBTQ community within film and TV. Today, I realized it’s not limited to western film either. I was re-watching the second season of “Darker Than Black” today, and found that series was somewhat guilty of it too. 

For those of you not familiar with the series, it is an action-oriented anime series with a typically convoluted (yet awesome) storyline involving humans who randomly get super powers. A side effect of these powers is that the person, dubbed a “contractor,” loses most, if not all, of their human emotion. There are only two main LGBT characters in the entire series. One is a flamboyant but poorly dressed cross-dressing man portrayed as the comic relief. The other is a stoic, cold-blooded female assassin contractor with a troubled childhood, and whose only emotions shown are of affection for another female character who seems to love her back, but is killed off in a brutal way.

In the end, both characters are portrayed as fundamentally flawed human beings. Granted, there aren’t many characters that are “normal” in the series, but those two are particularly bad (one in a very literal sense). There is even one point in the series where a male character is confronted with the question of whether or not they had a boyfriend, and rather than simply saying “I’m straight” or “no,” they reply by saying they’re “not some kind of deviant.” Perhaps an innocent mistranslation, but still…

Of course, I have to nod my head to the fact that anime is generally way ahead of most American cartoons and TV shows in that man-on-man romance is portrayed as swoon-worthy more often than not. True Blood is probably one of the few modern TV shows that actually has one or more main characters who are gay, but treated as normal.

We’ve come a long way since the days of Vito Russo’s activism, but it would seem there is still a long way to go. Then again, we’re not the only ones. The “token black guy” is still a very prevalent archetype and they even killed off the token in “Transformers.” *sigh* perhaps one day we’ll move past all this, and our grandchildren will laugh at our hokey old ways.

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