Disclaimer: Not everyone will like the use of the term “queer” in this video because
it's a reclaimed slur that was previously offensive, but “queer theory” is the academic
term and the one that will be used in academic discourse and in this video.
Queer theory is a framework for examining movies that removes the “default” gaze
of a film – generally masculine heterosexuality – and instead inserts a different lens,
in this case a queer lens, in which to view the film from that perspective.
This lens can be used to study queer culture, queer relationships, and queer identities.
It is NOT a framework to discover which movies are “gay” and which movies are “straight”
but more of a framework to discover how sexuality in our culture influences all media.
It can also be used to study how film portrays queer characters and can even be used when
there is an absence of queer characters because that may also tell us something about what
a culture believes is “appropriate” for a particular piece of media, in this case,
80's and 90's action movies.
The point of examining a film through a lens is NOT to uncover a hidden agenda of the director
or to discover what the film is secretly “about” – the point is to see a film as the product
of the culture that created it.
The point of examining a film specifically through a queer lens is to examine the ways
in which we think about relationships, sexuality and how pervading ideas like heteronormativity
influence media and how that media influences us.
Most action movies do not contain explicitly queer text, meaning queer characters or relationships,
but said action movies can still be examined as a reflection of a culture's attitudes towards
relationships, particularly homosocial relationships.
Furthermore, if accidental queer subtext is perceived in a film by a large number of people,
it's worth examining why and what people consider “gay” when something is not explicitly
Queer theory also examines queer characters as punchlines.
80's and 90's action movies are largely devoid of sympathetic openly gay heroes, and if your
reaction to that is “Well, of course they were!” then ha-ha, you have fallen into
my trap, because if something is a given in society or a cultural default, then examining
why is necessary.
In 80's and 90's action movies, queer characters will almost certainly be either antagonists
or throwaway characters intended to be the butt of a joke.
This has gotten a little better, but the fact that we are about 20 movies deep into the
Marvel Cinematic Universe – the biggest action franchise of the 21st century – without
a queer lead character tells us how little progress has been made in this particular
Queer characters in action movies today are far less likely to be the butts of homophobic
jokes but are only marginally more likely to be main characters.
My focus on the 80's and 90's today is not to say “Look how far we've come” but more
like “Look how not far we've come.”
The biggest action films of the 80's and 90's were mostly American productions, and American
attitudes towards homosexuals throughout the 80's and at least the first half of the 90's
was influenced heavily by the AIDS crisis.
The spread of AIDS predominantly among gay men created an atmosphere and attitude about
said gay men a combination of sympathy mixed with fear.
This cultural influence can be seen in movies in which gay male characters and queer coded
characters were not always monsters but were always “the other.”
A people “apart” from the default people of the film: almost entirely straight men.
Due to the masculine genre conventions, action movies were (and are) dominated by men throughout
the cast and especially in the starring roles.
Since 80's and 90's action movies are almost exclusively centered on men, queer readings
of 80's and 90's action movies are also almost exclusively centered on men.
Don't blame me.
I didn't cast these movies.
So, what are some of the ways that these movies address and avoid homosexuality?
In the 1991 action movie Showdown in Little Tokyo, two police officers must take down
the Iron Claw Yakuza Clan.
Chris Kenner, played by chemical engineer, model and former bodyguard to Grace Jones,
Damn, Dolph, what the f***?
Sorry, Dolph Lundgren plays Chris Kenner, an American raised in Japan, and Brandon Lee
plays Johnny Murata, a Japanese-American who knows nothing about Japanese culture outside
of martial arts.
Throughout the movie, Chris, the white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed hunk explains Japanese culture to
Bruce Lee's Chinese-American son.
One might say it was a different time, but we are apparently still doing this s***.
Showdown in Little Tokyo features a lot of scantily-clad men, some in a bath house, as
well as this exchange.
Brandon Lee is absolutely stunned and impressed by Lundgren's package.
He admires it, he wants it, who knows?
The scene is played for comedy, but it also obviously contains a whiff of homoeroticism.
Lest you think either star is gay, the film goes out of its way to dissuade you of such
Earlier in the film, Johnny Murata and Chris Kenner visit a social club in which naked
women are decorated with sushi.
Murata loses his composure and is extremely hornt.
Kenner even beds a woman right before the big “hey, I kinda like your big penis”
This provides cover for both characters and, frankly, both actors from accusations of being
A “no homo” turned up to 11.
Action movies from this era often feature this disavowal, this reassurance to the audience
that they're not watching anything gay and therefore not participating in anything gay.
The disavowal makes no mention or indication that the male stars of the film might simply
be bisexual or pansexual.
Their activities in which they perform heteronormativity are enough for the film and for the audience
to plant them firmly in the straight category.
Heteronormativity is the belief or pervading idea that heterosexuality, based on a concept
of binary gender, is the norm or the default sexual orientation due to it being majority.
Heteronormativity assumes that sexual relations are most fitting between people of the opposite
A heteronormative view of sexuality aligns biological sex with an unwavering gender binary
and gender roles.
Sex and gender are different but often not to heteronormatists.
Heteronormativity is such a pervading idea in so many cultures that one need not have
even heard the word or have ever stated such a belief to have bought into it.
That's why when men are paired with women in action movies or other movies, the filmmakers
are not necessarily doing so due to an edict from an executive producer or studio head
to make certain there is a scene that confirms the character's heterosexuality.
Rather, the “default” nature of the pervading idea of heteronormativity makes pairing the
male lead with the female lead the default idea when writing the story and the default
consideration when establishing who the male lead is.
Sometimes filmmakers are intentionally “no homo”ing their film, and sometimes it's
unintentional due to heteronormativity's pervasiveness, but the end result is the same regardless
Strictly speaking, there are two ways in which action movies of the 80's and 90's perform
this disavowal: by showing their male stars to be aggressively straight or explicitly
The male lead need not be the one who says anything homophobic, but so long as the homophobia
is communicated to the audience, the disavowal locks in.
Let's look at a couple examples, both involving Arnold Schwarzeneggar films.
In the 1985 film Commando, Schwarzeneggar plays a retired soldier named John Matrix.
He raises a daughter alone with no sign of a mother or heterosexual companion.
His daughter, played by Baby Alyssa Milano, is kidnapped, and it's up to Matrix to find
The principle antagonist is this Freddy Mercury lookin' guy wearing this loose crochet vest
or yarn mail armor.
Matrix befriends a woman, Cindy, but there is absolutely no indication that either character
is interested in one another.
Cindy even sees Matrix barely wearing a stitch of clothing, and she's never like “Wow,
can't wait to see more” or anything, it's all business, and Matrix is 100% not interested.
Matrix also tells another one of his obstacles that he “eats Green Berets for breakfast.”
When Matrix and principle antagonist Bennett finally hook up, Matrix says "Put a knife
in me, look me in the eye, see what's going on in there when you turn it.
Let the girl go.
It's between you and me.
Don't deprive yourself of some pleasure.
Then, Bennett says he's going to shoot Matrix between the balls, and Matrix throws a big
phallus into Bennett and says he should “blow off” some steam.
The credits roll, and we are played out by a song called “We Fight for Love.”
Commando is, uh, let me check my notes here, HELLA GAY, but nobody ever talks about that,
and it's partly due to the disavowal.
Within the first few minutes of the film, Matrix mocks 80's musician Boy George, calling
him “Girl George” and “subversive” a word commonly used among authoritarian states
to denounce anything against the state's status quo.
This strong disavowal is coded in the language of the Cold War as well as authoritarian powers.
Predator is a 1987 film in which a rescue team is tricked into a mission by a dishonest
former colleague and are subsequently hunted by an alien hunter, the titular predator.
Dutch, played by Schwarzeneggar, and Dillion, played by Carl Weathers, smoke phallic objects
and embrace for the manliest of squeezes.
The rest of the movie is basically a group of muscly dudes avoided someone on the hunt
for men, a being who the ostensibly straight men consider alien.
There is only one woman in the entire film, who is mostly silent and none of the men profess
any interest in her.
Also, this happens.
Yup, yup, yup.
When Blain dies, Mac takes it especially hard and hesitates as he tells Dutch that Blain
was his “friend.”
Mac laments Blain's death as if they were lovers.
Yet, it is through Blain that Predator performs its disavowal.
Early in the film, during a helicopter ride in which Little Richard is playing on the
radio, Blain performs heterosexuality by calling everyone else on the team the infamous homophobic
slur and then referring to himself as a sexual Tyrannosaurus.
Through these disavowals, filmmakers of the 80's and 90's could have it both way: action
movies packed with men and their homosocial relationships dripping with sexual tension
AND a defense that guards against any accusation of homosexuality against their films or against
the mostly straight audiences that enjoy them.
Male gaze is the act of depicting both women and the world at large, in the visual arts
from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women through
that lens, often as sexual objects for the pleasure of the presumed heterosexual male
This amorphous “dude” audience of movies is seen as a kind of “default” viewer.
Even though women are statistically more likely to see a movie than men, the vast majority
of movies are directed by men and therefore fall into this default, this presentation
of women and the world from heterosexual men.
We have consequently been conditioned to see what the camera sees as “male” and “heterosexual”
That's not to say that lesbians, bisexual women and pansexual women will get nothing
out of a gaze that focuses on attractive women, but the objectification of these women could
dilute that desire with a sense of their own objectification.
Regardless of who is actually watching the movie, the male gaze forces the audience to
identify with the perspective of a straight man.
This is especially true for action movies, a genre that people generally associate with
men both as audience and as the stars.
80's and 90's action movies do show a great deal of powerful male bodies, but the gaze
of these films usually show these bodies as aspirational rather than as overtly sexual
– or as often naked – as women's bodies.
And that brings us to...The Danger Zone.
Top Gun is a 1986 film in which Maverick, played by Tom Cruise, participates in a series
of war games while struggling with his own past and his budding heterosexual relationship.
Top Gun is famously depicted in the film discourse as a covertly gay film.
These two men talk about their briefing giving themselves hard-ons, an authority figure shouting
that he wants some butts, the way Iceman, played by Val Kilmer looks at Maverick and
There is definitely something there, regardless of intent.
Although, for a famously gay 80's, it's also aggressively straight, as the entire Navy
serenades one woman, and she somehow goes for it.
What's fascinating about the gay discourse on this movie is how the volleyball scene
– set to the tune of “Playing with the Boys” – is interpreted as explicitly gay.
Why is a scene of men playing volleyball seen as gay and homoerotic whereas women in a similar
state of undress are NOT seen as lesbians or serving a lesbian audience?
It all has to do with the aforementioned male gaze.
If men are decided to be the default for who is watching the movie and the default of the
camera, then these men are therefore performing for other men.
We also don't see this from the perspective of anyone watching the volleyball game.
The camera is the only perspective.
Because of the male gaze of a default masculine audience, the assumption is that even though
we don't see any characters looking at these men in the movie, it is men who are looking
The male gaze designates these men as for other men in the audience.
If everyone is for the men, then these men are also for the men.
The presumed masculine audience.
Let's contrast with a different example: the 1991 film Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
In this iconic scene, the Terminator enters a biker bar – fully nude.
He shows far more skin than anyone in the Top Gun scene, but nobody calls out this scene
for being “gay” or mocks it for that reason.
Why is this?
Well, two reasons.
One is that the Terminator – though without an explicit sexuality – performs a violent
aggression towards the bikers that is coded as straight.
Homophobia, heteronormativity, and ignorance about homosexuality mistakenly conflate traditional
male attributes like aggression with heterosexuality.
But there's another reason, and it has to do with the framing of the scene.
The camera in the Top Gun scene is not the perspective of any one character.
It's “our” perspective – the audience's perspective that we have been conditioned
to believe is masculine.
The camera in the Terminator 2 scene is the point-of-view of the Terminator.
Everyone is looking at us – we are the Terminator's POV.
We're not looking at the naked man.
The naked man...is us.
Everyone is looking at us, and every time we see a woman in this scene, the woman is
either lusting at the naked man – meaning us – or is impressed with our masculinity
and our masculine naked body.
By switching the perspectives, the scene from Terminator 2, though even more nude than the
Top Gun scene, becomes a scene in which heterosexuals are comfortable watching and find exciting
In the 1988 film Die Hard, John McClane, played by Bruce Willis, and Al Powell played by Reginald
Vel Johnson, form a bond over walkie talkies.
McClane was in the wrong place at the wrong time when Hans Gruber, played by the late
Alan Rickman, took hostages in hopes of emptying the vault at the Nakitomi Plaza.
It is through these interactions that McClane stays grounded and connected to the outside
world while he is trapped in the plaza, fighting for his life and bleeding from his feet.
Powell even tells McClane he loves him.
The bond between McClane and Powell becomes even closer as Powell saves McClane's life
in the final moments of the film.
There is nothing overtly homosexual about their friendship, but it is homosocial, meaning
the interactions and friendships between those of the same sex.
The popular view of men is that they are unemotional and impersonal, but men obviously form friendships
and participate in larger friendship groups.
Men do not only connect with each other through competition but through genuine friendship.
Male solidarity even plays a role in the maintenance of men's power, as it works to exclude women.
Some men are criticized by their male friends should they begin to spend more time with
a girlfriend than with the group, and this jealousy shows both the closeness of the group
and its exclusion of women.
Due to this, they must therefore manage to connect with each other personally and emotionally.
Homosocial friendships among men in many cultures are often performed indirectly largely due
to living in a heterosexist atmosphere.
Many men rely on indirect speech, and stances, such as playful insults, boasts, and other
competitive linguistic forms to create homosociality.
In 80's and 90's action movies, bonds between men, even when the bonds are very strong,
are portrayed as homosocial, not homosexual, but can be perceived as homosexual if speech
and stances between the two men are more direct and vulnerable, not indirect and guarded as
in many male friendships.
The point is that what we perceive as “gay” in an action movie is sometimes subtext, sometimes
influenced by the culture that created it, but sometimes only a consequence of what we
consider to be the boundaries that men in homosocial relationships build between them.
If two straight men in real life become close and one tells the other man something intimate
or makes himself vulnerable, the other straight man might accuse him, perhaps only jokingly,
of being “gay” because closeness between straight men often requires an indirectness
in order for straight men to not have their sexuality questioned.
In action movies, homosocial friendships between ostensibly straight men require closeness
because film is often an exaggeration of real life and showcases intense circumstances that
require trust and bonding between characters.
Action movies, due to the life-or-death circumstances, inevitably show two ostensibly straight men
This can lead an audience to have the same reaction as the example with the two straight
friends in real life: an accusation of homosexuality simply due to being vulnerable with one another
or telling each other they value each other's friendship.
Hollywood's pattern of almost always casting men in the starring roles of action movies
and the disparity in the ratio between men and women characters in movies – particularly
action movies – creates a homosocial atmosphere to film and to the relationships between characters.
This creates an uncomfortable paradox in applying a queer lens to an action movie that features
close homosocial relationships.
We see some of these relationships as “gay” due to their closeness, but we may only see
closeness as “gay” due to homophobia among men and the subsequent indirectness of their
To put it more simply, we only think a man telling his platonic male friend he loves
him as “gay” in the first place because homophobia and heteronormativity tell us that
men don't or shouldn't talk to other men that way or else be labeled as weak, effeminate
The 1988 film Bloodsport is only occasionally referenced as “gay” because two men are
vulnerable enough with each other for one to say he cares about the other.
That's not to say that we can't apply a queer reading of the film – of course we can – but
the reading here is that men who express even the slightest affection for one another due
to duress or extreme circumstances can still be labeled as gay by a homophobic society.
There has obviously been some gains in explicit queer representation in media – it would
be dishonest to claim otherwise – but in action movies, queer characters among the
main cast are still mostly invisible.
This makes queer readings of action movies through that lens and queer coding a lot more
common than actual, openly queer characters in action movies.
The biggest excuse is that it wouldn't play well in China.
This argument does not sterilize the excuse as a mere financial decision divorced from
politics but instead only exposes homophobia internationally.
I guess we'll always have Point Break.