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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Queer Theory in 80's and 90's Action Movies | Renegade Cut

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Disclaimer: Not everyone will like the use of the termqueerin this video because

it's a reclaimed slur that was previously offensive, butqueer theoryis 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 thedefaultgaze

of a filmgenerally masculine heterosexualityand 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 aregayand which movies arestraight

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 isappropriatefor 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 secretlyabout” – 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 considergaywhen 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 isWell, 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 Universethe biggest action franchise of the 21st centurywithout

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 sayLook how far we've comebut more

likeLook 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 alwaysthe other.”

A peopleapartfrom 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,

Dolph Lundgren?

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

a notion.

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 bighey, I kinda like your big penis


This provides cover for both characters and, frankly, both actors from accusations of being


Ano homoturned 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, thedefaultnature 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 intentionallyno homoing their film, and sometimes it's

unintentional due to heteronormativity's pervasiveness, but the end result is the same regardless

of intention.

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 likeWow,

can't wait to see moreor anything, it's all business, and Matrix is 100% not interested.

Matrix also tells another one of his obstacles that heeats 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.

Come on.

Let's party."

Then, Bennett says he's going to shoot Matrix between the balls, and Matrix throws a big

phallus into Bennett and says he shouldblow offsome steam.

The credits roll, and we are played out by a song calledWe 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

himGirl Georgeandsubversivea 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 hisfriend.”

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 amorphousdudeaudience of movies is seen as a kind ofdefaultviewer.

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 asmaleandheterosexual

by default.

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 nakedas 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

so forth.

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 ofPlaying 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

at them.

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 barfully nude.

He shows far more skin than anyone in the Top Gun scene, but nobody calls out this scene

for beinggayor mocks it for that reason.

Why is this?

Well, two reasons.

One is that the Terminatorthough without an explicit sexualityperforms 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'sourperspectivethe 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 uswe are the Terminator's POV.

We're not looking at the naked man.

The naked us.

Everyone is looking at us, and every time we see a woman in this scene, the woman is

either lusting at the naked manmeaning usor 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

and iconic.

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 asgayin 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 beinggaybecause 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

becoming closer.

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 moviesparticularly

action moviescreates 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 asgaydue to their closeness, but we may only see

closeness asgaydue 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 asgayin 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

or gay.

The 1988 film Bloodsport is only occasionally referenced asgaybecause 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 filmof course we canbut

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 mediait would

be dishonest to claim otherwisebut 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.

Oh well.

I guess we'll always have Point Break.

The Description of Queer Theory in 80's and 90's Action Movies | Renegade Cut