By Lily Burana
When the “list your ten favorite movies” game pops up on social media, I’m always reluctant to play, because my tastes are so girly and middlebrow. If we use as the marker of “favorite” as the movies I’m most likely to quote and that I will always watch when they’re streamable, the winners would include Pretty Woman, When Harry Met Sally, Crazy Rich Asians, Boomerang, Mean Girls, and Moonstruck—all romantic comedies or films that skirt the rom com edge. (Though my number-one favorite, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s tragic romance The Lover gets me plenty of pretension points. You may now golf-clap.)
Yes, I’m a popcorn-hoovering devotee of romantic comedies, and, on a given day, roughly a quarter of my contribution to any conversation is comprised of rom com quotes (“Snap out of it!”/ “I’m not a regular mom. I’m a cool mom!”/ “You’re right, you’re right. I know you’re right”). I love the emotional rom-com rollercoaster—the laughter and, especially, the tears. I’m not going to lie: When I cry at the movies, I feel like I’ve really gotten my money’s worth.
We are legion, we saps, yet for the queer romantics among us, our cinematic appetites are underserved. I know I’m not alone but I feel like I am—one of the central emotional tenets of queer life, alas.
Queers have dined at the buffet of straight cinema forever—leagues of gay men of a certain age can quote Steel Magnolias start to finish. And many of us came of age weeping through tragic movies about us, if not by us: Boys Don’t Cry and Brokeback Mountain spring to mind. The fatal denouement was such a constant that for the longest time, our baseline request was for shows and movies in which we didn’t die at the end. But now, 50 years post-Stonewall, having affirmed that we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re pretty much used to it, we can be more insistent in our tastes. We don’t just need historical documentaries, coming out narratives, or survivor stories—and we certainly don’t need any more devastating endings. We need something else, something that heterosexual people take for granted: romantic vision. We need the bread-and-roses romantic comedies that make our hearts soar to the theater ceiling.
Love, Simon, released last year, set a wonderful standard, but beyond that, there’s not much fare. There are notes of gay romance here and there in funny films like The Birdcage, and indie films have served up lesbian realness for a while now (ex: 1999’s But I’m a Cheerleader). But bi- and pansexuals, I’m sad to say, exist in a cinematic desert—not just in rom-coms but across all genres. Don’t get me wrong, Chasing Amy was okay-ish. And I love love loved The Hunger. It put its thumbprint on my dark teenage Goth heart—I made a life of sulking, lurking nocturnally, kissin’ girls, and wearin’ ankhs. But as a statement on queer women, The Hunger is rather a big failure: Oh, a bisexual female lead who, literally, sucks the life out of her partners? That takes the “predatory emotional vampire” stereotype about bi- and pansexual women to the next level. And Basic Instinct? Literally about a bisexual psycho.
As a slavish devotee of the genre, I’ve identified the five elements of a successful rom com: Quotable dialogue, quarrels, kisses, tears, and outfits. I want all of those things, queer style.
I’ll be blunt: I’m a femme. Girly-girl stuff is of supreme importance to me, therefore, I need outfits. O-u-t-f-i-t-s. From Pretty Woman to 27 Dresses to Crazy Rich Asians, I love a good trying-stuff-on or shopping montage. And given how important signaling is among marginalized subcultures, the queer rom-com version of these scenes would be quite poignant (dare I say out-fits? Sorry, had to).
Of course, I bring my own predilections and preferences to the storyline conversation. My wish is unambiguous: I want the great Butch-Femme love story. I want it to end in a tuxedo and poofy-dress dress wedding like the one in this photo (which, ironically, was once used by FOXNews as a graphic in a Marriage Affirmation segment). I’d be thrilled to see a romantic lead that’s a masculine-of-center woman who gets the door for you, pulls out your chair at dinner, and moves through the room with enough swagger to indicate that she can rock you ‘til your wheels come off. (Can someone get Lena Waithe’s agent on the phone?) We’ve never had an authentic butch-femme love story (trans or cis) in a mainstream picture, and it’s such a precious, thrilling staple of queer girl love. Yet, I don’t think the audience for such a thing is limited—the appeal of the hard case with a tender core is universal. Why do you think so many romance novels feature a male suitor who’s a soldier or first responder? And all those film noir heroines melting into a rake’s arms with a “Kiss me, you fool?” Iconic. Across all lines, the softening of a callused heart makes the knees grow weak.
Not sure how, exactly, you toss pansexuality into the plotline. I dunno, maybe the female lead has a male ex and a few kids milling around. Maybe the masculine characters—initially suspicious of each other—bond over taping drywall or fixing messed-up lines of code or prior military service. Maybe the ex babysits so mama can have a date night with her butch heartthrob. Whatever happens, though, they have to make it work. They must. It’s a rom-com. “Happily Ever After” is in the rules.
Some might argue that after throwing out conventional heterosexual characters, the romantic conventions should go, too. I beg to differ. During test screenings of Crazy Rich Asians, someone commented that the proposal scene was derivative, but they were quickly reprimanded by young Asian woman: “No,” they said. “We need the big, splashy proposal scene. Need it.” Deprived of the full range of representation, their hunger to see the classic moments of romantic cinema applied to their own lives was strong. I can relate.
Yes, I want the laughs, the tension, and the pursuit. But I want the swoon, too.
And I want the heat.
I’m not saying I long to see full NC-17 sex on screen. I prefer the chasteness of the average rom-com. I just want a good neck kiss. Or a shoulder. Or the inside of the wrist. All of them. (Graphic sex scenes have their merits, and I’m not a bluenosed porn hater, but a date night rom-com is not the ideal place for them.) I want to see queer iterations of the classically coy, garment-peeling paean to foreplay, rendered so slowly and thoroughly that I’m twisting my Kleenex in my hands when that cocktail dress or pair of blue jeans finally hits the hardwood floor.
As for who should bring this knee-buckling, tear-jerking masterpiece to the screen, I’m open-minded. Of course, I want greater queer representation not just in Hollywood stories but also in their production. I’d truly love an all-queer cast and crew. But I don’t think an auteur necessarily has to be queer herself to tell a great queer story. When it comes to the orientation of artists, to quote the great Susie Bright, I’m blindsexual. You know who I’d like to coax a queer rom com to fruition? Whoever will do it best. Just bring quality and heart and the big ol’ full-spectrum emotional rainbow that dumps me right into that pot-of-gold happy ending. I’d rather see an expert production by a writer and director about whom we know nothing (and therefore, would presume to be straight because heteronormative bias), than sit through a cinematic grind made by a queer person so lashed to the mast of timidity that the temperature in the room never rises.
The gay rom-coms, allegedly, are coming—an announcement of an LGBT rom-com directed by Nick Stoller, written by and starring Billy Eichner, and produced by Judd Apatow, as well as one starring Kristen Stewart have recently made the news. Will they be good? I volunteer to find out. If you want to meet for a cheap-seats weekday matinee, by all means, give a shout. Milk Duds are on me.
I believe in love. I believe in the transformative power of pop culture. And I believe our big, shiny, queer love story is already out there somewhere written in the stars, and it’s only a matter of time before its brought down to earth and twinkling upon the big screen.
Ain’t that a romantic vision? Look at me, I’m crying already.
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