I was 15 years old when my father suggested we go to watch Brokeback Mountain together at the local cinema.
I’d already seen the trailer upwards of thirty times, waiting with bated breath for Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal to overcome all inhibition and embrace in drunken surrender. It was my dirty little secret. The sexual frisson between the leading actors made my insides turn to soggy Weet-Bix. It somehow made me feel sick, anxious and elated all at once. It brought clarity to the murky waters of my sexuality – and I felt connected to it, perhaps for the first time.
As a closeted gay teenager this film was a revelation, because, well, I’d never really seen two men kiss before. Not like that – not with passion. In a way, seeing it on screen validated me. I didn’t understand at the time, but in hindsight I’m sure this was my father’s way of letting me know “it’s okay – whoever you are, whoever you like, love, kiss and eventually sleep with – it’s okay.”
That’s the power of film.
Growing up, and even as adults, we rely on stereotypes to make sense of the world. Stereotypes help us comprehend experiences different to our own and people different to us. Stereotypes enable us to assemble a carry-on bag of neatly pressed preconceptions with all we need to be safe and comfortable as we venture into the world.
“The film was a revelation, because I’d never really seen two men kiss before.”
The stereotypes we form are born from what we see. What we see at school or work, what we see at home, what we see at the shopping centre and, though perhaps subconsciously, what we see on screen.
Australian film and television has the unique ability to not only reflect society, past and present, but also lead society and our perceptions of normality. My father recalls in the 1970s when actor Joe Hasham portrayed openly gay lawyer Don Finlayson on the Australian TV showNumber 96. My father remembers how the show brought the topic of homosexuality into the open. He also recalls how for teenage boys the name “Don” quickly became a term of condescension synonymous with “fag”, while for his parents, and many other adults, Don Finlayson became their idea of a gay person, which endured for many years.
Again, stereotypes are born from what we see – and this was both fresh and polarising.
Number 96 was a bold, important step for Australian screen content, and there’s no doubt we’re shuffling in the right direction – but is it enough? More than thirty years later and a brief lesbian kiss on Neighbours still warranted a half-page story in the Sydney Morning Herald. It kind of seems ridiculous, right?
Two of my girlfriends came out after that episode of Neighbours.
Today, if your child were to base their impressionable views of the world on the colourful castmembers of The Block or My Kitchen Rules, they’d be all but oblivious to the very existence of same-sex couples. They’d also think that all Ethnic chefs are bullies and that renovating a house is a fun, richly rewarding experience. Lies! All lies! What about Will & Grace, you say. Sure, we had Will & Grace, and, yes, it was incredible. We also have the delightful couple on Modern Family – and that one guy on that other show. Oh, and yes, there was that lesbian Danish vampire film.
But, more often than not, these shows and films construct a similar picture – characters painted with the ever-broad brush of glorious modern day equality.
“Insert gay/ethnic/minority character here. Wait, pull it back. Don’t make them so real. We don’t want to isolate the audience. Keep it familiar.”
This is where we need to understand and acknowledge the fine line between social representation on screen and the enhancing of stereotypes. Writers, directors and, indeed, audiences, have a responsibility to produce, support and encourage stories that resonate, that reflect and reveal – where we’ve been, where we are, but more importantly, where we’re going.
We need to create new templates rather than dusting off the old and well-worn, focus on the nuanced and bespoke over the mass produced, build with renewable timber, not plastic. Complex characters are molded, not pieced together with expired decade old social archetypes – they need to be setting the foundation to build new ones.
This is why I want to be a filmmaker. To tell stories that only I can tell, to create characters that aren’t perfect, characters that haven’t existed before, characters that, if I’m lucky, someone will connect with when they need it most. After all, that’s the power of film and television. Not simply to entertain – but to connect, educate and, ultimately, broaden our understanding of the world.