Recently I watched The Prom and Happiest Season, and I don’t have a third example, so this isn’t useful as a trend piece to be featured in your favorite publication. These are different movies that effectively have similar genre topes, similar politics, similar conceptions of the closet, similar ideas of, as Erik Hinton puts it, “the rosy-cheeked triumphalism that the truth will set you free, the belief that someone can shape the world merely by shaping their picture of it.” Hinton notes that the convergence of personal identity revelation movies and coming out movies highlight the more aggravating parts of the respective types and augment them beyond tolerability.
My sense is that the two films have become foils against one another, depending on whom you ask, either representative of either the failure of grasping a contemporary vocabulary of relational dynamics or the success of a reformed genre that has been stuck in the mud of creakier perspectives that reveal the worst of a society audiences know can be better.
But–, well– this seems naive to me. Whatever the material consequence of representation or visibility in art, there’s an avoidance of dealing with the lineage in which these genres are apart of. And if people acknowledge it, it’s still with the hope that they can change with better casting choices (this piece by Leah Johnson came to mind), not deep interrogation or questioning of what function these kinds of stories serve. Which isn’t a bad question! And it’s not bad to want those things! I love romantic comedies. Every essay has their author earnestly say “I love romantic comedies” and list off their favorites like they’re their genre expertise bona fides.
Since I intend this as more of a scattered thoughts blog post and not a full-fledged essay, I’ll keep it short. If something like Happiest Season is modeled, explicitly or self-consciously or self-reflexively, after the screwball comedy (or, as Teo Bugbee posits, the Sirkian melodrama), it’s useful to note that the genre, which found its root both in changing class discourse and industry “guidance” over sexual content, was not only aware of the society within which it functioned (a “giant Rube Goldberg machine”, as Hinton described to me, absurd in its complexity and fragility) but skeptical of it (this is also true of the Sirkian melodrama, in my opinion). The zaniness and unbridled chaos of Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, other films within Stanley Cavell’s designated Comedies of Remarriage, and then the films that were exuberantly in debt to them, like The Birdcage or even Mistress America or the “homonormativity is a prison” movie I Love You, Phillip Morris cast a jaundiced eye to the social structure and presumed nuclear rituals that are expected to be followed. My friend, writer Juan Barquin, tells me Imagine You & Me and Kissing Jessica Stein may also be useful exemplars. The awful truth of The Awful Truth is a level of meta-performance, a slick nudge that the habits of heterosexuals are ridiculous, but to have a little transgressive fun while they’re at it. In The Birdcage’s case, it’s the absurdity of being together for so long that the terms of the relationship can still be mitigated in relation not only to others, but to the parties themselves. It appears to be worth it not because these relational dynamics will ever be revised so dramatically that they’ll be rectified or fixed, but because social frameworks become a jungle gym for its players.
This doesn’t occur to the players of The Prom or Happiest Season. Supposedly gleeful (musical) comedy or horror show of heteronomrativity, what I see as the failure of these movies is a lack of skepticism (which is maybe not the same thing as cynicism, but easily conflated as such in, like, the prickly and sardonic The Lobster). They have too much hope in their eyes, a deadly flaw if these movies are going to just insert hashtag inclusivity into genres where they don’t really make sense without a more thorough questioning of the politic at their core. They’re earnest in supposing that making a gay romantic comedy will work as a corrective to a perceived ill of the genre, as opposed to realizing that the skepticism of what these people were doing was baked into its DNA. Even in its later forms, or what many would be inclined to refer as a golden era of contemporary romantic comedies, the hurdle is disbelief, a questioning of the social frameworks themselves. The romantic comedy is about reproduction, of the social order, of the genre itself (a funny genre-twinged mirror stage of the society that created it, and of the personal and social suspicion that, economic proposition or gateway to personal fulfillment, it’s a con, a sham. What is more romantic than seeing the illusion and believing in it anyway?
My suspicion is that there are two answers to the question of “how do you make a queer romantic comedy?” Either one goes the way of JC Calciano, of Is It Just Me? and e-Cupid gay movies that crave to be straight, and make romcoms that just replicate and repackage the sexual politics that the same people who want these movies also supposedly want to disavow (seriously, no shade, just an observation) or one realizes that for one to queer the genre and its tropes, and queer as in transgress or problematize or transmogrify into the non-normative, that you do that and you don’t actually have a “romcom” anymore. You have something else. Not better or worse, certainly in debt to established cliches but an offshoot. And that’s fine. In his book The Trouble with Normal, Michael Warner writes “[The] idealization of marriage is typical of those who are excluded from it: priests, gays, adolescents. It shows an extraordinarily willful blindness.” While I may not necessarily be as sharp tongued as Warner (today, at least), reconciling with the limitations of the genre and the willingness to buy into those limitations or abandon them altogether for something else is something I think would be more productive than pining for an ideal version of something that probably can’t possibly exist under the circumstances. Not unlike Meg Ryan’s Sally, I don’t want to be these films’ consolation prize.