In the following examples of straight bodyguard/gay apprentice works, we see a progression in the level of violence from the bodyguard and apprentice alike as suppressed homoerotic yearnings overtake traditional heterosexual pairings. These works gradually shift from the calm of Mr. Miyagi and sensitivity of Marty – who only fight defensively – to the likes of Freddy Krueger and hitmen whose deadly strength nurtures and then unleashes their mentees’ simmering rage. Their apprenticeships do not lead from a triumphant confrontation to a romantic conclusion, but instead to an often quiet moment of self-acceptance.
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In response to Kara’s (Melissa Benoist) sister, Alex (Chyler Leigh), coming out and dating a woman on Supergirl, a concerned viewer tweeted, “@SuperGirlTheCW please tone down the homosexual messages. Used to watch this with my daughter’s [sic] now I have to explain to a 7 and 10 y.o. thx” to which the producers responded, “Good, explain to them that love is love and it’s beautiful no matter where you find it and who you find it with. #Sanvers #Supergirl.” I have always found the reflexive parental fear of “explaining” queer relationships in television and film to children among the shallowest of responses, as if queer adults did not begin their lives as queer children or teenagers looking for the same representation afforded other viewers. Perhaps some of the confusion viewers like this one have arises from the fact that, historically, members of the LGBT community have tended not to come out until early adulthood; thus, queer adults sometimes seem to spontaneously generate rather than mature organically from childhood. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey of LGBT Americans found that most respondents suspected they were “other than straight” around age twelve; knew for certain that they were queer at age seventeen; and did not share this information with a close friend or family member until age twenty. The 2013 Human Rights Campaign survey results reveal some reasons we typically do not come out as adolescents: “Among LGBT youth, half (51%) have been verbally harassed at school, compared to 25% among non-LGBT students” (5) with 54% reported being called “gay” or “fag” (14). Their top three biggest concerns were not being accepted at home (26%), being bullied at school (21%), and a fear of being open/out (18%) (14).
The first episode of Stranger Things (2016), a loving, hybrid homage to the science fiction, horror, and teen films of the 1980s, is somewhat surprisingly LGBT-centered given the genre and time period. Young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) goes missing, setting in motion the mystery that drives the rest the season. His mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), asks Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) for help, immediately identifying what makes Will different: “Look, he’s not like you, Hopper. He’s not like me, he’s not like … most. He has a couple of friends, but, you know, kids, they’re mean. They make fun of him. They call him names. They, they laugh at him, his clothes … Look, he’s, he’s a sensitive kid. Lonnie [his father], Lonnie used to say he was queer, called him a fag.” She says this with the uneasiness of a loving mother in a time when AIDS was the “gay cancer,” and decades before marriage equality, and “It Gets Better” campaigns. The entire town and Will’s friends come together in search of Will, who has been taken to another dimension (the Upside Down). Here his difference allows him to evade the monster and communicate with Joyce long enough to survive while the other victims – RIP sardonic Barb (Shannon Purser) – are slaughtered quickly. In a realm that is literally the opposite of his real one, Will can become the hero who outsmarts the powerful monster.
Compare Joyce to another Winona Ryder role, teenage Veronica in Heathers (1988). In that film, Veronica and her boyfriend, J.D. (Christian Slater), go on a rampage against the high school clichés of popular girls and football jocks. Kurt (Lance Fenton) and Ram (Patrick Labyorteaux) use “fag” as their go-to insult, bullying a geek and demanding, “Piece of shit fag, you like to suck big dicks? Say, ‘I like to suck big dicks.’” Veronica forges a suicide note from Kurt to Ram, having him declare, “Ram and I died the day we realized we could never reveal our forbidden love to an uncaring and ununderstanding world. The joy we shared in each other’s arms was greater than any touchdown, yet we were forced to live the lie of sexist, beer-guzzling assholes.” Even for a progressive film of the 1980s, the idea of homosexual males who might also just be “beer-guzzling assholes” could not be sold without converting them into stereotypical gay tropes; thus, Veronica and J.D. make the two appear really, acceptably gay by planting stereotypical items near their bodies, including a Joan Crawford picture, mascara, a candy dish, and, worst of all, mineral water.
While none of the characters in Heathers is identifiably gay, Veronica possesses a queer sensibility of her own. She is the lone non-Heather in the cruel clique, visibly distressed at their pranks, yet the creative one who pens the notes pretending to be other characters. She is first drawn to J.D. after seeing him stand up to Kurt and Ram in the cafeteria when they confront him, asking, “Hey, Ram, doesn’t this cafeteria have a no fags allowed rule?” And she has a remarkable flair for the dramatic, staging her own death when she realizes J.D. has turned on her. After J.D.’s explosive death on the school steps, she walks away with Martha “Dump Truck” Dunnstock (Carrie Lynn), a schoolmate she and the Heathers humiliated at the start of the film.
Heathers, of course, also riffs on the original homoerotic teen drama, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), with Slater’s J.D. acting as an updated, more out-of-control James Dean. Both films showcase a world with clueless parents unable or unwilling to relate to their children, who form their own cliques and ersatz families. As examined by Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet (1987), Rebel Without a Cause also features what is now considered a fairly obvious gay teenager, Plato (Saul Mineo), “the lonely, tormented sissy” (108) who keeps a picture of Alan Ladd in his locker and who quickly falls for the charismatic new kid in town, Jim (James Dean). Jim returns his affection – platonically – while also flirting with Judy (Natalie Wood). Plato sees Jim stand up to group of tough guys and then survive a game of chicken that leads his challenger off a cliff. Upon learning that the gang is hunting for Jim, he gets his mother’s gun and races off to protect his friend, fending off three of them on his own before panicking and fleeing the scene. Plato runs to the observatory where he and Jim first bonded and is symbolically and literally disarmed when Jim offers him his now iconic red leather jacket in exchange for the gun. As Plato flees again, the police shoot him dead, still thinking he is armed. Jim races to his side, crying and hugging his friend, and setting the pattern for the bodyguard and gay apprentice films to follow.
The straight bodyguard/gay apprentice works discussed below differ from other classic high school films like The Karate Kid (1984) and Back to the Future (1985) even though they are based on a similar formula. In these examples, the bodyguard’s lessons do not lead merely to the hero’s vanquishing the bully. Just as significantly, the hero also learns how to win the heart of the girl. Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel (Ralph Macchio) to defeat Johnny (William Zabka) and to develop the confidence needed to deserve Ali (Elizabeth Shue), while Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) learns that his literal existence requires his teen father (Crispin Glover) to stand up to bully Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) so that his mother (Lea Thompson) will fall in love with him. In the following examples of straight bodyguard/gay apprentice works, we see a progression in the level of violence from the bodyguard and apprentice alike as suppressed homoerotic yearnings overtake traditional heterosexual pairings. These works gradually shift from the calm of Mr. Miyagi and sensitivity of Marty – who only fight defensively – to the likes of Freddy Krueger and hitmen whose deadly strength nurtures and then unleashes their mentees’ simmering rage. Their apprenticeships do not lead from a triumphant confrontation to a romantic conclusion, but instead to an often quiet moment of self-acceptance.
The protagonist of 1980’s My Bodyguard, Clifford Peache (Chris Makepeace), assumes the Plato role as a coded-gay bullied youth who comes under the tutelage of another tough, more mature character. On his first day of class, the school bully, Moody (Matt Dillon), laughs at Cliff’s last name, which makes him “a fruit.” Moody and his friends make Cliff and the other kids give them “protection money” until Cliff befriends Linderman (Adam Baldwin), an outcast who is rumored to have raped a teacher, shot a cop, and killed a child “in cold blood.” Linderman scares Moody and his gang until Moody finds a larger bodyguard of his own who knocks Linderman to his knees and mockingly says, “Are you queer or something?” In the film’s showdown, Linderman and Cliff each confront their bullies, with Cliff finally knocking out Moody only after he calls him “a faggot.” The homoerotic undertones of Cliff and Linderman’s relationship are somewhat blunted throughout the film with moments to show each interested in girls, but affection, whether brotherly or something more, is clearly present.
High school homoeroticism is made even more explicit in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), which is now considered one of the gayest horror films ever made, and soon to be the focal point of its own documentary, Scream, Queen: My Nightmare on Elm Street. Upon moving to Springwood (think about that for a moment), young Jesse (Mark Patton) almost immediately meets the man of his dreams, child killer Freddy Kruger (Robert Englund), who tells him, “I need you, Jesse. We got special work to do here, you and me. You’ve got the body, I’ve got the brain.” While Jesse would rather dance in his room to Fonda Rae’s “Touch Me (All Night Long),” Freddy needs him to torment other randy teenagers and his gym coach. Their bond forms a grotesque of the daddy/son dynamic.
We are treated to the required confrontation with a jock, Grady (Robert Russler), who gets angry when Jesse tags him out in baseball. Grady pulls down Jesse’s shorts, and the two wrestle homoerotically on the field until Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell) intervenes and makes them do push-ups as punishment. Once the Coach leaves, Grady says the coach “hangs around queer S&M joints downtown. He likes pretty boys like you.” Freddy visits Jesse in a follow-up dream that takes him to one of those bars where he meets his leather-clad coach. They return to the gym where he sends Jesse to the showers. Then the coach gets stripped naked and flogged in the shower with Jesse, who ends up killing him with Freddy’s glove of knives. Thus, his first violent act is against a known homosexual who represents his latent desires. Benshoff ably describes the scene as “titillat[ing] the audience with its homosexual foreplay, but instead of reaching a sexual orgasm, the screen is showered by bloody ejaculate” (248).
Jesse is unable to perform sexually with his “girlfriend,” Lisa (Kim Myers), when Freddy takes over his body again. A panicked Jesse races to Grady’s house, where he awakens his sleeping, shirtless buddy and begs him to watch over him. Both Grady and Jesse fall asleep, of course, and Freddy literally comes out of Jesse’s body to kill Grady, this time destroying the object of his suppressed attraction. Freddy then disappears into the closet mirror. When Jesse/Freddy goes after Lisa, he is as impotent a killer as he was a lover. The film’s final moments are devoted to Lisa defeating Freddy and saving Jesse in the series’ least exciting face-off. She kisses Freddy (which is more convincing than when she kisses Jesse) and tells Jesse that she loves him, somehow causing Freddy to catch on fire and burn into ash. This time, however, Jesse comes out of Freddy and is once more in his own skin, something any gay youth who pretended to be straight will easily understand.
In both My Bodyguard and Heathers, being gay – or even being perceived as gay – identifies the characters’ physical weakness and need for training. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) gives us a twist to the story with a bullied lesbian, Willow (Alyson Hannigan), who learns from the Slayer (Sarah Michelle Gellar) herself. We get a hint of Willow’s potential power and latent lesbianism in Season 3 (1998-1999) with “Doppelgangland,” when Anya (Emma Caulfield) and Willow cast a spell that brings a powerful Vampire Willow to their dimension. Earlier in the episode, Willow is bullied by football player Percy (Ethan Erickson), who expects her to do his assignments so that he can stay on the team. When he mistakenly picks on Vampire Willow, she throws him across a pool table. By the end of this episode, he gives Willow all of his assignments (and an apple), and Willow has realized of her doppelgänger, “I’m so evil, skanky, and I think I’m kind of gay.”
By Season 6 (2001-2002), the most stable relationship on the show is between Willow and Tara (Amber Benson). When Warren (Adam Busch) accidentally shoots and kills Tara while aiming at Buffy, Willow transforms into an avenging witch. She skins Warren (Adam Busch) alive using dark magic and then pursues his nerdy henchmen, Danny (Jonathan Levinson) and Andrew (Tom Lenk). Buffy tries to calm Willow, but she cuts her off, responding, “Let me tell you something about Willow: She’s a loser, and she always has been. People picked on Willow in junior high school, high school, up until college, with her stupid mousy ways.” And when the two of them finally go head-to-head, Willow smirks, “Come on, this is a huge deal for me. Six years as the sideman; now I get to be the Slayer.” Willow’s transition from mousy sidekick to all-powerful witch is directly connected to her queerness, her innate difference, not unlike what we see in Will Byers. We sympathize with Willow, not just because of the loss of her beloved Tara, but because of the years of pain she represents as a bullied LGBT character. For LGBT viewers, this moment also resonates deeply as one of their own actually becomes the series’ lead character, seizing one of the show’s greatest storylines.
For much of Buffy’s run, she is herself a “closet” Slayer who has to keep her abilities and powers a secret. She is the metaphorical closeted gay, with the strong leader having to hide a part of herself from a world that would not understand her. Her mother even asks her if she has tried not being the Slayer when she learns her daughter’s secret. Similarly closeted straight protagonists mentor young gay characters in A History of Violence (2005) and The Guest (2014). In the former film, we discover that easygoing, small-town diner-owner Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is an accomplished hit man who has gone so deep into hiding that he has forgotten his past completely. His son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), mirrors the calm exterior of his father. When Bobby (Kyle Schmid), this time a baseball player instead of football, calls Jack “a little faggot” in front of the other players, Jack responds, “Yeah, you’re right, I’m both little and a faggot. You got me dead to rights.” Bobby continues to push him around, saying he is a “punk bitch.” This time Jack sarcastically corrects him: “Shouldn’t that be little punk-ass chicken-shit faggot-bitch?” His humor defuses the situation for the moment, but he never contradicts the accusations.
After a pair of mobsters coincidentally come to town and threaten Tom’s patrons, Tom’s killer reflexes kick in. He kills them both easily and is hailed a local hero on several news channels. At school, Bobby again confronts Jack, saying, “What’s he think of his wimp son? Think he’d take this shit? Think he’d make jokes? Come on, bitch, say something funny.” Instead of responding with a quip, Jack unleashes years of rage, beating Bobby senseless while screaming, “Are you laughing now, mother-fucking, cock-sucking piece of shit?” With his cover blown, more mobsters arrive to apprehend Tom and take him back to his brother. Jack, however, saves his father, shooting the lead hitman (Ed Harris), and then asking his dad, “So you’re some kind of closet mobster, Dad?” Jack’s unleashed rage provides LGBT viewers cathartic release, while his conversation with his father cleverly flips the coming-out scenario.
The Guest (2014) feels like an amped-up retelling of My Bodyguard, replacing laconic Linderman, who was dangerous only through the mythology that grew around him, with robotic David (Dan Stevens), a handsome loner with a secretive past who is significantly more dangerous than he appears. At the start of the film, David arrives at the Peterson home, saying he was a friend of their son who died while they were serving together. He charms his way into the house, befriending the parents, Laura (Sheila Kelley) and Spencer (Leland Orser), and especially their son, Luke (Brendan Meyer), while raising suspicion in their daughter, Anna (Maika Monroe).
When he first meets Luke, David notices that he has a black eye. He picks Luke up from school (Moriarty High School, a nod, perhaps, to the nemesis of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s couple, Sherlock Holmes and Watson) the next day and has him point out the football players who’ve been picking on him. They follow the boys and their girlfriends to a local bar, where David orders a round of “blow job shots” for the girls and Cosmopolitans for the boys. When they confront David, he manages to knock all of them out. Back at the house, David advises Luke, “Never let anyone pick on you. Otherwise, you’ll carry it with you the rest of your life. Those kids at school, they’re bigger than you? Then bring a knife to school. Then they take off and beat you up, you go around their houses at night, and burn them down with their families inside. What’s the worst they can do?” As encouragement, he gives Luke his hunting knife.
Luke takes the advice to heart. When a football player picks on Luke the next day, saying, “Hey, faggot,” Luke punches him in the face and then breaks a yard stick across his face. He’s reported to the principal’s office, and Laura brings David to pick him up. David asks him what happened, and Luke proudly responds, “This kid called me a faggot, so I broke a yard stick on his face.” David smiles and responds, “Awesome.” The twist in The Guest is that, while being called a faggot is the impetus for Luke to fight back, the fact that he might actually be gay is not an issue for Luke’s family or David. When the principal tells David and Laura that he’s planning on suspending Luke, David calls it a hate crime, and asks incredulously, “A gay student targeted with physical violence finally defends himself, and you’re, what, suspending him?” He threatens to sue the school and take the matter to the media.
After David gets his suspension reduced, Luke confides in him that Anna has been investigating David’s past. He also tells him that he thinks David killed his father’s competition at work and that David likely had plastic surgery to change his appearance. However, he assures David that he does not care about any of that, because they are friends. The film speeds along from this point, revealing that David was part of a government experiment of some sort (think Jason Bourne gone even more wrong), and leading to his purposely killing Luke’s parents (and many others) and coming after Anna and Luke. Just as David prepares to shoot Anna, Luke impales him with the hunting knife, and David replies, “You did the right thing. I don’t blame you. Don’t feel bad.” In this scenario, the queer apprentice completes his education by defeating his teacher and earning his respect.
Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016) continues the apprenticeship of a queer adolescent by a strong figure who teaches him to stand up for himself. Perhaps the most complex telling of a queer youth’s journey yet, Moonlight spans elementary school to adulthood. The story begins with Chiron, nicknamed Little (Alex Hibbert), being bullied by other boys. The neighborhood drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), and his wife, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), occasionally take him in when his mother, hooked on crack, blacks out. During dinner, he asks Juan, “What’s a faggot?” and Juan responds matter-of-factly, “A faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad.” When he asks Juan if he, Little, is a faggot, Juan says, “You could be gay, but you can’t let nobody call you a faggot.” Juan advises him, “At some point, you got to decide for yourself who you going to be.” Remarkably, there is no judgment related to homosexuality itself, just a warning related to the derogatory and damaging power of the word “faggot.”
The story progresses to high school when Little, now asking to be called Chiron (and played by Ashton Sanders), joins his childhood friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), on the beach. They kiss and masturbate each other under the moonlight. At school later, Kevin is tricked into playing a game called “stay down,” in which the bullies pick another boy for him to hit until he does not (or cannot) get back up. The lead bully chooses Chiron, and Kevin follows through with the game. He implores Chiron to stay down so that the beating can stop, but Chiron continues to stand until he is no longer able. After he finally collapses, the other boys come over and begin kicking him. When he returns to school, bloodied and bruised, we are prepared for the cathartic confrontation. Chiron walks late into class, picks up a wooden chair, and breaks it over the lead bully’s back. This section of the film concludes with Chiron being arrested and presumably sent to jail.
In the film’s third act, Chiron is a bulked-up drug dealer, Black (Trevante Rhodes). He has assumed a position of leadership not unlike his mentor, Juan, and he is an imposing tower of strength. When he receives an unexpected call from Kevin (André Holland), however, he becomes the same flustered, bashful boy from the playground and beach. Kevin apologizes for what happened years ago and invites him to visit his restaurant. Upon first seeing him, Kevin asks, “You hard now?” The film concludes quietly and without resolution, much like life, with Black admitting that he has not touched anyone, male or female, sexually since that night and then resting his head on Kevin. He has grown hard, but has also learned when he can safely soften.
In “Stereotype or Success? Prime-Time Television’s Portrayals of Gay Male, Lesbian, and Bisexual Characters” (2006), Raley and Lucas apply a chronology and categorization scheme first developed by Clark (1969) to look at the portrayal of ethnic minorities. The scheme starts with non-representation and then moves to ridicule, regulation (being portrayed only in socially acceptable roles), and, finally, respect (23). Borrowing freely from their study for this piece, I see Rebel Without a Cause, My Bodyguard, Heathers, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 as non-representation blended with ridicule. None of these films has a clearly identified queer character, but that implication of queerness – and all of its negativity – becomes a focal point for its straight characters. These works also precede Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (1993), DOMA (1996), and the brutal killing of Matthew Shepard (1998). Buffy the Vampire Slayer, A History of Violence, and The Guest confront ridicule head-on, moving beyond regulation and demanding respect through violent, necessary confrontations. The first two also precede landmark LGBTQ moments, including the Matthew Shepard Act (2009), the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (2010), and the Supreme Court ruling in favor of Marriage Equality (2013).
In the past year alone, we have moved into a remarkable period with realistic films like Moonlight and multiple series that embrace LGBTQ youth, including Stranger Things, Eyewitness (which centers on two gay teenagers who witness a murder while making out), a reimagined One Day at a Time (with a Hispanic lesbian daughter), The Real O’Neals (based on an idea by Dan Savage), and Riverdale (where Kevin Keller makes out with closeted football player Moose Mason). Of special note is the streaming series 13 Reasons Why, which completely flips Rebel’s Jim/Plato roles by having straight Clay (Dylan Minnette) be coached and protected by openly gay, street-tough Tony (Christian Navarro), whose leather jacket, slicked-back hair, and retro-cool car evoke James Dean. On each of these series, the gay teens do not need straight mentors to serve as their bodyguards and protectors; rather, they stand strong on their own, due at least in part to the explosive force of the Platos, Willows, and Lukes before them.
Benshoff, Harry. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Manchester University Press, 1997.
Human Rights Campaign. Growing Up LGBT in America: HRC Youth Survey Report Key Findings. HRC, 2013, http://hrc-assets.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com//files/assets/resources/Growing-Up-LGBT-in-America_Report.pdf
Pew Research Center Survey. “A Survey of LGBT Americans.” Pew Research Center, 2013, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/06/13/a-survey-of-lgbt-americans/
Raley, Amber, and Jennifer Lucas. “Stereotype or Success? Prime-Time Television’s Portrayals of Gay Male, Lesbian, and Bisexual Characters.” Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 51, no. 2, 2008, 19-38.
Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. Harper & Row, 1987.
Supergirl (SuperGirlTheCW). 24 January 2017. Tweet.
Young, Taran (Taronyoung). 24 January 2017. Tweet.