A lesbian serial killer and her vampiric, crafty lesbian lover are the main characters of Monster, an acclaimed recent film that also seems, incongruously, to have won the blessing of the gay and lesbian media and activists.
Gay magazines and newspapers around the world have given the film positive reviews, raving about Charlize Theron's famous physical transformation, Christina Ricci's pyrotechnic turn in a key supporting role, and director Patty Jenkins's understated, effective approach to the sensational storyline.
Planetout.com, a multimillion-hit-a-month online gay magazine, describes the film as "riveting, bleak and exceptionally intuitive" and praises its "emotional complexity." The Advocate, America's leading gay glossy, says the film is 'brutal [and] brilliant." The film hasn't been called a masterpiece, but no gay publication I've seen has expressed irritation, concern or resentment over the gritty homo-killer tilt of the film, irks that have characterised gay relations with cinema for almost 30 years.
Things seem to have changed enormously from the days when murderous, negative or stealthy gay movie characters triggered geysers of vitriolic spittle from gay groups, who have a history of sensitivity to their big-screen representation. Most famously, they disrupted the location shoots of Cruising (1980) with whistles and mirrors, protested inside and outside the 1991 Oscars ceremony over the crowning of "gay negative" The Silence of the Lambs at the expense of "gay positive" My Own Private Idaho, and picketed cinemas showing Basic Instinct (1992), furious over the film's murderous lesbians and ruining it for moviegoers entering the cinema by waving placards that revealed the surprise ending.
Vito Russo's influential book The Celluloid Closet, published in 1981, set the tone for gay film appreciation right up to the present, arguing that Hollywood maliciously and deliberately ensured that gay and lesbian characters were destructive, suicidal, threatening and dangerous, and by doing so, taught moviegoers to be homophobic. The Russo doctrine was extremely influential. It was a strong base to the early 1990s gay movement called "Queer Nation," who outed celebrities on the basis that if homosexual Hollywood actors were revealed to be gay then the moviegoing public's cautious opinions of homosexuals would magically and immediately relax.
The current crop of gay films and TV shows feature gay characters that are inoffensive, American Dream-friendly and, above all, nice. Gay activists got their Russonic message across: Unflattering gay characters will cause you more trouble than they're worth, and happy shiny gay characters sell - you can make money.
So, in this Queer Eye context, the calm gay media response to Monster is anachronistic and confusing. We see Aileen Wuornos (Theron) get seduced by needy-yet-wily Selby (Ricci), a young lesbian kicked out of home for being gay and who manipulates and uses the hopeless Wuornos to gain a bit of off-the-wall life experience. While Wuornos is out pulling Johns off the Interstate, unemployed Selby lounges at home watching TV, only getting up to complain about how bored she is when Wuornos - usually covered in blood - gets home from a hard day's work.
Selby sells Wuornos up the river when the police close in, retreating back to her conservative family and sending her one-time gay lover to her fate (and, eventually, to the lethal injection room) as part of a favorable plea bargain. For her part, Wuornos corrupts and recruits Selby as an accessory to her prostitution, petty crimes and murders.
Christina Ricci and Charlize Theron in Monster
In short, if ever there was a movie about vampiric killer lesbians and stealthy, untrustworthy homosexuals who form secret pagan bonds yet who never forget how to slide, unnoticed, back into the suburban fold, Monster is it. The killer lesbians in Monster make those in Basic Instinct look like the lesbians in The Color Purple, and while one of them ends up condemned and executed by the state, the other is emotionally and psychologically destroyed after giving in to hetero-normativity. On paper, Monster is a gay activist movie nightmare - so where's the gay media backlash?
The first clue is that Monster is "based on a true story." Theron's celebrated performance was built on repeated watchings of videos of Wuornos speaking of her life, while the film, admirably, doesn't seek to over-dramatise the facts or editorialize about Wuornos' motives. Unlike Basic Instinct or Cruising, slasher films that invented fictional homo-psycho killers for their creepy "other" appeal, Monster is a sensitive tale of a real woman who was both the lover of another woman and a serial killer. It doesn't seem to matter, then, if the gay character kills, lies and ends up dead, as long as that's what really happened to the character in real life.
Confusingly though, this reminds us of the existence of real gay and lesbian serial killers - Wuornos obviously, as well as Jeffrey Dahmer, Leopold and Loeb, John Wayne Gacy, Andrew Cunanan et al - and suggest the question, What's so offensive and problematic about including killer homosexual characters in films, when there are ample precedents in reality for such characters? Why the books, placards, picket lines and protests for so many decades? What difference does it make if gay movie killers are based on real-life examples, or whether they're the invention of a screenwriter, especially since, even in "true story" films, creative liberties have to be taken and there's always substantial fictionalization? Why does a film about an actual homosexual character get gay media approval, while a film with a fictional negative homosexual character - not necessarily a killer - get torn to shreds?
The other caveat of Monster is that the homosexual characters' homosexuality isn't presented as the key ingredient in their psychosis. The homosexual killers of Cruising and Basic Instinct are coded as "queer" murderers: Their non-heterosexuality is the central part of the subversive stew of their psyches that manifests them as carving knife/ice-pick-wielding maniacs.
Indeed, Wuornos' first kill results from abusive heterosexuality - a screw-loose John who ties her up, rapes her with a bike tyre pump, then pours stinging fuel over her open wounds, telling her to get ready for her death. Freeing herself just in time, she shoots him dead in self-defence. Her next kill is also triggered by heterosexuality, as she shoots a trick who has a daughter fantasy. Enraged by his request that she call him "Daddy," the abused-as-a-child Wuornos pumps a few rounds into him too, and so the killing spree goes on.
Unlike Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) in Basic Instinct, Wuornos doesn't trick straight men into her vagina dentata lesbo web, killing them and then skipping off with her equally malevolent female lover. Wuornos and Shelby are working-class Americans, struggling to get by and railing against the hypocrisies of the predominantly heterosexual society they have to live in. Like Thelma and Louise, they are heroic outlaw chicks, out to prove a few bloody fair-enough points about the crappy straight-male dominated system before they bond for life and go down in a proverbial hail of bullets.
So, it doesn't seem to be the killing or the stealth that has been the problem all these years, but the exclusion of gay characters from the sympathies of the narrative, and through that, the audience. Kill all you like, as long as you're located within the heart of the film, and presented to the audience as a struggling, sympathetic, preferably working-class person.
It's a peculiar message though, surely, that gay audiences, and the media that represent them, won't tolerate being the crazy killers on the fringe - they insist on having the right to serial kill like any other normal person.