By Anne Sophie Parsons and Maria Rathje
Family – can’t live with them, can’t live without them. Family dynamics are portrayed in widely different ways in LGBTI+ films, as exemplified here through The Bird Cage (1996), Theorem (1968), Saving Face (2004), and A Fantastic Woman (2017), but they all revolve around the question of inclusion and exclusion of LGBTI+ characters in family units, all in the same breath.
Trigger warning: homophobia and transphobia
Mike Nichols: The Birdcage (1996)
“We are family,” the drag queens sing from the glittering stage of the Bird Cage, the club where the film The Birdcage (1996) begins. The film, like so many others, grapples with themes of family, shame, and erasure in an LGBTI+ context.
In The Birdcage, Val, the son of the gay couple Armand and Albert, is marrying a girl from a conservative family and asks Armand to help win over his fiancée’s parents by pretending to be “normal,” i.e. neither gay nor the owner of the drag club downstairs. At first, Armand refuses to hide who he is to cater to the ideals of the conservative senator, but he eventually relents because he wants to help his son.
The erasure which is necessary for Armand to fit into the world of a conservative senator’s daughter is all-encompassing. Though it starts with décor, it soon becomes clear that the main threat is Albert, Armand’s partner. Albert is too feminine to “pass,” and much of the film is spent by Armand plotting ways to hide him away and instead include Katharine, the woman who gave birth to Val. However, when Katharine fails to show up at the dinner, Albert dresses up in drag and passes as Val’s mother, impressing the senator with the conservative opinions.
It is made clear through comedy that the threat to the nuclear family, here, is a figment of the conservative imagination. However, the acts of erasure that are deemed necessary to cater to this worldview are interesting. The question of if and how to make oneself more palatable to a heteronormative world is one that Armand and Albert grapple with. They both want to support Val, but at what cost?
Val recognises Armand and Albert as his parents and claims not to be ashamed of them, but it is hard not to notice that it is the gay couple who is expected to change to accommodate the senator.
Pier Paolo Pasolini: Theorem (1968)
In Theorem (1968) by Italian provocateur director Pier Paolo Pasolini, an upper-class Milanese family disintegrates after the visitation of a young, handsome, mysterious man. The maid, the mother, the father, the son, and the daughter all fall under his charms and engage in sexual relations with him with psychological consequences for all of them as a result.
Theorem sets out from the get-go to present the nuclear family as a normative stifling structure, which prohibits the characters from facing their own true selves, being constrained by societal conforms; the movie shows that there’s no functional family before or after the Visitor’s arrival as a queer revelation splinters the familial construction.
Yet, queerness is not the inherent transgression, even though it is emphasised by lingering groin shots and piercing bedchamber eyes: Sexuality is the key to opening your eyes, and is portrayed as a world-changing event that propels the family members down different paths; a metaphorical veil has been removed from their eyes, where the state of the world is shown as the thing to revolt against, rather than sexuality in itself, be it in a heterosexual or homosexual context.
In Theorem, the family members overthrow their original identities after The Visitor leaves. Is it chaos or freedom that the family finds? Pasolini’s art movie doesn’t deliver any clear answer to the question. Its interest is in showing the instability of what a family is – and how the family members are shocked to their core by the sexual meeting with the nameless Visitor as a symbolical and existential act that pulls out the rug from under their feet.
Alice Wu: Saving Face (2004)
In Saving Face (2004), queerness is not a revelation, but rather something to be kept quiet in order to fit in. The film, a rom-com by director Alice Wu, follows the successful Chinese American Dr. Wilhelmina ‘Wil’ Pang trying to balance her lesbian identity and the traditional lifestyle of the close-knit Chinese community in New York. She must house her overbearing mother, Gao, when Gao ends up pregnant out of wedlock. Both Wil and her mother must fight to keep up appearances in their own right, which comes to a head when Wil ends up embracing a new relationship with the ballerina Vivian.
The theme of cultural shame permeates the movie in its double-edged nature; Chinese heritage defines the social and communal spirit, but only offers a narrow way of being “right” – both the closeted Wil and her mother are equally unable to live up to the ideal of the perfect daughter. Wil’s mother is aware that Wil is a lesbian but keeps setting her up with men. Turning a blind eye on Wil’s homosexuality is a way to brush a slight under the carpet – to save face.
The need to be out versus being accepted is Wil’s ultimate dilemma, which positions her between two poles that are presented as her core tasks to combine. Saving Face offers a humorous and tongue-in-cheek take on an otherwise serious topic. The movie ends on a happy, campy note where Wil comes out and repairs her relationship with her mother, showing that no one can uphold facades throughout their life without compromising themself.
Sebastián Lelio: A Fantastic Woman (2017)
In A Fantastic Woman (2017), the family of Marina’s deceased partner, Orlando, violently excludes her from his funeral and tries to erase her from his life. The film shows Marina trying to navigate the loss of Orlando and the hate and shame that his family wants to pile onto her.
Marina is unapologetic and secure in her identity as a trans woman, but Orlando’s family continually questions and condemns it, even harassing Marina and committing a violent attack against her. She is bullied into leaving Orlando’s apartment and kept out of the funeral arrangements.
In this film, the family unit is overwhelming and exclusive; Marina is excluded from it both because of her trans identity and her status as an outsider, while Orlando is forcefully kept inside the family even after his death. The cis-heteronormative family becomes a powerful, destructive force in Marina’s life, but the film shows glimpses of Marina’s chosen family, especially in her singing teacher, who is both a father figure and a therapist to her as well as a friend who encourages her to make the leap from nightclub performer to classical singer.
And this is A Fantastic Woman’s final conclusion: Marina’s triumph in maintaining her integrity and finding a way to say goodbye to Orlando, scaring the family into giving her dog back, and finally closing on a scene where she belts out a classical aria in a theatre.
All these films present LGBTI+ people as a threat to the cis-heteronormative family. Even so, the main issue in these films is not that the LGBTI+ people are unwilling to coexist peacefully with(in) the nuclear family, but rather that the nuclear family rejects and excludes them, often violently. A dichotomy emerges, between being out and proud – and therefore excluded – or caving in to pressure and trying to hide your identity to blend in. A pressure, that many LGBTI+ people know all too well.
In these four films, the erasure of LGBTI+ people is necessary to uphold the status quo of the (cis)heteronormative family unit. The films grapple with this erasure, and with the question of who should be erased and by whom. However, the films also show that the effort to hide your true self is in vain and that the need to be part of a family, chosen or otherwise, is intrinsically human.