The Age of Toxic Queer Women On-Screen Should Tackle Movie Musicals Next

If you’ve strolled into a multiplex recently, you might’ve noticed a deluge of movies focused on chaotic queer women. For much cinema history, queer gals — when not villainous predators — found themselves defined by their tragedy. They were quiet figures known for either minimal sex drives or appeal to the male gaze. In the last year, though, a slew of motion pictures have begun to presuppose, “What if queer women were out of their goddamn minds?” Bottoms, Love Lies Bleeding, Drive-Away Dolls, and Poor Things have all expanded the definition of what queer women in cinema can “look like.” This trend even festered in the dawning years of the 2020s. Bodies Bodies Bodies and Titane featured queer lady protagonists more prone to murder than helping homophobic straight people learn “tolerance.”

These characters are not model members of the queer community striving for “respect.” They’re unhinged, messy, and very real humans. Their queerness isn’t defined by “corrupting” heterosexual women, nor being an “other” the audience is supposed to detest. Best of all, they’re all so much fun to watch. While this trend hasn’t become ubiquitous enough to deliver new installments with the regularity of 3D movies across the early 2010s or Tarantino pastiches in the 90s, this style of cinema has become popular enough to suggest these titles aren’t going anywhere. And, as they endure, it’s time for the unhinged lesbians of cinema to assimilate other genres into their wonderful clutches.

There’s one genre, in particular, that seems like it’s tailor-made for these protagonists: the movie musical. The toxic lesbian protagonists that anchor Love Lies Bleeding and Bottoms need to go to musicals next.

Shifting these figures to a movie like Singin’ in the Rain may seem like a peculiar combination. However, the queer messes anchoring Bottoms or Poor Things are the natural evolution of many musical movie protagonists. After all, this genre has already housed lots of enjoyably over-the-top antics from women characters. Just look at the Judy Garland vehicle Meet Me in St. Louis. That movie features an unforgettable sequence where Esther (Garland) believes her neighbor John beat up her little sister Tootie. In response to this development, Esther goes over to John’s house. She proceeds to physically accost this man — almost like a bodybuilding bisexual hopped up on steroids.

The 1953 musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes had Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe playing showgirls who get into shenanigans while evading a private detective. And let’s also not forget Chicago featured a musical number where several women prisoners announced “he had it coming” regarding the men they killed. None of these PG or PG-13 titles have anything as extreme as Rose Glass and Yorgos Lanthimos’ cinematic debauchery. However, they do establish a precedent for musicals housing exhilaratingly, unpredictable women. New modern musicals in the mold of Titane or Bottoms would merely just ramp up those antics. They’d transform the queer subtext of Old Hollywood into flagrant text. Women characters in classic musical movies were already so close and intimate. Why not take that a step further into open queerness?

Speaking of which, the innate queerness and loudness of musicals also makes them a perfect domain for chaotic queer women. Those two qualities are impossible to separate from one another. They also help explain why musicals are a key part of the larger LGBTQIA+ community. These projects allow queer folks to engage in the kind of loudness that’s often quieted by society. The innate structure of capitalistic American culture commands gay people to suppress their personalities. In musicals, queer performers and artists can be as brash as they want to be. They can even be flamboyant when telling stories about straight people!

This has made the domain of musical storytelling a go-to safe haven for queer people. That trait makes this style of cinema a perfect bedrock for further toxic queer women cinema. Movies like Love Lies Bleeding and Bottoms already provide narratives where marginalized folks have the flexibility to be as flawed, messy, and physically chaotic as they want to be. Translating those attributes to a musical would just be heightening the DNA of this genre. It would be a welcome counterbalance to modern musical movies that have forgotten their transgressive and uber-queer roots.

Late 2010s and early 2020s musicals have been aggressively bland in their handling of queer representation. Just look at the 2020 Ryan Murphy boondoggle The Prom. Like its Broadway source material, this musical turned the story of two queer women wanting to go to prom into a saga that highlighted heterosexual perspectives. The film’s priorities were on a musical number saying how cool stage actors are and James Corden’s insufferable supporting performance. Not on its list of priorities? Fleshing out its queer women characters in a substantive way or letting them be messy human beings.

The queer representation in The Prom is incredibly sanitized. The queer characters are baby-proofed gays existing to ensure straight people don’t feel “uncomfortable.” In the process, The Prom misses out on countless opportunities for thrillingly mischievous queer fun or enjoyably catchy musical numbers. There’s similarly fleeting and disposable queer representation in other modern musicals like the live-action Beauty and the Beast or In the Heights. Even projects with ostensibly queer leads like the recent musical versions of The Color Purple and Mean Girls subdue either the queerness or edginess of their characters. These projects opt for “digestible” representations of queer folks that won’t alienate heterosexual viewers and their money. Where is the on-screen queerness of Gregg Araki and Jamie Babbit??

Enough is enough. No more background gay representation or queer characters that could exist in a Target ad. It’s time for aggressive, messy, and even endearingly off-putting queer women to take the reins of this genre. It’s not even like there aren’t precedents for such films existing! You just have to go beyond Hollywood and English-language cinema.

The 2017 Agnieszka Smoczyńska directorial effort The Lure is the best stripper mermaid horror musical movie you’ll ever see. It’s also (surprise surprise) gay as all hell. The presence of queerness perfectly fits in with the transgressive vibes and subversive filmmaking permeating the entire production. 8 Women from France, Holy Camp! from Spain, and The Adventures of Iron Pussy from Thailand also bring chaotic queer women into their musical folds with delightful results. Not every mainstream Warner Bros. or Universal musical movie is going to adhere to the standards of these films. But even embracing a dash of lesbian chaos could help remove us from the era of The Prom.

Best of all, these kinds of exuberant musical movies would provide a great counterpoint to the classic trope of on-screen lesbian suffering. Musical movies aren’t devoid of pain — hi Les Miserables! — but traditional movie musicals adhere tonally more to “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat” than “I Dreamed a Dream.” Bubbly maximalist set pieces anchored by queer women would be equal parts historically consistent and historically subversive. After all, the history of musical storytelling is paved with queer artists and perspectives.

The world of musical cinema has been built from the ground up to house movies like Bottoms. It’s time Hollywood fulfills that creative potential and lets chaotic queer ladies steer the genre’s future. C’mon, who doesn’t want to see Katy O’Brian or Ariana DeBose serenade Angelica Ross with an unforgettable tune before they be gay and do crime?

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Lisa Laman

Lisa Laman is a life-long movie fan, writer, and Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic located both on the autism spectrum and in Texas. Given that her first word was "Disney", Lisa Laman was "doomed" from the start to be a film geek! In addition to writing feature columns and reviews for Collider, her byline has been seen in outlets like Polygon, The Mary Sue, Fangoria, The Spool, and ScarleTeen. She has also presented original essays related to the world of cinema at multiple academic conferences, been a featured guest on a BBC podcast, and interviewed artists ranging from Anna Kerrigan to Mark Wahlberg. When she isn’t writing, Lisa loves karaoke, chips & queso, and rambling about Carly Rae Jepsen with friends.

Lisa has written 6 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. I appreciate the critiques of The Prom as a movie musical – but seeing it live on Broadway was a totally different experience. At that time, there was at least one other musical on Broadway that also centered queer women (Head over Heels), which was astonishing. How often are queer women represented AT ALL on broadway? The Prom was an extremely moving and gutting experience live. The audience was diverse – there were even children there – and the audience loved it, which felt incredible. I cannot even express in words how important the representation of queer women’s stories in a broadway musical was at that time. The movie was not nearly as good for many reasons but the largest of which is that all of the actors who originated (and helped create) those stories and characters were not in the movie – and did not reap the rewards of being in a movie in terms of recognition, exposure, and payment for all of their hard work over years of creating the musical. Other people got those rewards, which really and truly sucks.

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