What is queer cinema? It’s complicated to line out a clear and appropriate definition, as queer nature itself cannot be described in a black-and-white manner. But it is diverse: it tackles various genres, from drama to comedy, and the characters do not necessarily fall on a label or spectrum. The essential aspect is to not participate in heteronormative discourse. As queerness engages in freedom, so does queer cinema. Queerness has always served as the opposite of everything, but what if it just took over the standard? That’s what Emma Seligman’s Bottoms (2023) inspires us to reflect on.
Authentic queer cinematic storytelling is usually confined to the status of art films and indie movies. Mainstream (or at least well-known) cinema has depicted queerness in different ways: from censored stories like Olivia (1951) and Madchen in Uniform (1931), messed-up kids in Gregg Araki’s world, or awards-winning romantic tales like Brokeback Mountain (2005), Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) and Carol (2015). But authentic stories do not happen often.
Moreover, queer cinema is not necessarily a world of its own. Pop culture, non-queer cinema, and the arts are intersectional, and they influence any audience, especially pop culture, as it does not include queer aspects, if not as a stereotype. We’re used to camp chaos, dramatic romanticism, and token best friends. But why would queer cinema be limited if queerness itself is not? What if it was widely common and enjoyable that queer culture when creating new content, merged the elements that did not include it in the first place?
Furthermore, queer cinema’s essence is strictly related to the representation of LGBT+ characters. Fortunately. the last ten years have witnessed significant transformations in cinema and TV. Streaming has taken over not only our watching habits but also the way we perceive and shape media. With streaming services holding the reins, how we consume entertainment has adapted to different shapes and narratives. Platforms like Netflix, Prime Video, and many more have worked on TV shows and films whose goal is to be as inclusive as possible, although they fail in their representation.
To attract a wider audience and to make up for years of stereotypes, streaming culture cannot portray any LGBTQ+ member, if not in the most positive way. Let alone the lack of research to write them. And in fact, while doing so, they ironically end up portraying a stereotype. That is because said characters are not seen as people, hence complex and nuanced, but as puppets who play an impossible part: to be perfect. But newer generations have unmasked this marketing strategy attempt. As a result, those engaging in the industry try to differently play their part, as they live a different experience with the visual arts. Particularly, Gen Z has developed a completely new relationship with the media.
History is cyclic, and so can be media. The first approach of queer re-appropriation happened thanks to New Queer Cinema, although it can seem something niche for non-cinephiles. Now the tables are turned. As a revival of the 2000s took over pop culture, people now are more willing to engage with the sometimes R-rated and problematic comedies and the colorful aesthetics of those years.
The 2000s have represented a peak of random and often-problematic humor, and through its contemporary revival, queer identities do not want to engage in proving themselves anymore. Now, they strive for the freedom to create content that is not necessarily great but shallow and free from the shackles of maintaining a reputation. And, as said before, that is the case for Seligman’s new film.
Co-written by Rachel Sennott, Bottoms tells the story of two high school lesbian losers, Josie (Ayo Edebiri) and PJ (Rachel Sennott), starting a fight club to gain attention from two girls they crush on. With the help of the easily-forgotten third friend Hazel (Ruby Cruz) and other stereotypical characters (the class weirdo, the black Republican, and so on), they run a successful club until a straight male counterpart gets in the way. Other stereotypical tropes enrich the plot: hot cheerleaders, man-babies, cringe adults, and many more.
The movie shows off itself as a fake, sexy comedy, oddly engaging in careless violence and random plot twists. A sensational entertaining product that doesn’t ask for much if not for a little queer fun. Plot coherence or social critique is not a concern. There’s no need for questioning, as the film doesn’t care about greatness, purpose, or high-level artistry. It engages in everything defining American adolescence: high school, sex, mediocrity, and fun. As they indulge in non-typically female rage, violence doesn’t hide a profound social critique on female and LGBT+ stereotypes, but it plays with them. Bottoms is pure berserk.
Presenting itself as a lesbian Superbad (2007), the film takes inspiration from pop culture elements that defined millennials and especially Gen Z’s upbringing: Bring It On (2000), Kick-Ass (2010), Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010), and more. Watching Bottoms gives hope to re-establishing the fun and quirkiness of But I’m a Cheerleader (1999). There’s nothing wrong about recreating something old through a new lens as long as it’s appealing and/or has a purpose. Seligman’s direction molds them into something nostalgic, as it reprises old entertainment but simultaneously into something unique since it reclaims narratives distanced from queerness.
Moreover, what is particularly stunning is that, in typical careless comedy style, the plot gets lost at some point. Instead, it gives space to craziness and idiocy, becoming a parody of itself. Seligman’s new project is a silly and sapphic satire that does not aim at anything more than laughs. Of course, as many comedies do, it presents social satirical content, like the school posters inviting the girls to always smile or the weird obsession with football. But more than a social satire in disguise, Bottoms is a smartly-written comedy that collects stereotypes, taboos, and feminist and queer discourse to chaotically play with them. It’s intended for people who understand the humor, whether queer or not, but also whoever wants to participate in a literal hell of a ride.
Of course, Bottoms does not represent the only contemporary queer movie engaging in outrageous comedy. Other productions, like Bodies Bodies Bodies (2022), made the same attempt, in this case combining horror and humor. The main point consists in highlighting the fact that Bottoms, being a huge success, can function as an example of queer mainstream media evolving. And that’s the most fascinating aspect. It’s not something people look for due to the necessity of watching something gay to have fun with, but it has the privilege of being a movie anyone could bump into and eventually have a great laugh.
Today, cinema is tired of questioning itself. The younger generations behind it want to stand up for their communities and what they believe is right. In this case, they strive for the right to express themselves without the obligation of transforming their identity into politically driven content. Queerness should not be groundbreaking but part of the play. The exclusion of queerness from global narratives, restricting it to a definition of “other,” is to limit those narratives.
Nonetheless, the concept of representing a demographic under a positive lens to make up for years of media discrimination is coming to an end. Younger directors are more daring. They want to get involved in every aspect of cinema and, most importantly, have the privilege of just having fun and pure entertainment. Lastly, it is good to note one more time that their quirkiness has always existed, but now it has found a new place, infiltrating mainstream media.
Bottoms certainly succeeds in this. Its flawed nature shapes it into entertaining content. The film nonchalantly culminates with absurdity and awkward eccentricity. Although highly comedic, the characters do not lose their humanity. It’s unclear to state if we’re witnessing a progressive transformation or if Seligman’s success alone represents a true shift, but queer cinema is visibly changing. There’s a new era of queer storytelling coming up, where queer elements and characters are ‘integrated’ into heteronormative stories and comedies without compromising themselves. They’re not trying to fit in with the status quo but holding the power of their fun with an authentic and unapologetic depiction.