We’re all stuck inside stewing in our thoughts; ours happen to be about movies. In Quaran-Scenes, writers will take a look at some of their favorite scenes from cinema: how and why they “work,” and what about those scenes they love so much. Find past columns here.
With the privilege and awareness of living in a Western culture that has made relative strides to include, well, mostly cisgender white gay men in film and television (sort of), the sort of earnest but reactionary portrayals of male gayness, like in Alex Strangelove or Rocketman, has made me pine for a certain kind of nasty bitchiness that was the coded gay villain. I’m talking your Jafars and your Scars and your Professor Ratigans, complete with prissy affectations and sibilant “s”s. These archetypes carry the immense weight of political baggage, relics perhaps partially responsible for a socialized, disingenuous reading of gay and queer men, but it’s no less important to contemplate what gay villainy might look like recontextualized.
In Jeremy Hersh’s new film, The Surrogate, titular surrogate Jess (Jasmine Batchelor), her best friend Josh (Chris Perfetti) and his husband Aaron (Sullivan Jones) know that their fetus has an extra chromosome and will therefore have Down syndrome. The family is faced with the decision to either abort the fetus, with the awareness of the financial and emotional difficulties of raising a disabled child, and try again, or to carry through with the pregnancy and work through those circumstances. Jess, torn between wanting to support the wishes of her friends and weighing the moral weight of the question of why the fetus is being aborted, gravitates away from abortion, becoming consumed by the political implications of disability and finding the right reasons to go through with the pregnancy. That all sides are given their fair shake, and that it is truly, ultimately up to the viewer to decide: This is not an incorrect reading, and Hersh’s skill as a writer—and, in this case, rhetorician—makes space for that interpretation.
To Hersh’s strength, his characters are both ideas and people—representing, in some ways, the discourse behind how the agency of a woman’s body and abortion entangle with disability rights, Black femininity, and gay assimilation—vacillating between the roles effortlessly, anchored by strong performances (particularly from Batchelor). Much of this swinging between humanity and didacticism feels like a response to living life as someone on the margins, someone whose existence both lives at the matrices of power and is politicized, sometimes for unkind reasons. DP Mia Cioffi Henry’s camera floats with documentary realism in one scene, observing the possible parents-to-be and their surrogate best friend engage (or not engage) with children and parents at a community center for children with Down syndrome and their families. Her camera doesn’t so much shift as our space changes, once at a respectful distance, and then in a dialectical throng, as intent on interrogation as its characters.
This is preparation for parenthood, and yes, The Surrogate makes space for all sides, but it’s more fun to watch the film and canonize Josh and Aaron, simperingly nice, respectable people—Josh in his faux fur lined denim jacket, his cayenne pepper colored hair becoming gradually more unkempt as the film proceeds, and Aaron, in his perfectly tailored suit, his quiet stoicism throughout the situation reading more and more like passive aggression—as the gay villains we deserve, the product of endless HRC messaging and “#LoveisLove” campaigning. Gay villains for the age of Mayor Pete. For Josh and Aaron, the wanting to be wanted is so great that, in their moneyed Brooklyn apartment, they will seek to create a Kodak version of what they think others want them to be, even at the cost of dubious ethics.
Batchelor’s face contains endless depths, conveying both legible and hidden meanings, but her awareness of who her friends are turning into, or who they may have always been, is abundantly clear. At the climax of the film, Jess, Josh and Aaron’s differing points of view, and how the fabric of those ideologies play out more broadly, come to a head at the couples’ immaculate kitchen table. When Jess continues to offer alternate ideas or solutions so as to be able to avoid abortion, she modulates her tone carefully, the fragility of the conversation compounded by both the intimacy of their dynamic and the stark differences in their backgrounds. (Jess works at a non-profit, presumably the only Black woman there.) Batchelor keeps Jess’s body language at the brink, just controlled enough to command the conversation, but close to the brink to articulating, nonverbally, her zeal. There’s something about Jess in this scene which underlines that she is cleverer than her friends might have given her credit for, that this conversation isn’t being had by someone who is merely blinded by the hope that she’s making the morally right decision. She prods and unravels rhetorically what their motivations were, perhaps most of all Josh’s. She gets them to finally put his cards on the table.
Josh’s dewy-eyed white gay desperation masquerading as sensitivity is no less a powerful weapon, or affect, as Scar’s droll disdain for Simba’s idealism and naïveté. Once claiming that their reasoning for not going through with the pregnancy was for financial reasons, Josh unloads his defensiveness and reasons not financial, exposing how deeply entrenched he is in some pseudo-idyllic homonormative Utopian fantasy. He wants his child to “have a fulfilling life,” he namedrops Richard Dawkins, he speculates that parents of children with DS are “faking” their happiness. Jess calls Josh out on citing Dawkins, whose belief is akin to eugenics; Josh fires back that, as the grandchild of people whose lives were impacted by eugenics, the comparison was vulgar, which Jess reads to be an undermining of the experiences of Black people and eugenics. When Jess turns to Aaron, who is also Black, for support in the argument, he remains silent. Perfetti is impassioned, his eyes wet enough to hydrate a cactus. And then he says this:
“As gay men, our whole lives, we have made due with the cards we’ve been dealt and not complained about it. It’s like ingrained in us that we should be grateful for the crumbs that we have. I’m not saying we deserve pity, I’m not. I’m just saying we do deserve to be like everyone else. And not have to apologize for it. We are not some scummy, rare outlier here. The majority of couples in our situation do decide to terminate; and just like them, we deserve to try again, we deserve to try and have a kid who’s…. yeah…”
He can’t bear to say it. He can’t bear to say the word that, true, has been deeply socialized into queer people to want so violently, that often our thirst will remain unquenched so that the difference that some proclaim as powerful will wisp away, so that those of us who can will embed themselves in the same destructive systems that paid us no mind in the first place and create and/or uphold inequity. He can’t bear to say “normal.” That he wants to be normal. And he can’t fathom its political implications.
Jess stares at him in shock, like her dialectical provocation was too true. She knows what they refuse to do. Not only to “grieve for the child [they] have in their head,” but to give up the idea of the life they think they were supposed to have, and are willing to try to create with and for dubious reasons.
Obviously, not all gay people, or gay and queer people who want these things, are bad or evil or villains. But that The Surrogate is brave enough to cast a skeptical eye on the want and the wanting is commendable. If we don’t have the campy, two-dimensional gay villains of the animated sort, perhaps the solution is to, with rigorous characterization, interrogate and question the ethos and ideology, power and privilege that simply reestablishes and reifies the same inequity that some gay people, now able to take advantage of it, were once subject to in the past.
Black trans women’s lives are continually most at risk in the LGBTQ+ community, and despite frequent calls to reassess the community’s values and political goals after the marriage equality ruling, many, more in proximity to the power they wish they always had (who amongst us?), would like to think the big work is done. Gay villainy was once codified and defined by difference; now that we, at least in the United States, occupy the strange and liminal space of a cultural landscape shaped by both post-marriage equality and Donald Trump’s presidency, maybe it’s time to codify gay villainy by it as sameness. Through sheer want of being “normal,” they throw everyone else under the bus.
The Surrogate is available to watch in virtual cinemas now, and will be available on VOD on September 1.