'Rough Night' Is a Monumental Portrayal of Queer Women On-Screen
This is a bona fide big budget Hollywood comedy from a major studio that doesn't screw up how it portrays its lesbian leads. And that left me in tears.
Still from the trailer for "Rough Night"
Rough Night hit theaters last weekend, promising to be the female-driven comedy of the summer. (Sadly, its reviews and box office take didn't quite pan those hopes out.) Directed by Lucia Aniello, it was smart, biting and pugnacious in all the right ways—but the crux of the movie was the loudness of its queer protagonists.
Blair (Zoë Kravitz) and Frankie (Ilana Glazer) are college exes who rekindle a romance at the bachelorette weekend of their best friend, Jess (Scarlett Johansson). Jess and her friend Alice (Jillian Bell) are supportive and respectful of Blair and Frankie, never poking fun at homosexuality and always treating the relationship as they would a heterosexual one. And that, I believe, is something we've never seen before from a major studio comedy.
Representation of queer women in Hollywood is lacking, to say the least. As a queer woman, I usually leave a movie theater aghast at the torrent of gay jokes in any given film, especially comedies. The best anyone can say for last month's Baywatch reboot is that it was two straight hours of gay panic, complete with scenes like The Rock photographing Zac Efron next to a dead man's penis, squirming at the notion that a man could willingly touch another dick. That kind of homophobia is commonplace in major studio films: straight, male protagonists poking fun at male gayness as if the thought of two men becoming romantically involved is beyond the pale.
While lesbians are usually the target of fewer homophobic jokes in movies, they're treated to a different kind of homophobia. In far too many films, queer women are categorically portrayed through the lens of the male gaze and their sexualities trivialized—which is why Rough Night was so revolutionary.
Blair and Frankie's storyline begins at a college Halloween party. The duo sport a tandem costume, going as a pair of boobs. A man approaches them, to which they quickly disclaim, "we're together." He exits respectfully, no questions asked, without attempting to insert himself in their romance. That sort of behavior is thematic in Rough Night: Blair and Frankie's relationship is treated with the gravity and level of respect that is accorded to heterosexual relationships, over and over again.
"It was important to us to have queer lead characters who were making jokes, and whose queerness was never the butt of the joke," said Aniello. "We also wanted Blair's bisexuality to be something that wasn't dissected or defined—we wanted its casualness to be it's own message: 'this is normal.'"
As a lesbian, watching an out, queer female love story unfold on screen in this way was emotional. It was the first time I had ever seen myself represented in a major studio comedy. Not an independent film, not a foreign film, but a bona fide big budget Hollywood comedy. I've waited a lifetime to fully identify with a protagonist in a comedy, and the experience was moving. This is a movie about doing cocaine with your college friends and accidentally committing manslaughter—so why did I leave stained in mascara?
As far as I can tell, a comedic queer female love story has never been released by a major studio. And considering the myriad other ways queer representation falls short in Hollywood, Rough Night had a pretty low bar to clear. The 2017 GLAAD Studio Responsibility Index, which gauges LGBTQ representation in Hollywood, found that only 23 of the 125 films released by a major studio in 2016 included LGBTQ characters. Ten of those characters had less than one minute of screen time, and only nine passed the Vito Russo Test. (Inspired by the Bechdel Test, films that pass the Russo Test must contain an LGBTQ character not solely defined by their sexuality, and whose removal would significantly affect the film.)
GLAAD's Index reported that 31 percent of Hollywood's LGBTQ characters in 2016 were female. The previous year, 23 percent were female, and the year before that, 32 percent. The numbers continue as such, staggered and with little improvement. If that's at all disturbing to you, consider only one mainstream movie in 2016 included a transgender character.
While the Vito Russo Test is helpful, it doesn't include the use of LGBTQ characters as devices, the use of stereotypes, and the way the characters are treated by their peers. And in major Hollywood films, gay male characters are often stuffed into tropes, or the victim of homophobic slurs: there's Alpa Chino in Tropic Thunder (Paramount), Aubrey in White Chicks (Sony), Principal Max Anderson in Billy Madison (Universal), Leslie in The Hangover (Warner Bros), Lloyd in the Entourage movie (Warner Bros), Les in Bring it On (Universal)—the list drags on. Then there are movies whose entire plotlines revolve around gay jokes, like Get Hard (Warner Bros), in which Kevin Hart teaches Will Ferrell how to avoid getting raped in prison, or I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (Universal), where Adam Sandler and Kevin James pretend to be a gay couple for insurance benefits. None of these depictions are what you'd call "fully realized" or "empowering."
It's different for women: lesbian characters can often be seen making out for "practice" ( Cruel Intentions, John Tucker Must Die), or pretending to be gay as a means to arouse male characters (American Pie 2). If the characters are out and queer, they too are often stereotyped as butch (Kate McKinnon in Sisters) or predatory (Cynthia Rose in Pitch Perfect, Cousin Terry in Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates).
Let's glance back: Some of the best portrayals of queer women in major studio comedies include Jane Lynch and Jennifer Coolidge as a couple in Christopher Guest's mockumentary, Best in Show (Warner Bros). While their lesbianism didn't define them, their relationship was definitely intended to be humorous. Warner Bros' Tammy brought us Lenore and Suzanne, a lesbian couple played by Kathy Bates and Sandra Oh. Though the movie has a 23 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, Tammy has been lauded by lesbian media sites like After Ellen as having "no lazy lesbian jokes." Even still, Lenore and Suzanne were by no means protagonists—they were tertiary characters we see in a pit stop scene.
Sometimes these portrayals are complicated. There's Erin from Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Universal) and Rebecca from Sex and the City 2. While their characters weren't necessarily problematic, they fall into another category of sexuality as a plot device: the eleventh hour reveal. Both are hot "other woman" types—a nanny in SATC 2 and a coworker in Bridget Jones—who threaten the protagonists' relationships with their male romantic partners. Both characters are revealed to be gay at the end, depressurizing each situation. So while these characters technically pass the Vito Russo Test, they were not lead characters, and their sexuality was used as a plot device to drive the protagonists' stories. (For technicality's sake, SATC 2 isn't from a major studio; it was distributed by New Line Cinema, which is owned by Warner Bros.)
The 2014 comedy-drama This is Where I Leave You (Warner Bros) followed suit. At the end of the movie, Jane Fonda's character, the matriarch of the Altman family, reveals that she has fallen for a woman. The reveal does nothing for the story other than add shock value. And you're probably familiar with the eleventh hour reveal in Dodgeball (20th Century Fox): Kate, a lead character, is perceived to be straight until the end of the film, where she engages in a girl-on-girl kiss. But her queerness is put on display as a means to satisfy Peter's libido. Kate declares that she's bisexual, playing into the stereotype that all bisexual women are sexually ravenous and in open relationships. We saw another detrimental bisexual character in Horrible Bosses 2 (Warner Bros): Jennifer Aniston's character, a nymphomaniac, tells her ex-employee Dale that she intends to sleep with his wife. In this case, her sexuality was appropriated as a revenge plot.
Revenge and distraction are also frequently used plot devices. In Neighbors (Universal), Rose Byrne kisses Halston Sage in order to escalate a vengeful plan she and Seth Rogen carried out against their neighbors. In Keeping Up With the Joneses, Isla Fisher kisses Gal Gadot to momentarily distract the straight, male criminals in the room. The kiss is a fake-out—a brazen jab at queerness as viewed through the straight male lens. Then there's the substance-induced sexual exploration trope, as done by Ellie Kemper and Wendi McLendon-Covey in Bridesmaids (Universal), or sexuality used as a shameless pun, like the lesbian taco in Sausage Party (Columbia Pictures).
Of course, queer female comedies do exist. Queer women rally behind movies like …But I'm A Cheerleader, D.E.B.S., Imagine Me & You, and Kissing Jessica Stein, among others. But all of these films were made by independent studios, and by no means were they consumed by the kind of mainstream audience Rough Night was marketed toward. When you're raised on movies that portray female queerness as a fluke, finding a film like Rough Night feels like a mirage in desert heat.
While the film has drawn criticism for using a dead sex worker as a plot line, Rough Night is a flagship for queer female comedies. The best on-screen lesbian relationships we've seen in major studio comedies were written by straight, cisgender men, like Christopher Guest, or straight-identifying couples, such as Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone. There's still work to be done—but this is a powerful step in the right direction.
Follow Jillian Gutowitz on Twitter.