Buffy the Heteronormativity Slayer

In <i>Closet Monster,</i> a young teenager reckons with queer supernatural forces; it's one of several recent films and TV shows that show our indebtedness to Buffy.

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Jan 12 2017, 2:42pm

A still from the official trailer for Closet Monster

Early on in Stephen Dunn's supernaturally-tinged film Closet Monster, out this week on DVD and VOD, we find Oscar, a young boy living in a small Canadian town, walking towards a cemetery near his school. He's clutching a wooden stake, sensing that danger might be afoot, and is accompanied by his appropriately-named talking pet hamster, Buffy. But unlike Joss Whedon's blond vampire slayer, neither Oscar nor his sidekick are able to save the day. Instead, he's left speechless while witnessing a hate crime—a young gay man beaten and violated with a metal rod.

When we next meet Oscar, he's a broody, horror- and fantasy-film-obsessed teenager who's still haunted by what he witnessed. Whenever he gives in to "impure" thoughts about men, images from that night flash before his eyes. Worse yet, Dunn stages these flashback moments as something straight out of a David Cronenberg film, with Oscar losing control of his own body—at times vomiting screws, at others fearing he's harboring a monster within him just waiting to be let out. Since it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2015, where it picked up the Best Canadian Feature Film award, Dunn's film has been wowing audiences with its blend of body horror and a classic coming-of-age tale. And it may very well be the most explicit repurposing of Buffy the Vampire Slayer within a gay male narrative to date.

By this point, Buffy's queer legacy is legion, though the fascination of many within the LGBTQ community with the show has little to do with its groundbreaking storytelling or GLAAD-approved lesbian wiccans. Rather, it's about how the show depicted one's inner demons as outer threats—with female robots an analog for consent, witchcraft a way to depict lesbianism, and hyena demons (yes, really) a metaphor for peer pressure—and impart lessons on finding empowerment in the blurring of gender roles. (There's much to be learned from a ditzy-looking cheerleader who becomes a monster-smashing hero with time left over to pine for boys, after all.) Whedon refused to see teenage problems, including those relating to sex, as trivial, and instead launched them onto a grand mythic stage. It's a formula that felt ready-made for adoption by queer storytellers, and one that has only grown in prominence since Buffy went off the air in 2003.

In recent years, graphic novels like Flutter (which the New York Times called a mashup between My So-Called Life and Buffy), about a shapeshifter who pretends to be a boy in order to woo the  girl, as well as films like Girls Lost , where a magical flower allows three teenage girls to temporarily turn into boys, have popularized narratives that use fantasy to stage complex conversations about gender fluidity and gender identity. Similarly, web series like Carmilla , a modern-day adaptation of one of the earliest works of vampire fiction, and fantasy-driven TV shows like Teen Wolf and Arrow feel indebted to the inclusive world that Whedon created in their commitment to presenting audiences with fully-fleshed out LGBTQ characters. This queer influence remains, perhaps, the most undersung aspect of Buffy's impact on contemporary pop culture.

It is within this lineage that we find Closet Monster. As a teenager (played by American Crime's Connor Jessup), Oscar cannot shake off what his dad told him about that hate crime victim. "Well, he's gay. That's why I keep telling you you need to get rid of this hair, buddy," he says, referring to Oscar's shaggy mop. Oscar carries the indifferent homophobia of that line with him into his teenage years; when he cannot help but gawk at the beautiful young man changing in his work locker room and shuts himself in a bathroom stall to take care of his lustful thoughts, he begins to feel like his body is going to be ripped apart, as if something within him (a metal rod, perhaps) is ready to tear him open. It's in moments like these that the film takes its title quite literally, with the spectre of living in the closet becoming a force that physically weakens and threatens to destroy him.

Even while dealing with rather dark subject matter, Closet Monster has an ear for lighthearted comedy straight out of Sunnydale. Oscar's pet hamster Buffy speaks to him, in the voice of Isabella Rossellini, and it is his conversations with Buffy that reveal the film's indebtedness to Whedon's sensibility. Initially, Dunn had envisioned Buffy as having a robot-like voice like Siri, but casting Rossellini is what really made the character come alive. "She has such a loving and caring presence," Dunn told me. "But also she has a unique brand of humor that comes through with her performance on this film. She gives so much love and hope to this character. She's like this Eastern-European, foreign voice who knows more about him than he does—who's also sort of an Other."

That focus on Otherness, which Oscar slowly begins feeling within himself, is why the WB show about a blond slayer so resonated with Dunn. For the young Newfoundlander, Buffy was one of the first mainstream portrayals of queerness. "I don't just mean in terms of gender or orientation, but just otherness," he said. Buffy Summers was (and remains) a great queer icon precisely because she not only embodied the ultimate outsider—one who must reckon with what sets her apart from her friends, who has to navigate a world where her desire for another threatens to undo her, who has to reckon with coming out as a slayer to her mom—but because she armed audiences with a message of empowerment. Whedon's show made high school an actual hellscape, one that made literal every teenage anxiety and insecurity. As Dunn notes, "It turned real life struggles and manifested them into monsters that could be conquered. And that kind of storytelling was part of the inspiration for this film."

Both witty and dark, Closet Monster is hopeful without being didactic, just like Buffy. Oscar's plight is all about internalized feelings of shame and homophobia; it's hard enough to be a teenager, as he and Buffy can relate, with a world of pressure like that on your shoulders. But ultimately, he finds enough strength to pull off "the hardest thing in this world," as Buffy herself famously put it: "live in it."

Follow Manuel Betancourt on Twitter.

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