AMC’s Interview with the Vampire and the “gay romcom” Bros substitute cheap shock value for real storytelling, reducing the homosexual community to demeaning caricatures in the service of what The New Yorker describes as a “radical vision of life outside of heteronormative strictures.” It’s exploitation plain and simple, call it “gaysploitation,” for the masses. We’ve been down this road before with women in film in the 1970’s and it wasn’t pretty then.
AMC’s new adaptation of Anne Rice’s classic Interview with a Vampire should have been tailor made for me. I’ve read Bram Stoker’s Dracula twice. I consider Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Angel, and True Blood to be among my favorite shows. I’ve seen the original Dracula film with Bela Lugosi, the 70’s version with Frank Langella, and almost every other vampire property from Near Dark to suffering through Dracula: 2000. I like vampires so much, I wrote a novel about these creatures of the night, The Curse of La Casa Nostra, or How I Became a Teenage Mobster Vampire from Nutley, New Jersey (you can read an expert here and here). The vampire as an archetype of our darker selves has always had an immense appeal to me, raising key questions about humanity. What price would you pay for immortality? Is feeding on loved ones too high? What about strangers? Vampires are all too human, and yet not human at all, endlessly malleable, and yet like all great fantasy creatures they offer us the opportunity to explore something of ourselves. The act of biting someone on the neck, or on the inner thigh as some stories have it (the vampire comedy featuring a young Jim Carey, Once Bitten comes to mind) carries with it an inherent undertone of sexuality. Is a male vampire who feeds on men gay? Is a female who feeds on women the same? Does it matter? The connection between sex and violence is also apparent. Are sexual predators real life vampires, preying on their victims? The nature of relationships, sexual or otherwise, over long stretches of time is also unavoidable. What kind of bonds might vampires form? What pleasures might they seek? All these are questions touched upon in varying ways by some of the titles mentioned above and my own humble work.
In principle, Interview with a Vampire should have easily been able to continue this trend and even add something to it. The original novel, which I have not read regrettably, is known as a classic, filled with rich relationships and characterizations spanning more than a century. The idea of a vampire explaining themselves to a human via an interview is an excellent framing device, one potentially rich with irony, subtlety, and multi-layered storytelling. The result should’ve been something at least interesting, entertaining, and clever, especially in the era of peak TV. Instead, about half-way through the first episode I was confronted by sight of two naked men floating in the air, having sex for no apparent reason save the shock value. The voice over provided by the “interview” aspect informs us this was an experience unlike any other, but that being a black homosexual in 1910 New Orleans was impossible, blending the incredibly in your face with the woke peons to our darker days. Meanwhile, I’m left wondering what the purpose of any of this actually is. Am I supposed to be shocked and titillated by the sight of hot anal sex in midair? This is long past the early Game of Thrones and Spartacus era where sex on screen and naked people was actually shocking to some degree. Am I supposed to marvel that they’re floating and believe this is some new, brilliant twist to the shock factor? Am I supposed to cheer that finally men’s naked asses while coupling is achieving equality with equally banal shots of women over the years? Even more confusing, earlier in the episode Louis, the vampire protégé, courted and was infatuated with a black female prostitute. He was visibly jealous and outraged when Lestat, the vampire master, outbid him for her attention. In fact, Lestat has arranged for the prostitute to serve at Louis’ pleasure for the evening, but suddenly what they’ve both been secretly longing for across about 10 minutes of screen time is steamy guy-on-guy action. Forget the cheap shock value, it made not the slightest bit of narrative sense.
Based on the reviews, however, one would swear Interview with the Vampire was a masterstroke of storytelling. The show currently enjoys a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics have praised it as a watershed in queerness. Vanessa Maki of The Mary Sue wrote, “It perfectly captures gothic horror and is so queer.” Sarah Musnicky of Nightmarish Conjurings claimed “Deliciously queer, campy, yet full of heart and complexity.” Lacey Baugher of Paste Magazine gushed, “Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire is incredibly good. Better-than-my-wildest-expectations good. The kind of good that makes me downright giddy.” In their view, it seems the entire queer community has been pining for the beginnings of a devil’s triangle threesome followed by gay, floating sex, and have been desperate for years to see it onscreen in all its glorious nudity. What precisely is queer about this rather than just boorish and overblown? I know I’m a straight man and thus not qualified to comment, but it’s not like I don’t have any experience with the homosexual community either. This experience is not vast by any means and perhaps it’s not representative, but I have known many gay people throughout my life and, so far as I can tell, they have the same hopes, dreams, aspirations, and desires as heterosexuals. They want to live meaningful, full lives like everyone else. They want improved representation, yes, but Interview with a Vampire is not representation. It reduces homosexuals to sex-starved creatures, only worth our consideration if they are engaged in erotic behavior for the masses to marvel at. It’s also impossible to believe the creators are unaware of the shock value of two naked men, on screen having anal sex while floating in the air. It’s exploitation, purely to titillate some woke segment of the masses and perhaps to provoke a conservative segment that has grown extremely tired of this tediousness. Call it “gaysploitation” if you will.
Similarly, last month saw the release of the first homosexual romantic comedy from a mainstream studio, Bros. Given the opportunity to make history in that regard, what did Hollywood do, craft a compelling, funny story with interesting, relatable characters along with the necessary misunderstandings before a happy ending? A When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle with two gay leads, something that might actually be interesting, entertaining, and say something meaningful? Of course, not. Instead, they stuffed it full of every cheap gay joke imaginable, more than has ever been seen in one place at one time. There are foursomes after first dates at “gender reveal orgies,” men shaving their behinds to take ass pics for hook up sites, something called “poppers,” a slang word for an amyl nitrate inhalant, “bottoming,” the person penetrated in anal intercourse, and of course Caitlyn Jenner. I have not seen the film, but based on what I’ve gleaned, the entirety of it is embedded in what Hollywood thinks is the “queer community.” The main character, Bobby, is a podcaster nominated for the “Cis White Gay Man of the Year.” He wants to create an exhibit claiming Abraham Lincoln is gay. He ponders, “Will someone please tell me exactly how gay I’m supposed to be?” He declares that gay love is not like straight love. “No, it’s not. That’s bullshit! . . . Our friendships are different. Our sex lives are different. Our relationships are different.” As The New Yorker put it, Bobby is “too gay for Aaron, but not queer enough for ‘post-gay’ politics. He’s from the most privileged slice of a marginalized community—and the movie seems aware of the fact that its cis-white-gayness is part of the reason it got made by a major studio at all. In other words, ‘Bros’ is reckoning with the same tension over assimilation that has rankled the L.G.B.T.Q.-rights movement for the past half century, through debates over gay marriage or corporate floats at Pride marches. (Fortunately, it’s much, much funnier than most of those debates.) Whether in the bathhouse seventies or the ‘Will & Grace’ nineties, the instinct to blend in and prove that ‘we’re just like anyone else’ has clashed with a radical vision of life outside of heteronormative strictures.”
In other words, some vocal segment of the gay community, a segment I do not believe represents anywhere near a majority, does not think gay people are normal or their stories can be embedded in anything resembling the framework of normal life. For whatever reason, they want the queer community to be defined by their lack of normalcy, which based on what Hollywood produces and praises appears to be a radical sex life, rife for endless exploitation. The gay community that simply wants to live a normal life with hopes, dreams, and aspirations of everyone else, must be sidelined in pursuit of this “radical vision” and this “radical vision” must be exploited for the masses. Of course, if the masses themselves are not all that interested in this for obvious reasons, because like me they know and love gay people for who they are not only for their queerness, or simply because they prefer not to have graphic anal sex thrust in their faces outside of a porn movie, they will promptly be branded as “homophobes.” This is precisely what the star of Bros and co-writer, Billy Eichner, did after the movie opened to a lackluster $4.8 million weekend. He took to Twitter and declared, “Americah, fuck yeah, etc etc.” “That’s just the world we live in, unfortunately. Even with glowing reviews, great Rotten Tomatoes scores, an A CinemaScore etc, straight people, especially in certain parts of the country, just didn’t show up for Bros. And that’s disappointing but it is what it is.” Mr. Eichner continued in a follow up post, “Everyone who ISN’T a homophobic weirdo should go see BROS tonight! You will have a blast! And it *is* special and uniquely powerful to see this particular story on a big screen, esp for queer folks who don’t get this opportunity often. I love this movie so much. GO BROS!!!” What “queer folks” is he referring to here? The “radical vision” contingent, or those that are just like you and me? And who is he calling a weirdo, those who don’t shave their asses and send ass pics, or participate in orgies?
Ultimately, I’m reminded of the 1970’s exploitation film craze. The roots go back to the earliest days of cinema, but for our purposes here an exploitation film is one that attempts to succeed by taking advantage of current trends, niche genres, or lurid content. Wikipedia describes these films as featuring “suggestive or explicit sex, sensational violence, drug use, nudity, gore, destruction, rebellion, mayhem, and the bizarre.” The 1978 proto-horror, cult-classic I Spit on Your Grave is a perfect example of the genre. Ostensibly, the movie is about a woman who takes (mostly) well deserved revenge on the men who gang raped her. In that sense, it’s a story of female empowerment as a woman takes justice into her own hands after an unforgivable wrong, and certainly the audience sees her as the heroine in the story even as her revenge is fierce and brutal. At the same time, it’s impossible not to notice that the beautiful female lead is stark naked throughout most of the film, spending more time in the nude than she does clothed. The rape scene alone takes up about 30 minutes of a barely 90 minute running time. The promotional poster features a woman from behind; her shirt is ripped at the shoulders and her entire back is bare, her underwear is tight against her bottom, accentuating a near perfect feminine shape. The late, great critic Roger Ebert, referred to the film as a “vile bag of garbage.” “The movie is nothing more or less than a series of attacks on the girl and then her attacks on the men, interrupted only by an unbelievably grotesque and inappropriate scene in which she enters a church and asks forgiveness for the murders she plans to commit,” he wrote. Another critic, Luke Y. Thompson was equally appalled, noting “defenders of the film have argued that it is actually pro-woman, due to the fact that the female lead wins in the end, which is sort of like saying that cockfights are pro-rooster because there is always one left standing.” An aside from Mr. Ebert is telling. A woman at the screening he attended noted that she had “feminist solidarity for the movie’s heroine.” He “wanted to ask if she’d been appalled by the movie’s hour of rape scenes.”
Sadly, critics today are far too political, woke, or just plain weak to have a similar sensibility or sense of decency. They are all too ready to praise a perhaps even more insidious exploitation, lauding anything claimed to be “queer” no matter how self-evidently ridiculous as brilliant and showering it with positive reviews. They’d rather accept cheap, boorish shock value in service of radical political ends than state the obvious: Reducing the diverse aspirations of the homosexual community to “queer folk” with radical lifestyles and sexual appetites is demeaning, turning them into little more than animalistic caricatures to titillate the audience. The desire to do this when there are great stories to be told is a demented, a near fetish, and the accompanying need to smear the people who have no interest in watching this exploitation unfold is both despicable and disgusting. This, when acceptance of gay community has grown exponentially over the past two decades, and the great majority of Americans acknowledge the importance of their stories. I grew up in the 1980’s. We were not ready then. We are now. Outside a small minority, Americans are not homophobic or close-minded. We want these stories to be told as a vital part of the tapestry of life in the modern era, but, to borrow a phrase from The Rolling Stones, we want it done with some “courtesy, sympathy, and some taste.” I would add we also want some respect and dignity, an appreciation that the gay experience is different than the straight, but that beneath the surface we are all humans with the same fundamental needs and desires. Some may say I’m wrong in this belief or not qualified to comment on the matter as a straight white man. That may be true, but where does that leave us? Either homosexuals are people like the rest of us, or they are some exotic, fetishized other that will never be a part of normal life. They cannot be both at the same time and it’s not as if there aren’t segments of the straight community that are far from the mainstream. New York City is filled with fetish clubs the average person pretends doesn’t exist. Either way, it’s a testimony to our strange times when homosexual relationships are handled with more dignity, class, respect, and charm in SyFy’s splatter series, Chucky, than prestige dramas and big studio releases. Gaysploitation indeed.