The Impact of New Queer Cinema on the Late 90s and Early 2000s by Ana Gjorgjevski

Going to the movie theater or turning on your TV and being face-to-face with an openly queer character is a recent development. Regardless of anyone’s opinions on queer and LGBTQ+ representation, the question of how we got to this point is intriguing. Some of the answers lie within a movement from the early 90s: New Queer Cinema. With all of the good that comes from inclusion and the shift into mainstream media, there is bound to be an enormous mixture of pros and cons. There is a definite contrast between the independent works of early 90s queer media and late 90s/early 2000s mainstream films. This change is also due to the intended audience for these films. In this essay the question I will focus on is: How were queer lives portrayed in New Queer Cinema films in comparison to mainstream 90s and 2000s films?

For some background, New Queer Cinema was a term coined by B. Ruby Rich, a film critic among many things, for the movement that “brought about the films of the late 80s-mid 90s that worked to bring queer voices to audiences through independent cinema” (Thompson 2020). In her famous article, Rich takes an in-depth look into some of the films featured at these festivals. She focuses on the directions these films are heading, the politics and aesthetics of it all, and the voices within and behind the screen. New Queer Cinema films heavily included queer filmmakers and focused on the truth at this time of existing and being queer. This means that there were films such as The Living End (1992), which features two HIV+ main characters, or The Watermelon Woman (1996), a lesbian romantic comedy whose main character is an African-American woman in search of her identity. Both of these films include a political aspect of their time; The Living End speaks to the AIDS epidemic and the panic involved, and The Watermelon Woman deals with many instances of racism and feelings of belonging within the queer and African-American community. Although these are currently only two examples of films during this time, it makes it easier to understand that this “phenomenon,” as Rich explains it, only came about when there was a sudden influx of these films doing something new and making it known that “queer is hot” (Rich 1992).

There is a common thread among mainstream queer films after this movement, and that is comedy. The targeted audience within these mainstream films seems to change drastically from the previous years of New Queer Cinema, in which films were directed toward the community itself. There is a change within the style of filmmaking, those involved, and most importantly, the way that queer lives are portrayed. Lives and stories started being downplayed in a comedic way to make it easier for straight, older audiences to understand and maybe in time, accept. This takes away a lot of what New Queer Cinema was about. Sure there were pros, but now it seems to be normalized that there is a queer character of some sort in films and it’s not as passe, but the question is at what cost. A great example of this would be two mainstream films that came out in the 90s: In & Out (1997) and Jeffrey (1995). These films feature multiple gay characters and in fact, the main characters in both of these films are gay. Both films play into almost every stereotype that could be thought up about gay men and the community itself as a whole. Tying this back in with the audience, they go hand in hand, it is much easier to understand something when you have already been exposed to the expectations of the community and formed your own opinions. When a film is solidifying these stereotypes and confirms the beliefs, it makes it that much easier to solidify one’s way of thinking, and this can be very harmful. The characters are there for laughs and most of the time their stories get overshadowed by an out-of-the-blue straight pairing that gets thrown into the movie, which makes it somehow more tasteful.

A previous example used was the film Jeffrey, and while this film does play severely into stereotypes, it does so in a way that can be understood more by the queer community. The film being mainstream already gives it the background during this time that there are going to be many parts that aren’t needed but expected due to its intended audience. As I said before, at this time that would be an older audience. In terms of stereotypes, the main one within this film is the gay best friend, which is comical in itself due to this film already being a big gay film with the main character himself being gay. This already gives the film a leg to stand on in terms of being different. In an article written by Christopher James on the gay best friend trope as a whole, he writes about Jeffrey, “However, that’s just who he is. He is one shade at the many colors of the rainbow” (James 2021). This film offers the chance to fit in a bit of normalization of different personalities within the community. While this film fits the mold of being an example for mainstream queer films post New Queer Cinema and its differing portrayal of gay men, it does so in a way that could also be seen in line with the way queer life was portrayed during New Queer Cinema films. The same cannot be said for In & Out.

In & Out is most definitely a product of its time. If ever there were a film that someone would pick to expand upon the intended audience of late 90s queer cinema this would be it. The style of comedy and writing in this film makes it so blatantly obvious that the use of stereotypes is not meant to be in a positive light. This will be easier to understand once I get into the New Queer Cinema examples as well as a comparison. “Comedies don’t always conform to the rules of logic, but it all seemed a tad far-fetched to me that Howard could be the football team’s coach and not known that he was gay until he was 40” (Klemm 2009). This is a quote from a piece written by Michael D. Klemm in 2009 as a review of the film. Within this quote, there is a mention of the football team, and this is where one of those stereotypes comes to play within the film. Once Howard is outed on TV by a former student, and he denies it, the team instantly starts acting weird and uncomfortable even though the audience is previously shown how comfortable they are with him and how much they love him. This one stereotype is reaffirming this fear that there is perversion within the queer community, as if this forty-year-old man is now somehow attracted to these underage students at the flip of a switch. It is a harmful and reinstated stereotype that goes to show that the people who made this film did so intending to grasp the attention of the community. Along with this, there is a romance at play with the former student that outed Howard and his now ex-fiancée. This romance and his parents’ romance take up a big space within the film, and neither is necessary to the plot of the film; it seems as if they were added there for the basic enjoyment of the audience. In the end, there is a wedding and the audience is led to believe that it will be Howard and Peter, but it turns out to be his parents. It seems like the creators of this film use this almost as a punishment for Howard not marrying Emily, and now they tricked the audience and are making him experience this wedding that he almost had and now won’t. “The film is firmly on Howard’s side, but it also still completely affirms wholesome American values” (Klemm 2009). I completely agree with this statement; the mainstream films during this time that included any queer characters were never made to draw attention to a specific crisis or give a happy ending. Even with side queer characters, they always seem to be used as comedic relief and never to be the one that was treated the best and intended to be left alone, not exploited for their queerness.

Circling back to New Queer Cinema, there is a noticeable difference within the simple existence of queer characters within films of the time. This is not to say that there aren’t many similarities and no connection between the mainstream and independent films of the time, but what is most intriguing is the simple way in which the lives of these characters are played out. There were many films during this period that when compared to the previous examples showcase their differences, but one film that I love is The Watermelon Woman. Perhaps the ultimate difference with this film in comparison to the later mainstream movies is that Cheryl Dunye not only created this story but directed and acted in it. This already adds a sort of personal connection to the queer community itself, and a personal identification that later movies mostly cannot identify with. Dunye’s ability to capture the struggles of being a lesbian African-American woman during the 90s and struggling with racism in the past and present-day is something that she can capture because it has been her life and she knows who her audience will be. In an interview done with AfterBuzzTV, Dunye says, “Then you know, definitely within the context of the film, about the development of relationships within the queer community, so I’m amazed that it has a vitality. I think because it hasn’t been done again, I mean, I think it hasn’t caught on, that once you sort of discover identity and storytelling, you stick with it and develop it. And I think that’s what I do as Cheryl Dunye, the filmmaker, is, you know, I’m trying to make cinema, not just one movie, another movie, but a whole body of work, and so it feels right that this generated a visibility for me, and it just keeps me going” (Dunye 2016). It is important to look at the lasting impact of these films as well; with mainstream films, it is usually the case that most filmmakers that aren’t a part of the community that they are creating movies about don’t have much of a personal connection. That connection is something that Dunye has, and, as she explains in this interview, it is what made The Watermelon Woman so unique and memorable within the community. It is a piece of art and a piece of herself. Within the film itself, there was a noticeable difference simply from the beginning; the characters we are introduced to are mainly queer. This normalizes queerness and the audience is set up to follow the journey of this lesbian woman in terms of her life which just happens to include her queerness. It is an interesting journey because there is such a big overlap of confusion with Cheryl’s identity, both within her sexuality and being a part of the African-American community. This comes to a head when Diana, a white queer woman, is introduced and their relationship begins. Not only does this relationship offer a raw intimate sex scene between the two women, which is something that won’t be seen in mainstream media for a while, but it puts into perspective just how much Cheryl is struggling with her identity. The whole issue of identity is something that is portrayed differently between this film and In & Out. While in In & Out, there are instances of misunderstanding and people just simply not believing Howard, in The Watermelon Woman it is not so simple. Cheryl is put in many dismissive instances due to not only her sexuality but her race as well. In an article I found while researching this specific part of the film, Neyat Yohannes explains it best: “By leaning into the sensibilities of New Queer Cinema and taking on genre-bending pseudo-documentary approach, the film introduces a black lesbian gaze and dredges up Hollywood’s racist origins” (Yohannes 2019). There are such huge differences simply between the three films that are mentioned that it is easy to pick up and put the pieces together of what the real issues were as times of queer “representation” moved on to mainstream media.

When putting these films side by side, it is incredibly easy to nitpick their differences. In most cases it would be, but, as I mentioned previously, a lot of interpretation boils down to the intended audience. In films made during New Queer Cinema, the audience was clear, films were going to be shown at festivals with mostly queer audiences and those who appreciate queerness while mainstream media knew that their audience majority would be straight and most likely middle-aged. This plays a huge part in the portrayal of these characters. All of this is not to say that there aren’t similarities even though they are trying to attract different audiences. Many films from New Queer cinema, including The Watermelon Woman, and mainstream media exploit and expand upon stereotypes. The difference is that in New Queer Cinema, they are showing these stereotypes in a way that showcases their identity and makes it known that while stereotypes exist, they are not the only “personality trait” of the entire community. Jeffrey does this as well, in the sense that they are trying to show the different personalities within the community but also stick with harmful stereotypes that follow the main character around and lead to an unhappy ending. There is no denying that the use of stereotypes in mainstream media is one of its biggest selling points, those tuning in want to be shown things they don’t understand in ways they can make understandable and that confirm their beliefs no matter the harm. This is a common and agreeable statement as even director Luca Guadagnino states, “In order for queer movies to be marketable, they must be presented in a way that does not alienate straight audiences” (qtd. in Schlichte 2017). The constant need in mainstream media to make things palatable for those outside their communities strays incredibly far from where New Queer Cinema began and left off (Schlichte 2017).

To sum up the last couple of pages, throughout the years following Ruby Rich’s self-coined “New Queer Cinema,” there was a boost in mainstream queer films. These films portrayed the queer community and a light very different from what the queer community was used to seeing with the media brought out by the movement. Less involvement from the community itself in the need to control the narrative in a way to make it more appealing led to harmful stereotypes taking charge and fewer queer love stories or real stories being shared. When the switch to mainstream media happened, there was a significant loss within the queer community in the sense that now filmmakers who were not part of the community could make films for people like themselves and only include queer characters where they thought they were palatable and not taking up too much room on the screen. There was a definite lack of actually trying to understand queer characters and an even bigger lack of letting them be themselves.



“Interview with Cheryl Dunye: Queer Cinema & Why She’s Not Interested in Commercial Filmmaking,” YouTube, 2016.

James, Christopher. “Gay Best Friend: Sterling (Patrick Stewart) in ‘Jeffrey’ (1995).” The Film Experience, 5 May 2021.

Klemm, Michael. “Little Pink Houses.” Cinema Queer, May 2009.

Rich, B. Ruby. “New Queer Cinema.” British Film Institute, September 1992.

Schlichte, Garrett. “‘Call Me by Your Name’ Is a Gay Love Story. The Film Should Have Included Gay Sex.” The Washington Post, 27 October 2021.

Thompson, Alex. “New Queer Cinema by B. Ruby Rich.” Alex Thompson’s Exams Site, 6 June 2020.

Yohannes, Neyat. “Revisiting The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl Dunye’s Refreshingly Disruptive Directorial Debut.” The Spool, 6 August 2020.