Gay subtext in films from the 60s and 70s, and what that has to do with the new X-Men franchise.

(All the paragraphs in quotes- unless stated otherwise- are taken from the Wikipedia page History of Homosexuality in American Film. There are *several* sources to pull from regarding homosexual subtext, but I’m not writing a senior thesis here, so I used only this source for this post. It’s well written and well researched. I also pulled from my own knowledge of the subject.)

For those wondering why X-Men First Class presented the relationship between Charles and Erik entirely through innuendo, long drawn out gazes, and blatant subtext:

First Class puts Erik and Charles, and the rest of the mutants, in the real world. They’re affected by World War II and the Cold War, and even take an active role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Hank (Beast), in the story, is the designer of the Lockheed supersonic plane, the SR-71 Blackbird. Charles is a genius scientist specializing in genetics. Erik is a victim of the Holocaust. I could go on and on, but you get the point. They’re in the real world, our world, this time.

Not only that, but they’re also firmly in the 60s. Matthew Vaughn has said in several interviews that he wanted to make a James Bond style film but one that was grounded in reality. That means mysoginistic portrayals of women, people of color, and, of course, homophobia. The government considering mutants a threat and not treating them as actual citizens. The fear of mutants being “found out” echoes all of these. (I go into this in previous posts.)

Since Vaughn made this as close as possible to a 60s era film, including how the film was shot, it’s no stretch to understand that the real story of the relationship between Erik and Charles would be hidden in the subtext– because that’s how it was done in the 60s.

Same sex relationships were *entirely* hidden in the subtext. Up until this point, films were outright banned from showing homosexuality on screen.

“The Motion Picture Production Code, also simply known as the Production Code or as the “Hays Code”, was established both to curtail additional government censorship and to prevent the loss of revenue from boycotts led by the Catholic Church and fundamentalist Protestant groups. In terms of homosexuality, the code marked the end of the “pansy” characters and the beginning of depictions that were more reserved and buried within subtext.”

And those stories that were buried in the subtext were never tolerant portrayals. Rather, they furthered the belief that homosexuality and same sex relationships were a form of mental illness and depravity. Late 50s- mid 60s era films like Rebel Without A Cause, Suddenly Last Summer, The Children’s Hour, and Young Torless are perfect examples of this.

To have Erik and Charles fall in love AND live happily ever after would’ve *never* happened in a film from this time period.

“Culturally, American consumers were increasingly less likely to boycott a film at the request of the Catholic Church or fundamentalist Protestant groups. This meant that films with objectionable content did not necessarily need the approval of the Hollywood Production Code or religious groups in order to be successful. As a result, Hollywood gradually became more willing to ignore the code in order to compete with television and the growing access to independent and international cinema.

During the 1950s–60s, gay characters in American films were identified with more overtly sexual innuendos and methods, but having a gay or bisexual sexual orientation was largely treated as a trait of miserable and suicidal misfits who frequently killed themselves or other people.

During this post-war era, mainstream American cinema might advocate tolerance for eccentric, sensitive young men, wrongly, accused of homosexuality, such as in the film adaptation of Tea and Sympathy (1956), but gay characters were frequently eliminated from the final cut of the film or depicted as dangerous misfits who would fall prey to a well-deserved violent end.”

…Suicidal misfits who frequently killed themselves or other people.

“One…two…three.”

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“You can’t, you’ll drown. I know what this means to you, but you’re going to die.”

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…Dangerous misfits who fall prey to a well-deserved violent end.

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“For us, anonymity will be the first line of defense.”

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So, the treatment of Erik and Charles in First Class is realistic. This is exactly how they would’ve ended in an actual 60s era film. They are treated exactly the same way same sex couples would’ve been treated then– hidden entirely in the innuendo and subtext, in the symbolism, and meeting their tragic and untimely ends.

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But…

Things change in the 70s.

Thanks to the cultural movement of the 60s, and the fact that in the 50s the Supreme Court extended First Amendment protection to include films and allowed the growth of independent/foreign films by ending the practice of studio ownership, things began to change. People were liberated. *Everything* changed, everything was challenged, and that reflected, as it always does, in the arts.

“Following the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City (a major turning point in the LGBT-rights movement), Hollywood began to look at gay people as a possible consumer demographic. It was also in the 1970s, that some anti-gay laws and prejudicial attitudes changed through the work of an increasingly visible LGBT-rights movement and overall attitudes in America about human sexuality, sex and gender roles changed as a result of LGBT-rights, women’s liberation and the sexual revolution.”

And this shows in the films from the era. Midnight Cowboy (which was 1969 but was a huge success that carried over into the 70s), The Boys in the Band, Death in Venice, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Cabaret, Ludwig, Rocky Horror Picture Show, La Cage Aux Folles, You Are Not Alone, We Were One Man, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (which Vaughn and McAvoy compared to First Class, by the way) are all beautiful examples of homosexuality and gay subtext in film moving in a more tolerant and visible direction.

However…

“Despite the growing acceptance of homosexuality during the 1970s, some Hollywood films throughout the decade still depicted homosexuality as an insult or a joke. Gay characters were sometimes depicted in mainstream films as dangerous misfits who needed to be cured or killed. Some films would even use anti-gay derogatory comments, often made by the protagonist, in a manner that was not done in Hollywood films with regards to other minority groups.”

This is pretty apparent in Days of Future Past. The film, which is set in 1973, follows the same set-up as First Class. The mutants are once again set in the real world. The Vietnam War has ravaged the U.S., and we see the mutants directly involved as soldiers. Charles’ school was shut down because of the war. Erik is imprisoned for his supposed involvement in the Kennedy Assassination. Mystique is a full force symbol of feminism and mutant power, and is even equated with African-Americans when she shape shifts into a fierce, beautiful African-American woman in order to escape Erik.

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We see the government once again discussing mutants as a possible threat. The homage to the era itself and films styles of the era was all intentional.

“John Myhre, who worked on the first X-Men film, rebuilt the blue underground hallways and Cerebro sets from the first film. He also added Xs to the film sets, including the staircase of the X-Mansion. He said he wanted to embrace the 1970s setting in the same way First Class embraced its 1960s setting.”

(There are also x’s all over FC.)

But, Charles? Well…he’s a train wreck. Beast tells us why: “He lost everything. Erik, Raven, his legs.” In modern words, he lost the love of his life, his sister, and his ability to lead the “normal” life he’s always wanted.

Gay characters were sometimes depicted in mainstream films as dangerous misfits who needed to be cured…

“He takes too much.”

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Some Hollywood films throughout the decade still depicted homosexuality as an insult…(Well, that’s how Xavier takes it, at least. He’s sensitive about it.)

“I’m gonna say to you what you said to us then: fuck off.”

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But, staying true to the more liberal views of the LGBT community and how homosexuality was handled in film during the 70s, the scenes in Days of Future Past between Logan and Charles, and later between Erik and Charles, are a flimsy curtain at best. Gone is the deeper subtext of the 60s, and in its place is the transparency and the “we all know what’s going on but we’re not gonna talk about it openly” style of 70s films.

The subtle innuendo “We were rather hoping you would take us all the way” now becomes the obvious innuendo “It’s been a while since I’ve played” and “I’ll go easy on you.”

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The reserved “We want the same thing” and “Oh, my friend, I’m sorry, but we do not” becomes the more passionate “You abandoned me!” and “You abandoned us all.”

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Erik’s warning to Charles “Then you’ll know to stay out of my head” turns into his teasing “No helmet. I couldn’t disobey you even if I wanted.”

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You get the point. There is little doubt left as to the nature of the relationship between Erik and Charles, but it’s still not *open.* And this time, instead of a tragic ending, we actually get a truce between Erik and Charles. Erik leaves his helmet behind. Charles doesn’t turn him over to the authorities. (I detail the subtext in this scene in the post The Subtext In the Ending of Days of Future Past.)

True to the era.

“If you let them have me, I’m as good as dead.” (Are you going to turn me over to the authorities? If you do, they’ll execute me.)

“I know.” (No. I could…but I won’t.)

“Goodbye, old friend.” (I have to leave you now. I’m sorry.)

“Goodbye, Erik.” (You should be. Maybe I’ll see you again sometime.)

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The subtext is slowly becoming text.

Apocalypse will see the text become open, finally. Charles and Erik are endgame. They are a love story, as confirmed by Zack Stentz:

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And Simon Kinberg:

“If First Class was Eric’s story and Days Of Future Past is Charles’s story, then Apocalypse will be both of their stories. The first movie was about Eric becoming empowered. That’s the origin story of a man’s power. Days Of Future Past is about a guy who is a mess, masterminding the end of this massive movie. So they are both at their peak powers at the start of Apocalypse, so Apocalypse for me is culmination of that three-act love story.” (Empire interview.)

And how you build an amazing love story, how you build sexual tension, is to put your will-be lovers into situations and events that will bring them together, then pull them apart, over and over, until the tension is released and they finally are able to be together. That’s *exactly* what they’re doing with Erik and Charles.

(Note that in the future scenes in DoFP, the conversations with Erik and Charles are straight forward. What we’re NOT shown is why Erik and Charles are together in the future, and how that came to pass. But their words to each other, their gazes at one another, are clearly those of lovers.

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“All those years wasted fighting each other, Charles. To have a precious few of them back.”

The *way* they take each other’s hand is not a “bro” handshake. It’s holding hands as lovers.)

But, to stay true to the rules of love stories and the reality of the times, these two still have issues to work out, and they need to wait for the world to evolve a little more. The past films have already removed several obstacles that stand between them: Erik’s helmet and his rage and pain towards Charles, Moira (yes, she’s in the last film, but she won’t end up with Charles, I guarantee that), Raven, and Charles’ inability to accept his circumstances and his feelings toward “ugly” mutations including his denial of his sexuality. The only thing now that stands in their way is their inability to compromise with one another.

Apocalypse will take care of that. That’s the point of the film. It’s the point of the whole franchise reboot. All those lovers that came back to life and back together in DoFP- except Hank/Raven and Erik/Charles? That’s what Apocalypse is for, and DoFP is *telling* you that.

TBC…

(I’m in the middle of researching for my official predictions for Apocalypse and how it fits into queer subtext in 80s films, the political climate at the time, and the changes the decade brought to the LGBT community that reverberate into the future.)

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