By Vickram Singh
Decent queer representation in mainstream media has been a long time coming. While still having a ways to go, there are wonderful films, shows, music, and other media that exemplify the proud communities that are unabashedly themselves. Representation helps bridge the gap that has grown from years of misinformation and misunderstandings. People need to see each other, whether in person or through any media representation, or else their views and opinions on each other will be built upon hearsay and antiquated, hateful rhetoric. It has to be real, center stage representation of how people are truly like. Before the huge popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race and Queer Eye exemplifying positive LGBTQIA+ representation, there were years of portrayals as the minor comic relief, butt of jokes, presenting queer folk as sexual deviants, or worse yet— no representation at all.
In celebration of the hurdles overcome and many more yet to be crossed, let’s take a look back at one of the very first mainstream successes featuring the closest thing to queerness, the famous 1959 Marilyn Monroe flick Some Like It Hot. When two unassuming musicians (played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) witness the notorious Valentine’s Day Massacre, they turn to crossdressing in order to escape the gangsters. The film, which celebrated its sixtieth anniversary last March, is lauded as a classic which helped weaken the grasp that Hollywood censorship had on the film industry. Guidelines such as the Hays Code, enforced by the heads of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), dictated what was allowed to be shown to the public, leading to stringent censorship that informed the conservative values of mainstream 1950s American culture.
Groundbreaking for its time, Some Like It Hot is considered by many to be one of the first mainstream movies to tease the idea of homosexuality. Before Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon) become Josephine and Daphne, the movie opens with an explosive car chase that has cops and gangsters duking it out on the streets of Chicago in 1929. It is loud, barbaric, and exhilarating to watch. Only after this car chase does the audience get introduced to the two male leads, jazz musicians who are close friends having a comedic row over their mishaps while working in a Mafia-owned speakeasy. While never addressed as homosexual or even anywhere on the spectrum, a clear distinction is drawn between all the masculine and un-masculine behaviors on display in the film. The Mafiosos and cops are portrayed as stoic men that uphold the masculine values whether in crime or justice. By comparison, Joe and Jerry are two lovable goofballs who will do anything to keep each other safe while also getting on each other’s nerves. Though not explicitly stated, Joe and Jerry are very feminine men compared to the characters of the crime story they’ve been thrown in with. The two musicians’ bantering and bickering feels like an argument between a married couple; modern audiences now cannot help but scream for them to be shipped together. The softer qualities of the protagonists, nontraditional leads who do not align themselves with conventional male standards, are amplified by the background characters’ machismo.
“I’m a girl! I’m a girl! I’m a girl!” is what Jerry chants as he tries to get himself ready to become Daphne, his female alter-ego. The real charm of the characters shines through at this moment, with the men fully immersing themselves into all things feminine. They complain about heels, comment on dresses, and unwittingly become best girlfriends with the rest of the band. The gist of the joke when it was first released was that these two obvious men are fooling everyone but the viewer; however, this situation takes new meaning in today’s context. Here are two people who have taken an initial leap into life as women, and are immediately validated for their womanliness and are embraced by their community. Despite the minor annoyance of them bantering about taking passes at women, they commit to their personas to such a degree that Daphne ends up being courted by an aging millionaire (Joe E. Brown) who has fallen for her.
It’s still a movie from the 1950s after all, so the main love story is that of Joe and singer Sugar Kane, played by Marilyn Monroe. After witnessing the massacre, the two musicians dress in drag and join the female band with which Sugar is performing and traveling the country. It’s at this point that my progressive hopes of the movie take a nosedive, because while the film’s writing is just as witty and the acting as expressive as anything today, the plot is certainly of its era. Joe is a saxophone player and a ladies’ man, traits that Sugar just happens to adore. But Joe has to juggle between staying in disguise as Josephine and switching to a different male persona in order to court Sugar Kane. Adorable romantic comedy antics ensue, but everything beautifully unique is gone.
Although Some Like It Hot is one of her most critically acclaimed movies, Marilyn Monroe is playing the thoughtless, ditzy blonde role that she was typecast as for so long. The amazing actress is more of a side attraction here, with her even terribly fake-strumming her ukulele while the band in the background performs with bigger and grander instruments. She becomes the conquest object of both male leads, which completely dismantles the interesting dynamic initially created by their gender-bending. This is where the film’s age shows, providing the main drawbacks to watching it in a contemporary setting. With the love triangle taking up a good portion of the movie, it becomes a regular, sanitary romantic comedy.
It’s when Joe and Jerry fully embrace “Josephine and Daphne” that Some Like It Hot really shines as an early queer film. Sure, they are just straight guys driven to crossdressing out of fear for their lives, but seeing men become inoculated to femininity shows the inherent beauty of an identity not predicated by the gender binary. Yes, there are no mentions of homosexuality. Yes, the characters are still straight and crossdressing is part of the joke. Yes, the film contains no positive representation of LGBTQIA+. All of those gripes are completely valid and significantly date the movie, but it is still probably the first time the American audience was even given anything remotely so overtly queer on mainstream media. For that, those little moments that give a sliver of queerness are all the more important.
This first step, however misfired, was one that needed to be taken to push us forward to a time where queer representation in entertainment can be the norm, not an interesting attraction. With that, this film’s position in queer cinema can be aptly described by the closing scene: As Jerry tells the aging millionaire they can’t get married because he’s a man, the millionaire simply replies, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
Based in New Jersey, Vickram Singh is an editorial intern for Honeysuckle Magazine. He is also an editor and staff writer for The Medium. He currently studies at Rutgers University.