Queer Babadook: How a Meme Unearthed a History of Gay Monstrosity

July 19, 2017 in inQueery

“The gay community, witness to so many horrors, is expert at mining spunk and solidarity from what might otherwise seem only tragic.”  – The New Yorker

“The Babadook’s queerness could be both a satirical take on cinema’s ongoing failure of representation and a sardonic response to the media and social media’s “hot take” economy. Further, it could also function as an acerbic joke about the nature of “gay icons,” and how quickly and arbitrarily some gay icons (see: Nick Jonas) are anointed.”  – Vox

“For ‘people who lived with a lot of their love and their passion in the closet, or who felt demonized in the broader culture, it’s very easy to find points of identification with monsters.’ ”   – LA Times

 

The cycle of life and death of an internet meme is now a well known process: some random person makes a joke or launches some kind of theory, other internet users latch onto it, people create easily shareable images which start propagating online, the mainstream press and the general public catch onto it and from then on the meme either continues to grow to become part of pop culture or fades into oblivion. This is what happened when, a few months ago, a Tumblr user half-joked about the Babadook actually being gay (he implied that the Babadook’s haunting of a bereaved household actually constitutes a struggle for self-assertion in a heterosexual-dominated environment). This slightly mischievous fan theory promptly took the internet by storm, steadily making its way from the LGBTQ tweetosphere to the mainstream press (with articles in the New Yorker and the Guardian, no less).

Now it seems like the meme has lost most of its momentum, much like an inside joke that made a group of good friends laugh uncontrollably becomes a tired trope the whole high school knows about. Hence, chances are that one of the most atypical mascots of this 2017 Pride will not be back next year. However, before we turn our back on queer Babadook, why not reflect on what this meme can tell us about the history of gay representation in pop culture? Indeed, and even if we should restrain from over analyzing something that was clearly meant as a joke, the identification of gay and queer people with a horror movie monster should not come as such a surprise. In fact, it is a phenomenon that has been observed before and finds its source in societal perceptions of homosexuality.

Let’s start by considering the concept of “monster” itself. The word “monster” is derived from two latin verbs: “monstrare” (to show) and “monere” (to warn). Thus it appears that the idea of some kind of imperfection that is so obvious it entirely defines the person who is afflicted by it is at the root of the term: monsters exist not only to be seen, they exist because they are seen.  Furthermore, their deformity actually conveys some kind of meaning. Historically, this meaning has most often been of divine proportion. Take for instance this quote by nineteenth century French author François-René de Chateaubriand: 

Monsters are specimens given to us by Fate, which, according to atheists, is the driving force of the universe, and, if indeed God allows for them to exist, it is in order to show us what Creation would look like without Him.

In other words: monsters are a show of God’s will. By sending monsters to the Earth, God reminds humans of his power over them and of the risks taken by those who anger him by questioning Him or ignoring His rule.

So, fundamentally, the monster is a living threat to the natural order of things, an abnormality that highlights the frightful consequences of deviation from the norm. When you think of it this way, it is not difficult to see how this shared sentiment of otherness, this feeling of being a menace to the cultural status quo (a.k.a the heterosexual norm) may have brought queer viewers of horror movies to sympathize with the monstrous villain.  Talking to LA Times’ Jessica Roy, professor Michael Bronski (author of A Queer History of the United States) explained that the fear that gay and queer people feel, the impossibility to live their identity freely and the way they are “demonized in the broader culture” allow them “to find points of identification with monsters.”

And it is indeed true that several famous monsters and villains have acquired something of an iconic gay status. Some examples include Freddy Krueger, not least thanks to A Nightmare on Elm Street 2’s homosexual overtones and its subsequent popularity as an LGBTQ classic, as well as Frankenstein’s monster (“Like Frankenstein’s monster, homosexuals might run rampant across the countryside, claiming “innocent” victims.” From Monsters in the Closet: Homosexualtiy and the Horror Film by Harry M. Benshoff.) and vampires in general (let’s not forget that Carmilla, a novel written prior to Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu showcased a female vampire victimizing beautiful young women).


To get back to our main subject, one Twitter user explained his affinity with the Babadook in a tweet that read:

BABADOOK: I’m a terrifying monster that destroys families that try to suppress me.

ME: Oh my god, SAME. Drinks later?

 


In
Monster in the Closet: Homosexualtiy and the Horror Film, Harry M. Benshoff explores this identification phenomenon but also explains how dominant culture has exploited fears related to homosexuality in order to shape horror narratives.  There are three major ways Benshoff thinks homosexuality -or, more precisely, prejudices revolving around homosexuality- has fueled horror scenarios. One is homosexuality “as a threat to the individual”, that is to say that homosexuality is akin to a dreadful curse that can randomly affect anyone (imagine a mysterious, malevolent power suddenly taking over your body and soul). The second concerns the types of crimes and vices that have traditionally been linked to homosexuality such as “child molestation, rape and violence.” The last one goes back to our earlier point as it suggests a threat to society as a whole mainly through the destruction of the “procreative nuclear family traditional gender roles.”

It is thus interesting to note that horror movies have both perpetuated prejudices about homosexuality and allowed a queer viewership to find an outlet for their feeling of otherness. This speaks for gay and queer audiences’ abiding capacity to circumvent cultural norms to find ways to thrive within an environment that often shuns them for their difference. In the tradition of camp, the gay community has excelled at thwarting cultural imperatives and offset prejudices to establish a collective LGBTQ consciousness through a dissident appreciation of artistic media.

So, although the queer Babadook phenomenon is a somewhat silly reminder of how a joke only has to be picked up by the right audience to take huge proportions, it also shines a light on a connections existing between the portrayal of monstrosity in pop culture and queer people’s still prevailing feeling of otherness. As long as we don’t stop perceiving homosexuality, gender dysphoria and general dissatisfaction with traditional gender roles as some kind of ailment or perversion,  as long as we don’t create a completely inclusive society rooted in the primacy of mutual understanding and consent, gay and queer people will likely continue to identify with the monstrous outcast.

 

 

 

Anne Errelis is a Staff Contributor at InQueery.