Rainbow Rant: Beyond positive representation

What ‘The Power of the Dog’ and ‘The Mitchells Vs. the Machines’ teach us about queer art

Joy Ellison
Benedict Cumberbatch in Jane Campion's "The Power of the Dog." (Kirsty Griffin/Netflix/TNS)

I’ll admit it: I didn’t expect to like “The Power of the Dog.” I assumed it would be a melancholy rehash of another Oscar darling, “Brokeback Mountain.” In general, I don’t care for stories about the pain the closet causes, especially when they are very obviously not written by queer people. I have no idea why the Academy seems to enjoy watching queer people weaponize their psychological damage against each other, but I don’t share their fetish. 

Moreover, I feel strongly that Benedict Cumberbatch, a straight man, has played quite enough queer characters, thank you very much. I am certain that Hollywood could have found a gay man with cheekbones and an American accent who could have played the role just as well, if not better. 

But I was wrong. “The Power of the Dog” is not my favorite movie, but it is a remarkable one that is worthy of the accolades it is receiving. If you’re in the mood for a psychological drama exploring masculinity, generational trauma and revenge, “The Power of the Dog” will not disappoint.

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

While the film is exquisitely shot and acted, it’s the story that truly elevates it. It is no surprise that that the novel of the same name from which the film is adapted was written by a queer man. Thomas Savage published his book in 1967, at a time when many queer writers were exploring the impact of homophobia on relationships between queer people. “The Power of the Dog” reminds me of a play premiered just one year later: “The Boys in the Band,” by Mart Crowley. In both pieces, almost every character is damaged in all too human ways. Both works leave one on tenterhooks, unable to look away. Neither conforms to what we usually call “positive representation,” but they are good art. 

This year, there’s another Oscar nominee that embraces queer identity in a completely different way. “The Mitchells Vs. The Machines” is up for Best Animated Feature. This film accomplishes something that should be more common: Katie Michell, the protagonist, is casually queer — perhaps more casually than any real queer person has ever been. The story doesn’t center on Katie’s identity or portray any homophobia. “The Mitchells Vs. The Machines” is just a family action movie in which a queer teenager saves the world. 

It's tempting to see “The Mitchells Vs. The Machines” as the gold standard of queer representation. It certainly is the type of story for which we have been waiting. But I am encouraged that both “The Power of the Dog” and “The Mitchells Vs. The Machines” are getting their dues. 

Queer and trans people deserve unchallenging popcorn movies and complex, painful explorations of our experiences that are not “positive.” Both are necessary to our well-being and liberation. 

Queer poet Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” That is all the truer for the breadth of the queer and trans community. There must be room for both our pain and our pleasure. I’m glad that this year the Oscars granted us a sliver of space for both.