Bohemian Normativity: Bohemian Rhapsody and the New Heteronormal
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Like many musical artists who enjoyed their salad days in the heady 1970s, the surviving members of the band Queen (absent famously reclusive bassist John Deacon) have been sanitizing their collective star image for some time now. The band’s biopic Bohemian Rhapsody (Bryan Singer 2018), executive produced by drummer Roger Taylor and guitarist Brian May, unsurprisingly scrubs the band’s image even more shiny. The film thus constructs a decidedly family-friendly, PG-13 version of the band and its extraordinarily talented vocalist, Freddie Mercury. Bohemian Rhapsody has clearly satisfied many viewers – Box Office Mojo lists a worldwide gross of over $902 million on a $52 million budget – while undoubtedly disappointing many longtime Queen fans, this critic included. Although the picture features some fine performances, and is occasionally enjoyable as an undemanding bit of 1970s and 1980s nostalgia, this cannot obscure the fact that a gloriously unconventional artist is ill-served by an aggressively conventional film.
The movie is intriguing on one level, however: its engagement with recent discourse on same-sex relationships in relation to heterosexual relationships, heteronormativity in particular. The latter term refers to “a set of practices that privileges heterosexuality.” From a heteronormative perspective, same-sex relationships may well be perfectly acceptable, but only heterosexual ones are “normal.” This mindset results in part from the “cultural policing of gender performance” that begins in early childhood.
Heteronormativity is a complex concept, subject to constant revision; but for our purposes here, it will suffice to note two opposed schools of thought regarding same-sex marriage. Some queer theorists position heteronormativity in a positive light, a way to “[build] bridges to the dominant group rather than distinguishing boundaries between them.” Conversely, other scholars argue that legalized same-sex marriage “merely normalize[s] queer folks into the current heteronormative institution.” Bohemian Rhapsody weighs in on this debate by positioning same-sex commitment as indeed normalized, while also approving of such normalization as a positive force. This plays out via three signifiers: family, several of Freddie’s romantic partners, and the Live Aid benefit concert of 1985.
The film often positions the band as a family. Brian May tells future manager John Reid, “We’re a family,” and repeats this in a later scene. When Freddie initially speaks to the band’s later manager, Jim Beach, about the upcoming Live Aid concert, he too refers to the band as a family.
Freddie’s relationship with Mary Austin – at first a romantic partner, later a close friend – also supports this. Though Freddie must break off their sexual relationship upon realizing that he is a gay man, Mary nevertheless remains a source of stability throughout the remainder of the movie. Moreover, her presence becomes a reminder of Freddie’s earlier relationship with her, a signifier of “normalcy.”
Two scenes depict what are apparently Freddie’s early gay encounters while on tour with Queen. On both occasions, Freddie first talks to Mary on the telephone, as if clinging to “normalcy” beforehand. Similarly, Freddie’s personal assistant and occasional sexual partner, Paul Prenter, is quite clearly the villain of the piece, and we find that at several key moments in Freddie’s career – e.g., the first radio broadcast of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and an early live performance of the song – Prenter and Mary appear sitting or standing adjacent to each other.
As Prenter signifies Freddie’s ongoing descent into hedonism, Mary constantly reminds us of the possibility of a return to “normalcy” – not necessarily heterosexuality, as neither Mary nor the other members of the band express any hostility toward Freddie’s orientation, but rather family and home. At the nadir of what the movie depicts as Freddie’s isolation from the band and his true friends, Mary comes to his house and tells him, “You don’t belong here, Freddie, come home.” She reveals in the same scene that she is pregnant, thus reinforcing this motif of home and family.
It is thus not homosexuality that the film condemns, but rather the rejection of family values. The movie’s construction of Jim Hutton, Freddie’s partner in the singer’s final years, complements this. In their first scene, the two men open up to each other, but Hutton dismisses the possibility of anything further, discerning that Freddie does not like himself very much.
Later in the movie, as Freddie undergoes his Hollywood-mandated “redemption” phase, Hutton becomes a key figure. Freddie discovers the man’s address after a long and diligent search, and invites him to accompany him to the Live Aid concert. On the way, Freddie takes Hutton home to meet his parents, to become part of the family.
The Live Aid concert that caps the film is the final signifier of “normalcy.” The filmmakers, well aware of the legendary status of Queen’s magnificent performance on that day, play freely on viewers’ desire to see the band fulfill their “destiny” at Wembley Stadium. In fact, Bohemian Rhapsody opens with a montage of preparations for Queen’s set, building anticipation of the rock and roll glory that is to come. The movie climaxes with a long, meticulous reconstruction of the concert itself.
Live Aid indeed gives a great deal of aid to Freddie, snapping him out of his reclusive and decadent funk and bringing him back to the family. This culminates in the film’s concert sequence: Freddie performs onstage with his musical brothers as his parents and sister watch on television. Mary and Jim watch from the wings. The latter stand adjacent to each other, just as we saw Mary and Paul Prenter in earlier scenes; but now, with Freddie’s true love Jim Hutton in effect replacing Prenter, the family is complete.
As is the case with many conventional movie musicals, all the pieces fall into place for the protagonist at the end: He or she finally performs in the right way while loving the right person. From Swing Time to Walk the Line, from Singin’ in the Rain to Purple Rain, this is the trajectory of the movie-musical.
The film's structure gives a qualified blessing to same-sex relationships; i.e., the lovers are blessed as long as they are domesticated, fully contained within family commitments. But the question remains as to whether this counts as progress. It is certainly satisfying to see validation of same-sex love in something as fully mainstream as Bohemian Rhapsody. On the other hand, this is not really groundbreaking.
The popular ABC television show Modern Family, for example, has been doing the same discursive work since 2009. The show’s pilot episode (aired September 22, 2009) includes a storyline in which two gay men adopt a baby girl.
Here too, then, same-sex attraction is acceptable as long as it is contained within the family. On the flip-side of this, Bohemian Rhapsody does not in any way position heterosexual freedom as anti-family. For example, the film depicts Roger Taylor as Queen’s resident Don Juan with no judgment whatsoever. Boys will be boys, after all, and that sort of behavior is apparently no threat to the family, just so long as those boys are straight.
There is one glimmer of hope here. Amid the cringe-inducing tropes and formulaic beats, Bohemian Rhapsody has accomplished something truly remarkable in that it has constructed a protagonist with two “true loves,” not the mandatory one-only. As critic Richard Corliss remarked in reviewing Walk the Line (James Mangold 2005), “[t]he rules of movie romance demand that a hero can’t have two true loves.” But in Bohemian Rhapsody, the hero does: Mary Austin and Jim Hutton, and the film enthusiastically validates both romantic relationships. If nothing else, this makes for a rare and welcome positive depiction of the messy vagaries of romantic love, albeit in a decidedly mainstream context. The commercial success of a movie that forwards a broader and more sophisticated understanding of romantic love and sexuality, while also unregenerately depicting a same-sex relationship in a positive way, is in itself an achievement.
In light of all this, then, perhaps a better title for the film – and also a nod to one of Queen’s best known songs, which Freddie wrote for Mary Austin – would have been “Loves of My Life.”
Mark McCleerey earned his doctoral degree at Southern Illinois University, and is currently working as an adjunct instructor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.