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Bohemian Rhapsody loves Freddie Mercury’s voice. It fears his queerness.

The film inadvertently illustrates the paradox of queerness in the era of the AIDS crisis.

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. 20th Century Fox
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The most telling moment in Bohemian Rhapsody, the Golden Globe-winning Queen biopic that occasionally stops singing to zoom in on its ostensible subject, Freddie Mercury, is almost certainly an accidental one.

It arrives at the end of the film — July 1985, in the film’s historically inaccurate timeline — when Mercury (Rami Malek) decides to tell the other members of Queen the truth about himself shortly before the biggest concert of their lives.

“I’ve got it,” he says. And they have no idea what “it” is.

Of course they don’t. Though Bohemian Rhapsody spends most of its runtime paying lip service to the idea that Queen is a sort of dysfunctional misfit family, in that moment, the distance between Mercury and his bandmates is undisguisable. “It” has been looming over Mercury’s life for years. “It” has been stalking his community, stealing away people he loves, constantly reminding him of his mortality. Freddie Mercury’s reality, in 1985, was one in which “People just vanished, and everyone was in some kind of panic.” For Mercury, there was only one “it”: AIDS.

But the other members of Queen had no idea what he was talking about. How could they? They were all straight.

This moment is one of several in Bohemian Rhapsody that almost gives you a glimpse of the profound paradoxes of gay life before and during the AIDS crisis, when queer culture, subversive and life-embracing, built itself triumphantly at the edges of a society that refused to legitimize queer identity even as it gleefully exploited queer entertainers like Freddie Mercury. The film almost portrays Mercury as a fully aware part of that exchange; it almost makes a connection between the forced isolation of Mercury’s life and the marginalization of queer people at large.

But ultimately, it fails to do either. The film is no more conscious of Freddie Mercury’s reality than his Queen bandmates are in that scene, because it isn’t trying to be a biopic about Mercury’s life. (In reality, Mercury received his diagnosis in 1987.) What it really wants to be is a Queen concert, and what it really wants Freddie Mercury to be is a rock god instead of a real, queer human man.

The result is far more hurtful than your average unconsciously homophobic film. Bohemian Rhapsody is a movie that consciously tries to position a gay man at its center while strategically disengaging with the “gay” part as much as it can, flitting briefly over his emotional and sexual experiences and fixating on his platonic relationship with an ex-girlfriend instead. It strips Mercury of a part of his identity that was as vital to his success as his four-octave vocal range. After all, it was his choice to live at the crossroads of mainstream culture and queer culture, to subvert the cultural exploitation of queerness by transcending it and embracing his personal and sexual power, that made him who he was.

It takes a hell of a lot of work to make a queerphobic film about one of the greatest queer icons in history, but even though Bohemian Rhapsody was sort-of directed by Bryan Singer, who himself is openly gay, the movie somehow retreads queerphobic stereotypes instead of giving us a fascinating, complex look at a real gay man. And it’s worth discussing why, both because Hollywood should really be better at this by now and because so many of the problems the film has in depicting Mercury’s story are endemic not just to the film itself, but to the way society continues to view queer identity.

Bohemian Rhapsody’s toxic depiction of queerness is subtle but pervasive — and completely avoidable

If film critics have sounded especially exasperated with this film, it’s because any screenwriter with even a passing interest in queer identity and an understanding of the history of queer cinematic erasure should have been able to avoid perpetuating that erasure. Yet Bohemian Rhapsody screenwriter Anthony McCarten, a two-time Oscar nominee, seems to have given zero thought to these issues.

The movie reduces queer identity to a series of promiscuous sexual encounters, which it consistently frames as sordid, shameful, illicit, and corrupting. It also builds a whole annoying subplot around the “predatory gay villain” trope, which is a tired, obnoxious cliché that in Bohemian Rhapsody is even more problematic than usual because it’s used to imply that Mercury, a real-life gay man, was somehow corrupted into becoming queer by an opportunistic music industry parasite who doesn’t really care about Freddie at all.

The movie is so unwilling to treat Mercury’s queerness with any degree of respect that it doesn’t even bother to get the timeline of his coming-out right, let alone explore that process with sensitivity or interest. At one point, Mercury is shown gazing contemplatively at a seedy bathhouse, but viewers don’t see whether he goes in, with the clear implication that he’s questioning himself and what he wants. Then in the very next scene, he confidently describes himself as a “hysterical queen” to his other bandmates. And then, a few scenes later, he haltingly confesses to his wife that he might be bisexual; she is the one who has to inform him, in response, that he is gay.

Bohemian Rhapsody also refuses to depict gay men having meaningful and deeply emotional relationships. The emotional development of Mercury’s romance with Jim Hutton, his partner of seven years, is relegated to a single conversation. Their entire loving, monogamous relationship is reduced onscreen to a single kiss and a brief hand squeeze.

This minimization makes it an even worse offense that the film does take the time to depict Mercury having a series of promiscuous sexual encounters, which it paints as sordid and shameful. Because Bohemian Rhapsody only equates queerness with sex, and because it frames his queer lifestyle as bad, Mercury’s subsequent AIDS diagnosis is inherently set up and portrayed as a punishment for his queerness.

Not only is all of this negligent, it’s actively harmful. There are numerous real-world examples of how equating queerness to sexually explicit content continues to hurt and marginalize people — such as the many YouTube vloggers and creators who are constantly fighting against algorithms that incorrectly flag their queer content as “explicit” and “not safe for work” solely because it concerns queer people. And the depiction of AIDS as a punishment for gayness, which has found voice in everything from doomsday preachers to Stephen King novels, has historically contributed to the deaths of millions by creating a huge stigma around the disease, making it difficult for researchers to gain public support in the fight for the cure and causing considerable obstacles for many who are diagnosed to receive equitable treatment.

It boggles the mind that this needs to be said at all, but queer people have deep complexity that has nothing to do with sex or dying. Freddie Mercury, a man who wrote a song to his cat and once snuck Princess Diana into a club after disguising her in drag, had so much more personality than Bohemian Rhapsody allows him to have.

Bohemian Rhapsody spends more time on Mercury’s wife than any other character, including Mercury himself

To be fair to the film, Bohemian Rhapsody hardly wastes time on characterization at all; there’s almost no onscreen interiority in the film, despite star Rami Malek’s best efforts.

Most of what’s there, however, is devoted to showing us how much Mercury loves his common-law wife, Mary Austin, who’s portrayed as personifying virginal beauty and traditional wholesomeness — everything Mercury could have, the film implies, if only he weren’t tragically queer.

There’s a troubling pattern of movies like this one — for example, the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, or the Cole Porter biopic De-Lovely — that diminish the real queer experiences of their subjects in favor of elevating their platonic friendships with the patient, chaste women in their lives.

It’s true that Austin and Mercury had a meaningful and long-lasting friendship in real life. But Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t interested in exploring the positive aspects of their friendship, because it would apparently rather portray Mercury as lost, confused, and fixated on her, just as a straight man might be.

After they break up — because Mercury is gay — Mercury pines for Austin. He longs for her to keep wearing her wedding ring. He’s jealous of her boyfriend. At one point, he begs her to come live with him again, only to be informed that she’s pregnant. This moment is portrayed as a catastrophe that will keep them apart forever — as if it’s unfortunate timing that’s at issue, rather than Mercury’s queer identity.

The only overt sexual moments in the film — which, as it’s rated PG-13, are nearly nonexistent — are between the two of them. In one scene, she’s framed in a diaphanous gown against soft pastel backlighting, while he gazes at her lovingly and then tells her how beautiful she is. It’s a completely straightforward iteration of the (straight) male gaze.

The camera never repeats this framing when Mercury is looking at the men around him, so we’re not allowed to see the queer men around Freddie Mercury as he would have seen them — as beautiful, as lovable, as human. (For the record, there are zero queer women onscreen.) It’s as if Bohemian Rhapsody is afraid of taking us too deeply into Mercury’s mind for any length of time in order to show him actually feeling like a queer man, getting to know other queer people, experiencing the complex personalities of other queer people.

It’s absurd and insulting, and it serves to depict Mercury himself — a legendary creative genius — as infantile and petulant. In the film, he only seems to care about two topics, Mary Austin and his music, because those are the only parts of his life the film seems to feel safe approaching.

The film paints Freddie Mercury as somehow choosing his own isolation

Because heteronormative society in the ’70s (to say nothing of society today) denied queer people access to the benefits of monogamy, of nuclear families and all the myths about true love and lifetime happiness we allow straight kids to have, queer men of the era were often forced to seek found families in the bathhouses, through high-risk behaviors with low emotional stakes. Bohemian Rhapsody has to deal with these very real aspects of Mercury’s life, but it doesn’t know how to, because that way lies homosexuality.

So instead, it depicts Mercury as consciously sacrificing himself for the greater cause of entertainment. Repeatedly, he implies that the only thing that matters to him is music, because the film wants very badly to be about the music rather than the musician; it wants very badly to be about Freddie Mercury’s voice (which was dubbed over Rami Malek’s lip-syncing) instead of Freddie Mercury’s whole identity.

The effect of this is that the film strongly implies that Mercury chose to be gay, to surround himself with other queer people, at the risk of losing his “true” friends, his “family.” We’re never actually shown what the other members of Queen really thought about Mercury, or if they even liked him at all, because the film doesn’t care about those relationships either. It nonetheless depicts Queen, as well as Mary Austin, as becoming increasingly exasperated with Mercury’s extravagant lifestyle, his parties, his huge circle of friends — in other words, with all the things that signal his embrace of queer culture and his increased acceptance of his queer identity.

In the film, though, these things aren’t confidence boosters — they’re morally sketchy behaviors that detract him from his true calling. The film wants viewers to be okay with that because it wants Mercury himself to have ultimately been okay with being seen primarily as a rock god and not as a human being. It presents Mercury’s famous performance at Live Aid as his ultimate triumph, the moment when he — or rather, his voice — transcended earth and, as his character puts it, “touched the sky.”

But in that telltale scene I mentioned above, that one word — “it” — betrays the lie behind this entire idea. Mercury could no more escape his identity than could any other queer man of his era. And because Bohemian Rhapsody hasn’t done due diligence in portraying queer identity as something more than shamefaced fashion choices and surreptitious visits to clubs, “it” becomes the only thing the audience is allowed to take away from Mercury’s queerness. Not that it made him beautiful, made him erotic, made him a rock star, but that it left him dead.

It’s rare that straight culture has to contend with the deep ironies of queer life and queer identity that have been forced onto queer people by the very society that ostracizes them. Straight culture loves a fun-loving queen but rarely allows her to stick around after the party (unless it’s to go shopping). It demonizes queer culture as being promiscuous but perpetually fights against allowing it the legitimacy afforded to monogamous relationships. It perpetually relegates queer identity to the celluloid closet and then is baffled when queer people wind up identifying with horror film villains and writing fanfiction that recasts straight characters as gay.

All these paradoxes reside at the margins of Bohemian Rhapsody, because Freddie Mercury was a real person who lived with and was shaped by these ironies every day. We glimpse his awareness of them through Malek’s wonderful performance, but like so much of queer cinema, they ultimately remain subtextual. In the hands of a more conscientious screenwriter, Bohemian Rhapsody could have afforded an opportunity for all of Queen’s fans to better understand their hero by showing us how his choice to embrace his queerness shaped and informed his art.

Instead, the film winds up being the last thing Mercury himself would have wanted it to be, given his own embrace of the queer community: an erasure of that community, and of Mercury’s own uniqueness, as well as a flimsy, demonizing stereotype of queer men. All fans of Freddie Mercury, but especially the queer ones, deserved better.

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