Friday, July 2, 2021

Finding My "Queeroes" In Planet Terror & Cruising

"Representation matters" is a mantra that one has probably heard a lot over the last five years. A reflection of the desire for those considered "The Other" by mainstream society/culture to see themselves reflected in another medium. It's something I've had to examine recently, while dealing with a former friend who would repeatedly rant to me about the lack of queer superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe's repertoire of characters. Of course, I was always quick to reassure him that progress he craved would come soon, despite my wariness of my own words. This happened often enough that it got me to thinking: Who would my queer superheroes that I could connect with be? It was a question that left me pondering, until I dipped into a well that I tap into frequently: The horror film genre. While there are a lot of characters I identify with in this genre, such as Scream's Gale Weathers and Promising Young Woman's Cassie Thomas (See my post discussing that right here), there were two queer characters that I eventually realized fit the bill of being my "queeroes": Dakota Block from Planet Terror, and Steve Burns from Cruising.

In Robert Rodriguez's zombified half of the 2007 double feature Grindhouse, Planet Terror, we are introduced to Dakota Block as she awakens for another night of hospital work with her husband Bill; the married duo are employed at their local hospital's as anesthesiologist and doctor respectively. We quickly learn that Dakota is plotting to escape from her husband with their son, Tony, and a secret lover only shown on Dakota's phone as "T. Visan", that she conceal carries a gun-like contraption that requires the use of her anesthesia-filled needles and that, if her to do list is anything to go by, she's ready to dispose of her husband if push comes to shove. Unfortunately for her, a viral outbreak resulting in a zombie apocalypse puts a damper on her plans, and that's putting it lightly.

Her lover, revealed to be a woman named Tammy, is murdered by a gang of zombies and her brainless body is taken in by the hospital. Which, in the process, reveals Dakota's escape plan (and infidelity) to Bill. Her husband responds by torturing his wife via pricking her hands with her own needles, which renders them numb and useless. After Dakota escapes the hospital, breaking her wrist and chipping her teeth in the process, she returns home to pick up Tony from his babysitters. The twin babysitters are none too pleased at how long Dakota kept them waiting, to which she dresses them down and literally kicks them out of her home. Dakota eventually reaches her breaking point when, after arriving at the home of her estranged father Earl, Tony shoots himself in the head with a gun given to him by his mother for self-defense.

However, despite her setbacks and mistakes, Dakota manages to overcome all that's been thrown at her: She joins the main group fighting against the zombie outbreak and becomes a thoughtful confidante to the film's other female protagonist, Cherry Darling. She gets to display her resourcefulness and courage by helping fight the zombies, getting to use her needle pistol (or "Useless Talent #37", as she dubs it) to fight off a zombie attempting to rape Cherry and helping dispatch of her infected husband. Said dispatching of her zombie husband also happens to be done with Earl, which allows the father/daughter duo to mend ways. In the end, Dakota leaves Texas with Cherry and the other remaining survivors and ends up becoming Cherry's righthand woman once settled in their new base in Tulum. Dakota ends the film triumphant, letting go of the grief of her fatal mistake with her son and cementing her status as the queer hero fighting alongside Cherry's straight hero.

Looking back at my original experience with Planet Terror at the age of fourteen, it's easy to see why I would gravitate towards Dakota. I wasn't trapped in an abusive marriage, nor was I thrust into a zombie apocalypse, but I was going through my own personal hell when it was originally released. At the time I was dealing with, among other things, a horrifically dysfunctional family, invasive teachers and my first serious bout of what would in adulthood be diagnosed as Major Depressive Disorder. I felt like a hollowed husk drowning in quicksand more than a person, and spent months contemplating ending everything. I had been excited for Grindhouse and Planet Terror since before my life had taken a downward spiral and it was the one spark of positive anticipation remaining in my life at that point. Not only did it exceed my expectations, but it gave me Dakota. The wonderful queer hero who, even to my younger self who didn't know who he was yet in many ways, gave me the hope that I desperately needed at the time. When Dakota is dispensing advice to Cherry, she tells her, "When you're stuck in that spiral, you reach up […] Just reach up." I reached up out of the darkness and now, another fourteen years later, I survived to tell this tale. Dakota helped shape my past, just as another queer hero would come to shape my present.

In William Friedkin's 1980 crime slasher Cruising, we meet protagonist Steve Burns similarly to how we met Dakota: Preparing for his next bout of work. Unlike Dakota, Steve is a police officer whose latest task is to perform an undercover operation to locate and arrest a murderer of gay men. Despite being told that he's being chosen for this assignment due to his being the perfect bait for the killer (as he matches the physical appearance of the murder victims), Steve chooses to accept the task, telling himself to do it for a promotion to a detective position. After telling his girlfriend Nancy the bare minimum about his operation, he moves into a new apartment and begins his undercover life as John Forbes, art school graduate who's on the prowl for work. His first encounter is with plucky neighbor Ted, whom bonds with him quickly enough to where he asks Steve to go for coffee with him. An offer that Steve takes up, which kicks off his journey towards self-acceptance.

While Cruising obviously focuses on the police investigation, it also devotes time to Steve's character arc via his adjustment to entering queer spaces for the first time. His artlessness to the queer world is conveyed repeatedly, beginning with his coffee date with Ted. Specifically, when Ted brings up the killer being in the news and Steve insists that the police will catch the killer. Obviously, this is meant to be a reference to Steve's undercover status, but it also gives Ted an opportunity to call out Steve's ignorance to police brutality towards the queer community. Something that we saw in the film's opening sequence, and will see again later on. This ignorance of the queer community bleeds into Steve's first ventures into the actual world of gay leather bars, including his introduction to the hanky code. Despite being told straightforwardly as to what each color and placement of the four hankies available symbolizes, he still buys a yellow hanky (which you are to wear to show you're into water sports) and wears it blindly. Thus, when Steve is hit on by a water sports enthusiast, he denies him and receives a chastising for leading the man on.

Rather than being naïve and uncomfortable with this community due to being a straight outsider, it becomes clear eventually that Steve's estrangement comes from a lack of realization of his own queerness. As his mission goes on, he grows more comfortable with the fluidity that comes with his dual identity: He goes from having sex and breakfast with Nancy as Steve to cozying up to Ted, offering him relationship advice and openly flirting with him despite Ted's being off the market. The identity hopping continues until, one night, when Steve is asked by a guy at a bar to dance. Steve accepts the request and goes with his suitor to dance amongst a crowd. It may seem insignificant, even unintentionally humorous due to Steve's actor, Al Pacino's, lack of dancing ability. However, it is an important moment in Steve's arc as it is the first time he is shown visibly enjoying himself in a queer space. He may be dancing horribly, but he is living his best life in these moments dancing and it is equally adorable and admirable! Steve even leaves with another guy, albeit later we see that nothing happened as Steve professes to one of the other cops working the case that "he choked." But, this is still baby queer boy Steve taking his baby steps towards accepting himself!

Afterwards, the audience sees Steve leaning into more of his queerness: When he successfully serves as a honeypot for the police's primary suspect, Skip, he takes his seduction much further than necessary. To the point where, when the police come in and bust Skip, Steve is shown naked, bound and hog tied. While the audience hears Steve over his earpiece trying to probe Skip by discussing bondage, there was no apparent need for him to take things this far, allowing for the inference that maybe Steve was willing to go all the way with Skip. This leads to Steve and Skip's experience with police brutality, showing Steve that Ted wasn't lying when he said that the cops don't care about the queer community. It opens Steve's eyes to queer issues, which he takes up with his boss, whom dismisses Steve's concerns with the brutality and with the unease he feels with his awakening all but entirely. It all comes to a head when Steve, after a hard day of sleuthing, goes to knock on Ted's door, but finds Ted's boyfriend Gregory. After the two have a tense talk, Gregory directly confronts Steve and demands he leave his lover alone. This infuriates Steve to the point of him beating down the door and attacking Gregory, whom accuses Ted of being in love with Ted.

And interestingly enough? Steve never denies that claim.

This is the turning point for Steve as he can't deny that he's fallen for his male neighbor and, thus, can no longer claim to be an outsider to queerness. It is what allows him to pin down one of the killers, via a seduction that goes far despite Steve's uncomfortableness with the idea of public sex. And it is why when the ending rolls around  that, while many have speculated that the final scene is meant to imply that Steve may have been the killer all along (or one of multiple murderers), I read things differently: After getting his detective promotion, Steve returns home to Nancy and reunites with her. While he finishes shaving, Nancy finds his leather costume and puts it on, while Steve looks at his reflection, and then at the camera. The screen then fades into a shot of the Hudson Bay, where the first victim of the murders was discovered...and then fades to black, with the music switching from Nancy's classical music to the punk music from the gay bars.

My interpretation of this ending is not that it is meant to imply that Steve is a murderer of any kind, but rather that it is him about to come out to Nancy. It's implied earlier in the film that Nancy knows the truth about her boyfriend, specifically in a scene where she pleads to Steve that she will "accept him for everything". Steve refuses to tell her anything, until after he has completed his queer hero's journey in this final scene. He knows what he has to do and has his anxieties about it, picturing himself ending up like the murder victims (hence, the cut to the Hudson Bay). Yet, he chooses to go forward with it and continue on a positive path, symbolized by the shift in music. The final implication being that he comes out to Nancy in preferring more than one gender, something that's also alluded to with Nancy's donning of the John Forbes costume. It's an attempt on her part to show she is accepting and supportive of him liking females and males alike by expressing androgyny. Hell, if this film was made in a different, more progressive time, he might've even ended up with Nancy and Ted. But, alas, Steve's coming out as queer brings Cruising to a surprisingly positive final note.

If I gravitated towards Dakota Block for strength, I was drawn to Steve Burns because of the general theme of his character arc: Self-acceptance. Like Steve, I didn't fully grasp that I was queer until my twenties. My personal journey took its time, as I didn't begin accepting myself and officially start coming out until two years after that realization. As Steve faced backlash from some for his journey, I've gotten it as well. I have experienced gatekeeping from other members of the queer community repeatedly, including by the "friend" mentioned in the intro, over my journey. Whether it's that I didn't have my realization until my twenties or because, like Steve, I lack experience in areas of the queer community that others are more familiar with, it can be emotionally draining to deal with. Steve is a fictional catharsis to me, a validation that there really is no one way to be queer. You can have your awakening as a young adult, experience things like coffee dates, dancing with boys and buying your first leather ensemble at a later time and not have your validity be rendered inert. If Dakota taught me to "reach up", Steve taught me that if "something's happening to me", I can handle it and accept that I am the queer hero of my own story.

Now, when I look back at those repetitive conversations with that former friend about the lack of queer superheroes, I can feel released knowing that I do have two of my own. Even if they don't have superpowers and spandex costumes, Dakota Block and Steve Burns have done for me what traditional superheroes haven't. They granted me the strength to keep reaching up, the self-embracing to handle whatever may happen to me, and they gave me the privilege to see characters queer like me be the heroes of their stories and live to tell the tale. Dakota and Steve were the representation I didn't know I needed, but they're the representation that absolutely matters to me.

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