Out of the Celluloid Closet

Who is They/Them For, Exactly?

In An Introduction to the American Horror Film, critic Robin Wood explores the reality that comes with creating a cinematic language around fear, diving into how a departure from perceived normalcy becomes what the audience fears the most.

“Otherness represents that which bourgeois ideology cannot recognize but must deal with in one of two ways,” he writes. “Either by rejecting and if possible annihilating it, or by rendering it safe and assimilating it, converting it as far as possible into a replica of itself.” 

Otherness – be it “other people, woman, the proletariat, other cultures, ethnic groups within the culture, alternative ideologies or political systems, deviations from ideological sexual norms, or children” – is depicted as monstrous in horror films, with many of the best works not only exploring why exactly that otherness is frightening, but what it means when it infringes on what we presume is normal. 

Queerness, of course, is something of the Ultimate Other in the face of the status quo. Much of contemporary horror cinema has embraced the idea that queer individuals are more than just weird, but outright evil, framing them as murderous sexual deviants and psychopaths. Some of these works, however horrendous in terms of what the culture perceives “positive representation” to be, are masterpieces regardless of the way queer individuals are framed (Alfred Hitchcock’s works like Rope and Psycho, for instance). 

Much of contemporary horror cinema has embraced the idea that queer individuals are more than just weird, but outright evil, framing them as murderous sexual deviants and psychopaths.

Works of queer horror in recent decades have lazily attempted to reverse this dynamic, often just sticking queer figures as leads or supporting figures without interrogating why they’re there. It’s the easiest brand of “representation”, simply regurgitating the same plot beats as any other work in the genre with some twink saying “yaaaaas queen” before getting gutted by a serial killer.

The best works of queer horror, by contrast, subvert this by distinctly engaging with how and why cisgender heterosexual individuals (or “normal” people) have developed and internalized this very fear, some even succeeding at offering up any meaningful criticism, with works like William Friedkin’s unfairly maligned Cruising and Yann Gonzalez’s Knife+Heart serving as stellar examples that explore how gay panic invades spaces presumed to be safe. 

Enter John Logan’s They/Them, a film so desperate to be progressive that it ends up circling back to being regressive. Every bit of They/Them seems designed by an individual who believes they are subverting the homophobic and transphobic tropes that have populated both the big screen and reality as we know it, but writer-director John Logan (best known for writing Gladiator and The Aviator) has created one of the stalest portraits of queerness possible. 

They/Them is a film so desperate to be progressive that it ends up circling back to being regressive.

The film places fourteen campers (seven of which are non-speaking extras) in the hands of a conversion therapy camp that positions itself as simply trying to help everyone become the best version of themselves. Its status as a slasher (they slash them, get it?) is revealed early on, though it takes the film an eternity to make clear that the victims will be the largely bigoted camp counselors themselves, not the queer campers. Some might consider this point a spoiler, but it’s hard not to spoil a film that takes practically a full hour before any of the gears start moving, with barely any kills (all of which happen in an off-screen PG-13 fashion) and most of its runtime dedicated to establishing the world’s most boring conversion therapy camp.

These camps are not new ground for queer cinema to tread, with works like Jamie Babbit’s But I’m A Cheerleader and Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post both serving as excellent examples. Babbit’s film was a subversive delight for its time, actively pointing out how absurd gender stereotypes are (and were) while delivering a charming queer romance at the same time. It was, simply put, a camp film about camp. Akhavan’s film took a more nuanced and dramatic route, serving as both a coming-of-age story for the kinds of queer kids who are saddled with being sent to conversion therapy and a heartbreaking portrait of the “formerly queer” counselors who have sacrificed their lives, identities, and queerness for the sake of fitting into a box. 

Most of the film’s runtime is dedicated to establishing the world’s most boring conversion therapy camp.

They/Them, in turn, can’t quite do either of these things, primarily because all of its characters are either caricatures or non-entities. Logan’s script seems to believe that simply allowing its queer protagonists to live while killing off its “villains” is groundbreaking in its own right, but there’s no weight to survival or death in this film. The young cast has no personality whatsoever, a collection of queer people that play into the kinds of stereotypes one might find in any given slasher from the past. Theo Germaine (whose work on Work in Progress is nothing short of stunning), the closest thing to a leading role as the sort-of-ensemble piece has, is saddled with the film’s worst writing and not an ounce of direction. The absolute blank slate of a human being that is Jordan would be the worst part of They/Them if it wasn’t also a film that accidentally plays into transphobic and homophobic tropes⁠—even going as far as having one of its queer characters exist as nothing more than a “trap” for the others. 

Performers like Kevin Bacon and Carrie Preston, who play two of the villainous conversion camp counselors, are stripped of any charm or humanity that might make them interesting characters. This would be an understandable decision if the film leaned into the fact that the individuals enabling this abuse are the true villains, but Logan can’t even commit to damning them. That the film ends with the thesis that exacting vengeance on those who abuse you is just as bad as abusing queer children is jaw-droppingly misguided. Where the aforementioned Cameron Post has sympathy for the devil (with John Gallagher Jr.’s counselor character being the most tragic figure in it), it also acknowledges that those who inflict harm are often those who were harmed themselves and how this cycle repeats and damages those most vulnerable. But They/Them has no interest in this kind of nuanced discourse of camps and situations that are still very real in many parts of the country. 

Hell, the film can’t even manage to satirize just how ridiculous these camps and the people who run them are properly. Numerous moments—including more than one decidedly unerotic sex scene, embarrassingly scripted psychotherapy scenes, and a baffling sing-along to P!nk’s “Fuckin’ Perfect” by a bunch of zoomers—feel reminiscent of any one of Ryan Murphy’s past works without any of the bite or camp that comes with them. The sheer lifelessness of They/Them makes one long for the relative inanity of Murphy’s works, with everything from Glee to American Horror Story handling what this film does with more skill. It’s hard not to even think of something like The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story when faced with a work like this as an ideal example of how to explore queer villainy and the circumstances that lead to it. 

They/Them is enraging to watch not because it’s boring or incompetent, but because it reduces queer people and the situations they face into, well, nothing. “My pronouns are they/them” is a bold statement to make, regardless of what situation one is in. It’s an often uncomfortable phrase to utter, inherently declaring yourself as The Other in rooms that, more often than not, are conditioned to desire homogeneity.

John Logan could have explored this, just as he could have explored, dissected, and criticized any number of interesting facets of how slashers often treat queer people. Instead, he released a film so void of worth that its only value is making other bad horror films released by Peacock (yes, I’m talking about Halloween Kills) look less atrocious in comparison.

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