Gendered Homophobia: A comparison of Cruising (1980) and Windows (1980)

Hello again, everyone.

It is time for another reaction paper, and thus, time for another blog. I was hoping to get something more up between the last reaction paper and this one, but a lot has happened since then (which you can read about on my personal blog). For this reaction paper, I have been tasked with watching, comparing, and responding to Cruising (1980) and Windows (1980).

A bit of background: Windows is a movie that centres around Emily, a young woman who is caught in the gaze of a predatory, psychotic lesbian: her “friend” Andrea. Early in the movie, we see Emily getting attacked and sexually assaulted as she enters her apartment. Later, it is revealed that Andrea had this arranged simply to get the chance to hear Emily moan (something the rapist forces her to do at knifepoint). As Emily does what she needs to deal with the trauma of being sexually assaulted in her own home (namely, moving to a new apartment), Andrea takes advantage of her friend’s choice to start watching her from across the river (with help of a high powered telescope). As Andrea grows more and more devoted to Emily, she starts killing anyone that gets between her and her love interest. Finally, (after killing Emily’s cat, Emily’s neighbour, and her own psychologist) Andrea corners Emily. As Emily finds out about Andrea’s plan and involvement with her rape, she develops as a character and slaps Andrea hard enough to jar her from her murderous, manipulative ways.

Cruising, on the other hand, is a very dark film in which Steve Burns, a straight rookie cop, goes undercover to investigate a series of murders claiming the lives of gay men in the leather scene. As soon as he steps into the role of a gay leather daddy, the sexuality around him is ramped up to 11. As he slowly integrates into the scene, he starts to find himself “affected” by the role that he is asked to play. While it isn’t ever made explicit, it is implied that his involvement with the leather gay community is driving him towards a penchant for violence, sex, and possibly murder. In the end, he finds his killer (not before fingering the wrong guy and watching him get beat down by the cops). However, as the murderer lays in hospital recovering from his run-in with Steve, another body turns up, this time Steve’s neighbour from his stake-out location. It is dismissed as a lover’s quarrel, but was it really?

Considering these two movies, if you are looking for a decent queer-as-murderer movie for your Halloween night, I suggest that you try Windows first.

Although the crime dramas Cruising (1980) and Windows (1980) are two films that follow in the “Queer-as-murderer” tradition of Hollywood film-making, they are about as different as gay men and lesbian women; Or, at least, as different as they are assumed to be. While the differences between these two movies may be striking and the similarities may be worrying, one thing sticks out more than anything else: gendered homophobia.

Much like other forms of intersectional oppression, gendered homophobia is a Gestalt conceptualization of homonegativity as it happens within a patriarchal system. In this, sexism and homonegativity are inseparably connected in such a way that the whole is greater, or more oppressive, than the sum of its parts. In relation to the films, both can easily be said to be homonegative in concept, setting up the murderer as a psychotic queer; However, in taking the films as parts of the same historical reference point, the gendered homophobia starts to come into focus. While neither film explicitly endorses the stratification of gays and lesbians by gendered class, the two films, taken together, very much do. 

Unlike earlier films that seem to conflate sexuality with gender, effectively making one’s gender secondary to one’s sexual orientation, these two films do much the opposite. As such, Cruising, rather than showing gay men as one-dimensionally effeminate because of their sexual orientation, shows gay men, particularly those in the leather community, as the peak of hypermasculinity. While this retelling of the social narrative offers a new dimension to the social conceptualization of the gay male, it also seems to re-entrench notions of masculinity and expectations of men. In doing so, and doing so in such a uni-dimensional way, Cruising lends support to the creation and perpetuation of a new stereotype, one which writes gay men into the role of oversexed hypermasculinity, almost as an overcompensation for past transgressions of their gendered expectations.

In Cruising, this means that the friendships and emotional connections of the past are gone. Instead, almost every interaction between gay men includes some sort of sexual advance or sexual activity. Being that the setting for this movie is before the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s, this may, in fact, closely resemble the reality of the leather community of the time. However, as the leather community is merely one aspect of the larger gay community, the singular focus on it only serves to exaggerate the promiscuity of gay men and the prevalence of the gay leather scene. On its own, this would not be a problem as there is nothing wrong with either casual sex or the gay leather scene; however, as the general public is constantly looking for one narrative that describes all gay men, this narrative does far more harm than good.

Similar to the way that Cruising supports the foundations of a hypermasculine ideal, Windows offers support for many of the sexist assumptions about women. The most striking example of which comes again from the realm of sexuality. In this film, although Andrea (the murderous lesbian character) can be said to be taking a predatory role in the “relationship” between herself and Emily, Andrea still goes about this as passively as possible. In conversations with her psychiatrist, Andrea is urged more than once to open herself up to her love interest, to tell her how she feels. Despite this, she fails to do so right up until her very last interaction with Emily. Instead, Andrea takes a psychotic twist on a standard female archetype by killing anyone who appears to come between the two of them.

This deadly, one-sided fascination starts even before the movie does and continues right up until the final scene. From this, the viewer gets a sense that, despite her psychopathy, Andrea is naturally monogamous: a trait commonly ascribed to women. Further, even within her intense obsession, the role of Andrea’s sexual desire is surprisingly unclear. Despite the fact that Andrea contracts someone to rape Emily at knifepoint (simply to obtain a recording of her moaning), Andrea seems to make nothing of the night she has Emily trapped in her apartment. After all, Emily claims that, throughout the night, Andrea simply professed her love for her over and over again. In leaving this to the last possible moment, a passive aggressive tone is struck under all of Andrea’s actions, as though Andrea has been hinting for Emily to make the first move all along. Along with the terrible communication skills that this implies, this disposition away from overt expressions of sexual interest in favour of a manipulative passive aggression is yet another (charming) stereotyped feminine trait.

Common to both movies is the theme of psychopathy causing murderousness. In Cruising, it is implied that the psychopathy of the killer arises from the disapproval of his father. Whether this is a jab at father’s who reject their gay sons or an attempt to address the etymology of the sexual orientation, the fact remains that ‘daddy issues’ are inexorably connected to stereotypes of gay men. In Windows, on the other hand, the psychopathy seems to be a sort of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. However, in both cases, the film-makers do nothing to challenge the conflation of this psychopathy with the character’s status as a sexual minority. This glaring oversight in two different movies of the same time period suggests a systemic problem with the conflation of these two concepts, a problem that still exists in an altered way today.

Overall, both films act as relics from the not-too-distant past, as well as reminders of the stereotypes that continue to impact gay and lesbian communities today. However, it would be unfair to claim that the films are equally bad, in quality or oppressive undertones. In both of these regards, Cruising comes out as the clear winner. Despite the fact that Windows’ only lesbian character is a psychotic mass murder, the sensitization of the sexuality and the extreme othering of the leather community in Cruising were far worse. Further, with the extremely weak psychological twist ending in Cruising, it is hard to believe that this film was more of a success than Windows.