'Queering the Script': Film Review | Outfest 2019
Gabrielle Zilkha's documentary feature explores the history of queer women on television, as well as the influence of their fans.
Queering the Script, from Canadian writer-director Gabrielle Zilkha, documents the history of queer women on television and how the internet gave birth to an influential and too-often overlooked community of queer women fans. In lifting up LGBTQ women’s individual and collective voices, the film makes a convincing case for why it is powerful when underrepresented audiences see fictional characters that both entertain and inspire.
The term "fandom" refers to the universes that the fans themselves create around their favorite characters on television, which often includes "shipping," fanfic and fan art. It’s what happens when audiences who are not used to seeing themselves portrayed onscreen finally begin to experience what it’s like to be able to relate directly to a character. Message boards and fan websites initially made fandom networks possible, and in more recent times social media like Tumblr and Twitter have caused exponential growth of multiple fandoms across television.
Queering the Script is helmed by fans of fandom and unapologetically made as a vehicle for those fans to cheer for their favorite queer women TV characters. But the film is also attempting to do a lot more than celebrate. The sheer amount of ground it covers — the history of lesbian television characters and their fans, Fandom 101, takes from Hollywood showrunners like Ilene Chaiken and Gloria Calderón Kellett — at times feels dense and overwhelming.
Yet the feature-length doc is as fun as it is informative. Featuring experts paired with intimate interviews with the everyday fans themselves, the film is most enjoyable when you let go and realize that if you don’t understand the enthusiasm, this probably wasn’t made for you. And you should feel privileged to peer inside a fascinating world that was once only visible to outsiders who knew where to look.
Interviews with ClexaCon attendees are the heart of the doc’s earnestness. ClexaCon is the annual fandom convention (San Diego Comic-Con is the oldest and most famous of these) for queer women that has been happening in Las Vegas since 2017. The juxtaposition of fan interviews with the objects of their affection opining on fan reactions to their characters visually and philosophically puts the two camps on an equal playing field (an interview with the owner of a Xena: Warrior Princess retreat is paired with a Lucy Lawless interview). It’s a subtle and effective rebuttal to easy dismissals of fandom as irrational and disconnected from real life.
Indeed, the film goes deep into the weeds of the impact of queer women characters on the day-to-day lives of queer women fans. Zilkha shows us emotional reaction videos from fans to watershed scenes featuring lesbian and bisexual characters. Including these along with historical context is more effective than any pithy refrain that “representation matters.” And when fans made the mainstream entertainment press aware that more than 60 lesbian characters were killed off of television shows from 2015 to 2017, conversations about queer representation on television entered the pop culture zeitgeist in a way that they hadn’t before.
One of the most interesting parts of the film is the evolution of the relationship between the fans watching at home and creators who make television in Hollywood. L Word showrunner Chaiken credits the outcry of fans after the breakup of Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman) with her decision to eventually reunite them, and says their feedback about the original show’s misses also helped shaped the new characters in the upcoming reboot. For a long time, television writers could operate within their Hollywood bubble and not suffer much consequence, but in today’s world of Peak TV, the film makes a strong case that smart showrunners will learn to strike a balance between good storytelling and listening to the thoughtful criticisms of fans.
Although it’s an advocacy film that doesn’t care if you agree, Queering the Script portrays its world lovingly, and the effect is endearing. Confidence is sexy, after all, and the time for waiting around for the larger world to take queer women’s stories and passions seriously is long gone.
Production company: Shaftesbury
Cast: Lucy Lawless, Ilene Chaiken, Princess Weekes, Gloria Calderón Kellett, Angelica Ross, Stephanie Beatriz, Tanya Saracho, Dominique Provost-Chalkley, Riese Bernard, Britta Lundin
Writer-director: Gabrielle Zilkha
Producer: Steph Ouaknine, Alex House
Executive producers: Christina Jennings, Scott Garvie, Jay Bennett
Director of photography: Marianna Margaret
Editor: Shelley Therrien
Music: Armen Bazarian
Venue: Outfest Los Angeles