“This is Damian. He’s almost too gay to function.”
This iconic introduction from the oft-quoted Mean Girls isn’t just a throw-away joke. As an audience, we don’t know anything about Damian besides the fact that he has a 1 am curfew and an affinity for Christina Aguilera. He was too gay to function, at least as his own full-fledged character.
Even as a teenager, I understood that the appeal of teen comedies and dramas were the aspirations they presented rather than the accurate representation they offered. These were adolescents recognizable enough to be my own, but with higher stakes and glamour.
When the figure of the Gay Boy appeared in these narratives, he was too elusive for me to grab ahold of. He was the desexualized sidekick of the white woman lead, like Damian in Mean Girls, or Elton in Clueless, or that one nameless cheerleader in Bring It On, each sketched so lightly they failed to generate compelling fantasies for me to enter.
The only time the Gay Boy was offered his own narrative was when he was coming out. Even in these moments, the Gay Boy’s story was a lesson for straight characters, and by extension, a straight audience: in Degrassi, Marco’s coming out teaches Spinner the importance of acceptance; in My So-Called Life, Rickie Vasquez teaches Angela Chase to extend compassion.
There was nothing aspirational about the Gay Boy I saw on screen, the one who was only allowed to declare himself or make a few quips before he was pushed out of the frame. Yet, I was told to be grateful for those scenes or the single line of dialogue.
I was a teenager when I came across a screen cap of James Duval against a blue Californian sky, in a white T-shirt that read “I Blame Society.” Soon enough, I was watching a pixelated link of Gregg Araki’s 1993 Totally F***ed Up downloaded from some dubious source. I felt like I had stumbled upon a goldmine.
Described by Araki as a “rag-tag story of fag-and-dyke teen underground” and “a kind of cross between avant-garde experimental cinema and a queer John Hughes flick,” the film’s first lines come from the character Steven, a teenage filmmaker in LA: “I’m making this video, well, because I wanna show the way things really are, ’cause you never get to see that in the TV or the movies.”
In a series of interviews Steven records on a handheld camera, we meet five of his friends and experience vignettes of their lives.
There’s Steven’s boyfriend Deric, who insists on monogamy despite Steven’s ambivalence; Tommy, who pursues unfulfilling hookups with older men; Michelle and Patricia, a couple who collects the sperm of their friends with the intention to artificially inseminate; and Andy, who struggles to understand his depression.
“Sex,” Tommy says, “is nothing but a squirt in the dark.”
Watching Totally F***ed Up for the first time, I didn’t see things how they really were. I saw how things could be.
These characters weren’t like the Gay Boys I had known on screen before. They weren’t token figures burdened with representing a universal gayness, but rather each was one among many with his own thoughts and dreams. When Steven admits that Tom Cruise is in his celebrity spank bank, it reminds me of a time I would’ve given anything to gush over Hollywood hunks with other gay boys my age. I swooned alongside Andy as I watched him on a date with Ian, the English major at UCLA.
I took elements from Araki’s fantasy and reimagined them into my reality. I punctuated my speech with “totally.” I got an ear pierced and wore a biker jacket all winter. Here were boys who didn’t just occupy the same identities I did, but boys who I wanted to be.
After Totally F***ed Up, I found two other Araki movies, The Doom Generation (1995) and Nowhere (1997), and the pilot for This Is How The World Ends (2000), a series Araki pitched to MTV that never made it to air. Each of them overflowed with a cast of queer characters that allowed me to ask myself: gayness assumed, who would I like to be?
Coming out can be a difficult process, and coming out narratives can provide significant affirmation, but what happens next?
After I came out, people still called me slurs out of car windows. I was still terrified to talk to boys. My Grade 12 philosophy teacher used to single me out in front of the whole class to ask me for the gay perspective, his chuckle pushing me further down into my seat.
Where were all the movies about that stuff? What happened to the Gay Boy after the final credits rolled?
Many instances of LGBTQ2 representation are catered to straight audiences, cutting short aspects of queer experiences under the guise of celebrating strides in LGBTQ2 portrayals.
To cut the film once a character makes a public declaration about their identity is to ignore the violence faced by queer teenagers after they come out. Even queer-centred teen comedies like 1998’s Edge of Seventeen often focus on the confession of sexuality but rarely anything beyond.
Totally F***ed Up doesn’t shy away from these realities, but Araki doesn’t fetishize anti-queer violence either. In one poignant scene, Deric is assaulted by group of masked figures. Quick camera movements obscure any graphic depiction of violence and the assailants aren’t given any lines nor are their faces shown.
Instead, Araki focuses his attention on the kinship necessary to facilitate healing: the group collectively oversees Deric’s recovery, taking turns watching over him. That was a model of queer community care that I and many other LGBTQ2 teenagers — without examples of queerness beyond a coming-out narrative — have little guidance to create for ourselves.
My teen years were made tolerable by the support and friendship of other queer kids my age, the ones who groaned knowingly when I told them about my philosophy teacher bully. In Totally F***ed Up, I saw the kinds of queer friendships that sustained me as a teenager. Even though my queer network has expanded considerably in adulthood, I still navigate these relationships with the same ride-or-die ethos I learned, at least in part, from Araki’s teenage universe.
The Gay Boy is most often depicted as a solitary figure, one who navigates the choppy waters of teenagehood adjacent to — but isolated from — his straight classmates. What made the Gay Boy’s coming out especially sad for me to watch is that he always had to do it alone. When it was over he was still alone, accepted by his peers, but always separate from them. By rejecting the coming out narrative altogether, Totally F***ed Up proposes a world where queerness is the norm.
After I watched it for the first time, a thought reframed itself inside me: gayness wasn’t something to struggle against. It was a place to take refuge.
Queer representation has expanded considerably in the 25 years since Totally F***ed Up was released, but it’s still difficult to find comedies or dramas aimed specifically towards queer youth.
Perhaps this speaks to the transgressive power of an unabashedly queer teenage narrative, one where the Gay Boy need not perform his coming out for the benefit of straight audiences, where he can be his own character and not a crudely-rendered sidekick.
Re-watching Totally F***ed Up a few weeks ago, it didn’t hold up as well as I remembered: the only women in the film are given a lazily-constructed storyline and a character’s surprise death created a jarring tonal shift at odds with everything that came before that.
But the movie’s flaws are part of its charm. If I didn’t know any better, I might assume that Totally F***ed Up was directed by teenagers: given the clumsy melodrama offset by aimlessness, and the camera loitering and then cutting abruptly between scenes. Maybe that’s why it resonated with me so much as a teen. Totally F***ed Up feels like it was made for queer teenagers by queer teenagers.
Totally F***ed Up may not be the perfect high school comedy I remember from my teens, but it’s a useful blueprint. It’s a dream of some possible queer future, scrawled in sharpie on the bathroom wall.