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Friday, June 26, 2020

Excavating Queer Representation in ‘Tammy and the T-Rex’

Before the COVID-19 pandemic paused the film industry, queer horror was gathering momentum. Knife+Heart (Yann Gonzalez, 2018), Lizzie (Craig William Macneill, 2018) and Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street (Roman Chimienti, Tyler Jensen, 2019) garnered accolades, and out actors were portraying out characters in mainstream Horror films and TV shows helmed by out directors. This hasn’t always been the case. Growing up, it was sometimes difficult reconciling my queerness with my passion for horror cinema when LGBTQ+ characters and references were typically excluded, coded or relegated to ridicule.  

To alleviate anxiety and combat cabin fever during quarantine, I have been turning to silly, schlocky, so-bad-they’re-good horror films. This craving for comfort viewing led to Tammy and the T-Rex (Stewart Raffill, 1994), the only teen love story where the obstacle for the star-crossed couple is not disapproving parents or opposing cafeteria cliques, but a mad scientist transplanting the boyfriend’s brain into an animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex. A mashup of midnight movie genres including gross-out comedy and science fiction, Tammy and the T-Rex earns its horror badge of honour with the restored gore in Vinegar Syndrome’s 2019 “Gore Cut,” now streaming on Shudder. Much has been written about how this preposterous film came to be, but its uncharacteristically progressive queer positivity has been generally unacknowledged or misconstrued. And its overlooked queer character Byron (Theo Forsett) deserves to be crowned a queer horror icon.  

From the opening credits where the title incorrectly reads Tanny & the Teenage T-Rex, and Tanny…er, Tammy (Denise Richards), performs a cheerleading routine set to a rock song written from the perspective of a love-struck dinosaur, Tammy and T-Rex is established as a campy trashterpeice. Then hunky jock Michael (Paul Walker) struts on screen wearing white football pants and a crop top, a costuming choice almost as considerate of gay viewers as James Brolin’s tighty-whities in The Amityville Horror (Stuart Rosenberg, 1979). And yes, it is okay to appreciate Walker’s chiseled physique. Twenty-one years old when the film was made, he rather unconvincingly portrays a high school student. Only five minutes after his stirring introduction, Michael confronts Tammy’s punk ex, Billy (George Pilgrim), resulting in one of the most bizarre fight scenes of all time. Described by the police upon arrival as, “one of them testicular standoffs,” Michael and Billy violently grip each other’s testicles and squeeze, refusing to let go as a crowd of overzealous teens cheers on. But Michael’s washboard abs-baring wardrobe and ball busting, homoerotic horseplay are not the only notable elements for queer horror fans. It is the character Byron and the film’s treatment of him that are significant and misunderstood.   

Ostensibly fulfilling the sidekick role, Byron is more than just the female protagonist’s best friend. He is out, proud and (spoiler alert) doesn’t even get killed off like the comparable character Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) in Raw (Julia Ducournau, 2016)! Far from subtextual or coded, Byron’s queerness is explicitly declared by his first line, “work it, girl,” exclaimed as he sashays across the screen. A rare and refreshing queer character is announced; one who is not coming to terms with his sexuality or struggling with self-acceptance but is comfortably and unapologetically himself. Byron is vivacious, fierce and fabulous. Yet much of the writing about him is exaggerated and disparaging. Culture Crypt suggests Byron “could only be more flamboyant if he were played by Harvey Fierstein in drag,” Collider calls him “a blinding constellation of every ‘gay best friend’ trope ever created,” Cinema Sangha brands him “the impossibly swishy best friend,” and Cinema Crazed claims he is “hard to watch.” Tinged with homophobia and anti-effeminacy prejudice, these descriptions are inaccurate and denigrating. Byron does not ascribe to antiquated ideals of masculinity, nor does he adhere to restrictive, #masc4masc (straight-acting) gay male standards and this should be celebrated, not derided.  

Countering the tired trope of the lecherous, perverted queer, Byron is amusingly complimentary of Michael rather than predatory. Defying the Sissy Villain trope, Byron is heroic. And he is not a one note character, as suggested by other writers. When Byron tries to explain Tammy’s relationship with Billy to Michael, he frankly confesses, “she made a mistake. Believe me, we all do.” A more complex backstory or romantic history is hinted at, adding another dimension to the character I wish was further developed. Sure, a storyline where Byron pursues his own partner would be nice, but there just might not be room in a film that already includes a mad scientist subplot, a gruesome lobotomy, two decapitations, two eviscerations and a scene where a mechanical T-Rex calls his girlfriend from a payphone. Byron contributes to the film’s comedic relief with the funniest quips and best one-liners: “hang on to your boobs girl, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride” and “you don’t gallop off into the sunset on a dinosaur and don’t create a stir,” but he also sincerely expresses the sentimentality at the heart of Tammy and the T-Rex, stating, “time heals all wounds; you’ll live to love again” and “don’t give up; remember, true love never fails, honey.”  

Subverting the GBF (Gay Best Friend) trope, described by i-D as “often used to identify white, cis, gay, men who perform various supplementary roles to a straight white female protagonist,” Byron is black. This does not simply make him the “ultimate marginalized sidekick” as condescendingly labelled by Cinema Sangha, or “an outrageous gay teen presumably modelled on RuPaul” (The Independent). I agree with one of the only other positive online mentions of Byron from Gayly Dreadful: he is “a POC queer character who…has agency through the film.” Bryon is active, brave and loyal. When the possessive Billy makes another appearance, Byron refuses to leave Tammy’s side and threatens to scratch out the eyes of Billy’s henchman. The relationship between Byron and Tammy is not the superficial straight girl/gay bestie cliché —  they have serious shit to worry about like grave robbing, brain swapping and a rampaging mechanical dinosaur! Their dynamic is the most believable and entertaining component of the film and my favourite scenes showcase the chemistry between Forsett and Richards.  

During Michael’s funeral, their rapport is on full display. As Michael’s alcoholic uncle drunkenly rambles the eulogy, Tammy and Byron share smirks, eyerolls and elbow jabs. After the mourners depart, the pair attempts to steal Michael’s corpse to return his brain. Upon opening the coffin, Michael’s body is discovered to be inconveniently rotting and infested with maggots and rats, allowing for some slapstick humour and Byron’s hilarious commentary: “maybe we should get some bugspray or something” and “I’m definitely gonna get cremated.”   

The hunt to find a replacement body for Michael’s brain leads Byron and Tammy to the morgue where they peruse the selection of cadavers like they are shopping for accessories at the mall. “Cholesterol city! The worms and the maggots are gonna have a field day with this guy,” exclaims Byron about an overweight male. Unzipping a body bag and revealing a female, Tammy says, “I don’t want a girl” and Byron jokes, “well, neither do I.” Referring to her breasts, he also comments he “could have used those [himself].” Regarding older corpses, Bryon remarks, “dead is as old as you’re gonna get, honey!” Unable to make a decision, Byron and Tammy model bodies for the T-Rex through the window. Here Forsett’s comedic timing and flair for physical comedy are highlighted. Regarding a well-hung corpse, Byron, states, “he’s short, but he’s big. Know what I mean Mike?” In an attempt to sell the female cadaver as an option, Byron asserts, “we can be like three sisters!” Hamming it up, Forsett’s performance style is in sync with the rest of the actors, except for Richards, earnestly serving her best damsel in (dino) distress. Byron is always in on the joke and we laugh along with him, not at him.  

The film’s treatment of Byron has also been misinterpreted and misrepresented. I do not read Tammy and the T-Rex as homophobic. The main characters accept Byron. To Tammy, he is not merely the GBF, providing fashion tips, gossip or relationship advice — though he can be counted on to produce a “Kamikaze with a vodka chaser” if needed. When Byron first meets Michael, the hot, popular dude that in most teen films would be discriminatory or hostile, Michael is neither. He is sweet and polite. After Byron exits this encounter, Tammy asks Michael if he already knew Byron. When Michael responds, “yeah, I think everyone knows Byron,” it is without malice, accompanied by a charismatic giggle. Michael is not making fun of Byron; he is stating the obvious. Byron has a big personality and his manner of dress is ostentatious. He stands out but is not otherized. Even hellbent on revenge post brain transplant, Michael (as the T-Rex) treats Byron respectfully. After trampling other partygoers and tearing limbs off members of Billy’s gang, the T-Rex carefully picks Byron up from the ground and dusts his shoulder off.  

For many of the supporting players, Byron’s sexual orientation is similarly a non-issue. A nurse disinterestedly accepts his compliment of her golden, claw-like nails while Byron’s sheriff father is protective of him and warmly comforting after Michael’s death. Billy’s goons even insult Byron with the same generic expletives they use for everyone else. Inclusion!  

Contrary to incorrect reports that multiple “f” slurs are slung at Byron (Cinapse, /Film), there is only one occurrence when the word comes up in Tammy and the T-Rex and it isn’t even fully uttered — the character stops himself from blurting it out. This usage is drastically different from the infamous hurling of the slur in Freddy vs. Jason (Ronny Yu, 2003). It is undeniably offensive that a likeable (up until this point), central character played by Kelly Rowland uses the term to demean and emasculate Freddy Krueger in that film, and the audience is still meant to side with her. As Uproxx stresses, “it is lobbed in an effort to diminish his power, just as it has been against LGBT individuals throughout history.” The word is alluded to in Tammy and the T-Rex for a distinctly different purpose. 

The character who almost uses the “f” slur is one half of the yokel Deputy duo Norville (George ‘Buck’ Flower) and Neville (Ken Carpenter). Inept and ignorant, they are repellent caricatures as they munch popcorn while investigating a gory massacre and crack misogynistic jokes. They are not respected by any of the other characters and Byron justifiably calls Neville a pervert. When Norville almost uses the “f” word or when Neville says, “don’t drop anything. Don’t bend over,” as they pass Byron, the audience isn’t meant to laugh along with their immature snickering. This is where many critics have missed the point. Though weak and juvenile, these snippets of dialogue are attempts to illustrate the bigotry and idiocy of Norville and Neville, setting them up as antagonists. We are never meant to side with them and at least some audiences have picked up on this. RogerEbert.com reports that during a 2019 screening of the film at Chicago’s Cinepocalypse, the audience, “rightfully booed the homophobic jokes involving the best friend character that were dated even back in 1994…” As Norville and Neville are the film’s only intolerant characters, Tammy and the T-Rex seems to suggest their prehistoric views and values should be extinct.   

Absent from lists of the Best Queer Horror Characters (HorrorBuzz, GCN, Syfy Wire), Byron deserves to be embraced as a queer horror icon. The mere presence of this character is valuable in terms of queer visibility but the film’s positive treatment of him makes Tammy and the T-Rex worthy of excavation this Pride Month. More queer representation in horror cinema is needed and I am hopeful the queer horror momentum continues when we press play on the film industry post-pandemic.  



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3621578/excavating-queer-representation-tammy-t-rex/

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