The Search for a Familiar Face
By Carolyn Scott
What does it mean when there's no character in popular culture who really represents who you are?
Watch the full interview with Rhona Shennan
Just three years ago Scotland was named as the best place in Europe to be gay. With equal marriage, strong hate crime legislation and non-discriminatory laws, it’s easy to think that the tide has turned on homophobia and discrimination based on sexual orientation. But, progressive changes to legislation don’t always result in progressive changes to culture and social mindsets. One area in particular that remains a conundrum is the representation of the LGBTQ+ community in popular culture.
One gay woman is taking this challenge into her own hands in a new documentary exploring the treatment of LGBTQ+ characters on the screen. A Familiar Face, from up and coming documentary maker Rhona Shennan, details a personal journey questioning just how much progress has been made in providing a true representation of the LGBTQ+ community in popular culture.
Shennan outlines in the opening sequence that this documentary is founded entirely on her own opinions and perceptions, which she offers up for debate, inviting the viewer and those she interviews to challenge her - an act that Shennan describes as “terrifying”.
“I was really terrified. I think when you make a personal project like this, you have to say up front that these are my own personal opinions. So when you do that there is 100% a possibility of people watching this and going "nah, she's totally wrong, totally, totally wrong" because everyone is going to have a personal experience of their own.”
As A Familiar Face points out, with an upbeat elegance: equality is still a long way off.
The Edinburgh based filmmaker, for whom A Familiar Face marks a debut in documentary making, begins by explaining the reason for her exploration: that, as a short haired gay woman, accustomed to wearing androgynous clothing, she grew up with no character in popular culture that came close to representing her. To her, the result was a belief that she was somehow weird, a freak, or “not allowed”. When there was a character who came close to representing her the feeling would be temporary, as the character would be killed off, or transformed into a quintessentially feminine straight girl.
Shennan questioned other LGBTQ+ women, asking if they thought that they were represented in popular culture, and it seemed that every woman went through their own journey in formulating an answer; from an opening “well things are much better than they used to be” to realising that “yeah, things aren’t good”.
“Most of the people that stopped to talk to me were around my age so I started off really broadly asking “what do you think of representation?” And they all kind of said roughly the same thing: "oh yeah, everything is getting better now, we've got these films like Call Me by Your Name and Love Simon", and then when you start to dig a little deeper you go - well Call Me by Your Name and Love Simon are both films about gay white men, and it's great for the overall community to have these queer films but maybe not specifically for queer women. So, when you start to dig a little deeper like that you can see them go through this journey of "oh well, actually, the characters that I can relate to don't really fit all my boxes for me," and it's really difficult to find that kind of thing in the media right now.”
This took me on my own journey also; as a gay woman I couldn’t help but feel that I’m perhaps guilty of forgetting what young people are still going through. I’m married now, and the pain of coming out is a distant memory. I’ve seen LGBTQ+ rights go further than my 18 year old self could ever have imagined. I’ve never really considered that who I am is not represented on television or in movies. When I was coming out there were very few queer characters at all, never mind a queer character that was actually a realistic representation of any element of the LGBTQ+ community. But as A Familiar Face points out, with an upbeat elegance: equality is still a long way off.
There are so many options that you could have with LGBT+ characters, there is so much joy that you can have in this space and I really, really, really wanted to showcase that!
In one of the most profound and engaging sequences in the documentary, Shennan replicates the morning routine of one character she had related to when she herself was dealing with coming out: Frankie from the TV programme Skins. Shennan almost literally lays herself bare mimicking the onscreen actions of a character that finally represented her; a young gay woman with short hair, a young woman not interested in wearing dresses or makeup, more comfortable in androgynous clothing.
But the engaging artistic mimicry soon turns to heartbreak as Shennan, talking directly to the camera, is unable to hold back tears when talking about how Frankie was taken away from her; how this character suddenly became a straight woman in a short dress with no warning.
“It was really frustrating to film, because all the stuff that I was talking about was stuff that I was just realising as I was saying it. It's strange because I've never really been that person that's been in front of the camera a lot, I've always been the person that's behind the camera so doing like a documentary like this where it's very much about me and my experiences I was just really taken aback by some of the stuff I discovered. Like, I knew that I felt really heartbroken and annoyed when Frankie went through that really weird transformation but I didn't realise just how much it had gotten to me. It clearly really, really got to me a lot, again I think it's really easy to poo-poo things like representation on TV but to have a fully grown 23 year old woman break down in front of the camera because the character she had when she was 17 was taken away from her - I think that brings to the surface a lot of the frustrating things we have to deal with.”
It is Shennan’s honesty and sincerity that draws the viewer in, yet despite the underlying themes and the heartbreak exhibited, the one constant throughout this documentary is an infectious sense of fun. From the opening credits through to the final scene it’s impossible not to get drawn in by the relaxed, confident and joyful manner that Shennan exhibits on camera.
“I really wanted to be like "you know what, things aren't great but things are actually improving - really visibly improving,” and I really wanted to showcase the fun that people can have. There are so many options that you could have with LGBT+ characters, it's not all just depression and disaster and suicide and heartbreak, there is so much joy that you can have in this space and I really, really, really wanted to showcase that!”
Footnote will also be working with Rhona Shennan to create audio described and captioned versions of A Familiar Face - sign up to our mailing list to receive updates on this and much more.
Background image by Sharon McCutcheon.
Header photo by Rhona Shennan.