LGBTuesdays: The Babadook

The special release Babadook cover with a rainbow background

Is The Babadook-the character-a gay icon? Is The Babadook-the film-deserving of a place in the LGBTuesday series? The answer to both is yes.

Who started this meme?

Where did the discussion of The Babadook’s sexuality start? Unsurprisingly, on Tumblr. This discourse hit Twitter in early 2017 and spiraled from there, climaxing in IFC, the film’s distributor, releasing a variant cover of the DVD featuring the titular character set against the rainbow LGBT Pride flag.

While many have written this off as a product of gay reclamation-the community subverting a character for its own gain due to lack of representation-there is a deep, rich history connecting monsters and queerness. To understand how The Babadook fits into queer history, we must first look to the past.

Monster Origins

In early folklore, tales of “others” were meant to frighten their audiences. Don’t go into the woods late at night, you might meet a werewolf, the stories said. Werewolves were half-man, half-monster; their legend not only taught the lesson of staying close to home at night, but also that the people around you may be monsters in hiding. Folklore was meant to teach not only caution, but also to impose social norms. People who fell outside those social norms, specifically queer people, were to be feared.

Donna Gottschalk holds poster "I am your worst fear I am your best fantasy" at Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day parade, 1970
Donna Gottschalk holds poster “I am your worst fear I am your best fantasy” at Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day parade, 1970

Continuing today, fear of LGBT people is used as a defense for the violence perpetrated against them. The gay panic defense, as defined by the LGBT Bar, is “a legal strategy that asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity/expression is to blame for a defendant’s violent reaction, including murder…As recently as April 2018, an LGBTQ+ panic defense was used to mitigate a murder charge.”

When we see the historic connections between beings-to-be-feared and the queer community, it is easy to draw the connections between monsters and LGBT culture. Many villains outside of the realm of monsters have been notoriously queer-coded; Ursula, the villain in Disney’s The Little Mermaid was based on drag queen Divine. When examining the gothic portrayal of villians and monsters in relation to queerness, Laura Elizabeth Westengard writes, “the truly gothic figures are so often cast as the villain or the monster that is too hideous and perverse to exist in the world. There is a complicated and conflicted purpose in this didactic mode. While the gothic villain may be killed in the end and while the heroine trapped in the dark recesses of the castle may eventually enter into her proper role and location as a wife within the domestic space, the twisted path that leads to this reestablishment of norms is, nonetheless, queer.”

What does this have to do with The Babadook?

The Babadook is, at its heart, the story of a woman dealing with an monster that is fed by her own refusal to address her grief, depression, anxiety, or guilt. There are two main interpretations of queerness within The Babadook. Some see it as an allegory for the destruction of a family unit when a child comes out. Many parents try to deny their child’s sexuality, refuse to speak about it, and bury it in a metaphoric basement of their family. These actions can lead to irreparable harm to the family’s relationships with each other. The movie ends with The Babadook coexisting with the family, contained to the basement. In many ways, this mirrors the dysfunctional existence many queer people feel within their families as they live in a state of pseudo-acceptance: neither hated outright nor embraced.

“The more you deny, the stronger I get.”

The Babadook

A second interpretation of The Babadook through a queer lens manifests the titular character not as a literal LGBT child, but as queerness itself. The self-destruction that takes place through the movie can be seen as the internal struggles and backlash when people try to deny their own identity. Just as the main character refuses to allow anyone to say the name of her dead husband or even to acknowledge her internal struggles, many within the LGBT community have internalized the hatred felt by those around them and used it as a weapon of self-destruction. The trope of the biggest homophobe secretly being gay himself, while harmful in its inherent victim-blaming, is a perfect example of this phenomenon. With this interpretation, the end of the movie can be seen as a step toward internal acceptance and healing.

As with all media analysis, there are numerous other ways this could be interpreted. Pick up a copy from the library and see what you think!

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