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Oh No She Baba-Don’t

I’ve seen The Babadook something like thirty or forty times. I consider it one of the most brilliant movies of the last ten years. Despite that, the recent online trumpeting of the titular character as a queer icon sounds off-key to me.

In the film, a widowed woman struggles to raise her son in the wake of his father’s death. Her son is haunted; she pretends otherwise. They’re dogged by his unsettling visions of a tall man in a coat and hat who seems to be his father and won’t leave them alone. Horror ensues.

When the movie was released in 2014, it was celebrated for its gothic honesty, a rare representation of unsentimentalized motherhood. But in the past months, The Babadook has been claimed as an important queer film. It’s true that my appreciation of the movie does have to do with my queerness. But not in the way that recent discussions would have you think.

I’d argue that the uptake of The Babadook as a queer movie participates in a recent tendency to reduce queer sexuality to a consumable symbol and to erase its hot-blooded physicality. Like a Pride-themed endcap at your local Target, this interpretation of the movie sanitizes queer sexuality and renders it a vendible product. It defines queerness as resistance to straightness rather than a sexuality in its own right, a form of entertainment to be consumed by straight people rather than a lived experience practiced by gay people. It, in short, straightens out queerness.

To explain more fully, I have to distinguish between The Babadook (the movie) and the Babadook (the character).

Commentators tend to describe the Babadook (the character) as a symbol of queerness because he threatens traditional suburban life. According to this logic, he makes it impossible for mother Amelia and son Samuel to maintain a normal life—as epitomized by Amelia’s sister Claire and her friends—and thus “embodies queerness.” Sometimes his fashion sense is invoked: that hat, gurl; that coat. Those jazz hands; that grin.

The Babadook recapitulates Liza Minelli in Cabaret, but, this time, she knows what she’s doing, and she’s pissed.

I find these analogies thin, but not unconvincing. They seem reasonable enough as far as they go. I do, however, find unconvincing the assertion that the Babadook is what centrally renders The Babadook appealing to gay men.

I suspect that—apart from its impeccable construction, beautiful cinematography, brilliant acting, and chilling sound design, all of which are present but are attractive to everyone—The Babadook has become popular with gay men recently because of two factors. First, the cute cubby nurse Robbie (played by Daniel Henshall). Second, the incredibly hot deceased husband Oskar (played by Benjamin Winspear).

Benjamin Winspear: Incredibly hot.

Or, put differently: gay guys may love a great movie, sure. But we love hot guys more.

This may seem reductive, and, their considerable charms notwithstanding, these two characters are not the central reasons I’ve watched the movie repeatedly. But the move to replace sexual explanations for The Babadook’s sudden spike in popularity with metaphoric ones is troubling.

That move parallels such recent sanitizations of gay culture as RuPaul’s Drag Race’s move to VH1 (amid a flurry of ads for KY Jelly aimed at different-sex couples) and, tracing a longer trajectory, the rhetoric of “love wins.” These gestures offer tolerance at the expense of real recognition. Sure, love, in all its forms, should win — but let’s not forget about sex.

It seems, to me, necessary not so much to theorize The Babadook’s appeal to gay men, but to claim, full-throated, that we love it because hot guys are in it.

The Babdook is pretty fabulous, a drag queen wielding all the powers drag queens strive for: light effects, giant fans, general menace. Flight.

And we can and should enjoy that. But to desexualize this movie—one, it bears emphasizing, that is centrally concerned with sexuality in all its forms—is to construe gay people as symbols, rather than people.

Erotic investments in movies like The Babadook, movies that provide critical views of normative life, should be recognized and valued. We might then recognize that this movie and others like it are not a validation of a pre-established sense of gayness, but an experience of queerness’s complexity.

The Babadook itself shows us the consequences of failing to do so.

If we’re to take the Babadook as a queer icon, we must acknowledge his predicament at the end of the movie. Chained in the basement, defanged of his threat, fed worms extracted from a suburban lawn, he has been contained. He hasn’t disrupted suburban life, but has been incorporated into it. We may prefer to imagine him performing death drops while intoning “You Baba-WERQ!,” but the movie’s coda casts a chilling backward look at how gay politics has assimilated to a fundamentally conservative agenda: we’re allowed to live in the house, but only as the beast safely tamed.

Chris Shirley is happy to see you.

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  1. I find the enshrinement of the titular creature as queer endearing and mystifying. While I agree with your points, I would argue that the queer aspect of the film is the agonized mother/son relationship. Indeed, the Babadook seems less like a queer sprite to me than it does some mysterious male menace undermining maternal authority or a manifestation of the mother’s unbearable fury against her child.

    • And the mother’s anger toward her child is exactly what I think it most interesting about the film! What makes it so compelling, so classic, is its willingness to explore that psychological, even psychosexual, dynamic. (It has this in common with a lot of the great horror films; Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist.) I think that dynamic is also lost in commentary rendering the Babadook a queer sprite, in your really excellent turn of phrase. I think the Babadook makes a lot more sense as the specter of patriarchy rather than that of queerness, and I’d love to see a reading of the film on those grounds!


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