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Making Freddie Straight

Headlines and Hashtags Cry Het-Washing

"The only thing...more extraordinary...than their his story."

Recently, 20th Century Fox released a teaser trailer for the upcoming Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. Set to a clever mashup of the band's biggest hits, the trailer guides its viewers from the stage to the studio, from well-known moments still in some of the public's memory to private scenes exclusive to those present at the time. To some viewers, however, a crucial element seemed nearly absent: Freddie's homosexuality.

Critics of the Bohemian Rhapsody teaser trailer may have a point. Other than one very brief shot of the singer appearing to begin a romantic encounter with a man in an empty studio, no effort is made to clarify that Freddie Mercury was gay. On the contrary, several shots of Mercury flirting and dancing with a woman (romantic partner Mary Austin, whom Freddie described as his "common-law wife") are present; taken on its own, this trailer tells an unbalanced story at best. At worst, it is symptomatic of Hollywood's representation problem.

Perhaps the negative response is just a rush to judgment. After all, the film won't be released until November, and a minute-and-a-half trailer of mostly Greatest Hits performance montage is bound to neglect a large portion of the final product. Some fans have pointed out that Freddie Mercury described himself as bisexual, to which TV writer and producer Bryan Fuller (who has somewhat spearheaded backlash to the trailer) responded on Twitter, "The bigger issue is using "bi" as an excuse to emphasize one aspect of his sexuality over another - i.e., the part that can be identified in marketing as "heterosexual" not bi." Many have also criticized the late singer for doing essentially nothing to advance gay movements in his lifetime, some even denouncing his choice to keep his AIDS diagnosis secret until the day before his death in 1991.

Media headlines haven't cleared up any confusion. "Freddie Mercury Biopic to Ignore AIDS Crisis," reported Star Observer in July 2017. The article itself provides almost no information to substantiate such a claim, yet it has been retweeted over four hundred times, appearing in the feeds of countless Twitter users who are unlikely to read more than the headline (computer scientists from Columbia University and the French National Institute released a study in 2016 claiming that 59 percent of links shared on social media sites are never actually clicked). The film's official description does include a mention (however vague) of Mercury's "life-threatening illness" (a phrase also criticized by Fuller: "Yes, it was a life-threatening illness, but more specifically it was AIDS. From having gay sex with men. Do better.")

To the masses comprising "the internet," the choice is clear: either pre-emptively condemn the film for #HETWASHING ("heterosexual-washing"/downplaying an LGBT character's sexuality), or dismiss outright the fear of a historically vulnerable community that a beloved icon is about to be gravely misrepresented on the big screen.


There is nuance to this story that a seven-word headline cannot adequately convey. The movie is set to end in 1985 with the band's legendary Live Aid performance, six years before Mercury's death, so it seems unlikely that his final days will be shown onscreen. Sacha Baron Cohen, originally slated to play Mercury until leaving the project in 2013, told Howard Stern that he left the project because he envisioned a darker and wilder version of the story than the film's producers (including Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor). At the time, the working script apparently placed Freddie's death around halfway through the film, with the remainder devoted to the rest of the band and how they moved forward after their devastating loss; this is not included in the official plot synopsis from 20th Century Fox and it is unclear how much the script has evolved since. Brian May, in response to Cohen's interview: “Are we the kind of people who have ever ducked from the truth? I don’t think so.

If recent events have taught us anything, it is that despite the upward trajectory of human development, we are still prone to some serious cognitive errors. Ever helpful, cable news stations pummel viewers with sensationalized stories on complex topics in minutes-long segments, and, as mentioned earlier, social media users are apt to share headlines rather than actual substance. Combine these with a strong dose of tribalism, and we become perfect targets for logical fallacies: arguments illegitimate or irrelevant, often defended with flawed or insufficient evidence. Purdue OWL defines hasty generalization as "a conclusion based on insufficient or biased evidence. In other words, you are rushing to a conclusion before you have all the relevant facts." The Bohemian Rhapsody teaser trailer certainly does not contain all of the relevant facts to critique the full-length movie, so to judge the latter using only the former is to make such an error. However, one can examine the trailer for itself. Was it edited in such a way as to sweep Freddie Mercury's sexuality under the rug in order to make the movie more market-friendly, regardless of how it is portrayed in the film? Was this intentional or symptomatic of unconscious bias? These are questions worth considering.

Despite the appeal of speculation, it may be best to wait and judge the film on its own merits when it's released. Maybe Freddie's sexuality and all that came with it in that era will be glossed over. Fine. Tell your friends not to waste their money. Or maybe the film will tastefully and accurately present the whole story of one of modern music's most iconic performers. Fantastic. Whether the film ends up being perfect or irredeemable or somewhere in between, the true and complicated story of Freddie Mercury, a gay man with an exceptional voice fronting a wildly successful band, will remain exactly that.

Image courtesy of Pexels

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