I finally got around to seeing the new adaptation of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy this weekend, and, wow. It is everything I want in a spy movie: Beautifully visualized, relentlessly realistic, complex, and excellently performed by basically every worthwhile British-accented male actor alive today—Gary Oldman’s subtle turn as the master spy George Smiley is entirely Oscar-worthy, and Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Peter Guillam, the Watson to Smiley’s Holmes (an insidery irony, as TV Tropes points out).
But one detail of Tinker Tailor got me thinking about something beyond the murky world of Cold War spycraft: in a brief but touching twist, Guillam is forced by circumstances to abandon a male lover, lest he be outed and fired. Guillam’s sexuality is given no prior indication beyond his predilection for slightly flashier ties than those preferred by his colleagues in British Intelligence. It’s in line with the plot, and a nice bit of added depth to a great performance by Cumberbatch—yet I’ve seen it before. Several times before, in fact.
That’s because Cumberbatch’s Peter Guillam is only the latest in a recent run of gay characters in filmic and televisual period pieces set on both sides of the Atlantic, characters whose sexuality is uniformly treated as a cross to bear, because It Really Sucked to Be Gay Back Then. And, make no mistake, it really, really did. (I’m currently reading Randy Shilts’s biography of Harvey Milk, The Mayor of Castro Street, so the miserable, hunted lives of pre-Stonewall gays are particularly fresh in my mind.) But it’s interesting to me that this particular feature of past society has suddenly become such a common trope.
For the purposes of this little essay, I’m going to dub these unhappy period-piece queers the Miserable Old-Timey Homos, or MOTHs. Here’s an inventory off the top of my head. Again, here be spoilers:
Sal Romano (played by Bryan Batt), the artistic director at Mad Men‘s fictious, sixties-era ad agency Sterling Cooper, is maybe the original MOTH. Sal is introduced as a closet case in the first episode, when he presents a lovingly detailed sketch of his shirtless male neighbor as a prototype for a full-page ad. He subsequently enters into a sham marriage, almost gets it on with a bellboy—and is inadvertently outed to his boss, Don Draper, in the process—during a business trip, only to be summarily fired by Don after refusing an advance from one of Sterling Cooper’s most important clients.
Then there’s Thomas (Rob James-Collier), the footman at the eponymous estate on the British pre-war soap Downton Abbey. Within an episode of meeting Thomas, we learn of his summer-long affair with a young nobleman, and see said nobleman (the Duke of Crowborough, IMBD reminds me) cast him aside. This experience seems to fuel Thomas’s subsequent development as one of the principal villains of Downton‘s first season.
The first season The Hour, widely described as the British version of Mad Men, has a veritably MOTH-eaten plot, starting with an arranged sham engagement broken off by the suspicious suicide of the bride-to-be, and propelled forward by the machinations of a closeted government minister. The homophobia of the era (the 1950s, this time) is lampshaded when a straight character notes that, had she known one MOTH was gay, she wouldn’t have let him anywhere near her children.
Finally, there’s the fizzled NBC drama The Playboy Club, which centered around, yes, the Playboy Club in 1960s Chicago. I never watched it, but one of the show’s many widely-cited period details was that the club provided a point of contact for members of the Mattachine Society, the pre-Stonewall gay rights organization.
For the most part, the MOTH performances I’ve seen have been interesting and well-acted. As noted above, it’s entirely appropriate for a story taking place in the past to address how much worse it was to be gay in the 1960s, or the 1950s, or the 1910s. It was also pretty damned lousy to be African American, or female, or any (apparently) any British citizen without a peerage in those days, too—and most of the shows and movies featuring MOTHs also touch on life as experienced by those other, larger groups of not-white-straight-male-peers. But it is, I think, remarkable that noting the plight of sexual minorities in the days of old has become de rigeur for films and TV shows about those days.
How much is this the case? Well, in digging up Tinker Tailor references for this post, I discovered something I’d forgotten since reading the original Le Carré novel many years ago: in the book, Peter Guillam is straight.
Is the rise of the MOTHs a good thing? Maybe. To some extent, acknowledging specific ways that life used to be lousy for a particular minority should prompt us to think more critically about how life might be today, for any minority. But I also worry that it presupposes that life today is one hundred percent okay for queers (or women, or African Americans) today, and that’s not at all true.
Moreover, I wonder what it tells us that our entertainment is implicitly focused on how much better things are today. Television and movies used to promote tolerance by portraying a more inclusive future—the examplar is the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, depicted circa 1969 with an African American woman as communications lieutenant, and Japanese and Russian helmsmen. Now, instead of stories about how much better things could be, we’re telling ourselves stories about how much worse they used to be. I am not at all sure I like that contrast. ◼
Am I worrying too much about the possible negative implications of MOTHs? Did I miss your favorite MOTH? Let me know in the comments, dear readers.