The Case of the Invisible Lesbians
I’m just going to go ahead and say it: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights is already the movie of the summer. I don’t know if it’s the best movie that will be released all summer long (although a 96 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes bodes well in that regard), but I cannot fathom another movie this year capturing the very essence of summertime: the heat, the escape, the celebration, and oh yes…the heat.
In fact, this movie is so hot that I felt it. Even in the Arctic-grade air-conditioned theater* I sat in, I could feel the stifling hot and steamy air of a New York summer, as well as the infectious rhythms of the Salsa-meets-Hip-Hop-meets-Merengue score. The movie is hot in every possible way. I loved it, without reservation.
And yet, as you’ve undoubtedly heard, it’s not without controversies. Most notably, the Afro-Latine** community was upset that all of their community was not represented by any of the lead characters in the film. While the Washington Heights neighborhood, via the scores of dancers who populate the screen, is visibly diverse, the Latin-American immigrant stories that are highlighted are focused solely on those with lighter skin tones. Miranda himself heard these concerns and issued a gracious response. Latina legend Rita Moreno came to his defense in this regard, and later apologized for her remarks.
But there’s another controversy that wasn’t talked about as much. In the stage version of In the Heights, Daniela owns the beauty salon, and Carla is a stylist there. In the new film, they are played as a lesbian couple. In the opening images of the film, they wake up in bed together—and in two scenes, they are seen dancing with each other.
In the press leading up to the film release, Daphne Rubin-Vega (who plays Daniela in the film and achieved immediate icon status when she originated the role of Mimi in Broadway’s Rent) spoke about how proud she was to represent the LGBTQ community in the film, and that the movie was taking this important step toward greater inclusion.
And yet, many in the community felt let down when they saw the film. It’s literally a case of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. During the opening, you don’t know who these two women are, and the moment is so fast that when you finally see Daniela and Carla on screen again later, you probably won’t recall having seen them before. The shots of them dancing are in the background of other scenes which are driving the plot forward; if you’re not actively looking for them, you’ll miss them.
Their invisibility is compounded by the fact that a new character, Cuca (played by Orange is the New Black’s Dascha Polanco), has been added to the film—and she spends most of her time with Daniela and Carla. The trio act like three fun, sassy friends, and further dilute any interaction solely between the supposedly lesbian couple that might have otherwise occurred.
If anyone went to see In the Heights and was particularly excited about seeing a positive representation of the LGBTQ community, I can understand why they were upset. To many, it felt like a classic case of queerbaiting. Eve Ng, professor of media and gender studies at Ohio University describes the practice as “leading us on…making us think you’re actually going to deliver a satisfying narrative but it doesn’t turn out.”
As I say, I get it. And, I hope that the controversies surrounding In the Heights don’t prevent you or anyone else from seeing it. It might not be a perfect film, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen something so joyous and profoundly moving.
The disappointment that some in the Afro-Latine and queer communities felt after watching this film isn’t just because one movie didn’t include them—it’s because In the Heights is the only major film about the Latin-American experience in recent memory. A lot of the discontent stems from the belief that if I can’t be seen in this movie, I won’t ever be seen at all.
And let’s not kid ourselves: Hollywood is a business. After examining these controversies, what’s clear to me is that we really need far more stories about the Hispanic and Latin communities in our cinemas. The very best way to make that happen is to ensure that In the Heights is a big fat hit. Go see it. And look for the lesbians—they’re there, if you’re paying attention. ▼
* By the way, I’ve really missed movie theaters. But that’s another column.
** “Latine” (la-TEEN-eh) is a gender-neutral version of “Latino,” preferable to many in the community to “Latinx.”
Eric Peterson is a novelist, podcaster, and DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) practitioner. His debut novel, Loyalty, Love & Vermouth will be released in November 2021.