The Unicorn Scale: Rent

12/18/2018

Welcome back, royal leaders! I’ll bet you were expecting me to write “loyal readers,” weren’t you? You probably were and I usually do, but 1) I like to keep readers on their toes, 2) we are all regal beings if 3) we are in the driver’s seat of our own destinies.

Plus, I just watched a musical and I like to play with expectations and rhymes after I watch them.

That musical in question is our other bi holiday pick for the season, RENT. Based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning 1999 rock musical, this 2005 dramatic film adaptation focuses on the bohemian residents of Alphabet City in lower Manhattan over the course of a year, 1989-1990.

So how is it bi, and how is it a holiday movie? Well, the bulk of the plot takes place on Christmas Eve of those two years. (Hey, if holiday-as-narrative-framing is good enough for calling It’s A Wonderful Life a Christmas movie using the same, it’s good enough for RENT.) And bi? Who’s bi in this one? Well, you’ll have to keep reading to find out.

Before I get into this jingle bell rocker, here come my standard heads-ups: This review will contain SPOILERS. Also, if you are not familiar with our rating metric, I highly suggest heading over to the very first Unicorn Scale which explains how we go about observing bi+ representation in media.

Good? Faboo. So grab your favorite scarf to stave off that Manhattan wind chill, your sense of artistic integrity, and strap in – this is going to be a bit of a ride. We may even pirouette around some subway poles – who knows. No day but today.

What I Liked:

I have a lot of feelings about this story, and I will get into what I distilled about processing them in a moment. But for the sake of this article, I am tasked to focus on Maureen (played by Idina Menzel), a bi performance artist whose show – and romantic inclinations – wreak havoc with her friends and neighbors alike.

I will say I liked a few things about Maureen. She’s spunky. She has boatloads of confidence and charisma. And while she does not use the word herself to describe her orientation, the number “La Vie Boheme” uses the term “bisexual.” I also appreciate that Maureen is very comfortable with her queerness – she was with Mark (played by Anthony Rapp #oneofus), now she’s with Joanne (played by Tracie Thoms). Everyone else just needs to catch up to this avant-garde artist, is how she sees it.

I wish more movies with bi+ characters had these fairly simple concepts going for them.

What I Did Not Like:

I have to be honest and give a Very Unpopular Opinion: I am not at all a Renthead. No, I have never seen the show in person, and I’ve been told multiple times by people singing the songs in karaoke bars that is why. Maybe so.

But I love musicals; I auditioned for them for years, studied them, even went to workshops in high school to learn how they were structured so I could write some of my own. But RENT just never got under my skin like the other shows did. Which is surprising because by the time my peers were getting into the soundtrack, I was a queer, snobby little artiste who could barely afford to buy chicken. So by all accounts, I should have related hard once I finally saw this musical got an adaptation on the big screen.

I…. did not. Maybe it’s because I’m the daughter of very decent landlords and know the other side of the argument. Maybe it’s because, no matter what else has gone on in my life, I never wanted to move from my home because I couldn’t pay my rent, so that check never, ever bounced (and to this day has always cleared).  But I was not feeling the music or the set-up when I first watched the 2005 adaptation.

So I felt worried when I decided to cover the musical for this column. Maybe I had become more curmudgeonly as I got older, and would continue to shake my fists at these whippersnappers who were just following the paces Puccini laid out for them.

Now that I’ve seen it again thirteen years later, I will definitely make some allowances. There is no doubt RENT has and deserves a place in the pantheon for its depiction of AIDS and a queer community in the late 80s. But there is too much pettiness and petulance masquerading as the face of freedom for me with these characters to ignore and write off as romantic.

I know this is a long wind-up, so here’s my pitch: I can’t stand Maureen. And my dislike of her boils down to what I cannot stand about the whole show. Maureen may be dynamic, but she harbors so many bi film stereotypes I started to lose count. She is selfish (Mark tells her at least once to stop turning the conversation back to herself). She openly cheats (that’s how she met Joanne). She flirts in front of her fiancée at their engagement party (start adopting a poly model if you want this, Maureen, if you can honor it). She blatantly manipulates people to get what she wants. And she is flighty and unprofessional (she doesn’t even show up to her own sound check and sets up an ex and her current S.O. to meet without her there to mediate).

There’s very little to say about Maureen’s character other than her terrible treatment of people she supposedly loves or cares about. And perhaps the worst part of all is she wants all of these things to be written off because that’s how she is: “Take me, baby, or leave me.” I have no stomach for this kind of stubbornness, especially when it is used with a veneer of being an artist.

Honestly, Maureen’s whole character and arc rubbed me the wrong way. And hey, while it’s good to see some representation on stage and screen, it certainly doesn’t help perpetuate healthy, three-dimensional images for people within and without the bi community.

The Rating:

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for a good flawed bi character. But there really isn’t that much here with Maureen. Most of her story hinges on her sexuality and the betrayals she commits to the other characters – not her artistic growth, not what she does to further a community goal, nothing. I really dislike a lot of things about this story (dude, take up Benny’s offer for a year of free rent and then protest in front of a wrecking ball once the ink is dry), but the betrayal of Maureen’s paper-doll caricature as bi representation may be one of the worst offenders.

Okay, I’m gonna go shake off these Grinch vibes and go watch Carol again. With some Christmas spirit. In a tumbler.

Jennie Roberson
Jennie Roberson is a comedic actress and screenwriter currently living in Los Angeles. She just finished her first novel (a bi coming-of-age tale, naturally) and hopes to share it with the world soon. When she's not busy binging on Star Trek or dreaming of her future cat army, you can find her occasional thoughts between mountains of re-tweets at her Twitter handle, @JennieRoberson.