The State of Pride and the New Battlefield for Representation

i'm less super

I’ve been thinking lately about the shelf life of “groundbreaking” characters: where their place in the narrative intersects with how well whatever “unusual” part of their makeup is portrayed, whether they were meant to give the underrepresented group someone to see themselves in or to give the normative viewer a heads up that other people living other lives exist, and how progress has done all kinds of tricky things with the bar for success. The depiction of queer characters in visual media has made a staggering amount of strides from the early 20th century to now (I believe I’ve recommended the documentary The Celluloid Closet before but really can’t do so enough), to the point where we’re beginning to see same-gender relationships normalized in children’s media – something I frankly thought I’d make it to old age before seeing. So why am I left feeling so out of sorts?

At the very least I think we can say there’s a line separating off media older than the last 50 years – probably nobody is watching The Boys in the Band or The Children’s Hour and thinking “wow, I sure feel represented by that!” Being in a suicidal anguish about one’s orientation is more or less solely the domain of Chick Tracts at this point. Gay bars and etc. are no longer terrifying dens into which our fearless straight hero journeys in search of The Truth (see: Heat and The Black Dahlia), and the adjoining implication that warped morality is entwined with sexuality has been….well, it’s been banished to subtext anyway (whether it’s more insidious there is a topic for another day).

Even the groundbreaking, still beautiful Angels in America has been lent something of a historical-document tint by the discovery of ways to manage HIV/AIDS for years (putting aside discussion of the availability of those treatments, and the fact that this is really only applicable in north America) in contrast to the lurking specter of rapid, horrific death the disease existed as in the 80s and 90s. Queer characters are increasingly allowed to exist as human-type beings, with feelings and lives and everything. Kinda.

it's love
Oho, don’t think we aren’t coming back to “this simple feeling”

As queer characters (I ought to just say gay, since trans narratives are next to nonexistent – and focused almost exclusively on physical transition when they do exist – and bi/pansexuals are still treated as hilarious misunderstandings) become more visible, the next thing to consider is perspective. Bless its heart, the 90s was full of well-meaning attempts to humanize gay characters by having Very Special Episodes where the main cast was confronted with a one-off character and made to examine their own prejudices. Certainly this was a leg up on pretending that non-straight people didn’t exist, or demonizing them. But these narratives are also framed almost exclusively with straight viewers in mind – the “non-normals” come out and have their day in the sun, everyone learns a lesson and thinks a few thoughts…and then things go back to the way they were before. Everyone gets to feel better about themselves for being tolerant, but nothing’s actually changed. The status is as quo as ever, if you will (this tended to apply to depictions of race and disability as well). It’s its own form of alienating, acknowledging that Those People exist and might even be human being, but, y’know. They exist Over There, because the writers by and large didn’t know how to include that sort of diversity as a normal part of the show’s reality (never mind allowing those characters to be one of the protagonists).

The next, very slight step up from that is the Super Minor Character or the Joke. You know – the character who’s queer but they’re almost never around, and because they’re around so rarely their sexuality is the predominant feature of their character. The Gay Best Friend in a thousand chick flicks (where being supportive of one’s friend morphs into the eerie feeling that these people have nothing else to do with their lives, like platonic rainbow Stepford Wives), the Shocking Reveal Bad Date (oh, will our heterosexual hero/ine ever find love?), the Tragic Lovers Who Aren’t Actually Given Equal Portrayal to the Hetero Relationships or Competency Before Said Tragedy (hello Game of Thrones), the Shrieking Stereotype who talks with a pronounced lisp or wears lots of flannel, and these traits become some kind of reason for an endless supply of cheap jokes. Existing on the sidelines gives uncomfortable creators ways to feel as though they’re being inclusive while also leading them to fall into cheap traps of characterization, without really challenging themselves to challenge their assumptions of what normal is rather than just cramming something Abnormal in on the side.

And the trap of it is that there are so few portrayals, such mighty expectations, that even having a queer-centric narrative or a queer creator doesn’t guarantee anything (my example on the latter point will forever be my desire to throw Kurt “bisexuals aren’t real” Hummel from something very tall). The expectations become so unbearably high, pressure-cooked in a combination of lack of representation and bitterness over old (and not so old) mistakes, that the stakes for trying and failing seem worse than not trying at all and just taking the complaints. In a world where people have put so much emotional belief into the relative rarity of Cecil Palmer and Carlos the Scientist’s healthy, stable relationship that any disagreement or hardship between them sparks actual outrage (an emotion I understand on a gut level but find untenable and unfair from a storytelling perspective), one begins to see both how trying to include representation can be intimidating and how inexcusably rare things that heterosexual portrayals take for granted are (particularly in works where romance isn’t the primary focus).

made of love
Or as I like to call them “so what’s your excuse again, Disney?”

Try people have, in baby steps and occasionally giant leaps (you’ve all heard about Steven Universe by now, I assume?). For many people, the people for whom those Very Special Episodes were made years ago, it’s enough. We can stop now, apparently, because occasionally they can point to a character who’s different from themselves. But the issues haven’t gone away at all. They’ve just become harder to see for those who aren’t affected, for those who are still starved of seeing themselves in the media they consume.

They become Brian Fuller having to fight, as head of his own show, to keep the lesbian Margot from being written into a heterosexual romance with Will Graham; they become the feeling that the queerness of John Constantine and Deadpool are not worth exploring, effectively using the larger audience’s biases to imply heterosexuality while hiding behind a defense that they “just didn’t mention it;” it becomes writing fumbles like Dumbledore, where his sexuality has been divorced enough that it can be handily avoided by those who consider it “icky” in years to come; and relationships like Korra and Asami, who managed to hold hands at the very furthest extents of what the network was willing to show (on a show positively littered with heterosexual smooches) and whose creators still had to come out and crush the powerful shifting lines that crush any kind of perceived queerness beneath a blanket of “just friends!” (while claiming that more direct statements are “too preachy,” because one has to be careful to rig a losing game). It’s a world where people are still desperately trying to call Ruby and Sapphire “not really gay” because of alien conceptions of gender, but would never hesitate to call Peter Quill and Gamora straight.

My rage at “market the fantasy sequence like it’s an actual occurrence” aside,
Behold the lack of closure I’m saddest about in Shearer leaving
Just. Just let the show die with dignity, FOX

This new landscape is troubling to me – it’s set up a dichotomy where media can pretend that discrimination against queer individuals is nonexistent while relegating them to the sidelines and to tired old tropes, patting themselves on the back without having to take any big risks on what the “real” market might want (likewise saying that queer creators should make their own content if they want it seen while giving them no visibility in the market). It assumes its done well enough and that voices of critique are overzealous SJWs. It’s an atmosphere that makes liberal use of queerbaiting (the implication of romantic feelings between same-gender characters with no intent of canonical follow through) and then dismisses the queries of fans asking why those characters haven’t gotten together.

It’s a playing field that’s switched the lights off, in other words; where every truly heartening step forward carries with it a hearty scattering of new problems. I could write about the subject every week and still have material, would it not be exhausting and embittering (there are days where I yearn for the relative straightforwardness of a Smithers or a Will & Grace, even with all their problematic elements). And the hope is sometimes just enough to keep adoring things in the wake of all the fuckups. Happy Pride Month, darling readers. Buckle up.

13 replies »

  1. I think you might find this and this interesting. Their “Boobs on your Tube” column is also a good weekly run-down of all of the queer ladies on television, which can bring up lots of shows that geeks don’t normally follow. And yeah, it seems like genre is lagging in that representation department. Most of the iconic pairings in recent years have been from ABC Family, for pete’s sake. Consider this paragraph from a recap about a certain Christmas special:

    When this picture started making the rounds on Monday, everyone was just losing their minds in a pants-flaming way, but let me tell you what I did. I looked at it and I burst into tears. I could tell you right now, off the top of my head, a full list of every queer female TV character in history, what show she was on, what she did with her life, what her appearance meant in the broader scheme of lesbian/bi visibility, what the social impact was of her character, how that character birthed whatever new crop of characters. That’s my job and that’s my brain and I’ve been doing it since forever. Never, ever did I ever think we’d get to a place in my lifetime where a lesbian TV character would be treated with so much affection and dignity and respect that her girlfriend would fit in as seamlessly as all the boyfriends on the show. It’s sweet, yes. But it’s sexy, too. And it’s no big deal in Rosewood, and that’s a big fucking deal in the real world.

    What show inspired such emotion? Pretty Little Liars. Is that show on any geek’s radar? Does anyone consider it genre? Probably not.

    But now, we’ve got Orphan Black, Person of Interest, Orange is the New Black, Defiance, The 100, Arrow, The Returned, and more genre shows than ever are starting to have queer major players, sometimes even the bisexual protagonist herself. (Although Lost Girl is ending.) There’s even more happening overseas. And even Kdrama had its first TV f/f kiss this year!

    Sure, the fight’s far from over, but when my friend can have a dash full of western live action f/f and be given so much canon material that subtext pairings no longer satisfy, it’s a good time.

    • That DOES seem like an intriguing resource – and you’re right. The fact that there are new and more complicated battles to fight (stuff like Piper being referred to as gay when she’s with Alex and straight with Larry – I think there’s a very brief tossed off mention to bisexuality once, and in general media is so married to the idea of sexual and gender binaries that they try to lump everything not The Gayest Gay into words like “bromance” or “a phase”) there’s no reason not to celebrate the achievements that HAVE been made. (I’m especially pleased to hear about queer characters in Orphan Black, since I’ve had that on my to-watch list for an age now).

  2. This is something I like about the character of Thomas on Downton Abbey– here you have a gay man (in a period drama, no less), who isn’t relegated to Tragic Hero or Sassy Pal, who is, admittedly, kind of a dick, but not in a “Oh no, he might corrupt the straights!” way (his dickery is generally limited to trying to advance his career and/or get back at people who’ve embarrassed him; if anything, the scenes dealing with his orientation show his gentler side), who has friends and subplots and is one of the most complex and well-developed characters on the show. Pity there are so few like him out there…

  3. I fully agree.

    After this winter I was left with similar sentiments.

    It was the first time in a long time I was watching shows that were currently or currently aired in a long time.

    And in by all means it was a very gay winter for animation, surprisingly so.

    I’m of course referring to LOK, Yuri Kuma and Stevens U.

    Korra and Asami (for me felt a bit out of left field) was impressive, but at its core was a case of Dumbledooring/Bi-the-way.

    I watched the show full well knowing how it ended, and the whole time was thinking: at some point this gets gay, but I’m really not seeing it.

    Not to dump on Korra, I loved the show, season 3 and 4 had its shit together and unforgettable cast.

    After processing the end, I had to remind myself, I’m not 11-teen and watching this, I’m an adult. This was not made for me, and if I was young and saw this, it would have blown me away. But after being out and proud for years, I wanted so much more.

    I then poked around the internet and found all the reaction videos, and it was watching those that truly moved me. There were so many people that this meant something to. That in many ways they (K&A) seemed to be the favored couple in the end, and them getting “together” was for many, validating.

    Characters like these two was something the world wanted to see.

    I’m glad you mentioned the Celluloid Closet, ( A film I am also always bugging people to watch) because I couldn’t help but think of when, I believe it was Shirley MacLaine who talks about the audience always being ready before the film makers.

    After watching the reactions to LOK ending, I definitely felt like much more of the world was ready.

    Yuri Kuma, was by far the gayest of the three, but also an not a US television show. I think this fact makes it the most complicated to discuss and also the one that left me most frustrated.

    Yuri Kuma though clearly a commentary on the yuri/shoujo-ai genre still fell into the same pit falls.

    What we may never know is, why?

    Which decisions were purely Ikukara’s and which were due to Japanese television/societal restrictions?

    I am left unsure if I should be disappointed in Ikuhara or chalk it up to the continued uphill battle of open and honest queer characters.

    It’s probably a mix a both.

    I couldn’t help but twinge every time they used “friend,” that still after all this time, after how clear the truth about these characters were, they still use “the love that dare not speak its name.”

    Once the show ended I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that 18 years later I am still hearing the exact same message from my favorite director: some day, together we’ll shine or movie version: not here, but in the outside world.

    That some day, some where our love can exist. But not here, not now.

    Utena both show and film shook me to the core and has never left me, Yuri Kuma was the sequel I expected coming a few years later, but not 18.

    But maybe how dated the message is a very important and telling.

    It seems that we may be reaching a queer impasse with Japan.

    They were once the front runner of queer characters in animation despite societal norms, and America’s animated depictions was behind, despite making more societal progress each year.

    Despite Yuri Kuma’s overtness, it almost felt more dated than the subtler two shows.

    If you picked up where the Celluloid closet leaves off, there has been growth, but not much. As you mentioned it’s really just changed again, the way homosexuals are portrayed. Not as much the victim or victimizer like 50’s-70’s, but sidelined in other ways.

    • I think Korra’s both ahead of and behind its time – behind in that the producers were quite hamstrung about what they could show/imply, so in times to come people will no doubt dismiss it without realizing just WHAT A DEAL it was for the people of right now. And ahead of because the relationship wasn’t built into the show from the ground up, but rather something that developed as the story went on (and truly I think the developing closeness between Korra and Asami is quite well done – there just aren’t many of the LOOK SQUISHY FEELINGS markers that are expected as visual shorthand, and they don’t get a highlight “moment” that’s likewise a narrative trick for bringing attention to hey this is important until the very end). In a way, it’s the goal of what we’re going for, that a queer relationship can just come up because the characters had great chemistry and things naturally evolved that way, strangled a bit by overzealous censors and fear.
      YKA I enjoyed immensely, but it seemed like there were certain things that were clever ideas that never quite found fruition (in the name of focusing on the central love story) – chief among those the fetishizing-of-queerness motif and the “friends” bit, which I took to be something of a comment on the BL/GL baiting of the modern industry, but didn’t really come to anything (in the way it might’ve if, say, when they ascended to a new plain they’d been allowed a new word for one another). But it was still a lovely, romantic little story.
      But it all can get quite disheartening, can’t it?

  4. As someone for whom the aforementioned 90s Very Special Episodes were made and who learned to pity those poor homosexuals from them, I still remember what a jolt it was to see Kunzite and Zoisite together in Sailor Moon. You can criticize that pairing for a lot of things, but it was the first time I ever saw gay characters whose sexuality didn’t cause them pain or make them comic. Instead their relationship was a source of joy, support and even humanity for those very bad men. And that’s how a children’s show profoundly influenced my world view and taught me about the power of the media.

    As for queerbaiting, what do you think separates it from the kind of unresolved queer subtext that gets one’s inner English Major going, such as the topic of your delightful Lupin/Jigen essay? Does it depend on what we can assume was possible for the artist to get away with, whether the undertones feel calculated for commercial purposes, if they feels organically part of the series, or is it something more elusive?

    Sometimes it’s pretty easy to tell, of course. Depending on the next few episodes, KyoAni’s currently-airing Hibike! Euphonium is either telling a sensitive yet frank love story about two musically gifted girls and the negative effects of heteronormativity, or it’s going for some kind of a world record in queerbaiting.

    • Uhhh, well KyoAni gonna KyoAni, so I’m gonna tragically guess it’s the latter on that one. Where the line on subtext vs. censorship vs. queerbaiting gets drawn is still murky water, frustratingly so. I think time period likely does have something to do with it, certainly – when exactly studios figured out that “hey fans think m/m and f/f stuff is hot fanservices” is a pretty strong marker probably too).
      And the culture of “bromance” is so strong at this point that anything can be lumped in as straight with the slightest excuse, of course. And many, many studios use that to play to both sides – strong enough subtext that those starving for queerness (both tthose in the community and those who want fanservice which is its own problematic nest of issues) will read it as such, while the “real” audience will have enough excuses to call it Good Friendship. This is the land where KyoAni, Supernatural, et al. live (I’m always on the fence about accusing Hannibal of this, since that’s a show bound up in sublimated desire and the fact that outright queerness involving Hannibal himself would risk playing into the old “decadent evil queer” trope, and so on; and at the same time THAT SUBTEXT).
      So…it’s complicated. Naturally my inclination is “does this seem gay? MAKE IT SO, COWARDS.” I’ve spent a lot of years being burned.
      (Oh, Kunzite and Zoisite meant so much to me. Nearly as much as Haruka and Michiru).

      • Without going too much into it, the first season of KyoAni’s Hibike! Euphonium never directly brought up the love that dares not speak its name, but there will probably be a continuation and they seem more committed to the suggested attraction between the female leads than in certain previous works. There’s a level of realism and honesty to the series that makes it impossible to pretend that massive amounts of sexual tension and unconscious flirting are perfectly ordinary parts of friendship. It’s a very good series in general, provided one isn’t allergic to high school clubs striving for the nationals.

    • Ah! Here, perhaps, is a slightly clearer definition: when a queer viewer interprets a piece of media as queer (same for issues of race, disability, mental illness, so on) they’re claiming something from the majority of media for themselves, creating a space of representation and reclaiming something that’s generally denied to them.
      Queerbaiting is when that same majority media creates the illusion of that representation without actually offering the fact of it or opening the doorway to those silenced voices, appearing to nod to inclusion while controlling the narrative themselves and putting it further under the umbrella of straightness at the same time.

      • That makes a lot of sense. Even without the wider issue of representation, one joy of spotting taboo-rattling subtexts, whether it’s the lesson in Marx’s labor theory of value in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or the relationship between Kitty and Bunny in that one episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog, is the feel of the artist pushing against the limits set by an unjust system. Commercializing the hollow form of resistance after the boundaries have moved elsewhere is just a victory for the system. So I guess Free! is a lot like a rack of mass-produced Che Guevara T-shirts.

        I wouldn’t bet against you regarding Hibike! Euphonium, but I am curious to see where the devil KyoAni is going with it, even if it is to a new low. They’ve even brought out the red string of fate.

        • Basically, if two pieces of media offer subtext of a queer relationship without coming out and calling it that, I’d call it queer-baiting if the management of the show (creators, actors, labels, distributors, etc.) refuse to acknowledge the possibility of it being queer, such as by continuing to play up homoerotic scenes, but still pairing off the characters in straight couples and throwing back-handed insults about how their bond is obviously platonic.

          In the case of, say, Xena/Gabby, or the pairing that the Kumiko/Kousaka dynamic most reminds me of, Buffy/Faith, the creators and actors have all gone on record embracing and/or promoting the queer interpretation.

          So if KyoAni turn around an insist that Kumiko/Kousaka are just gal pals, (while Kumiko traipses off into the sunset with Shuichi) then that’s queer-baiting. If they acknowledge that a Kumiko/Kousaka romance is a valid interpretation, (even if Kumiko still ends up with Shuichi) then I’d still be disappointed, but not offended. Hence why most people haven’t tried to call Madoka a queer-bait show.

      • Hmm, I’d consider that more of a mitigating circumstance than a litmus test. Talk is ultimately cheap and Barthes-sensei already gave us permission to decide which interpretations are reasonable without listening to authors. For instance, KyoAni could talk about potential validity all they wanted, but after spending two thirds of the series having Kumiko and Reina act like two people with a mutual crush they’re trying to turn into a relationship, I’d count anything short of just that baiting.

        (In case this ended up in an odd place, this was intended as a reply to arbitrary_greay)

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