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.
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).
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.