Is it dangerous to always search for the queer subtext?
"The problem with reading queer subtext into every little nuance is oftentimes we are disappointed, or perhaps worse, queer-baited"
3c. a sanctioned or accepted group or body of related works
Shakespeare. Austen. Buffy. The Princess Diaries.
Have you ever been so invested in something you’re watching or reading that you feel ownership of it? That if anyone else dare speak about it, they better love it with the same fierce passion that you do? Let me take you back, dear reader, to 2007.
All was quiet on the western front. As far as I can remember, I had a pretty average day at school; I walked to my Nan’s and got my usual chicken pie and diet coke on the way home. When I got indoors the news was on, as was the norm, only this time my interest piqued when I heard the words ‘Harry Potter’. I turned on my heels, whacked up the volume, and prayed with all my might that J.K. Rowling was writing a new book. Alas, no. It was 2007, reader, and Rowling had just revealed that Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore was gay.
It was better than I could have hoped.
This is now universally accepted as canon, since it came from Rowling herself, as are the continuous breadcrumbs of information she keeps feeding her fans. The Cursed Child, however… well, that’s a debate for another article. But fans had been speculating for years about Dumbledore’s sexuality, and it seems that in the end, they were vindicated.
This is not an uncommon occurrence. Yes, okay, Rowling didn’t quite latch on to the Hermione/Bellatrix narrative that some of us were hoping for, but we’ve been right on the money when it comes to other stories: Brittany/Santana (Glee), Bo/Lauren/Tamsin (Lost Girl), Clarke (The 100), Harley Quinn/Poison Ivy (DC Comics), Patty Bouvier (The Simpsons), Willow Rosenberg (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), River Song (Doctor Who), and I could go on, believe me…
But with recent outcries of “lesbian erasure” directed towards box-office-breaking Black Panther, I took a step back to re-assess. For those who are not au fait with the comic series or the film, firstly – get on it, secondly – allow me to explain the lesbian subtext (a sentence I find myself repeating at least three times a day). Ayo, a warrior in the security force Dora Milaje, is canon queer. She has had a relationship with another female warrior in the comic book series, co-created by one of our very own, Roxane Gay. In the film, it was recently revealed that there was a possibility at one point in the creative process that Ayo would have a relationship with fellow female warrior Okoye. Spoiler, or maybe not: she doesn’t. And a lot of people are angry about it.
On the one hand, I get it. There is such a dearth of queer stories in the media, especially for women, and especially for women of colour, that sometimes we just have to create them ourselves. Whenever I see a woman in a power suit on television, of course I hope against hope that she turns out to sip from the furry cup. When you have the President of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, saying he wants to have an LGBT character in one of the films before 2025, and you adapt a comic book which includes a queer woman of colour, of course we are going to have an expectation that you may choose to feature her sexuality.
But Ayo and Okoye didn’t happen. And we have to deal. Firstly, the film does so much for diversity in other ways, namely #blackexcellence. Further, why should it be up to the one black superhero film to include a queer narrative? What happened to the other Marvel/DC adaptations that have canon queer characters like Batman, Catwoman, X-Men, Deadpool, and Constantine? Or are white people exempt from the outrage?
I digress. Ayo and Okoye didn’t happen. People were understandably disappointed. But this begs the question, is it dangerous for us to read queer stories into what was never there? À la Buffy/Faith. Is it reckless for us to be invested in non-canon queer characters? E.g. Rizzoli and Isles, Swan Queen. Is it even irresponsible for us to publicly speculate on real life human beings? Ellen Page (pre 2014), Kristen Stewart (pre 2017), Janelle Monáe and Tessa Thompson (oh so current).
Maybe. Maybe not. People and creative works which are in the public sphere for consumption are there to be consumed. Once they are out in the universe, people can interpret them any which way they like. I go to the butcher and buy a leg of lamb at the same time every Friday. I can roast it, braise it, curry it, stew it, grill it, or boil it. It’s not up to the butcher, it’s not up to the farmer, it’s not up to the lamb, who unfortunately has absolutely no say in the matter (in this analogy, the lamb is the actor, because they’re always the ones who get screwed in the end). I can do what I want with that cut of meat, just like I can do whatever I want with Jennifer Beals in my mind. Right now, we are having a lovely candlelit dinner on a beach in Barbados. We’re having seabass. Weather’s gorgeous, thanks for asking.
Sorry, digressing again. The problem with reading queer subtext into every little nuance is oftentimes we are disappointed, or perhaps worse, queer-baited. It can be very damaging to desire something that does not - and may not ever - exist. It also brings us back to the question of ownership. Should shows be dictated by what the fans want, even if it’s not what was originally intended?
However, with that being said, why shouldn’t we want more? Why shouldn’t we expect more? Why shouldn’t we campaign for Elsa to get a girlfriend in Frozen 2? Representation rarely happens without call for it; change rarely happens without anger. So by reading into these stories maybe we’re actually doing a service to the community. Or maybe we’re fostering our own communities. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll get what we deserve in the process. In the meantime, in the words of Frances McDormand, “I have two words to leave you with… Inclusion. Rider.”
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