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On the Performance of Queerness

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I’ve wanted to discuss this particular topic for some time. With people arguing once again about how we should perform queerness in media, it feels like a good time.

A rainbow of sequins is how we expect queerness to be performed: bright and attention-grabbing.
YAY RAINBOWS GLITTER! (Sharon McCutcheon / Pexels.com)

What this debate highlights is that there’s a certain tug-of-war between the presentation of messy, complex—perhaps even subtle—queer identities and explicit, out-and-loud-and-proud depictions.

And this tug-of-war exists with good reason, but it’s also incredibly problematic. I’m going to leave aside the current discussion. Instead, I want to ask that we think about what we as consumers of media demand from our queer stories.

We’re Tired of Subtext

The foundation of the tension is that queer readers are, for all intents and purposes, tired. Particularly, we’re tired of mainstream media queerbaiting us.

Here’s how this usually plays out. Marketing materials hint at a relationship between two characters, or creators suggest there could be something there. Readers read between the lines. That’s ultimately all creators give us: subtext that’s there if you want to read it.

How Times Change: Subtext Was Once All We Had

I’ve been around fandom for ages, so I’ll point to a couple of examples I’m familiar with here: Naruto. When I was in the fandom, every yaoi fangirl I knew was delighted by the kiss Naruto and Sasuke share. From there, we were willing to read between the lines to find support for our favorite ship. In some ways, we knew it would never happen. But we were—by and large—content to look for crumbs and say, “Wouldn’t it be nice?”

Flashforward to 2018. Voltron: Legendary Defender fans felt that they’d been done dirty when Keith and Lance didn’t hook up. Some people believed the showrunners had (purposefully) misled people. In essence, fans felt queerbaiting had happened. (Of course, VLD fandom has plenty of other reason to claim queerbaiting—see exhibit Shiro).

My own experience here was that the “rivalry” between these characters was reminiscent of the anime/manga tradition a la Naruto. Having grown up with “hints” and “it’s-there-if-you-want-it” materials, I simply looked at Keith and Lance and laughed. “This is why we have fanfic.”

Queerbaiting Is Bad

I’m not suggesting here that we should just learn to be content with showrunners and authors tossing us subtext. Queerbaiting—which has gone on for eons now—leads to both angry portions of the fandom and jaded folks like me. Neither is particularly desirable.

We don’t want to have to go write fanfic for every ship (although we will). We’re through reading between the lines. We want out, proud, and loudly queer characters.

Why?

Visibility is often the important issue here. Queer people exist, and the more we see ourselves represented in the media we consume, the more two things happen:

  • We are validated.
  • We are normalized.
Images of queer people, like these two men embracing, help make queerness seem less, well, queer.
Love is love and all that. (Marcelo Chagas / Pexels.com)

Putting explicitly queer characters into media speaks to those with queer identities and to those who may not otherwise encounter queer people.

Subtext is a problem for this reason. It suggests queer people might exist; it’s a nod and a wink to queer audiences watching. But it also allows people to gloss right over the possibility one of their favs might be queer.

It’s Easy to Imagine Queerness Almost Anywhere

Let’s hop back to the examples I gave. At the end of Naruto, Naruto and Sasuke both get married to female characters; both have children, yay. Nice heterosexual ending.

Of course, there are all sorts of ways to queer a text. Did Naruto and Sasuke ever have feelings for each other? We can certainly read into their troubled friendship/rivalry. We can read into that (accidental) kiss. If we wanted, we could read these two as closeted queers. We could interpret their wives as beards, or either of the two male characters bi or pan.

And we can read something similar in VLD. Lance and Keith certainly have an intense relationship, which begins as something like a rivalry and eventually solidifies into friendship. Yet we could read deeper into their friendship, if we want. Lance later dates Allura; is he bisexual or even pan? Potentially. Neither Lance nor Keith shacks up at the end (although the series tries to force heterosexual love interests). That leaves their relationship status—and sexual identities—open for interpretation.

Subtle Queerness Is Easy to Dismiss

Of course, that also leaves plenty of room for people to argue characters aren’t queer of any kind; the “subtext” is not enough to queer-code them for most heterosexual folks.

Thus, queerness is driven underground. That way, it can’t upset the delicate sensibilities of the heterosexual part of the audience.

This allows people to maintain the myth of a largely heterosexual, cisgender population. Here, “queer” is an exception to the rule, a minority. In fact, this is largely what’s behind the recent kerfuffle about not having queer characters kiss or hold hands on screen. People can deny queerness when the performance doesn’t meet expectations. Thus, when a creator says, “So-and-so is gay,” people can look to the text and say, “But where is the evidence?” They can then dismiss the claim.

That’s a problem, and that’s a very good reason to demand out, loud, and proud queer characters. Yes, we do exist! Show people that we exist, in multitudes. Force them to engage with the idea that queer folx, if you consider the entire umbrella, aren’t a minority, that queerness isn’t exceptional or rare.

And we demand it because we want to stop committing to media that promises us queer characters, then never delivers. Don’t promise us loaves of bread, then hand us crumbs.

The Question of Performance

As much as the demand for out, loud, and proud queer characters makes sense—and in some ways, is justified—it feeds back into a problem that lies at the heart of the debate about what is “queer enough.”

This is “the performance of queerness.” To count as queer, a character must be demonstrably queer. They must be out. They must be loud. And they must be proud.

And, given the history of queerbaiting and the problems of visibility, it makes sense we want these very out and obvious characters. When characters clearly say, “I am gay” or use they/them pronouns, we can point to them and say, “Unabashedly queer!”

People love to misinterpret images like this one, of two women holding hands.
Friends hold hands and look at each other longingly all the time, right? (Anna Shvets / Pexels.com)

We close the book on interpretation, which cuts off heterosexual arguments such as “they’re just friends!”

If Naruto identified as bi and Sasuke as gay, their kiss becomes something more. If Lance was bi and Keith was gay—explicitly—then we can read their relationship with each other much differently.

Is It Interpretation or a Different Performance of Queerness?

But this comes back to the issue of performance. How do we know Keith and Lance aren’t some kind of queer? The text never tells us one way or the other, actually. We are thus free to interpret.

And yes, I know. We’re tired of interpreting, of reading between the lines. But what if we considered, for a moment, the different ways of performing a queer identity?

My Own Performance of Queerness Is Questionable

I myself have struggled with this. I’ve identified as bi (quite possibly pan) for more than a decade. For me, it wasn’t a terribly fraught process.

I sat down, thought about it, said, ‘Hm, pretty sure I like men and women.’” I told one friend, who accepted this without question.

And then I said nothing about it for the next ten years. I just went quietly about my way, knowing myself and my own identity.

(As an aside, I understand that this is a mark of privilege. I am often able to “pass” as heterosexual; I don’t have to hide or perform in a particular way.)

This has often made me feel like an outsider within the queer community. Because I don’t wrap myself in rainbow flags, I am somehow “not queer enough.”

A woman with rainbow hair holds a gay pride flag. Is she queer enough?
“Sorry, you need at least THREE rainbows to join the queer club.” (Anna Shvets / Pexels.com)

My queer identity is invalid because I do not perform it a particular way.

And that’s the problem with demanding clearly out, clearly queer characters. Even characters who are not necessarily questioning their identity may perform their queerness in a way that doesn’t conform to expectations.

Putting on a Show

This performative aspect of queerness is also creates a dividing line between queer characters and non-queer characters. If a character doesn’t explicitly make some statement, we dump them into “default heterosexuality.”

Yet, in many cases, these same characters are not explicitly heterosexual either. In essence, the demand for performative queerness allows the “default heterosexual” situation to continue, unchallenged.

And yes, I agree that it’s a slippery slope here. If a character isn’t explicitly defined (one way or another), then we’re just arguing about interpretation.

The Issues of Ambiguity

Here, I’ll point to the argument over whether Shiro is gay or bisexual; within the text of the show, he is never explicitly labeled “gay.” The showrunners have defined him as such outside of canon.

Since Shiro’s identity is not defined within the show, however, he is open to interpretation. In that way, we can argue for queer identities for some characters, which may be as equally valid as heterosexual identities for those same characters.

This challenges the default heterosexual paradigm, but in ways that can still be refuted.

This is why it’s so important to demand explicitly queer representation. Yet there’s a certain question that remains, then: What’s “queer enough”?

We Want Irrefutable “Proof” to Counter Heterosexist Erasure

Having a character state, “I am gay” or “I’m a lesbian” is fairly irrefutable. (It’s worth noting, though, that a straight character would rarely say “I’m straight” unless it’s to fight rumors of queerness.) Having a character perform in a particular way without this explicit statement often leaves them open to interpretation. For some people, unless the characters are saying, “I’m gay” or having unrepentant gay sex on-screen, they’re “not queer.”

This man is wearing make-up, a floral headdress, and holding a bouquet, but is he queer? We don't know.
“Well, they still haven’t SAID they’re queer.” (ALLAN FRANCA CARMO / Pexels.com)

Here again, we can come back to the example in Voltron. Shiro has an attraction to men. It’s implied he’s in a relationship with Adam (although not truly defined). Shiro later marries another man. Yet Shiro never truly identifies as being “gay,” though. Identity labels only exist outside the text itself.

Thus, if someone were to watch the show without any of the “supplementary” materials, Shiro’s identity is actually ambiguous. We can only deduce that he is, indeed, attracted to men. That leaves us with questions: is he gay, bi, or pan? Does he also experience attraction to women? We simply don’t know from that context alone.

If we leave out the wedding scene, we can see it’s easy to wilfully misread Shiro’s relationships with Adam and Curtis.

What we’re left with is a giant question mark, then. Outside of the text, we’re told Shiro is explicitly queer. The performance, though, doesn’t really seem to reflect it.

Yet that’s the crux of the problem. Just how queer does Shiro have to be before we will accept this character as unambiguously queer? The best performance of Shiro’s queerness in the entire 78-episode run is actually the wedding scene. That is, if you want an explicit performance of queerness.

If you’re not looking for that explicit performance, then almost anything within VLD is supporting evidence.

What a Conundrum

At this point, it’s obvious why homophobic heterosexual groups and queer groups alike would want explicitly queer characters. However, this plays directly into heterosexist agendas that ask us to clearly draw dividing lines around queer and non-queer characters.

This then props up the heterosexist myth that queerness is somewhat rare, that most people are cisgender and exclusively straight. It reduces the queer narratives we see. That can then alienate anyone who doesn’t immediately identify with that narrative or perform their queerness in a particular way. In turn, that can then lead them to question if they are really queer or, indeed, queer enough.

Can We Resist without Giving in to CisHet Paradigms?

The goal of this game should be apparent. It creates doubt in queer and questioning folks, who then reject queer labels and identify along cisgender and heterosexual lines. They thus uphold a false binary and perpetuate the myth that queerness is the exception to the rule.

Queerness is actually much more common than society cares to admit. In fact, one might go so far as to argue that queer isn’t strange but the normative experience of a majority of human beings. (Remember that queerness encompasses a number of different identities; while gays and lesbians may be a relatively small portion of the population, taken together with all “queer” identities, the proportion is probably quite sizable.)

And if queerness is actually the default setting, then we must also accept that there are endless ways of performing queerness.

After all, how many different performances of heterosexuality are there? We have hypersexual males and men who hardly seem interested, women who are frigid and women who are oversexed.

So why are we stuck with one performance of queerness? Why can we not have a number of varying performances: out, loud, and proud queers; quiet queers; messy queers who are still fumbling through their identities?

The truth is, we can and we do. But we’re in the double-bind of performing a particular way to be visible and irrefutably queer.

What Can We Do?

We can stop arguing about it, for one. What counts as “queer enough” for one person may not be “queer enough” for another. Some people will be upset when a story doesn’t end up with their favorite ship together; others will see opportunity and possibility in ambiguous endings. Some readers will see their own processes and identities reflected to them in messy characters; others will not.

The beauty of fiction is that it allows us to take a step beyond our own limited experiences. While we may desire different outcomes or different performances—and certainly keeping in mind how queerness has traditionally been treated with a wink and a nudge—we must remember there is no wrong way or right way to be queer.

We can certainly critique stories as not being to our personal tastes. We can take marketers to task for not giving us truth in advertising. But we must—and should—always bear in mind that arguing about what is queer or not queer enough can reinforce the demand for a certain type of performativity that forces us to play within the bounds defined by a heterosexist society.

Instead, we should always be working toward redrawing those boundaries. Every queer narrative—whether “queer enough” or not—is a step forward.

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By Cherry

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