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Line in the Sand: What Separates Platonic and Romantic Love?

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In a recent interview, Anthony Mackie responded to questions around whether Sam (Falcon/Captain America) and Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier) were canonically a couple. When Mackie suggested it was platonic love, he was instantly vilified, attacked as homophobic for shutting down queer interpretations of the relationship in Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Yet Mackie’s comments touch on points I’ve made here on this blog. The queer community tends to demand confirmation of queerness. Nuanced performance (alternative performance) is too easily reclaimed by a heteronormative society. We want queer romance, out loud and proud, on screen, so “the straights” can’t claw it back from us—much like Mackie’s comments seemed to be doing.

There is a lot going on when we demand such performances. It’s something I’ve been thinking through as I’ve worked on Lions Will Tame Leopards.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

To understand how these characters connect with the FatWS controversy, we first have to go back to the genesis of these characters. That walks me back to fandom.

Final Fantasy VII was one of the very first fandoms I entered, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and we still used dial-up. I encountered the fandom through a cross-over fic then proceeded to read more fic about these characters. I finally decided I’d better see what the heck this was all about.

FFVII has also been one of those things that resurfaces every now and then: I came back to it when Advent Children was released in 2006; I returned to it again in 2020 with Remake. And each time, I’m drawn back to the same set of characters: the Turks.

A still from Final Fantasy 7: Remake, which shows Cloud Strife in drag, facing the camera, in Don Corneo's basement dungeon.
There was a game? With canonical cross-dressing!?

To me, these minor villains are more interesting than the rest of the cast. (FFVII is full of layered characters who deserve deeper exploration; Remake has finally sold me on Tifa, which is saying something).

As someone who defaults to queering almost any text, I will find a way to slash my characters. Within FFVII fandom, I’m a bit of the odd one out. While the majority of FFVII “yaoi fangirls”—if they think about the Turks at all—ship Reno and Rude, I simply do not read the two of them that way.

They’re friends. That shouldn’t discount the depth of the love between them.

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

That’s a curious thing. Reno and Rude have an undeniably deep bond with each other. Yet few accept them as “just friends,” unless they’re not very supportive of slash at all. In that case they want to read the two as 100 percent straight.

I’m definitely not in that boat, but I simply don’t see the two of them as embodying romantic love.

I’m thinking about how fandom’s default is always romantic love. If characters exhibit a deep bond with each other, it must be romantic. It must turn sexual.

That’s the same thing that’s occurred with Sam and Bucky in FatWS. These two characters clearly have a resonance with each other, and fans want to read that as romantic and/or sexual.

Because romantic love (and sexual love, by extension) always trumps any other kind of love in the patriarchal-capitalist paradigm. In fact, romantic love gets so much play that there is almost never any other kind of love.

Platonic Love Is Always Lesser

If other types of love exist, they are always positioned as lesser than romantic love. There are cultural-political reasons for this. Romantic love is biological and normal within Western thought. Of course everyone wants to find “a mate.” Within romance, the reproductive nature of these relations is sublimated. You don’t just want to find a mate, a sex partner—you want a soulmate, an emotional bond of the deepest kind.

No one addresses why this kind of bonding can only happen within romantic relationships. Why could a parent and child not share a deep bond, perhaps “get” each other more than anyone else in the world? Why can friends not become soulmates?

I’ve given the answer already: the patriarchal capitalist paradigm hyper-fixates on reproduction. This is masked as “family formation”. We all learn that you grow up, fall in love, get married, and make “a family.” (It’s no surprise that “starting a family” and “in a family way” are euphemistic references to reproduction.)

Why We Care So Much about Family

The family is the basis of society. While this may be true to some extent, patriarchy and capitalism both usurp this function to their own ends. Patriarchy desires continued control to reproduce itself. To achieve this, it exerts control over childbearing individuals, subjugating them, and teaching other individuals to engage in such oppression.

Capitalism also seeks control over reproductive functions, in order to ensure a steady supply of workers to exploit. Colonialism and racism interconnect here to suppress reproduction in some, disrupt family formation that challenges Western models, and co-opt reproduction in others. Queerphobia also ties into these concerns.

This all gets masked under a desire for romance, which is the pinnacle of a person’s life. We derive meaning from finding a mate. Most stories focus on young people (who have the most reproductive capacity) falling in love and getting married.

We are much less interested in older people (who have diminished or non-existent reproductive capacity). We find those who have already faced the challenge of “finding their mate” boring. They move from hero roles to “parental” roles, becoming boring bastions of safety that our young protagonists must shake off in order to find true love.

An elderly couple smiles at the camera as they stand in front of a storefront, holding a red tinsel heart that reads "love."
Sorry, Grandma and Grandpa, but your romance has outlived its usefulness. (RODNAE Productions / Pexels.com)

Every other type of love is denigrated. Family bonds must be shaken off. Long-term friendships are forsaken. Platonic love in particular is childish and immature. Platonic love is not real love, not in the sense romantic love or sexual love is.

What Is the Line Between Romantic and Platonic Love?

The problem is twofold, of course. First, platonic love is always secondary to romantic love. Friendship must always take a backseat to romantic pursuits. We can name countless examples. Look at Timon and Pumbaa bemoaning Simba falling in love with Nala. Timon’s distress—although comedic—casts the issue in clear light. When Simba falls in love with Nala, he will utterly abandon his best buds. Timon bemoans that their “trio’s down to two.” The idea that friendship—particularly deep friendship—could survive one of the members falling in love is not entertained.

Thus, when we see two characters who have a deep connection with each other, we automatically demand romantic love, for that is the highest and purest form of love.

Here, we encounter another issue. What is the dividing line between romantic and platonic love?

I go back to Reno and Rude here. Most fangirls point to the depth of their relationship as a sign it is romantic. It feels too deep, too powerful to be “mere friendship.” Yet what is the dividing line between “romantic” love and “platonic” love? We imagine that these two are separated by depth of feeling—that friendship is shallower, somehow. We imagine sex might also be a dividing line: friends do not have sex, but romantic partners do.

Seeking Clarity

These lines are blurry even before we consider queerness. Friends do engage in casual sex—we know that from terms like “friends with benefits” and “fuckbuddies.” When we see these tropes in fiction, though, they normally progress to “romantic” love which, we are told, is what was wanted all along. The two just didn’t realize it.

Rarely do we see these sorts of arrangements last. If they don’t progress to romantic love, then they “break up” when one or both of the involved parties meet their “true loves.”

The shallowness of feeling is also false. How long have you known your best friend? And how long have you known your partner or spouse? It’s likely that your relationship with your best friend has lasted longer, meaning you’ve had more time to share experiences, create memories and in-jokes and such. You may even feel that your friend knows you better than your partner; you might feel more resonance with them, even if they are not your romantic or sexual partner.

There is nothing wrong with this, but it’s pathologized. At the same time, we hear things like “you should marry your best friend!” Our spouses and partners are expected to fulfill all of our emotional and sexual needs. They should be not just a spouse but a BFF too.

But that then brings us back to the question. If marrying our “best friends” can make for a long and happy marriage, then is this romantic love we’re looking for? Or is it platonic?

The answer isn’t as clear as we’d like it to be.

Nix and Bern Are Not Romantic

I had Reno and Rude in mind when I wrote Nix and Bern. And one of the things I wanted to play with, to explore, was specifically where that dividing line is between platonic and romantic love.

Let me tell you something: I haven’t found it yet. I’m still not sure where it is.

Nix and Bern read, mostly, as romantic in their relationship with each other. They have sex; they care about each other quite deeply; Bern makes Nix breakfast in the morning.

The cover for Lions Will Tame Leopards, which features the silhouette of a lion foregrounded on a yellow planet. Six purple leopards run around the edge of the planet.
I mean, it might be kinda sweet at points.

Despite this, the two of them are not the “romantic” couple of the lion pride. They have sex, yes; they care deeply about each other, yes. And they love each other, certainly.

But they are, in my mind at least, platonic. Some people will argue they cannot possibly be, because they also have sex, but I think that’s untrue. In my own head canon for FFVII, Reno and Rude would definitely have a sort of “friends with benefits” arrangement. For me, this does not invalidate the platonic qualities of their relationship.

That was what I wanted to bring into Nix and Bern’s relationship. They are friends first and foremost. Bern is, quite literally, Nix’s best friend. Bern is there at the end of a long day; he silently listens to Nix rant about this or that. In turn, Nix knows Bern incredibly well; he often speaks for the two of them, knows precisely when Bern will appreciate his sense of humor and when he wants to be serious. They don’t want to “date” each other or romance each other.

But I have no doubt people will read the two of them as being in a romantic relationship. After all, their relationship looks like romance on the surface. And, as we know, romantic love is better than platonic love.
And I think this is a similar problem to what we see with FatWS. People cannot accept the idea that, perhaps, platonic love is just as valid, just as deep, just as wonderful as romantic love.

It Could Still Be (Queer) Romance

In the case of FatWS or Reno and Rude, we could still easily read these characters as being in queer relationships with each other. Platonic relationships between ace individuals may lack one of the hallmarks of what we think of as “romance”—sex. Aro relationships may lack romance entirely, but that does not mean they are not still deep, meaningful relationships.

This comes back to the problem of performance in media. When we see queer performance, we demand it in a particular package. We want to be able to “prove” the relationship—an aro-ace relationship is a queer relationship, but it doesn’t look like one on the surface. To the casual observer, it might look like a friendship. We demand these characters either get into a “real” relationship with each other or move on to more “mature” relationships.

This is obviously silly. Why are we demanding that Bucky and Sam make out to “prove” Marvel isn’t queerbaiting us? (I mean, other than that it might be kinda hot.)

If we consider for a moment that we could read this text as a platonic aro-ace relationship, then Marvel has already given us something very queer. Queerer than bisexual Valkyrie even.

Can You Get Nuance Alongside “Hard Proof”?

Of course, the tension still exists. Marvel has teased at or hinted that some of their characters could be queer. Valkyrie is one example. Captain Marvel is another. There are hints that Carol Danvers might have been involved in a relationship with another woman. Even Loki, Marvel’s most recently crowned bisexual king, dances around the issue of being queer by performing a way that may look less-than-queer.

Yet the closest Marvel has given us to a true “gay couple” is the random man who discussed losing his partner (another man) during the snap. We don’t see this partner. This man is not a superhero, an Avenger. He is just a regular person; he doesn’t even have a name.

And for a very long time, queer media played with a sort of a wink and nudge; it was always “hinted at” or a sort of “read between the lines” situation. You could see it if you squinted, read it there if you wanted.

And, to some extent, that is how texts function. Mark Hamill summed this up incredibly well: “People ask me ‘Could Luke be gay?’.” Hamill’s response was that if the person asking the question interpreted Luke as gay, then of course he’s gay.

The Tension Is Tiresome

There is an inevitable tension here. We can interpret texts any which way, which means we are free to “read between the lines.” Give me a text, and I’ll usually find a way to write queerness into it.

I’ve also had arguments with people who dislike that, because they feel it undermines canon. If a character says they are straight, who am I to rewrite that? But what about situations where creators go on record to specifically say this character or that is X or Y? I’ve pointed out that even though Shiro in Voltron is canonically gay, we don’t actually know that he’s gay. Shiro could easily be bi- or pansexual. We have proof he is into other men. But “gay” comes from the show runners outside the “text” of the show itself.

That’s similar to JKR telling us Dumbledore is gay. It’s questionable whether the text actually supports that interpretation. Yet we could read it that way if we wanted to.

Thus, we end up wanting “definitive proof” of someone’s gayness or transness or what have you. We don’t want ambiguity, because most media allows queerness to exist as an ambiguous thing, never fully saying it within the text. That leaves texts open to interpretation. But the dominant response is almost always to interpret someone as straight. They have to be “proven” queer, and most texts just don’t offer the hard proof.

Opening to Ambiguity

If we allow for the ambiguity, then we can discover a richer range of queer experiences lurking in these texts. Will Marvel ever say, “Sam and Bucky are 100% a gay couple”? Doubtful. Will we ever see them perform that way on-screen? Also highly doubtful.

But we can come back to Hamill’s comments here: if you interpret them as gay, then of course they’re gay.

We also need to pay attention to what we’re demanding of queer performance. Sam and Bucky could be in a queer relationship without holding hands or making out or romance. Perhaps they are in a gay relationship, but their queerness extends beyond gay. Maybe their performance of gay is different from what we usually demand.

In short, we need to make space for other kinds of love and other kinds of queerness to come through in our media. That, of course, is complicated by the the Western lens we tend to view relationships through—only romantic relationships are true and valid, while all others are necessarily lesser. So of course we want to see “real” queer relationships on the screen. Add in that it’s next to impossible to figure out if something is platonic or romantic or what have you, and we have a recipe for disaster. We try to delineate what “romance” looks like, what a valid “queer relationship” looks like in order to differentiate it from non-queer relationships, so we can point to it and say “look! Queer rep!”

It’s very difficult to point to Sam and Bucky as “queer rep” when it seemingly forces us to read between the lines, when it won’t “commit.” We’re so tired of wink-wink-nudge-nudge “queer rep.”

Nix and Bern Will Be Misinterpreted

So, of course, I realize that Nix and Bern are absolutely going to be “misinterpreted” by some readers. I personally do not think of them as a romantic relationship. They represent platonic love.

Yet, because their relationship pushes on the boundaries—what is platonic, what is romantic?—many readers will apply the romance lens. That’s understandable, to some degree. For many of us, it’s the only lens we know how to use. Applying other lenses is a fumbling, imprecise art, one we’ve yet to master.

The long and short of all of this, of course, is that the text is ultimately what we make of it. I can tell you Bern and Nix are in a platonic relationship, but that interpretation may not be true for every reader. While I may disagree with those interpretations, I have to come back to Mark Hamill’s words: if you interpret a character or a text in a particular way—if that is how you construct meaning—then of course it’s true.

It just may not be true for others.

Shifting Texts Serve Our Needs

Thus I find myself drawn back to the ambiguity of “unproven” queerness, a space where nothing is precise, where everything is ever-shifting, allowing us to reinterpret the text as we need in the moment.

Canonically, Nix and Bern may not be in a romantic relationship, because I want the space for them to be in a platonic one. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t in a romantic relationship, to some degree, because some people will read them that way.

I understand this lack of definition frustrates readers. It can very easily loan itself to “queerbaiting” (although, given how queer my work usually is, I’d hope I avoid that on some level).

The long and short of it is that it is incredibly difficult to portray the nuance of the many different forms of queerness. All of us are interpreting through our own lenses, our own experiences, and something that is queer can quickly evaporate when the wrong lens is placed upon it. That leads to the demand for explicit queerness, which refuses to give us space for the nuance, the sheer diversity of queer stories that exist.

So, as you pick up Lions, I’d ask that you keep an open space for different interpretations, different queer performances. There is nothing necessarily definitive here—but that also doesn’t necessarily close the door to infinite possibility either.

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