Saturday, May 2, 2015

Quick Thoughts - Text and Subtext

As is usual for a lot of these thoughts, this week was preluded on Twitter with a bit of a rant about a book I had just finished. Not a terrible book, but one that got me rather conflicted because of the way I thought it toyed with me. Manipulated me into liking it perhaps a bit more than I should. And I won't quite go into the book right now, but basically it was a YA book that had a character (not the main character) that was portrayed as rather…well, the implication was that he was gay and dealing with bullying and as such the book had a chance to really make a statement with that character's journey.

I shouldn't get my hopes up. I know this. And yet there is a part of me that thrills when stories hint at things, especially that certain characters might not be straight. There are entire communities that pick up on the not-straight eroticism in shows and books and ship and write fanfiction and do all sorts of things because that story and those character speak to them in that way. As someone who has read fanfiction for a long time (mostly quietly, mostly ashamed), it makes sense to me and when I see things in shows where a character is show to maybe be more than "just friends" with another character in a queer way I get all hopeful.

But again, I shouldn't. I know the track record of such things, how many shows are willing to pay lip service to such relationships but would never make a popular character anything other than straight. This happened fairly recently with the Walking Dead show deciding to not make a character gay, or asexual, or bisexual, and state very clearly that he was straight, despite toying with the idea (and the audience) for a long time before that. Comic books have done it, books have done it. They revel in the subtext that a character might be gay or bi but then almost invariably reveal that nah, not so much, and all you people who wanted it are weird and isn't it funny haha!

I get where this comes from. People are hungry for queer content. Queer stories, queer characters—people are starved of them. Especially ones that exist in the mainstream. It's not just queer people wanting these stories, either, but it seems like whenever a show or a book series or a game or anything plays up subtext and never delivers text the excuse is that they don't want to alienate straight consumers. Which is ridiculous and stupid, because it's not like only queer people enjoy queer stories. A diversity of voices benefits everyone and is enjoyed by everyone. The idea that diversity doesn't sell is "conventional wisdom" that has been disproven time and again. I think a big reason why there's such an angry pushback against diverse voices getting more attention is because it challenges the idea that the mainstream should be white and straight and male.

But perhaps getting a little wide afield there. Pulling it back. The practice just seems predatory. A sort of bait-and-switch where people are drawn in for what they assume and hope is something only to learn that it's not, with the expectation that by the time it's revealed that the character is not queer, the reader/viewer/etc. is already invested in the story and will stick it out regardless. And it sucks. Slowly I feel that things are changing. I really need to watch Legend of Korra because of how it subverts this trope, and there are a few other examples of mainstream work that actually do deliver on queer text instead of subtext.

But mostly it's pushed aside, deemed deviant and weird and worthy of derision. I kind of like Supernatural, but wow if it doesn't have a love/hate thing going on with its fans, like it wants to pretend its fan base doesn't want to see Sam or Dean in a same sex relationship, that it would ruin something about the show. When, really? Really? And I guess I'm just tired at the moment of seeing this happen. When the book continued to avoid taking a stand, then killed the character in question and then brought him back as a ghost, well…things went from hmm to problematic and upsetting.

So is there a point to all of this? Maybe all I'm trying to say is that I expect better. For all that I love fanfiction, the reason it exists is largely because there is a demand in mainstream stories (of whatever medium) that is not being met. It's being ignored. And admitting there is a problem and then continuing to contribute to it and expecting everyone to be understanding is not cool. Don't do that. Don't make excuses. Just do better.

Ahem. So end of long and grumpy rant. Sorry about that. Thanks for reading, though!

All the best,

Charles Payseur


  1. Your post is great but I'm totally sad I didn't know you were into fandom! WHEN DID THIS START, SIR? Do we share fandoms? ARE YOU ON tumblr/AO3? I must know. :O

    1. Yeah, I guess I'm not the most open about my various fandoms. It was always something I have to be fairly careful with and I will admit to not being incredibly active. I lurk and appreciate and grumble to myself. But I got started with anime way back in middle school, with Ranma 1/2, and ever since I've had my various fandoms.

      Star Trek is one of the biggest ones (up to and not really including Enterprise) and Marvel comics and shows (mostly X-Men) and, now, the Marvel movies. Also the Suikoden series of games (I know, I'm a weirdo). More recently I've been obsessed with Adventure Time, with some Supernatural thrown in for good measure. I've tried getting into Doctor Who but I don't think it's for me. Similarly, I like Sherlock and a few other shows but am not really into those fandoms.

      I am not on tumblr/AO3, though again, I lurk and read and gaze at the amazing fanart. I don't really write much fanfiction these days (and when I did I never shared it...the fear, the shame!).

      What about you? How and when did you get into fandom? What are you into?

    2. Aww, but you're a writer! You should TOTALLY come and find your ~people~ in fandom and write cool stories with us. :)

      I've been in organized fandom since I got online in 1994. I've been in so many fandoms! Sailor Moon, Final Fantasy (mostly VIII and X/X-2), Harry Potter, Stargate, Supernatural...right now I'm mostly hanging out in the MCU and Teen Wolf. It feels so weird that I've been in fandom over 20 years and have been writing fanfic even longer.

      Anyway, if you ever decide you want to DIVE IN (via pseud, since it seems like you may want some better separation) you should let me know. :D Fanwork fandom has been the place where I've learned the most about storytelling, critical analysis, and writing. And we have lots of gifsets full of attractive people and cute fanart! :D