lb_lee: A short-haired person flexing their muscles and declaring, "Queer trans multi proud!" (pride)
[personal profile] lb_lee
Queer-baiting is a fascinating (and maddening) subject for me. I feel that it’s so complicated because there are different rules for different periods of time and different levels of mainstream. Getting a queer character in a gay newspaper comic was a totally different business than having one in mainstream superhero comics. However, I think I know what my personal dividing line is!

Namely: if a creator never brings up the queerness at all, that is fine. I accept that I am projecting myself and my desires into a work (or that the creator is sneaking under the radar). If a creator brings up the queerness and makes it open, ala Dykes to Watch Out For, then that too is fine--I have myself a genuine queer character! In neither case do I feel baited.

However, I do feel baited when the creators make clear that they’ve thought about the queerness involved and bring it up to the audience, only to then take pains shooting it down, or making a joke about it, or otherwise deflecting it. Then I am left with the feeling that a creator has thought about the idea of having a queer character, only to go, “Nah.”

Creators who intend to have actual queer characters, even if they use subtext at first, will show increasing care for the issues as time goes on, often fighting for more and more representation as their careers progress. That “baiting” feeling comes when the subtext is considered a feature, not a bug, and kept for its own sake, never to change. It’s that context that makes a big difference to me.

Sneaking Under The Radar: “My Captain”

Bruce Coville is a children’s speculative fiction writer who was most popular in the late 80s and the 90s. A formative part of my childhood was his Rod Allbright’s Alien Adventures series. The first book came out in 1993, and the last one in 1998. In it, three alien characters come off queer--the Tar Gibbons, who is neither male nor female, and Grakker and Snout, who are coded as gay. (I say this straight out because I asked Mr. Coville at a convention about this. He responded that it was intentional, and I don’t think he was trying to play with me.)

The Tar’s gender identity and pronoun preference are described as being the result of biology on its planet, rather than anything involving gender roles, identity, or sexuality. But I’m not going to pretend the Tar wasn’t a comfort to me; from the start, its pronouns are treated as something to be accepted. The books’ undertone is that it doesn’t matter why the Tar uses ‘it’ pronouns, or if those pronouns are strange and confusing to others; people should still respect them. In that vein, the Tar was more liberating to me than books specifically about trans people that came out later; nobody lets anyone guilt-trip or badger the Tar about its pronouns, and it’s fully integrated into its workplace. Is the Tar trans? No. But it’s still nonbinary, and a character who commands respect and love.

Snout and Grakker are stated to be close friends, share a room on the spaceship (despite there being plenty of room; later crewmates get their own rooms), and have pet names for each other (including “my captain”). Grakker, who is a brusque character and the captain, only goes to emotional pieces when he think he has lost Snout, and only gets touchy-feely around Snout. Their relationship is never quantified in the books themselves, though.

However, I don’t consider it baiting. Why? Because these are mainstream children’s books in the mid-90s. (And seeing how production works on these books, they were probably written a couple years earlier, in the early 90s.) Having out gay characters just would not have happened in 1993, not without a lot of pushback and protest. You had some queer children’s books in the late 80s and early 90s--Heather Has Two Mommies, Daddy’s Roommate, and such--but they were challenged and fought over relentlessly. Also, those books were specifically didactic, which was not the primary purpose of Rod Allbright’s Alien Adventures. The queerness is secondary to the story, not primary.

I can not fault Mr. Coville for wanting to avoid that shitstorm. He likely wanted to just write some fun sci-fi adventures for middle-grade kids, with themes of kindness and respect for all. So I feel that he did what he had to and snuck in what he could.

Mr. Coville waded in deeper and deeper into queer issues in his books as time progressed; he contributed the title story to Am I Blue?: Coming Out From the Silence, a gay/lesbian children’s anthology in 1994, had a gay secondary character in The Skull of Truth in 1997, and in 2012, he came out as bisexual in the anthology, the Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes To Their Younger Selves. His trajectory as a creator was one of increasing care for these issues, not deflecting or joking about it.

Another example I’d use for this trajectory from subtext to openness is Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona, where Goldenloin and Blackheart get subtext, and she later admitted in a Q&A, “ It’s one of the things I’d change if I could do it all again - I’d make it clear, in the text, from the start. [...] I do feel convicted [sic] about the fact that none of the characters ever addressed it outright, especially since it’s a topic that’s very important to me, and moving forward I won’t make the same mistakes.” And she didn’t! Lumberjanes has queer and trans characters alike in it, and her star seems to be rising; again, her trajectory as a creator seems to be to deal more with those issues, not less.

And neither Coville nor Stevenson ever tried to deflect questions about the queerness of their characters via joking about it. When asked, they gave honest, straightforward answers. Not so with baiting.

Deflecting: “We’re Not Gay!”

This is the most common thing that reads like baiting for me. There will be two characters who are very close, perhaps best friends, and are touchy-feely with each other. Maybe they even proclaim their love. Eventually, though, the characters (and possibly their creators) realize how they might appear to others and...
Booster Gold and Ted Kord, AKA the second Blue Beetle, declaring “We’re not gay!” with outraged expressions.
...they deflect. Often with a joke. In I Can’t Believe It’s Not The Justice League!, pictured above, the joke is at Booster Gold and the Blue Beetle’s expense--it’s funny because they’re offended and wigged out by the implication that they’re “more than friends,” or that their teammate would tell Booster’s wife that. And sure, this is a comedy book where everyone acts ridiculous, but still, the base undertone of the story isn’t that being gay for your best friend is okay. (For even when characters say “there’s nothing wrong with it,” it’s hard to believe them when there are no queer characters to model it.) It’s that being gay for your best friend is... well, a joke. And also might get you in trouble with your spouse.
Even when the joke is ostensibly “friendlier,” the deflection aspect bugs me. The bromance of Hot Fuzz doesn’t have the same punch-line as the I Can’t Believe It’s Not The Justice League joke. In Hot Fuzz, there was originally going to be a female love interest character for Simon Pegg’s character, but the character was scrapped and her lines given to Nick Frost’s character instead. The joke mostly seems to be about embracing that homoeroticism, perhaps asking why it makes people uncomfortable, or where the line is drawn. The actors and director involved voiced their official support for slash fic about the characters, even calling Hot Fuzz slash fic all on its own.

But here’s the thing. Pegg and Frost’s characters, for all this lauding and official approval, aren’t actually gay. They might star in an R-rated movie with impalement, decapitation, and geysers of blood, but they aren’t gay. The screencap above is the gayest things will get. The whole thing is just jokes--winks at their audience and fanbase, along the lines of “you’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

Unlike Coville or Stevenson, these guys don’t show increasing engagement as their work progresses; this is all anyone gets. In Shaun of the Dead from 2004, there were jokes about Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s characters being gay for each other. In Hot Fuzz from 2007, there were jokes about Pegg and Frost’s characters being gay for each other. And in Paul, from 2011? You guessed it, jokes about Pegg and Frost’s characters being gay for each other, where the title character asks by simulating a blowjob and then insisting that there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s exactly the same level of jokes and engagement, no change--and again, it’s hard to say “there’s nothing wrong with it” when you never actually allow any character to say they’re “it” on screen. Never once do any of the characters involved say, “Why, yes, I am” when asked if gay. In Shaun of the Dead and Paul, they say no. In Hot Fuzz, the question is never asked to begin with. When the creators are asked, they joke around it, but never really say, knowing that the ambiguity is all part of the game.

After all, “slashy” and “gay” are not the same thing. Slash, by its very definition, requires that it not be canon.
I’m not saying that these works are bad; like I said, I enjoyed them a lot at the time. And I’m not saying they can’t be helpful or meaningful to queer folks; part of why I loved Hot Fuzz and I Can’t Believe It’s Not The Justice League! so much in college was because I myself felt that my being gay was terrible and bad, so I found the ambiguity and deflection relatable and engaging. It allowed me to think about things like the fact that I was gay for my best friend or wanted to cuddle with him while still pretending to myself that I could be a conventionally masculine, “normal” guy, avoiding the stigma of being gay.

But that was me projecting myself into the narrative, not what the narrative was actually telling me. That was me having such a dearth of actual gay characters to relate to that I found straight characters who said they were straight more relatable!

As time went on, that changed. I found more queer media with actual queer characters, and realized that the stereotypes in my head did not actually reflect queer reality. I discovered that queer stories were so much more than the soap opera tragedy and coming out stories I’d read so many times before--that I could read about queer superheroes, queer space captains, queer lovers who could actually kiss and fuck on-screen and say “I love you” on-screen, without an immediate, “you know, in a platonic way.” I could read about people who were actually like me, not people I pretended were like me.

Had I read ICBINTJL or watched Hot Fuzz now for the first time, I probably wouldn’t like them very much. I didn’t get to Paul until a year or two ago, and I didn’t enjoy the bromance; as I watched Seth Rogen’s alien mime blowjobs for laughs, only to say, “not that there’s anything wrong with it,” I only felt uncomfortable, knowing that I was the joke, that someone like me would never be allowed to actually be queer on that screen.  Even when Paul said that everyone on his planet was bisexual, it rang false to me.  If that were true, why would he ask?  Why would he do so coyly by miming blowjobs instead of asking straight-out?

Because the performance was not actually intended to be for my benefit, or my bi husband's benefit.  It was for the straight audience's benefit, the ones who were in on the joke.

And that was when I felt baited.

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