Some Notes On … is a section which features my autoethnographic fieldnotes as I document my thoughts throughout different parts of my PhD project. Here, I write about the text resources discussed in our podcast episode.
For Episode 9, Destabilise Heterosexuality As A Default: Queer Representation in Media and Fandom we discussed the following texts:
1) Fan podcast – Queer As Fiction Harry Potter, But Gayer
One of the hosts, Ashly, shares her coming out story. She didn’t announce her queerness because she grew up super Christian. Religion seems to be a big reason in the US for hiding any sexual identity that isn’t heterosexual, whereas in India, I think it’s less about religion and more about social pressure and non-acceptance. Of course, this varies, and it’s better in some places than in others. Just after we recorded this episode, there was news of an Indian woman who died by suicide because of conversion therapy-related trauma. Even in bigger cities, a gay couple wouldn’t easily be able to even rent houses without concealing their relationship in most cases. However, I’ve also read stories in rural India where women or men just live together like “husband and wife” and this is just accepted without too much of a fuss. However, we still had the British Empire’s outdated law in the country where homosexuality was illegal and then it wasn’t and then it was again – there was a back and forth. While it’s relatively more accepted now, it’s still not mainstream. There are a lot of pride parades in different Indian cities every year – I went for one when I was in college by myself because I really wanted to support the cause.
There is a lack of gay content for young people while they were growing up and fanfic was her access to queer content. This is similar to my own experiences where I learned a lot about different ways of living through fandom and the internet.
Coming out is still such a big deal even among a supportive community because heterosexuality is still the default. However, the hosts acknowledge that coming out to yourself is the biggest moment. According to Ashly, even though it’s difficult and scary and isolating, you become more comfortable when you do announce your identity to other people. Many parents have a very patriarchal, heterosexual idea of a family and worry that their gay children won’t have this experience. Media perpetuates such a singular idea of what a family means and what relationships mean – largely heterosexual, of course, but even when it comes to gay relationships, there aren’t really more ways of being in the world which are shared by media. This obviously impacts everyone – not just gay people and their parents, but also people from dominant cultures.
There’s also a widespread erasure of bisexual identities both in fandom and even within LGBTQIA+ groups. Even among a marginalised group, there’s a hierarchy of marginalisation. I’ve read similar opinions from bisexual people as well as trans people.
All the hosts each wrote queer Harry Potter fanfiction which they read out on the podcast and responded to each other’s stories very enthusiastically. I didn’t know this is the genre I needed in my life! All three of them were supremely excited at the thought of writing Harry Potter fanfic. The ships they explored were Draco/Harry, Hermione/Luna, and Cho/Fleur. I like how they say the Cho/Fleur story could be canon because we don’t know how Fleur figures out her clue. Their stories queered the canon much more explicitly than the actual canon does. For example, there aren’t even offhanded comments about Dumbledore in the books or in the movies. Is being gay bad for a child audience? I don’t understand the thinking behind this erasure. Especially since it’s canonical apparently. Even if you didn’t write it into the books, you had an opportunity to include it in the movies even in offhanded comments without making it the crux of the story.
2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Imaginary Deaths
The episode discusses the phenomenon of characters from underrepresented backgrounds – particularly from marginalised race and LGBTQIA+ groups – are more likely to be killed off in mainstream media.
Fans feel really emotionally bereft at fictional character deaths. Even I’m forever bursting into tears at fictional deaths – not just deaths but any sort of emotional climax really. The most recent time that happened was with Anne With An E when I was a sobbing mess at many points in the last season. Deaths which you come across as a young person/teenager tend to pack more of an emotional wallop and can have a lifelong impact. In Harry Potter, deaths of Dumbledore, Sirius, Fred, Hedwig – among others – really hurt. You care about these characters both because they matter to you but also because they symbolise other things too which have to do with your real life.
In Firefly – an inter-racial couple was a big deal to the assistant producer of the show. But Wash being killed off made her feel terrible, especially since there’s not much representation of these relationships in media. Similarly in Buffy, Willow and Tara’s relationship helped one of the guests come to terms with her own sexuality because Willow came out before the guest did. Tara’s death shocked her but she understood why it happened and why it was important to Willow’s character arc. However, killing off gay characters in media is a huge point of controversy. As they point out, people form parasocial relationships with fictional characters to the point where these characters feel real to the people interacting with them regularly. So the deaths have even more of an impact.
They signpost the podcast Lez Hang Out, specifically the Willow and Tara episode where the co-hosts talk about the problem of LGBTQIA+ characters being killed off in service of straight characters or to propel their stories forward. This is so similar to how disabled characters and characters of colour are killed off. Queer characters are used as plot devices, which is really problematic when there’s such a lack of representation anyway in mainstream media. Based on their recommendation of the podcast and to understand the issue better, I listened to the Bury Your Gays episode.
Lez Hang Out – Bury Your Gays
Instead of giving gay characters a happy ending, they get killed off. Lesbians and bisexual female characters in particular seem to be happily done away with in media. Characters tend to be killed off when they’re at their happiest i.e. after they’ve gone through difficult journeys and have come to terms with their sexuality.
“It gets better and then you die.”
People don’t seem to understand why it’s such a big deal in terms of killing gay characters off. However, this has a lot to do with the lack of queer representation in media. The representation which does exist is steeped in stereotypes and largely one-dimensional. This is exacerbated by the abrupt, unnecessary ways in which many gay characters are killed off. In terms of Tara’s death on Buffy, they do acknowledge it served an important purpose in terms of the story arc and Willow’s arc. However, the bigger issue, as they say, is how creators handle queer rep and queer deaths. The lack of queer representation in media impacts queer audiences who may not have access to queer ideas and conversations in their lives and may not have come to term with their identities.
3) Fan podcast – Imaginary World The Power of the Makeover Mage
One of the guest’s trans journey began with video games. J wasn’t sure what came first – whether she was questioning her gender before choosing female characters in video games or the other way around. She began with playing male characters because that’s what you’re supposed to do, or at least that’s what she thought because she didn’t have any other frame of reference to imagine doing things differently. The first time she experimented with a different gender was in The Sims. This contrasts with Eric’s experience who is a straight cis guy – while he’s played female characters before, he didn’t realise what a transformative experience it could be for trans players. From J’s experience talking to other players, she’s found this experience resonated with a lot of people.
“Video games have always been queer”
Some video games provide a way to try out different identities and a safe space to play with identities, which go beyond the surface level and rely on relationships and interactions throughout the game. In video games, players tend to have a stronger identification with the character, sometimes more than in a book or a movie (though as Jack said, that’s how he reads books and watches movies too).
For Bo, as a queer nonbinary person, they felt the same resonance while playing video games. They drew on experiences of Octodad – a video game where an octopus is just trying to be a suburban dad but the unruly octopus body gets in the way – as a metaphor for nonbinary and trans people’s engagements with the world. I wonder if this is also similar to queer relationships where you can try out new relationships within the space of video games.
In Dragon Age, choosing the gender doesn’t impact the story at all. It changes the relationships because not everyone is straight, but otherwise the game play is the same. In Dragon Age, you can choose any identity and race and species – which for the nonbinary guest, was liberating and empowering. In Saints Row, a game which includes transition options in-game, one of the guests appreciates the haircut options in the game where you can drastically change your hair mid-game and no other characters say anything apart from, “New haircut?” which she points out is the best thing you can do as an ally even in the real world when you meet somebody who has transitioned. In RuneScape, the Makeover Mage changes your character’s gender for a price.
For most of the guests, this experience happened during adolescence which is when most kids “deal with complex feelings of gender” as well as enforced ideas of gender and what it means to be a boy or what it means to be a girl. Families are often not a safe space to question these entrenched gender ideas – online spaces and video games can provide these spaces.
However, there’s also a danger with these online video game environments where it can be really toxic interacting with other players. Voice chat, for example, can be risky which many players will avoid because they don’t want to deal with having to justify their identity to random people every single time. Toxic fandom is also a huge issue especially in video games. However, there’s still room to find a supportive community in these spaces such as guilds in Final Fantasy where for many people J spoke to, finding this supportive community online helped them come out in the offline world.
People can make a queer friendly space in the offline world – a video game shop, for example, where one of the guests wears LGBTQIA+ pins and ended up acting as a role model for a parent of a trans child who was glad to see someone happy and comfortable with their identity. This is similar to Geek Retreat, an excellent board game shop in Leeds which has a trans flag prominently displayed on their window. This inclusivity isn’t without its risks however; I’ve heard they’ve been attacked before but continue to provide explicit support. One of the guests acknowledges that for closeted young people, it’s not alway safe to be yourself depending on who you live with, but you can still be yourself in moments where you’re alone – for example, in video games.
One of the guests says that video games are trying to be more inclusive in terms of representations of trans and nonbinary characters, but sometimes they do a poor job because of a lack of understanding. For example, in Mass Effect: Andromeda, a character deadnames herself immediately which isn’t something which would happen in casual conversation. Deadname is your name before you transitioned which may not reflect your gender. The same studio made Dragon Age which did have a good representation of a trans character.
Seeing other queer and trans people in the space provides affirmation. J, as a trans woman, now feels comfortable dressing in both masculine and feminine ways – drawing from her experiences in video games – without having to prove her identity as a woman
What I really love about this podcast, Imaginary Worlds, is that even though it’s hosted and created by Eric, a straight cis white man, exploring speculative fiction and worlds in different ways, he creates such a great space for inclusivity in terms of the guests he brings on to his show and he’s always open and curious to learn about different experiences, especially those which don’t mirror his own.
4) Fan podcast – Witch, Please Witch, Please; Live & Unruly
They describe Witch, Please as a combination of fandom, feminism, and Harry Potter. The two hosts, Marcel and Hannah, bring together their work as feminist literary critics in a university and their love of Harry Potter.
What does it mean to be a feminist critic? It’s difficult to shut off that part of your brain when you’re doing anything you like – watching TV, reading a book, even scrolling through Facebook! I’ve definitely felt this way with intersectionality when for the first year I was just angry at everything and everyone. For me, this is about intersectional feminism at large which helps me also see things through the eyes of other identities i.e. identities which don’t reflect my own – something I may not have done so actively before. Cultural criticism involves identifying problematic elements of your favourite texts and problematising things which may on the surface seem liberal or progressive. You’re trying to understand the layers of texts and characters which might explain divide between fan and cultural critic. However, I think being critical is a part of my fannishness. You tend to critique things you love and incorporate the pleasure of critique. Critiquing things you hate wouldn’t be as rewarding because it’s a lot of work thinking and talking about something you don’t enjoy. Hannah’s desire to critically think about everything she loves hugely resonates with me.
The series offers comfort to people who feel like they don’t fit in that they will eventually find a supportive community where they’re not only accepted but also find others like themselves. Perhaps this could be one of the reasons for the popularity of the fandom – all the misfits finding each other.
Dumbledore is trying to create a radically inclusive world in Hogwarts. The problem with the idea of “tolerance” versus inclusivity where in the latter, you actively challenge the prejudices against people who are different from the socially constructed norm – in terms of queerness, race, disability, gender identity, class. Emma Watson identifying as a strident feminist doesn’t seem at odds with Hermione because of the kind of character she portrays and her interest in social justice (though there’s the question of white feminism when it comes to SPEW).
At one point, they wonder whether any of the movies pass the Bechdel test and don’t think so, though in the Breaking The Glass Slipper podcast episode about the Bechdel-Wallace test, they spoke about the limitations of the test and the need for a more intersectional analysis. The hosts acknowledge that the test isn’t a bar for feminism, just a low bar for the representation of women.
Calling everything as texts or an archive “because we’re the worst” – this made me laugh because ugh I do this too and don’t just call it media or books or movies like normal people do. Everything is a “text”.
They think Hufflepuff is the only Hogwarts house that has an ethical approach to pedagogy because it accepts everyone.
“Slytherin is literally just the Nazi school.”
It’s a political choice to not show Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s relationship in the movies. This may change because there are going to be three more movies but according too the signs, there doesn’t seem to be any room for that relationship.
On the importance of trigger warnings which emerged in universities in syllabus design not as censorship: instructors have control and making the classroom inclusive for people who may have potential PTSD with a myriad of topics which may crop up during the discussion or the text selection. Even if it is misused, the fact that it is valuable in many contexts is important. As one of the guests says, they’re just a brace for impact because a lot of people want to have these conversations but the trigger warning allows them to prepare themselves for these discussions.
5) Fan podcast – The Gayly Prophet Queer Children Are Our Future
The episode features an interview with 16-year-old Kaeli, who self-identifies as the school gay. She identifies as pansexual. She uses the term bi, pan, queer and gay interchangeably. I’m assuming everyone has their own different understandings with the term since there’s no monolith queer experience. Kaeli doesn’t want to be stigmatised for either being bi or pan depending on who she’s talking to. She thinks there just needs to be more acceptance and respect and inclusivity across the intersections of different identities.
So this is something I read in a pretty flippant BuzzFeed article which sourced community answers about what young people wish adult writers knew when representing them in YA books. A couple of the answers said that they’re much more experimental about their sexual and gender identities than the adults seem to think. There’s not just one gay person in school, there’s usually several queer people who are open about their identities. I wonder if this is both a generational as well as geographical thing – different in different historical contexts as well as contemporary place contexts.
Tumblr as a space for gay people because they can be open about their identities and more easily find a community. It’s also more anonymous, has less family and friends on profiles unlike Facebook or Instagram.
The books resonated with her for their emphasis on questioning the corrupt government. Things young people care about are complex and nuanced and include big important issues as we see with the climate crisis protests, the gun control protests, in India the anti-CAA protests.
As Kaeli points out, there’s a Harry Potter phase and then a Percy Jackson phase that most readers go through – which I totally went through as well. With Percy Jackson, the books are so much more explicitly inclusive of different kinds of queerness – not just the original series but the spin-offs as well – whereas with Harry Potter it’s all subtext.
Kaeli read a lot of Harry Potter fanfiction as a lurker. That’s what I used to read as well, though I was never really interested in the relationship bits. However, as a teenager growing up in Mumbai in the 2000s, fanfiction was the first time I came across queerness. Fanfiction provides room for all kinds of experimental ideas which you don’t see in mainstream media – especially queer fic which is a big part of the fandom. In terms of access, it’s all free so as long as you have the tech and internet access (which is admittedly still a barrier). You can read as much as you want. Kaeli considers fic just as if not more important and better than mainstream books – especially with a lot of Harry Potter fanfic. She chafes at the idea that fanfic is rubbish writing. There’s a complaint that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is like fanfic, but actually there’s some really brilliant fanfic out there. And with HP fanfic, it’s taking this huge mainstream text and queering that which is also important even though there is an increasing amount of SFF indie media which is inclusive of different kinds of queerness.
“Harry Potter is this universal language that you can use to connect with people” – Lark
What are the intersections of queerness and class and national origin and religion?
Lark and Jessie acknowledge that the media which exists today is much gayer than they had access to as young people. They’re now in their early 30s and while they were growing up, it was Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Will and Grace. There was also The L Word but it wasn’t Lark’s genre.
Kaeli loves Disney Princess retellings – as do I. I love taking these old stories and retelling them in ways which place contemporary values front and centre and fanfic does this as well.
Fandom also provides a space for fans to find important people and a strong community. Kaeli found it through K-Pop fandom. For me, fandom was also so important. Even though I’m straight and cisgender, I still didn’t feel like I fit in until I discovered the internet and found other people who loved the same things I did with the same amount of enthusiasm that I did.
Fans read themselves into the text, for instance in examples where they queer Frozen. I’ve come across both interpretations of Elsa being gay as well as her being asexual – both identities are very rarely represented in mainstream media, particularly in Disney. X-Men can also act as queer allegory as well as the magical world of Harry Potter where witches and wizards have been seen as representation of gayness.
Fan campaigns like Give Elsa A Girlfriend, Oscars So White, Racebent Hermione can make fringe ideas mainstream even if the end content itself isn’t impacted. In the case of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, they did end up casting a black Hermione.
The writer points out that Frozen 2 has problematic representations of people of colour and indigenous people, something I admittedly didn’t pick up on while watching the movie myself. The movie features intersections of queerness, gender, class, race, national origin.
“Probably one of the most successful aspects of recent Disney princess films is that audiences often forget that the princesses are, in fact, princesses: Critics of the genre can get caught up with the term as it applies conceptually to a pastel-pink childhood femininity and anti-feminist subjugation. Merida, Moana, and Elsa and Anna are all, in fact, the daughters of kings and chiefs, born and bred heirs to their collective thrones, and the films focus on watching these women train for a seamless transfer of monarchical power.”
As huge and popular a franchise Disney is, it can play an important role in making ideas of inclusivity mainstream ,but it doesn’t go that far. It’s all subtext or conveniently ignored. For example, in Thor, as the article points out, the bisexual actor Tessa Thompson criticised the studio for cutting out a scene which would confirm her character’s bisexuality.
“So, yes, it matters that Elsa is gay — or interpreted as gay — because that is unwieldy. Her powers, too, make her unwieldy — too much a target, too dangerous, too suspect. Too much, you could say, and, in fact, Grandpapi, the film’s troll elder, says exactly that.”
The article points out that Disney’s lessons from feminist criticism means letting romance take a backseat as the princesses work on consolidating power for themselves without interrogating the problematic aspects of monarchy. This reminds me of the version of feminism which seeks for women to take on the roles which men currently hold in leadership positions without interrogating the structure and finding new ways of being leaders. It also ignores the lives of and impact on women from marginalised backgrounds in the same country and in other countries. Becoming a CEO of a fast fashion brand for example but ignoring the plight of women in developing countries who make cheap clothes for you. Feminism should be about dismantling imbalanced power relationships rather than replacing one form of privilege with another.
Many Disney villains are coded as queer and play up queer stereotypes which has its own problematic aspects. Queerness is seen as other and as monstrous – something which needs to be fixed or as something which needs to be assimilated into “normal” society. Traditionally, powerful women were burned as witches or otherwise ostracised – intersections of gender, power, queerness. There need to be more safe spaces for queer people to be themselves. Many spaces can be legitimately dangerous. For Elsa, the revealing of her identity in the form of her powers leads to outpourings of fear and disgust – in the real world, there are similar reactions to coming out.
“When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her,” Adrienne Rich once wrote. Taken as a whole, Elsa’s pursuit of truth is presented as the kind of rare (queer, feminist) hero’s journey that reclaims “monstrous” bodies beyond the margins.
Frozen 2 deals with questions of colonisation and indigenous people’s rights which also have LGBTQIA+ parallels in the form of a grandfather being a colonising bigot and then Elsa being his legacy. There is more queer subtext with Elsa abdicating to stay with Honeymaren in Frozen 2. However, as the writer points out, this means that the monarchy in Disney’s eyes can’t have a queer queen – it reifies heteronormative constructs of power.
Part of me says: yes. Leave, go off with your new girlfriend Honeymaren, ride horses on the river. Leave, and never come back, except to see your sister: This is, actually, the life I’ve lived for years. What is there for you, once you know who you truly are? What can man do to me? (Psalm 118:6). As a lesbian, I, of course, want to see Elsa define herself for herself; I want to see the kind of heroine whose example conjures up the words of Audre Lorde: If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.
But this is Disney, which means that the ending is ultimately about the preservation of the (rightful rulers of the) nation-state, and for that to happen, we need a stable, obedient body — at the very least, one that doesn’t hear voices, shoot ice out of its hands, and have no interest in procreation. A cisgender, heterosexual body. Enter: Anna, the younger sister whom Elsa has no problem giving her throne to. Anna is royal, perfectly in the line of succession, and very much about to marry a man.
Frozen II does, see, end with a happy (heterosexual) ever after.
I didn’t even consider the problematic aspect of giving a white character Native lineage retroactively, presumably in response to criticism about how otherwise white the popular movie is. This is compounded by the fact that Elsa doesn’t even get to be the half-Native fully-queer queen of the realm. In Disney, representation often comes at the price of assimilation into the status quo, as the writer points out.
There’s a reason, of course, for all of this, and it’s often because, even as diverse as marginalized groups are, Disney stories are, generally, about the preservation of tradition, of the status quo. Disney stories, generally, protect the “good” people who are in power; the “villains” are the disruptive ones, those who are chaotic or power hungry, who seek to upend the way of things. Where is there space for folks on the margins? There is no revolution here, and expecting it from Disney is a fool’s game.
The writer talks about how it felt when she was watching Frozen 2 in the cinema and Elsa flinches when she sees a memory of herself singing Let It Go in the first movie – a scene which meets with laughter in the cinema – but a scene which for the writer was important and emotional and personal and the erasure of which is hurtful on many different levels, as someone who watched the first film after coming out and splitting up from her fundamentalist Christian husband.
It felt like I’d been hit in the chest.
A moment beloved by queer audiences, and fundamentally interpreted as queer, got played for laughs. No, this wasn’t important to her. No, this didn’t count. No, you didn’t see what you thought you saw.
She reiterates that she continues to read Elsa as queer and wants to reclaim that interpretation from Disney – something which I love the idea of – that even if mainstream media isn’t ready to include you, you insert yourselves into it anyway. And that’s something which thrives in fandom especially with fans taking on popular texts where they don’t see themselves and writing themselves into the story.
I love everything she means to LGBTQ+ audiences. I have a deep investment in queer joy, in seeing myself and my community on-screen, in seeing many versions of ourselves, in fact; in indie media, indie film, and even the occasional reboot of an early 2000s TV show, and even in Disney films, even in spaces where they so obviously don’t want us but where we emerge anyway — because this is real life and when you commit to telling a real story, there will be queer people in it. Elsa might be too much for Disney: too powerful, too traumatized, too independent, too gay. That’s all right. She can sit with the queers anytime.