Why Insistence on Hegemonic Heteronormativity in Fandom is Bad

Dec 4, 2013 by

Why Insistence on Hegemonic Heteronormativity in Fandom is Bad

*note: this started out as a nice, small blog post. It grew into an essay. But because of its origins, it is highly conversational/informal and meant to be.


Before launching into this essay, I have to admit it was sparked by a question on an application to write a character in an online RPG. One of the questions was about the character’s sexuality, and the instructions were to support your answers with “canon” examples. They don’t want your “interpretation” of “subtext,” so if the character hasn’t said they are gay or bi, or hasn’t participated in homosexual conduct on the screen or referred to it on screen, then applicants should go with the idea that they’re straight. Players are free to have them explore different things once in the game, but it’s like they come in with a set point.

I’ve been trying to fill out the application. I’ve been trying to word it right. I’m really, really struggling, and I have to say, it’s on two levels that are both ethical and philosophical.

Before I go any farther, I want to do two things. The first is to say—I’m not trying to start any drama. I’ll fill out my application the way I am asked, because I really want to be in the game and it is their game, their rules. I’m not calling the mods of this community out on anything or saying they “should” change, or complaining/bitching/moaning. This is what I do for a living (not RP. This post, this cultural critique. Though if I could get paid to RP, that’d be awesome). I am trying to start a conversation, perhaps, with fandom as a whole, because while this was sparked by a particular, personal struggle, it is a problem in how we discuss the things we love throughout every fandom and every community. I’m not calling anyone names or applying –ic/-ist labels (i.e. if I mention something supports homophobia, I’m not calling anyone in particular homophobic). My mentions of race are because they are bound up in the global, systemic problem—not because I think anyone is racist. I want to emphasize those two words in the last sentence: global and systemic.

It is completely understandable why the application would come from the position it does. That is the way our society views people and how we categorize ourselves through that system. So, while the rule/question sparked the thought process and why it bothered me—it is not like it is this community being “wrong.” It is a criticism of a global, systemic problem throughout the Western World.

Welcome to the life of a cultural studies/critic.

That leads me to the second thing I want to do, which is to position myself as a scholar before a fan, for purposes of this (though most of my examples are fannish) and also define a few terms that we use in the academy that don’t get used much in everyday speech and conversation; i.e. this is not stuff most people are ever made aware of or talk about unless they are friends with activists or scholars.

First, I am working on my Ph.D. in media studies, with an emphasis on gender and sexuality studies. I am a critical, feminist media scholar, and I do a lot of my work through both feminist and queer theory lenses. I tend to operate from a post-colonial perspective, as well, (and I’ll define that in a moment). My specific area of study is popular culture and that involves a lot of work done on fan studies—thus the name of this blog. I have a M.A. in English Literature and am a licensed attorney with eight years of practice under my belt.

Long story short: analyzing popular culture and our reactions to it and the effects of it and our reactions on our culture and our social institutions and in opening discussions for change is what I spend a whole lot of my time doing. Also, I know a LOT about interpretive validity (see English Literature and Law—hi, that’s all we do).

Ok, this is going to be long for background, but we need to understand the terms and the stakes and the issues surrounding this before we can actually address the fandom question. I’ll try to make it simple and painless and promise not to fill it with academic speak and jargon, and hopefully provide lots of examples! Be aware: I snark. It’s just me. Don’t take it personally. J  

To clarify my position: in my world, heteronormative hegemony, patriarchy and colonialism are bad things that lead to most of the social ills and atrocities committed in our world. In case you don’t get that from the next 19 pages.


Defined as “control or dominating influence by one person or group, especially by one political group over society or one nation over others,” hegemony is what the powers that be say something is, basically. In some spaces, it’s good and all, but it becomes problematic when one tries to enforce hegemonic beliefs, scripts, cultural systems that are oppressive to those not in the dominant group. (i.e. we have the Supreme Court to overrule “democracy” because if the majority ruled: women and minorities still wouldn’t be able to vote, interracial couples could not marry, women could not have access to birth control and abortions and people could be thrown in prison for giving blow jobs to their spouses, or being gay (Lawrence v. Texas got rid of blue laws, pretty much, not just saying you can’t be prosecuted for being gay)). Heteronormativity, patriarchy and colonialism, discussed below, are all hegemonic systems in Western Culture that shape our very view of ourselves and which, in my scholarly, activist mentality, need to be disrupted.


This is the big one. Welcome to mainstream culture. Heteronormativity are the norms and conversations that go on in our culture, or which underlie our assumptions about culture, that say the natural inclination of people is toward heterosexuality, monogamy, and gender roles that align with biological sex. Heteronormative doesn’t have to be homophobic, though it often has a latent homophobia ingrained in it. But, you can argue for gay rights and have no problem with homosexuality and still be caught in a heteronormative script. A HUGE part of that script (and the core of my issue with the application question) is the assumption that everyone is straight unless you are told and can prove otherwise. Follow along here – heteronormativity says heterosexuality is normal (thus positing homosexuality as not). If someone doesn’t exhibit distinct traits of “other” or “not like us,” then we assume they are heterosexual.

When you meet someone, if they’re gay, you expect them to tell you. It’s a whole thing, right? Coming out. I have to announce to the world I am gay in order to really be gay. But we don’t announce that we are straight. It seems weird to do so, if you think about it, right? That’s heteronormativity.

Now you can argue that statistically, more people are “straight” than “gay.” And maybe, given the rigid ideas of gender and sexuality we impose, that’s true. But the very system that says people are gay or straight sets up a binary system, which is also bad. Where do the bi people go, for one? The asexual people? The omni-sexual? What are you if you are biologically female, but identify as male and love a biological male who identifies as female? Gay-female to female? Male to male? Straight, because your physical sexes are opposite? Bi?

A binary system obliterates the people in between. It’s called erasure. We do not see them, therefore they do not exist. This is almost a founding principle for every –ism out there. We get excited when gay people are on TV, that they’re being “represented,” but we never consider that maybe they were there all along, because they never said they were. We assumed the character was straight because that’s the “norm,” and we look for stereotypical clues or confession to tell us differently.

Bi-erasure is huge in both the straight and LGBT communities, and a binary system is a large part of that. If you have opposite sex relationships, you’re considered straight; same-sex, then gay. If you’re going to identify as bi, you must both state it and prove it. You must have committed a sexual act with people of both sexes to be “really” bi. And it had better not just be a phase. Because you know college girls go through those things before straightening up (pun intended).

But what if I’ve only slept with one person, because I believe it should come with love and I’ve only fallen in love once? Or I’m not ready for sex, but still have sexual feelings? Or I know that I am ridiculously attracted to women, but I’ve never met one that was interested in me back, but I like guys, too, and they ask me out all the time? Am I less “bi”? Am I not allowed to determine that for myself?

In a heteronormative world, no, you aren’t.

I hope you can see the problem with that—it puts the burden on queer people to identify, to stand out, to make themselves different from the “norm” so they can be recognized as…different from the “norm.” And though we may say it’s “ok” to be not the “norm,” the very implication of “not normal” is “abnormal,” and that has led to victimization and shame and lives lived in pain.



I’m lumping these two together because they are both at play in heteronormativity. Or, rather, they created heteronormativity in many ways. We all know the idea of patriarchy—that men are at the top of the pyramid and set the rules and everyone follows certain gender roles. It’s great and all to say feminism stopped that, and we’ve gotten rid of patriarchy, but, please.

When a judge can tell a female lawyer that she must wear a skirt in his courtroom, and male lawyers that they may not, patriarchy is at work.

When a boss can tell a woman she must wear make-up at work, and tells men they may not do so, patriarchy is at work.

When the majority of our government is still made up of men, patriarchy is at work.

When we say that successful women are “tough” and “have balls”—patriarchy is at work (see how we’re putting them in a proscribed gender role? They can only make it because they have manly attributes—ergo, manliness is better).

When we tell a boy not to cry, not to be a sissy, that he throws like a girl…patriarchy is at work. When we tell a guy not to be a pussy—patriarchy is at work. Because, god—that’s the worst insult we can throw at a man, isn’t it? To say he’s like a woman. But it can be a compliment to say a woman is like a man, except when we add that such women are bitches. So, men > women = patriarchy, right? Right.

When we say a man who sleeps around is a stud and a woman who sleeps around is a slut, patriarchy is at work.

When we teach our girls to be careful what they wears out at night so they don’t get raped, instead of teaching our boys not to rape, patriarchy is at work.

When we call girls who have lost their virginities “used goods” or tell them no one will buy the cow if they give the milk away (as if marriage is based only on sex), patriarchy is at work.

When we worry about the problems with our girls because they’re becoming sexually active—but don’t worry about our boys having sex—patriarchy is at work.

When we tell women to toughen up, stop crying, don’t be so emotional, patriarchy is at work.

When we accuse an angry woman of having PMS rather than accepting she has a right to be angry, patriarchy is at work.

I could go on—hopefully you get the picture.

The thing about patriarchy is…it created heteronormativity. Remember those assigned gender roles that are “normal”? Heteronormativity.

Patriarchy says women should have sex for love, men for pleasure. Women want to get married, men what to cat around. Women are responsible for child-rearing, men just have to pay money. Women are more nurturing. Men are more competitive. Women are soft. Men are hard.

These are gender role assignments which then are meant to put opposite sexes into compatible pairings—see! They are the yin and yang! It’s perfect! It’s normal! They go together!

How many gay people get asked, “well, who’s the woman?” or “who’s the man?” What does it mean when we say, “well, we know who wears the pants in that family”?


Colonialism brings race into it, in some ways, but it’s also just another part of patriarchy. White men had to come and “tame” the world, civilize the “savages,” bring enlightenment and better education and God and all of that. But how could it do that? Whee—binary systems:


The problem with the oppositions is, as I said above, that it leaves no room for the in between. It also sets up a position where no matter how we might say “oh, all those things on the right side are good, too,” – we know they aren’t, in our society. (I’m not saying they aren’t inherently—I mean about what it takes to succeed/get ahead/what’s valued in Western culture). To succeed, God knows, it’s easier if you are white, straight, male, well-educated, rational, tough, civilized, etc. Yeah, you can always point out the exceptions, right? So that proves there isn’t a problem.

We have a black president! Racism is gone!

Except how many attacks have come against him for being black? For trying to take things away from the good, god-fearing white folks and give them to those undeserving layabouts?

What color is the mythical Welfare Queen?

Ok, ok, we get it, I can hear you saying. Just WTF does this have to do with fandom and pop culture?

I’m glad you asked.

That was a lot of background, I know, and believe me, it’s really, really simplistic (so, if you know a lot about this stuff, this really was not meant to be comprehensive. Consider it a brief, brief summary of the ideas, not an in-depth discussion. But seriously—I went here because of an application for a pretendy-funtime-game for a television character?

Yeah, I did.

And here’s why:

Media influences us. Countless studies have shown that what we see modeled on television influences how we view our lives. That’s why it’s such a big deal to get openly queer characters on TV, just like it was really important to have people of color on, and still is.

It’s why Kirk and Uhura’s kiss was a defining moment in so many ways—the first interracial kiss on television, in 1968. Loving v. Virginia had only been decided the year before—the Supreme Court case that allowed blacks and whites to marry. And now on a supremely popular show, on mainstream television…white man was kissing a black woman. It was huge.

Queer representation on mainstream television is just beginning. You can have Captain Jack Harkness as a queer action hero—but, well, that’s on that BBC channel, you know. Cable. You couldn’t even get Miracle Day except on Starz. So, who do we have for gay characters? Think about them—openly gay and out characters. How many of them defy the stereotypes? How many of them break the mold?

How many of them are cops who fight crime alongside a buddy? How many of them are soldiers, laying down their lives for their country? Sure, you get token characters who are—but how many of them are main characters? How many bisexuals are running around on TV, openly? What about if you take out the queer/lesbian baiting with the girls who share a few kisses before running off to marry their male high school sweetheart?

When you have a love triangle…why does someone have to choose? Why can’t we have a polyamorous triad?

Shocking to think about it outside of fandom or “edgy” cable shows.

That’s what heteronormativity does. Again (and I’ll probably say it again before this is done to drive the point home), it insists that, unless declared or shown otherwise, everyone is straight and ultimately striving toward the one true love and monogamy. Unless we see you kiss someone of the same sex, you are not gay. If you sleep with someone of the opposite sex, you are not gay. If we do not see you sleep with/kiss/talk sexually about both genders, you are straight or gay. Come on, prove your bi-cred. We assume that heterosexuality is the norm, unless there is proof otherwise, in the people around us and the people on television.

Why does it matter? Because it influences us. Because if we place heteronormative scripts on our media characters it keeps it in line for our society. Because heteronormativity is a tool of patriarchy and colonialism, and thus a tool of oppression. Because it leads to teenagers killing themselves because they are bullied for being “abnormal” freaks. Because it leads to outrage at the idea of two people of the same sex wanting to get married. Because it leads to accusations of sexual deviance and perversion, which cost people jobs, homes and lives.

Don’t be hysterical, I can hear you saying—but, see, the thing is? I’m not, but I am passionate. There are consequences to our visions of society. When one imposes a heteronormative vision of the world, one is upholding patriarchy and colonialism, because one is insisting that their views of the world are basically right, with maybe a little tweaking so we don’t mistreat those different folks over there (different private parts, different skin tones, different sexual orientations, different, not normal). And because of the major part that media plays in our lives, there are consequences to our interpretations of our media via heteronormative scripts.

And interpretations is where I want to go next.


What is canon? What does it mean? Where does it come from? Why do we (or do we?) care? How do we interpret things? What is right?

Oops…there we go with binaries again. Because look back up there at them—a few are missing. Right/Wrong. Correct/Incorrect. Valid/Invalid. God, we can’t even come up with a word for “incorrect” or “invalid” – we just have to negate the “right” one. I’m glad we didn’t wind up “inmen.” Oh, well, no. That wouldn’t happen. Good girls aren’t “in men”—men letting themselves be penetrated is a sign of weakness and sissy-ness. (Is my sarcasm loud enough?)

There are several ways to address the issue of canon and correctness, but I’m just going to draw on a couple from my own background in literature and because everyone’s had English/Literature classes.

The literary canon is made up of those books that we insist everyone must be taught. Those classics we have to read to have cultural capital in our society. If you say you don’t know who Holden Caulfield is, or have no idea about the plot of Romeo and Juliet in Western society, people are going to think you’re an uneducated moron, probably. But, why? Because you haven’t read a certain book?

Well, who decides which books are the ones we should read? Who made the decisions about which books are “legitimate” to study? I’ll give you a hint: they didn’t have vaginas or dark skin.

The Civil Rights movement and women’s movement said, “hey—what about us? We have some powerful literature, too…” And so, you know, the token women or writer of color got added into the literary canon—generally if their writing conformed well enough to the standards set by the white male writers. Conventional. Heteronormative. I’m not saying that Wuthering Heights isn’t fantastic, and I’m a huge fan of Jane Eyre. But they kind of fit right in with a patriarchal worldview and heteronormativity that could be allowed. They aren’t going to give anyone radical ideas like asking “why are the white, straight men in charge?”

So, then we got Women’s Studies and African-American Studies and Chicana Studies and, eventually, Queer Studies. And the mainstream said, “Ugh, why do we need this? Why do they get to have special treatment? Our kids need to learn what we learned, which is none of that stuff about people different from us,” and then, “Why aren’t there White Men’s studies?” and “Why do Women and Blacks and Hispanics get a history month? Why don’t White people/Men get a history month?”

Uh, because you have all the other studies and all the other months.

Seriously—where is the history of Pocahontas’ tribe and their ways and their life before Jamestown? What did she do/what was she like except for, you know, saving the white guy? If we didn’t have Black History month—how many of us do you think would know about Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman? George Washington doesn’t need his own month, y’all. We know. We don’t have to make a special movie for him—if it’s set in 18th century America, he’ll get a mention.

So, yeah. That’s canon—an attempt to control what is “authorized” and “official” and “worth studying” on one hand.

Now, I know that isn’t the strict definition of canon for television (except it can become so—what is “canon” for Star Wars? Star Trek? Doctor Who? All the novels, all the series, all the comic strips—how close do the people have to be to the licensing to make it canon? What is “canon” for superheroes?). But I’ll allow, sometimes, if a show doesn’t spread across media, it can be easier to draw a circle around what the producers put out in physical form and say “if it didn’t happen on screen, it didn’t happen.” But what about seasons where characters go drastically OOC and fans collectively say, “Yeah, that didn’t happen”? What about online graphic novels that introduce elements the show never looks at? (Hi. Who the hell was Adam Monroe’s 11th wife, who was supposed to rescue him from the coffin Hiro buried him in, but who we never heard about again? Is it canon he married someone in between trying to release the virus? Who was he with except Peter? Did he go to Vermont and marry Peter and Peter is the girl?)

So, all right, we go with the “simple” canon definition and just say, “If it didn’t happen in the script you can’t say it happened officially—that’s just your head canon.” Ok. Well, let’s talk about head canon, then, shall we?

Head canon vs. Subtext vs. Interpretation

Head canon

Those of us who write fanfic and RP all have head canon for our characters, of course. There are gaps, as we said above. If you’re going to write a character well, you have to fill those in, flesh them out. They go into the creation of your version of that character, give you things to play with, allow you to explore reasons characters did things, and play with alternatives. Head canon can flesh out interpretation, provide solid answers to subtextual clues.

However, from a textual analysis, literary critic, research-based audience reception, academic theory based place? (Can I throw anything else in there to provide proper patriarchal, rational, authoritative tone? Hmm…) Head canon IS NOT interpretation or subtext. (Likewise—interpretation and subtext are different things, too. I’ll address that later)

Fandom tends to conflate them. They are distinctly separate things, and that separation comes in really, really importantly in questions like the one that inspired this.

Head canon is specific information, facts, claims you make about a character that are not directly in the text—not interpretations of what is there, but things you totally make up.

When I say that Revolution’s Miles and Bass saw My Girl at nine-years-old and were inspired to cut their palms and mingle their blood in a blood brothers ritual and that Mrs. Matheson had a fit over it—that is head canon. When I say that Bass and Rachel were banging throughout all the time Miles was gone and it was hard and it was nasty and hate-sex—that is head canon. When I say Elijah Mikaelson loves to play the piano—head canon. When I say Adam Monroe had two siblings—head canon. When I say Methos likes to dance around in a tutu—head canon. (I don’t really say that last one—I was just making sure you’re still awake)

And, yes—when I say that Miles and Bass have had a sexual relationship since they were fifteen—head canon.

But if I say that Bass is gay or bisexual and erotically obsessed with Miles? Interpretation. NOT head canon. Let me tell you why, and why saying that interpretations of canon that are not strictly shown in canon is fundamentally wrong and supportive of maintaining an oppressive system of heteronormativity, and so patriarchy and colonialism, in this case.

Subtext and Interpretation

First off, we’ve discussed how heteronormativity is what makes us assume that a character is straight unless proven otherwise. So, heteronormativity says that Sleepy Hollow’s Ichabod Crane is straight because he fell in love with Katrina and married her. And heteronormativity plays straight (forgive the pun) into canon—because if you interpret something in a not heteronormative way well then you’re “seeing things,” “seeing what you want to see,” “making it up.” Interpretation: “wrong.”

And that is hegemony—the patriarchal, colonial, white male society bapping you on your subversive little nose to put you back in your place.

So, that’s what’s at stake, yes? (And if you’ve read this far and think that hegemonic, patriarchal, colonial discourse is A-Okay, and what’s my problem and why rock the boat—why are you still reading? I’m not going to convince you. But read on, because you might find it sinking in one day. And I am a teacher—I’m used to skeptics 😉 ).

Onward into Queer Theory!

(For further reading on what follows, I highly suggest Alexander Doty’s Making Things Perfectly Queer, which is the seminal text in the field.)

Subtext and interpretative strategies are strongly intertwined, as subtext informs our interpretations. Part of learning to read critically and well, what we’re taught in literature classes, is to understand that shit is going on that is not in the text. Allusions, metaphors, moments of tension, things where what I say and what I mean are totally different—all of these inform meaning. People say one thing and mean another all the time. Social niceties, lying to others, lying to themselves, trying to send a code without admitting something they’re unsure about—all of these are reasons, and there are more.

In fandom, those who do not see a particular bit of subtext often dismiss it as wishful thinking or making things up, as I said above. But the actual definition of subtext is, “an underlying and often distinct theme in a piece of writing or conversation.” Underlying. Distinct. In. Another defines it as, “the implicit meaning or theme of a text.” Not just something there to be picked up on but a meaning. The Script Lab, a well-regarded screenwriting site, says subtext is “what a character is really saying between the lines, and it is revealed by a character’s actions and reactions.”

In The Art of Subtext – Beyond Plot, author Charles Baxter describes subtext thusly:

Plot is a twisting bridge over a chasm, a chasm that, in my mind, contains the hauntings, the past, the subterranean, the things people either cannot or will not say, things that we are only partially aware of. To use subtext, all you have to do is explore that chasm.

Thus, subtext is not made up. It is in the text, in its spaces and silences. It is meaning running underneath meaning. It is theme. To say that it is not there, especially when a large group of people see it, is a fallacy. You can’t say that—you can only say you don’t see it. The question may come to the deliberateness of subtext—did the creator/author mean for the piece to mean that? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Y’know what? If the author didn’t intend it—it doesn’t make the interpretation invalid. There are several reasons for this.

Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault set the bar for dismissing authorial intent as an interpretive lens. We can never determine what Shakespeare meant by addressing some of his sonnets to a young man, because he’s not here to ask. And asking, honestly, doesn’t give us much anyway. Yes, we can ask Eric Kripke if Sam and Dean are meant to be incestuous seeming, and he can answer, but that’s not definitive.

Have you ever said something or done something and not been able to tell why you did it? Have you ever written something and come back to it years later and realized what it reveals about what you were going through but couldn’t name, then? Have you ever written an original story and thought you knew where it was going, only to realize that it’s gone somewhere else, quite naturally, instead, and that’s from your own interpretation of subtext?

We are complicated, multi-faceted people. We are also emotional and, at our core, irrational. Much as we would like to think we operate from a place of literal meaning and concrete understanding—we don’t. Philosophy wouldn’t exist if we did.

Literary studies have long started to accept that a text can have multiple readings. There is no one “right” interpretation to Jane Eyre, even if the author told us exactly what it means. That’s because we make meaning in our own minds. We see the world through our own experiences. Two people can have a conversation and both of them walk away thinking they were talking about totally different things. Interpretation is always, already subjective, because reality is always, already subjective. Our perceptions alter everything and no one sees things the same way. This includes creators, because their subconscious and unconscious are at work in their own writing and beyond that it still doesn’t matter what they meant.

What matters is what is received.

Communicators have spent millions of dollars on research to figure out how to make their message “clearer.” To get away from that nasty subtext and those “wrong” interpretations. How dare you suggest that when Jesus said he had other sheep in other flocks he meant people of different religions who follow the same sorts of teachings (love others, forgive them, do no harm, etc.) instead of specifically just the Gentiles?

Communication studies models operate on the premise of messages encoded, sent, received and decoded, but they go through multiple rounds and steps (See Stuart Hall’s “Encoding/Decoding”)            . Producers of a show, let’s say, want to create a show about X. They write it, and then hand the script off to the director. The director puts his spin on it (which is how you can have Joss Whedon’s brilliant Much Ado about Nothing and Kenneth Branagh’s side by side). The actors then receive their scripts, and they play with it—they do multiple takes, delivering lines in different ways to find the “truth” of it from themselves. Directors may guide, but it is a collaborative process. Then the editor takes everything and puts it together. Nothing is linear, everything has multiple options. The show is then taken and put in a different format, where some detail may or may not be lost, and is broadcast as an electronic signal. Different mediums decode the signal, so the coloring or lighting may seem different on one television to another, or a computer to an iPad. (Since coloring and lighting affect mood, that can affect interpretation.)

An audience member watches, receives, but the audience member is not a passive receptacle (no matter what commercial interests wish). The audience member is constantly seeking to decode the meaning and what they have to do it through is their own experience and worldview. They connect with one character and hate another. Does that mean that character is a bad character? Probably not. Does that make their hatred less valid? No—something in that character turns them off. It is a valid feeling.

Say a character never reveals his motives for doing something. There are clues, and you have to piece them together via subtext. Everyone arrives at a conclusion that makes sense to them. Different people take different meanings from texts. And that is okay. Because after all those hands have been in the pot, artistically, there is no one “right” meaning. That’s why people from all walks of life, faiths, races, political leanings can love the same shows and get totally different things from them.

The idea of a lack of fixed meaning is terrifying to the Western, rational mind, by the way. Because we need there to be a “right” way. It’s that binary, you see—right/wrong, correct/incorrect. We don’t want to be on the wrong side of the binary. But the thing is—there’s not a right, definitive meaning to a text. And, even if there were? We have NO WAY to get to it, because we are all human, including the creators, and we have all sorts of interpretive strategies.

Of course, oftentimes subtext is deliberate, which is important because it has often been deliberate for a distinct, queer purpose, and that is where discussions of sexuality are most fraught. Using subtext as code was how queer characters were inserted into media presented to homophobic, conservative audiences from the start. We couldn’t have openly gay characters in the 1950s, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. Queer theory and queer studies examines these older texts and how queerness has been embedded all along (often, yes, deliberately, by queer artists who wanted to slip something in for their people, but still had to get by the censors). Subtextual sexuality is subversive. It disrupts heteronormativity. It allows the straights to keep their denial about the presence of queerness around them, while winking and nodding at queers, or those attuned to them, and saying, “You know what’s going on.”

Many queer readings of texts must use subtext to find their meaning. And this is where heteronormativity comes into play again, but is disrupted. Because heteronormativity says people are straight until proven otherwise, whereas a queer view can look at the world and say, “people are gay until proven otherwise.” And Doty and other queer scholars and communications scholars all agree—neither reading is more valid than the other.

Doty goes even farther and says queer readings may not even be based in subtext but can be seen in pure text from the right perspective. It is heteronormative hegemony that insists that queer readings are subtextual and alternative or delusional visions of something that is not there, actually. A queer reading requires only a queer reception practice, a worldview that recognizes fluidity and instability of sexual identity and that people are actually, rarely so easily demarcated and categorized. In fact, Doty argues that queer readings may actually be far more definitive, given the history of media production in Hollywood. Either way, he declares, “I’ve got news for straight culture: your readings of texts are usually ‘alternative’ ones for me, and they often seem like desperate attempts to deny the queerness that is so clearly a part of mass culture.” (i.e. to insist on a heteronormativity that does not exist).

So…if subtext is actually in the text and deciphered through an interpretive reading position that is recognized by scholars around the world as valid (not that we need the academy to validate us)…then saying that you must read a text as straight unless given explicit evidence otherwise is, yes, heteronormative hegemony at work, reinforcing and reinscribing oppressive norms.

Why “is” Sebastian Monroe “canonically” straight? Because he hasn’t kissed a guy on screen? He’s been called out for having a “borderline erotic obsession” (we call that lampshading). The actors and creators are actually perfectly aware the subtext is there, and have all offered myriad interpretations of it. If Billy Burke and David Lyons, the actors playing the characters, disagree on what the reading of the relationship is, and Kripke, who created them, goes back and forth in refusing to make a definitive statement, then how can anyone else make a definitive call?

Really, for that matter, how can anyone make a definitive call on anyone’s sexuality, even if they have declared it? People lie to themselves and insist they are straight for years. They get married, try to be straight, live a heteronormative lifestyle, and they are miserable. Other people are open to possibilities, but never find the right person of one gender. Other people go through relationships and different needs at different points in their lives. Like communication scholars insist there are multiple, valid readings to a text, so, too, do scholars of human sexuality generally argue that it is fluid and not so binary/cut-and-dried as we would all like to think. It’s messy. It’s complicated. It shifts as we do.

Specific instances of relationships not seen on screen is head canon and perfectly acceptable to not want on an application (though it is, of course, still going to completely influence how someone plays a character, so I’d want to know, but whatever. It’s not a hill I’m willing to die for). But insistence on categorization of sexuality based on heteronormative scripts and privileging that over a queer reading of the text…bothers me. It upholds the status quo of an oppressive society, and I like to think we’re a bit more progressive than that in fandom (though, then I laugh at myself for my naiveté there—but the narratives of fandoms is another post).

notthemanConclusion: Why the Question is Problematic

My interpretation of Monroe as bi is as valid as someone else’s of him as gay (all the womanizing could certainly have been a cover) and as valid as someone else’s of him as straight (he really could just be that codependently attached to Miles without wanting to get him naked. They could certainly just be Heterosexual Life Partners). All are equally valid and all are defensible “canonically” via both text and subtext. The bi or gay reading just looks at the text from a different life experience and perspective. To invalidate my reading is to invalidate my life, in some ways. To say that my non-heteronormative perspective is not valid because a character has never kissed someone of the same sex on screen is to invalidate my perspective on life, to say it’s abnormal and deviant. To, by default, call me abnormal and deviant.

(Now, I’ve got the strength of self to not really care if you call me abnormal or deviant, honestly. I know who I am, and I like me just fine, but the fact that it doesn’t hurt me personally doesn’t mean that it’s an okay thing to do.)

And I know that in creating app questions like these, no one but a gender studies, queer theorizing, feminist media scholar would put this much thought into it. Believe me, I know. Thus why I am so not accusing anyone of being an oppressive, patriarchy supporting conservative misogynist. (I mean, they’re out there, those oppressive, patriarchy supporting conservative misogynists. But I don’t think anyone I know is one.) This is our culture. This is how it functions. This is how we are all indoctrinated.

And, as a society, this is an area where we kinda suck. I think we should try and be better. That’s never going to happen if people don’t speak up, speak out and call us all out when we fall into these patterns. Because we all do. (I admit it—I pick ships to go down with which is ultimately buying into heteronormativity even if it’s a slash ship – more on that another time). Indoctrination is really hard to fight. Most people don’t, because it takes so much thought to really see what’s going on around you and it’s exhausting and demoralizing sometimes.

No, I’m not overthinking it, any more than people are overthinking it when they call people out for doing blackface. It’s an issue. It has consequences. Maybe not this one question, but the implications behind it, the system it derives from matters.

Red pill or the blue, you know?

(Yes, I really did just write 6800 words because of an ethical, philosophical issue with an online game application. As I said in the beginning—welcome to my world and my head).

[Photo Credit: las – initially ]

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