Friday, May 15, 2015

Representation: Incidental versus Targeted

So I'm going to ramble for a while about incidental versus targeted representation, and just see where it goes.

A while back someone on Tumblr asked me some questions about my thoughts on Sheldon and Amy's relationship on The Big Bang Theory. If you are not familiar, this is a show featuring several geeks doing geek things, and Sheldon is frequently singled out by asexual viewers as potentially an asexual character. He never uses that word explicitly, but some of his actions and attitudes suggest he may be asexual (though because he has so many other quirks and is portrayed as a condescending control freak, it's hard to separate how much might be a sexual orientation and how much might be due to a moderate case of misanthropy). He gets a girlfriend, and though at first they agree that physical intimacy is not desired by either, she later begins pushing for a more traditional relationship, which makes Sheldon uncomfortable.

I don't really know what to say here because I haven't seen the episodes and have seen very little of the show, but what I will say is that it's tough to say whether the writers' treatment of Sheldon reflects on the asexual community. Because they have never used that word, it's mostly just us seeing his tendencies and saying "hey, he's like me!" (which could be problematic because he's such an obnoxious character in so many ways), but it does draw some troubling connections between lack of interest in physical intimacy and Sheldon's other elitist traits. The real question here is "Do we have to NAME his apparent asexuality for it to actually be asexual representation?"

This a really hard question. Without language, so much of the message writers might be trying to send through characters can fall short of its mark. Many people will read these struggles as "Sheldon is having problems with intimacy because Sheldon is weird" rather than "Sheldon is having problems with intimacy because he doesn't feel sexual attraction and his girlfriend expects him to express sexual interest as proof that he loves her." Is this about us, or is it not?

Can you feel the love? Probably not.
Readers, have you ever heard of queerbaiting?

Basically, queerbaiting means that a work will include some subtext that vaguely suggests a character likes another character of the same sex (presumably to make progressive/liberal audiences tune in for it), but will never actually declare the queer relationship "a thing" or let them actually get together. (Exploration is one thing; implying queerness without ever having the intention of letting it manifest is another.) I think this happens sometimes with asexuality, too, but people don't really recognize it as queerbaiting; a character will seem disinterested and may even declare disinterest in someone, but they will almost always get together with that character later (or with someone else even after claiming to not have interests of that sort). That's pretty much what asexual people have come to expect whenever they see characters like themselves; they'll eventually turn out to not be asexual and will furthermore reinforce the belief that there is a "right person" out there for everyone. The message we all take home is that asexuality is a holding pattern, a temporary identity, a placeholder for a person's real sexuality, which will manifest as soon as the person destiny had in mind for them comes along.

I have mixed feelings about this in general. Because I firmly believe we need both incidental queerness and targeted queerness in our media. And we usually won't see them in the same work. What I mean by this is that some works are explicitly designed to focus on a queer relationship and focus on the fallout from expressing same-sex love, while some works just make queer relationships happen to be part of the story, and may occasionally deal with any issues it causes (if they exist in the fictional context) or may even present it as if there are no issues.

I really like seeing incidental queerness. I see the need for "issue" stories, and I have even written them with queer focus. As mentioned earlier this week, my short story "On the Inside" is explicitly about the issues of identifying as a gender you were not assigned at birth, and it's not about much more than this girl struggling for the right to be seen that way. My short story "Her Mother's Child" deals explicitly with a mother's feelings about her daughter's choice of a same-sex partner (and her own feelings about same-sex partners), though it is primarily about the mother-daughter relationship in the story. A novel I intend to write about an asexual teenager will focus heavily on her discovery of asexuality and attempt to braid it into her life in a meaningful way. We need stories that do take us by the hand and walk us through certain steps of thought, because we live in an atmosphere where examples of people like us are not ubiquitous enough and no one has ever knelt down and said to us "this is something we have been through, and it was like this, and we felt just like you did, and it's okay."

However, I love when a book or other medium can take a step back from the harsh reality (or at least not focus on it so centrally) and become a Work Containing Queer People instead of a Queer Work. I think this subtle display can ultimately do more for preventative issues queer people develop when they're young, though we need media that acknowledges the problems they have and helps walk them through those problems too. A very good example of incidental queerness isolated from the usual "issue books" is David Levithan's book Boy Meets Boy

Once, in a conversation I had about this book, the other person I was talking to argued that it was a terrible book because it refused to acknowledge the struggles of gay teenage boys, setting this happy-go-lucky queer kid in his gay-friendly utopia and just letting him go about his business pursuing a boyfriend with no homophobia setting him back or being framed as formative in his youth.

I disagreed that this made it a bad book. A lot.

Instead of seeing this as a laughably unrealistic presentation of homosexual teenagerhood, I saw it as inspiring. Finally, a book that is not fantasy or set in another/a future reality presenting homosexuality as if it is (gasp) not definitive of this person entirely and showing us what a gay kid's life could be if he wasn't raised to hate himself or fear homophobic violence. It was internally consistent, I argued, and that is the reality I'm being asked to accept inside of Boy Meets Boy. Yes, if it had been a book that claimed to realistically depict today's gay-boy experience and yet it had all the homophobia Photoshopped out and retroactively excised from the kid's life since birth, it certainly wouldn't have fit as a realistic book. But in the world presented to us here, it was realistic--and it was refreshing. And a relief. Probably way more so for actual gay guys than it was for me.

But my conversation partner wasn't alone in feeling a little unsettled by the way this was presented; other people found themselves confused by what exactly they were reading. In an interview, the author was once asked about the setting--was this the future, or a utopia, or an alternate world, or what? He answered that it's where he thinks and hopes we're going as a society. I found that to be a very good answer.

When we make media, we have a choice about the messages we send, and sometimes we have to figure out how to walk some very delicate lines. Obviously a man publishing a book called Boy Meets Boy in the United States in the twenty-first century knows that this is being presented to a niche audience who knows to expect, well, a boy meeting a boy in a certain context when they pick up the book. They won't see it in their environment without seeking it out. It's complicated to get those messages where they need to be without someone citing them as "inappropriate" (especially if it's in media for children) and working to block the dissemination of that media. If something's known as a "gay show" or a "trans book" then those who want to stop others from getting affirming messages about these identities can easily identify and separate their children or their audiences from the material. And that's why incidental queerness in media can be so important.

Take Clarence on the Cartoon Network. A major character named Jeff has two moms. It's incidental. (Apparently there's also a gay couple portrayed incidentally in another episode.) If I may depart from this for a second, I once saw a long argument on Tumblr about whether gay parents were depicted in Disney's Frozen, based entirely on a seconds-long clip of a shopkeeper character introducing his family, depicted waving while sitting in a sauna:

People exploded and insisted this suggested a pair of gay fathers with their children, since the shopkeeper was also a man, and congratulated Disney for their boldness. But there was zero said about to what extent this family was an extended family and what relationship they had with the shopkeeper--plus the way Disney depicted adult women in this film suggests the tallest female character there could likely be an adult (potentially a mom/wife) and the biggest male character could easily be a son, cousin, or uncle. This isn't something I even consider incidental representation--something you'd have to create a bunch of assumptions for just to say you might have seen a relationship like yours on a mainstream movie screen for a second. But Jeff on Clarence having two moms? I think that's incidental representation in the right way. It's not THE issue. It's not AN issue. It just is there, visible, undeniable, and presented as normal for these characters. That's great.

And here's an odd little thing regarding the Cartoon Network show Steven Universe (yes, I'm going there again); even though there are some pretty clear presentations of what appears to be same-sex relationships on the cartoon, the Cartoon Network can kind of get away with saying they aren't portraying "lesbian" relationships because after all these are aliens from a species that has a single gender, and they just happen to, you know, present feminine and all use female pronouns. One could argue that they kind of have plausible deniability regarding whether they're putting something "inappropriate" on kids' TV (considering this show airs in countries around the world, some of which actually have laws against "gay" portrayals on television).

But you can see what it looks like.
Some have argued that the character above with the shorter hair is supposed to be a boy. (Apparently, in the name of denying that this is what it looks like, they're willing to assert that this is a boy with a female voice actor who's repeatedly referred to as "she" in the show and is named Ruby. Because, you know, she wears shorts and not a dress, and is kind of aggressive and punches things.) Some have also argued that this relationship is platonic or sisterly. (Apparently, in the name of denying that this is what it looks like, they're willing to assert that platonic and sisterly pairs frequently kiss tears off each others' faces and fawn over each other with very intimate gestures, and sing songs about their love and stuff.) One of the writers of the show actually had to go on record and specifically say their relationship is romantic, but some people still won't listen. That said, most people who watched this got the message loud and clear. It is exactly what it looks like. But.

Even though these characters use female pronouns exclusively and are coded in various ways as feminine, they are not actually women or girls. They're alien rocks from space, guys. And this is kind of genius, because the human characters in the show use gendered terminology for them all the time and they don't protest; however, as far as I remember, none of the alien characters have actually EVER referred to themselves or each other as "female," "girl," "woman," "lady," or any other term that implies gender besides the she/her pronouns, with the exception of one of them being referred to regularly as a "mother." (And she literally had a child, so I guess that makes sense.) Other characters (including the protagonist) DO sometimes call them women or girls or ladies, implying that everyone in their world sees them that way and they pretty much don't care, but THEY don't use this language for themselves. [Edited many months later: In more recent episodes, the slang term "homegirl" and the encouraging phrase "get it, girl!" have been uttered by the alien characters in reference to each other, so that may be a contradiction, but it's also slang and maybe not literal.]

And what this allows is for censors barring "lesbian" relationships on TV to have no business dubbing this show as inappropriate (hey, you can't outlaw space rocks!!!), while those who want to see characters like themselves on TV actually get to. For all intents and purposes, they are seen as female and in relationships with each other, in an incidental way that isn't challenged within the show on basis of their gender despite that everyone in this universe sees them as feminine. And some people have said it's a good portrayal of femme agender characters, which is also important since you can certainly be agender and prefer she/her pronouns.

Our television, books, and other media shapes how we think about the world; it shapes what we believe is usual, is normal, is possible. And though a lot of children's shows deal with magic and impossible happenings, those aren't the parts that kids absorb as possible; it's the lessons (sometimes heavy-handed and itchy if they're handled poorly, sometimes right on the money if the writers know what they're doing). They do learn about family and friendship and honesty and values. And they can see how that actually looks in an interpersonal way even if it's in the context of a weird cartoon show or a science fiction book. Even if they wouldn't know to go looking for it or wouldn't deliberately expose themselves to a piece of media that they thought contained this element, they can encounter it in a natural way and incorporate it into their world view.

So if the media they read and see includes people laughing at "sissy" boys or punishing girls for being assertive, they'll feel like that's okay to do to similar people in their lives, or they'll feel cowed and shamed if that seems to be about them. I read a story recently on a trans woman's blog about how she was trained from early childhood to laugh at the concept of trans women (presented as if they were "men in dresses") even though she wasn't sure why it was supposed to be funny or why it made her so uncomfortable that everyone thought that was hilarious. That she learned trans women were shameful and were pretending to be something they weren't, and that the concept was only worth introducing if one was going to immediately mock it. She didn't accept the truth about herself or come out or try to transition for a very long time because she didn't want to be that. Media (and people's reaction to it) is what taught her to be ashamed and stopped her from freely examining her identity.

Conversely, if we see trans people and other marginalized identities just existing, we see an example of someone who might be like us, or like our brother, or like our friend. We may develop a frame of reference, or at least see it somewhere to know it exists (so we don't think of it as "that's not how it works!") before we're incredibly set in our ways about how relationships and identities and gender roles are. We see two female-coded people who love each other, and even if nobody ever says the word "lesbian" (or, in fact, the word "woman" at all), we have context for it in a place where it's not The Plot and it's not What The Show Is About and it doesn't become The Gay Show.

(Though to be honest I would still watch The Gay Show if there was one. Haha.)

I generally appreciate hearing asexuality explicitly mentioned in a positive or neutral context in a book or on television, and I'm wary of identifying characters as "ace representation yaaaaayyyy" if they're just showing incidental indifference to coupling up or being intimate, but we do need these kinds of representations in mainstream media that stays mainstream media, and it's true that sometimes naming marginalized identities explicitly will make some people think it's not "for them" even when they're some of the people who need to see it most. We need kids to see two moms in their cartoons sometimes. We need them to know that sometimes girls who hold hands with boys might also want to hold hands with girls. And we need everyone to stop singling out these examples of less heteronormative and less typical situations as inappropriate (for children or otherwise). It is not "adult" or "too advanced" or "perverted" for same-sex relationships to be depicted as just a regular part of life, and a piece of media does not need to be labeled "LGBT category" to have LGBT people or issues in it.

Regular, mainstream media can and should have this kind of diversity. And just like there are plenty of movies and books that are Just About the Straight Romance and then plenty of the same where there are heterosexual couples simply existing as people's parents and casually mentioned in everyday life, we need both laser focused "issue books" that spotlight LGBT issues as well as incidental LGBT people existing in our media. We need them both (ideally with the latter avoiding the queerbaiting).

We do seem to be moving in this direction pretty well with our cartoons and our YA books having so much incidental diversity, showing young people (and everyone) that this kind of diversity is just part of life. I wish there had been more girl characters when I was a kid who didn't parrot phrases like "every girl dreams of her prince!" because hey, I wasn't dreaming of a prince, but I thought I probably would want that when I was older, and didn't know what a girl was supposed to be if catching a prince wasn't part of her adult life. I didn't like that "girls grow up to be straight women" was pretty much the only narrative I was offered. And I'm really glad that our media isn't all like that anymore. Don't get me wrong; it's still mostly like that.

But now there's hope. And I love the heck out of it.

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