Tierney: So this is a topic that’s been buzzing around my head for a long time, and I’ve felt the need to have it out in a post (especially now that we’re branching out into fandoms).
I am not somebody who considers what TV tropes calls “Word of God" to be canon. To quote a section of that trope page, I don’t think that interpretation of any given work of fiction should be limited to "attempts to discern the ‘author’s intentions’"; nor do I believe that because the writer/producer/editor/publisher has said that they intended something to mean one thing that that means it actually does. Once a work of fiction has been shared with an audience, the creators of the work have as much say in its interpretation as its audience.
You still here? Good. The reason I’ve spelled all that out is because it relates to the sexuality of characters in works of fiction I really love.
I’ll start with Dumbledore. As many of you will no doubt know, J. K. Rowling “outed” Dumbledore as gay in 2007. This revelation came a few months after the final book was published. Obviously, with what I said before, this means nothing to me. I was talking about Harry Potter with a friend of mine, and I mentioned that Dumbledore was gay, and she simply said “no, J. K. Rowling just thinks he is. That doesn’t mean he actually is.” She’s right.
HOWEVER, there are a few passages in the 7th book that support reading Dumbledore as gay- namely, when we’re first being told about his early friendship with Gellert Grindlewald; and- the most telling one for me- when Harry is talking to Dumbledore about it. For me, I knew he was in love with Grindlewald then. BUT this doesn’t mean that other people will read it as such. I’ve seen one hell of an argument over Dumbledore’s sexuality and whether Rowling should have stated it in the books floating around tumblr- and both sides raised excellent and valid points, (I can’t seem to find it right now but when I do, I’ll post it here); however for me, the fact that it’s never officially stated in canon therefore means it’s not canon. If you read Dumbledore as gay, you’re right (as you have evidence in the book); but equally one could argue that’s testament to a true friendship between equals and Dumbledore was just sad he could never have that again- and if you think that, you’re right, too. Interpretation of literature relies on both the source text and the audience reading critically.
My next example is a little different, and it comes from Doctor Who. Steven Moffat has said on his (now deleted) twitter that River Song is bisexual. Going with the idea that there has to be even a smidgeon of evidence in the canon for something to be real, she isn’t. River Song is heterosexual.
I say this as a pansexual person who generally has to tell people she’s bisexual simply because they think I’m being pretentious or playing to the idea of creating too many different sexualities for people to keep up with (and to those people I say, go fuck yourself). I’m basically invisible in fiction. What few bisexual characters we actually have play straight into awful stereotypes of being slutty, overly flirty, not particularly picky, etc. etc. 10 points if you can bring me a pansexual character. It’s for this reason I have so many problems with labelling River Song as bisexual- aside from the fact that she fits the “overly flirty” trope of bisexuals, she never shows anything other than heterosexual tendency. Now, if this character is actually bisexual, why isn’t she portrayed as such? It would be a bit like outing Rose or Martha or Donna or Amy or Rory as bisexual. There’s about as much evidence that all of the Doctor’s companions are bisexual as there is for River individually. It would be very easy to have her flirt with a woman- just once. Or it could even be included as a throwaway line.
Speaking of throwaway lines, enter Irene Adler. Irene identifies herself as gay (the conversation has John say “I’m not actually gay”, to which Irene responds “Well, I am”). She then proceeds to go get a crush on Sherlock which is apparently so strong that she feels the need to make the password on her phone refer to him. This phone, by the way, she’s desperate to ensure he doesn’t get access to because it’s the deus ex machina for the whole plot. I’ll probably do a post later about representations of women, so I won’t go into all that- but my problem with having a character identify as gay and then fall for a man is that it plays to the stereotype that gay people are just waiting for the right man/woman to turn them back to straight; to revert them to the ‘standard’ setting, if you will. I’m not saying that sexuality isn’t fluid (because it is) and I’m not saying that this never happens in real life (because it does), but when LGBT people are basically invisible in the mainstream media (and when we do appear, it’s either as the butt of a joke or in a very minor role) then we should be looking to shows like Sherlock to present us in ways that don’t pander to stereotypes.
Going back to Doctor Who, I will talk about two final characters. First, Oswin. *POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT* I actually really like Oswin. Outside tumblr, everybody seems to hate her; but if she’s going to be the new companion I’m excited. However, the one thing that irked me the second it was said and made my blood boil the more I thought about it was an exchange between Rory and Oswin, where she says “First boy I ever fancied was called Rory. Actually she was called Nina. I was going through a phase”. If I hear one more fucking person imply that non-heterosexuality is just a phase I am going to put my fist through something. Coming out was difficult for me not because people treated me differently, but because they thought that it was a phase I would get over. Once I got older, this morphed into something else which we’ll get onto in a moment. My point is that Moffat is once again using harmful stereotypes of non-heterosexual people and it just angers me.
On to my final character, and to the surprise of exactly no-one, it’s Jack Harkness. Oh, Jack. How I love you. Jack does play in to some stereotypes surrounding non-heterosexuality- such as basically being the universe’s biggest flirt and also not being enormously selective with his sexual partners. This is covered better in Torchwood, but seeing as I’m not including Word of God in my interpretations I’d best steer clear of Torchwood. However, although Jack’s main quirk is that he flirts with everything that moves (a very tired stereotype of non-monosexual characters), he also has an interesting storyline and character development outside that. Yes, his sexuality is one of his defining character traits (which isn’t really a positive thing), but it’s not his only character trait. It’s also consistent, unlike basically every other character on this list (except for River Song, who is consistently heterosexual in outward behaviour).
My general point is that although it’s good that we have more positive LGBT representations in the general media, it’s not good enough that we either a) don’t see LGBT people represented within canon, or b) when we do see them represented, they fall into general tropes that are over-used, out-dated, and frankly just wrong.
I’m going to quote this article just to finish off, because I really like this quote and it’s stuck in my head.
The problem with sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, ableist, etc., remarks and “jokes” is not that they’re offensive, but that by relying for their meaning on harmful cultural narratives about privileged and marginalized groups they reinforce those narratives, and the stronger those narratives are, the stronger the implicit biases with which people are indoctrinated are. That’s real harm, not just “offense.”