Invisible? Refusing to see what’s already there…
At the time, I decided to keep the conversation light, and simply said that we saw it because it was obvious. The real answer is a lot more complicated and serious than that. I didn’t feel up to explaining the unconscious homophobia underlyng the very question, and sometimes, frankly, I’m just tired of being disappointed in people.
But the problem persists, far beyond the people involved in that conversation. And yes, it is a problem, a very real and serious problem. What is the problem, you ask? Some people say the problem is invisibility or cluelessness, but…
In this way the writer can present his cowardice, laziness, and lack of imagination, as artistic integrity. “I couldn’t write gay characters; I didn’t have any.” Hand-to-forehead; the tortured auteur.
—Andrew Wheeler, writing for Comics Alliance
It’s actually about erasure and willful blindness. As I’ll explain further…
Pick a movie or television show aimed at a general audience. If you’re a straight white guy, there’s approximately 99% certainty that this movie or show features a prominent character like you. Almost certainly several. If the show has any sort of romantic element, it is 99% certain that one of the people involved in the romance is one of the straight white guys. Heck, do you know how many predominantly lesbian films I’ve see where there is at least one straight white guy who is pining for one of the queer girls?
From the time every straight white boy out there was big enough to stare in wonder at the moving pictures on the screen, there have been characters that he could aspire to be like. Stories served as object lessons in ways that his life can turn out. If there is a battle to be won, chances are that the victorious hero is the most macho straight guy in the cast. If there is a romance to be consummated, you can bet the straight guy is going to be the winner in that. If there is a woman who doesn’t seem interested in the hero, you can bet that before the finale, she will have fallen under his spell. And let’s be honest here, there are almost none of these cultural experiences that don’t at least acknowledge love and romance. Some years back when the folks responsible for the Muppets tried to deflect all the questions about Bert and Ernie by claiming puppets don’t have sexual orientation, all of queerdom replied, “Then how do you explain the ongoing romance between Kermit and Miss Piggy?”
If you’re straight but not white, there are fewer protagonists who look like you, but there are some. And even if the only men of color in a film are supporting characters, quite frequently they have on-screen girlfriends or wives. Very frequently the men of color supporting characters are at least kick-ass characters, so again, something to aspire to.
Straight girls don’t fare as well. Most pop culture teaches them their only possible roles in life are to be supportive of their man, or to be imperiled and later rescued by their man. But at least they see characters like themselves and have some role models.
Not so for the queer kid. The vast majority of the time, we’re not on screen at all. If we do see characters that remind us of ourselves, they’re usually single and either clownish or villainous. Which contributes to our very real sense that there is something wrong with us. If not, people would acknowledge our existence and tell our stories, right? Since they don’t, that means we should be ashamed of who we are; not ashamed of anything we’ve done—because we’re children and don’t understand anything that happens off screen with the romances that are portrayed—but obviously the very fact that we are capable of having these feelings at all is something shameful and must be hidden.
So, that’s the first part of the problem you have to recognize: stories—whether they are books, short stories, television series, or movies—that don’t portray openly queer characters each contribute to the oppression of queer people. Cumulatively they inflict a lot of pain and suffering on queer kids (that follows throughout their adult lives).
And there’s more. In real life as kids, the vast majority of us seldom saw anyone like ourselves. If we did, we quickly learned to be circumspect. One of the lessons all those stories has taught us is that we’re supposed to blend in, and we’re supposed to help them blend in. It follows logically from that, then, that there might actually be characters like us in many of those stories, they’re just hidden, like we are. So, without even consciously thinking about it, we start looking for hints and signs that we aren’t alone; that we really are a part of this world.
Maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe as closeted kids we were so desperate for any evidence that we aren’t alone, that we looked for any hint that at least one of the characters is like us. And that may later contribute to our ability to spot potential allies (or more) in real life. I’ve written before about gaydar, and pointed out that part of the phenomenon, no matter how flawed or inaccurate it may be, is a simple matter of survival. If you’re growing up in a homophobic society and have been teased, harassed, and bullied for not acting like other boys or not being ladylike, you learn to identify non-verbal signals that tell you which people to be extra wary around, and which ones it might be safe to be more yourself.
To answer my friend’s original question: People do find hints of same sex relationships in entertainment because we have to. The usual reply to us pointing out our lack of visibility is for some guy (it is almost always a guy, and usually a dude-bro at that) to say, “But every story doesn’t have to be about you!” Completely unaware of the irony, because 99.9 percent of all the stories out there are very much about them. And when someone does something like create a remake of the Ghostbusters and cast women in the lead roles, the vast majority of men who hear the news lose their sh*t and start wailing about “wimmin ruining” everything. So, not only are they unaware that every story is about them, but they also believe that it is a horrific disaster anytime a story isn’t about them.
I quoted Andrew Wheeler from his article, Dear Storytellers: Gay Characters Aren’t Going to Show Up ‘Organically’ In Your Stories, You Have to Put Them There above. Wheeler makes another good point: any fictional universe already contains same-sex relationships, because the real world contains queer people and has for as long as there have been people. The question, particularly in the 21st Century, should not be why do queers have to work so hard to find potential non-heterosexual characters in movies and shows and books. The question should be, why are writers (and directors, producers, casting directors, et al) working so very hard to erase us?
Because it isn’t a matter of just accidentally omitting us (and women with agency, and people of color with agency, and so on), it is a decision, unconscious or not, to exclude us. The kindest way we can characterize their sin, is that they simply assume that the only people who matter are straight and male and the things that those straight boys want.