Subtext is the implicit meaning of any work. In this article, I am focusing on queer subtext in mainstream media. There is nothing inherently good or bad about subtext. The difference is how the subtext is used, and the subsequent impact.
Sometimes, creators are not able to include LGBTQ content because of regulation, culture, stigma, etc… The Motion Picture Production Code that served as a moral guide for movies in the United States from 1930-1968 banned homosexuality content for ‘sex perversion’.1 Movie makers that wish to include gay and lesbian characters would have to imply the homosexuality. Queer subtext is a nod to people who recognize it, but is oblivious to those who aren’t looking. It is a way to have LGBTQ representation to LGBTQ people when regulation doesn’t allow it explicitly.
The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) film rating system) replaced the Motion Picture Production Code and no longer classified homosexuality as a ‘sex perversion’. But for a while, the situation hadn’t improved for LGBTQ representation in movies at first. Gays and lesbians are used as the butt of the joke, and often brutally killed. And if there was any sort of homosexual relationship, one of the partners would return to a heterosexual relationship. In the 1980s, with AIDS epidemic and the rise of the religious-political group opposing the LGBTQ movement put pressure on creators to avoid depiction of LGBTQ characters.
By late 1980s to early 1990s, more people, including celebrities, have came out of the closet. There was a real possibility of depicting LGBTQ characters positively in mainstream media, and the community was hungry for it.2
The Beauty of Subtext
LGBTQ representation for those who see it.
Xena: the Princess Warrior
Xena and Gabrielle
Xena: the Princess Warrior has been hailed as an early queer icon. The relationship between Xena and Gabrielle has been heavily interpreted by LGBTQ fans as romantic in nature, and there was plenty of subtext that implied it. Even the writers and show runner later admit to the possibility of Xena and Gabrielle as being intimate friends. They hadn’t intended it that way at first. But the audience saw it, and the writers and the creator eventually caught on. In 1996, Liz Friedman, an out lesbian producer, was hired onto the show, and the subtext increased.
But no matter the chemistry, Xena and Gabrielle never got together officially on TV. They couldn’t. Xena was on broadcast network (Syfy) and there were certain ‘guidelines’ and expectations. Ellen still hadn’t come out, and Will & Grace wouldn’t be on TV for another three years . While there had been a couple lesbian kisses in the 1990s, they were one episode events to attract views. Despite the regulation, through the excuse of a mouth-to-mouth rescue, Xena and Gabrielle ‘kissed’, further validating their romantic relationship.3
The show did a lot to unite lesbians and feminists alike. Xena is a strong, capable, and independent woman who has a tight relationship with her companion Gabrielle. She had inspired a new generation of female actions heroes in film and movies alike, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kill Bill, and more.
Xena: the Princess Warrior also united the lesbian community together. A controversy arose when the studio withdrew the episode “The Way”. It featured Hindu deities Kirshna and Hanuman, and in the episode, Lord Kirshna helped Xena rescue Gabrielle. A Hindu organization protested over the implicit approval Lord Kirshna has given the relations between Xena and Gabrielle. As a result, the studio pulled the episode.4 In response, fans started an online petition and quickly gathered over ten thousand signatures. This is a demonstration of the fight against “The Powers That Be” (TPTB). Not only that, for the fandom, Xena/Gabrielle relationship caused intense ‘shipping’ debate, and sparked the popularity of a subset of fanficition, the Alternative Fiction (AU).3
Warehouse 13 aired from 2009 to 2014, spanning five seasons. During that time, Bering and Wells have attraction a big fan base.
Bering and Wells
The whole idea of putting Myka and HG together supposedly started because Jaime Murray (who plays HG) told the writers that Myka (played by Joanne Kelly) was more of HG’s type than Pete. And from then on, the writers, and the two actresses took that and ran with it.
Perhaps what made Wrehouse 13 different from other show is that the actresses are the ones leading the Bearing and Wells ship.5 They are an advocate for making Bering and Wells cannon. They never shied away from stating their characters fell in love, and portraying them as smitten with each other. Eventually, cos-tar Eddie McClintock who played Pete, also become an advocate for Bering and Wells getting together. Their affirmation that their characters are in love are confirmations that the subtexts are real, and each intimate moments meaningful.
— Jaime Murray (@MsJaimeMurray) October 4, 2011
The reason that they weren’t together wasn’t because of the writers, or the actresses. It was because of network politics, and fear of backslash. The studio/network tried to push for Pete and Myka to be together instead. And at the finale, they put Myka and Pete together.
I consider Warehouse 13 as a sad example in which the fans, the actresses, and the writers all see something beautiful between two characters and were forbidden to take it further because of sponsorship/network regulation.
While Xena and Warehouse 13 both weren’t able to give fans exactly what they want, they give us recognitions and hope. And sometimes, subtext can become canon.
Where Subtext Becomes Cannon
Subtext could be a way for the creator to wet their feet, a way to gauge the fan’s reaction. Or fans can notice something that the creators had not intended, and the creators decided that it was indeed a good idea and went for it.
Legend of Korra
Legend of Korra ran on Nickelodeon from 2012 to 2014. Network TV have began to include major same-sex relationships. And the attitude toward LGBTQ community are mostly supportive.
Korra and Asami
The interaction between Korra and Asami had always been a little more than friendly (in the fans’ eyes). Sure, the creators might not have intended for it to happen in the beginning. But for Asami and Korra to be together is certainly an interesting twist on the whole love triangle trope (Asami and Korra both dated Miko).
After breaking up with Miko, Asami and Korra slowly become friends, spending more and more time together. And finally, at the finale of the series, we see them holding hands walking into the spirit world together.
The lesbian subtext might be very subtle (it was a Nickelodeon kids show after all), but there had been hints about their developing relationship all along book 3 and 4 for the series. And the creators have confirmed their relationship.
The comic series Turf Wars that continued the story showed the two women start an actual relationship, kissing and having to tell their family and friends about their status. Korrasami is a real example of fans seeing something between two characters, shipping them, and have the relationship become a reality.
Yuri on Ice
Yuri on Ice is a Japanese anime about figure skating. It was released on 2016.
Victor and Yuri
Victor was Yuri’s mentor but the mentorship quickly became more intimate. The finale showed them skating together, and it was a nod to their relationship in the best way that creator knows how.
Although there are plenty of yaoi anime depicting men being slightly too intimate with each other, they are often marketed for women. Yuri differs in which the relationship between Yuri and Victor is more genuine, and authentic. The creators weren’t pandering to straight women. Instead, there is genuine interest in creating a bond between the two characters. And that is one big step forward for actual representation of gay couples in anime.9
Pitch Perfect Series
Pitch Perfect was released in 2012, featuring a cast of singing ladies with different color, and size. It was quickly followed up by a mediocre successor Pitch Perfect 2, and now in 2017, by Pitch Perfect 3.
Beca and Chloe
It could be said that lesbians can see the gay in everything. But with BeChloe, the subtext is obvious. From Chloe barging into Beca’s shower in the first movie,, to the lover’s best friend’s quarrel in the second movie, the relationship between Chloe and Beca is beyond that of best friends.
With Pitch Prefect 3 coming out, there has been talks of a BeChloe kiss in the extra scenes of Pitch Perfect 3 set to be released in the DVD.6 Although it is extremely disappointing that any confirmation of BeChole might have been pushed to extra scenes in the DVD, Pitch Perfect 3 is a world wide release with a PG-13 rating. Considering the controversial Disney’s Beauty and the Beast faced with a less than a minute scene hinting at the gayness of one minor character (although it is a PG movie), it would be difficult for Pitch Perfect 3 to include a kiss scenes between two of its main characters. It is not ideal, but if there is a chance that Xena can become cannon, even in the extra scenes, I think the fans would have taken it.
If BeChole becomes cannon, it would be one of the first time a U.S. major release movie franchise has two main female characters be together. I guess we have to wait and see if Pitch Perfect played us.
The Ugly of Subtext
The flip side to subtext being implicit and open to interpretation is that it allows for erasure of LGBTQ characters. Any theory of queer characters in main stream media would be dismissed as a radical view or a fan theory. And often, these theories are never confirmed or only confirmed years later when the world is more receptive toward LGBTQ characters.
Us queers have been saying Dumbledore is gay for a while, long before J.K. Rowling confirmed it in 2007. And the straight world was shocked. Gays finally got their validation. But before that, they had to suffer through being thought of as seeing gays in everything, being painted as crazy for seeing something others didn’t. I understand why Dumbledore isn’t explicitly written as gay, mind you Harry Potter was first published back in the 1997. And that if he had be written as such, the backlash would had been too much and Harry Potter might have been banned in more places for reasons beyond ‘advocating witchcraft’, and might not be the phenomena it is today. And I admire J.K. Rowling for being a LGBTQ ally. But the fact of the matter is, when LGBTQ relationships or characters are merely subtexts, it allows heterosexuals to dismiss it. It is the beauty and the ugly of subtext.
Queerbaiting/ ‘I am so straight’ / ‘Have I Mentioned I Am Heterosexual Today?’ trope 7
Another big problem with subtext has to do with queerbaiting. Perhaps queerbaiting is too broad and too vague of a term. Instead, I will mention ‘Have I Mentioned I Am Heterosexual Today?’ trope. This trope involves the show featuring a character or a pair of characters that have many intimate homo-erotic moments. And yet they, or other characters, constantly remind the audience that they are straight. It is harmful because it is trivializing authentic intimacy between gay characters, and allow others to dismiss any attempt to show implicit but meaningful romantic relationship between two characters of the same sex as mere friendship.
Rizzoli & Isles
Rizzoli & Isles ran from 2010-2016 on PBS and is the champion of American lesbian subtext. And it isn’t a good thing. Rizzoli and Isles are super-straight best friends that are slightly too close with each other to be just friends. But they are straight, as the show repeatedly remind us by putting them with a revolving door of guys. Yet, at the same time, the show also gives us lingering looks and soft touches. The show plays up the lesbian subtext for views, from straight males who want to see two women be close, and from lesbians who are known to be extremely loyal.
The show pretended there is this “will they won’t they going on” but in its heart, it is a false promise.No matter how many signs and reasons Rizzoli & Isles should be together. Their relationship doesn’t evolve, neither does their sexuality. The subtexts are merely there to please the fan and keep eyeballs on the show.
I am not to say members of the LGBTQ community cannot enjoy Rizzoli & Isles. We can. Even if the show runners don’t give us the love story we want, we can always turn to fanfiction and create our own.
On the other end, there is also the relationship between Sherlock and Watson in Sherlock, first aired in 2010. There is a huge fanbase for Johnlock. Most of them are straight teenage females. The showrunner had said that Sherlock and Watson would never be together because it isn’t the type of narrative they want. And yet there are all these gay subtexts there. Along with the repeated denial by John that Sherlock and he are a couple. It was as if the writers are taking the whole idea of John and Watson being together as a joke. They might act close, but they sure aren’t gay.8
They even have an episode where they’re going through theories of how Sherlock faked his own death, where Moriarty and Sherlock almost kiss, and it cuts before they do, and it shows that it’s just a fangirl of Sherlocks fan club stating her theory on how she though Sherlock did it, it’s in an actual episode, and it’s blatantly making fun of the fans. It’s like they put the gay vibe in there and then made fun of people for picking up on it.
Sherlock might be a good show. But the way it handled Johnlock, the way it constantly trivialized its fans, and dismissive of homosexual relationship is harmful. If you are a straight man, mistakenly as being in a gay relationship, you politely correct the person and move on. With all the bullying that LGBTQ members, especially LGBTQ youth, face, it simply isn’t okay to hint at homosexuality and then proclaimed LOUDLY that the characters are straight.
Subtext is a double-edge sword. It is beautiful in the way that it makes you feel validated for seeing something that the
straights (or just the oblivious) don’t see. But at the same time, it allows the haters to dismiss any merit of the subtexts.
There is nothing inherently bad or good about subtext. And fans can interrupt whatever subtext they want. And creators can make any decisions about the direction of the show they want. But what is important is to hold the showrunner/ creators responsible for their actions and promises.