(This is, yet again, not the thing I planned to write this week, but it is something that's been on my mind for about a month. Since minor tasks are still proving to be pretty difficult, I'm going to go with what's got a stronger hold on my brain.)
Though I only realized it in hindsight, most of my childhood was spent looking for characters that were like me.
And let me start of by saying that finding those characters was easier for me than it was for a lot of people. I'm white, I'm cisgendered, I'm from a comfortably middle class family. There are fewer white cis girls than white cis boys in media, but they are present.
Still, the absence of characters like me kept me from engaging in a lot of media. I missed the boat on Star Wars largely because the only image of a female character that I saw was Leia--and I saw her in the metal bikini more than any other outfit. I might not have understood at the time why exactly this bothered me so much, but I know it made me say "no, thanks" to the franchise. Even when I did (finally) watch the movies, I couldn't get past that to really engage with them. There are a lot of books, movies, and TV shows that I skipped over. No women? Nah, I'll pass.
As I've gotten older, I've started looking for representation beyond gender. I've figured out another aspect of my identity--one that doesn't typically show up on screen or in pages or that, when it does show up, is used as a code to indicate something shady or wrong or evil about the character. See, I am attracted to men. I'm also attracted to women. Which means seeing characters like me that aren't depicted as depraved doesn't happen much.
In recent years, I've started seeking out queer characters. What I've found is that some creators have always been trying to get queer characters in the picture. Somewhere in my mind, I guess I was always dimly aware of this. I don't see how a person could, for instance, not read Idgie and Ruth's relationship in Fried Green Tomatoes as anything other than romantic. You'll never convince me that Grantaire isn't in love with Enjolras in Les Miserables. And even though I grew up watching a dubbed version of Sailor Moon that painted Michiru and Haruka as cousins, I understood that the relationship between the two wasn't familial.
There's a documentary called The Celluloid Closet that tracks some of the ways that Hollywood films have included queer characters without being explicit. These coded representations, for better or for worse (and, just to be clear, some of these have lead to tropes that are definitely for the worse) have been the main way that queer characters have made it to screens and pages.
We've moved away from some of this--LGBTQ+ characters are present in media now in explicit ways--some of the time, anyway. And that's good. It's not been without its problems, but it's good.
Something that gets me, though, is the degree to which people will bend over backwards to not notice the existence of some queer characters. I was baffled by some of the apparent response to LeFou "having a gay moment" in the remake of Beauty and the Beast (which, to be fair, I didn't go see, so I have no idea what said moment entails). But my confusion was less that people would be upset about the presence of a queer character than it was about the fact that apparently a bunch of people didn't pick up on LeFou's attraction to Gaston before.
Dude literally sings a bar song about how hot his friend is. Come on now.
In my work, I include queer characters--mainly queer women. But I don't often use the word girlfriend--mostly because I find both girlfriend and boyfriend to be inadequate descriptors. I communicate characters' affections and attractions through actions. The characters take actions that, in other contexts would be read as clear indications of a beyond-platonic relationship.
But people just. Do. Not. See. It. These women hold each other's hands. The cuddle together. They lean their foreheads against each other. They explicitly say "I love you" to each other. Several of the readers get it. But for some, the notion that these women are romantically involved just sails overhead. If I was writing about a heterosexual pair, there would be no question as to the nature of their relationship.
I guess I understand, on some level. We're not trained to expect queer relationships the way we are straight relationships. That take-for-grantedness lets people make those leaps for man and woman pairs, but hesitates to do the same for pairs of women and pairs of men. And, as The Celluloid Closet suggests, we're used to queer characters being presented in such a way that their queerness is easy to gloss over. The potential that some characters are queer is frequently dismissed out of hand.
But, even if a character's sexuality is ambiguous, even when they don't explicitly label someone as their boyfriend or girlfriend--sometimes, they're queer. So I guess maybe keep that in mind next time you read or watch something.