Representation is important and creators should fight for it

CW: mentions of homophobia

Spoilers for: The Legend of Korra, Steven Universe, The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars (comic series), and the Tomb Raider graphic novels.

After hearing Rebecca Sugar’s harrowing tale, most fans have a greater appreciation for the sacrifices she made as a creator. Everyone talks about queerbaiting—which is bad—but only now are people starting to truly understand the insane hoops creators have to jump through for the slightest hint of queer representation in media. Rebecca Sugar’s story isn’t unique, but it is an important lesson in determination and a testament to the times we live in. While creators are often mocked or dragged through the mud for doing the bare minimum and calling it “representation”–i.e. the ending of Korra that continues to spark controversy and derision even to this day—many behind the scenes testimonies have revealed that Korra is definitely not a unique case.

For those who don’t know, The Legend of Korra has been torn apart for pretty much everything pre-Season 4, including its politics, the westernized setting, the useless love triangle in Season 1, etc. But it has also been ridiculed by critics for being characterized as “having queer representation”, given the fact that Korra and Asami’s relationship is never explicitly confirmed. It is handled so subtly that people are still arguing—about a show that came out in 2010—about whether or not it even counts, as the relationship was confirmed by the creators after the fact. That seems like a poor excuse for representation, doesn’t it? Fans have literally been forced to dig through and dissect dozens of episodes in which Korra and Asami’s feelings for each other were—subtly–alluded to. The evidence is sparse and many fans—including those who are just getting into the show because it’s on Netflix now—are rightfully pissed that the writers are calling this “queer representation”. But getting mad at the creators for being implicit –to the point that Korra and Asami didn’t even kiss at the end, just held hands and looked lovingly into each others’ eyes in a way that could be mistaken for platonic—is ignoring the landscape these writers were forced to navigate for the sake of their vision. The Legend of Korra was cursed from the start, with the network executives basically calling it dead in the water before it even premiered because of the protagonist being a girl. This bad faith carried up until Season 4, with the writers having to write each season as if it was going to be the last. The series being taken off television entirely and moved to a digital platform also had a terrible impact on its popularity. It seemed that the network executives just hated the show and wanted to bury it and the writers had to jump through hoops at every turn. Regardless, the writers have admitted that they wanted to portray Korra and Asami’s budding romance as early as Season 2, but the executives forbade it. Season 4 gives us several—very subtle—moments hinting at romance between the two of them. Korra only writing letters to Asami while she was indisposed, Korra blushing and getting flustered after Asami complimented her new look, etc. It is intentionally meant to be neutral and up for interpretation, as not to incur the wrath of the network executives. The only reason Season 4 went the “extra mile”–which admittedly wasn’t very extra—is because it was the final season and the final scene of the final season. And what did all of that amount to? Korra and Asami holding hands and looking into each others’ eyes. No kiss, no explicit confirmation, just that one scene. The writers have been accused of “pandering”, but they have explained that this little scene was literally all they could get away with. As much as they wanted to, there was no way they could have pulled off an ending kiss or anything more obvious. It’s unfortunate. However, the comics—which follow the show—have made Korra and Asami’s romantic relationship very obvious, giving fans the explicit queer representation they so desperately wanted out of the show itself. And while people have accused the creators of pandering, it should be noted that the follow-up comic series—Turf Wars—completely and openly confirms Korra and Asami’s relationship. The series literally starts moments after that final scene in Season 4. Korra and Asami kiss and they grapple with whether or not to tell anyone about their relationship. The comic even (spoiler) touches on homophobia. And for the skeptics out there, this comic was actually written by one of the show’s co-creators. So it’s not just some random author running with fan interpretations. Turf Wars represents the writer’s true intentions and what they likely would have done if the show had been given an actual chance and they didn’t have the network executives breathing down their necks.

Steven Universe is a less severe case of the above phenomena. But although Rebecca Sugar and her incredibly talented team of writers got away with way more, it cost them—and the fanbase—greatly. The show has been criticized over and over again for the series finale. Although it wasn’t horrible, the entire last season is very rushed. Everything is concluded very quickly, character development happens at super speed, and villains are completely redeemed without a redemption arc. Compared to the earlier seasons, the last season was very sloppy and somewhat unsatisfying. But as usual, there’s a pretty significant reason for the final season being rushed. Rebecca Sugar and her crew—the “Crewniverse”–had dozens of stories lined up for the final season, including an episode exploring Rhodonite’s components. However, most of these were scrapped and all of the major plot lines were hastily wrapped up in a forty-minute episode. Originally, the Crewniverse had planned for two more seasons. They ended up with one quick final season, a movie, and a short mini-series exploring the events after the movie. While it definitely wasn’t the worst TV finale, it definitely wasn’t what the Crewniverse originally planned for. But they were denied a chance to actually wrap up the show properly, the way they wanted it to be.

The trouble started with Garnet. Or rather, it started with Ruby and Sapphire. Sugar—Rebecca Sugar, the show’s creator—was adamant about portraying Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship as romantic, because that was what it was intended to be. She specifically wrote the relationship—between the characters, who are both female-coded—to be romantic and for Garnet to be a physical representation of their love. But the network executives balked at the idea. While Cartoon Network executives try to give their creators more freedom than other networks, they are still a business. First and foremost, the executives had to look at the current media landscape and think about potential backlash. The executives were concerned about marketing and producing the show in other countries, particularly Russia and China. Homosexuality is illegal in several parts of the world, therefore the executives were worried about the show being banned in some countries for having an explicit lesbian relationship. However, Sugar insisted, arguing that the Gems weren’t technically female—the Gems are aliens whose physical forms are made of light and they don’t reproduce, therefore they are technically sexless beings who use “she/her” pronouns and present as female—so it technically wasn’t a “lesbian relationship”. Of course this reasoning is faulty, because to the average viewer who doesn’t know this incredibly specific lore, the Gems are women and therefore Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship is definitely meant to be a lesbian relationship. But this reasoning apparently worked, because the Crewniverse managed to squeeze the relationship past the censors with this flimsy excuse. However, many people have theorized that Sugar’s insistence on this is what caused the unfortunate and sporadic airing schedule. While it was airing, the show was known for having very long breaks between seasons and unusually long hiatuses that caused massive gaps—several months—between episodes. And as the series went on, the release schedule just became more sporadic. The episodes were being released in bulk as week-long “events” and then the show would roll into another long hiatus. Sometimes episodes would release with barely any warning. For whatever reason—most likely something to do with Sugar’s insistence on queer representation—the show had a very random airing schedule. Despite all of this, the show did gain popularity at a rapid pace and the fanbase continued to grow. It was probably this popularity that caused the executives to hold back from pulling the show entirely. If Steven Universe had been less popular, the Crewniverse probably wouldn’t have gotten away with half the stuff they managed to squeeze past the skittish censorship board. And although the executives might have wanted to give Sugar all the creative freedom in the world, they were hesitant and Sugar had to jump through several hoops. They warned her that if she pushed, this would likely lead to her show being canned. As well as Ruby and Sapphire, there was the fact that Pearl was very obviously in love with Rose Quartz. She sang an entire song about it and it was officially confirmed in the movie, as well as being first brought up in a somewhat early episode. Episodes such as Last One Out of Beach City—an episode in which Pearl pursues and eventually gets the number of a woman who looks like Rose Quartz—and Keystone Motel—an episode in which Ruby and Sapphire get angry at each other, but they eventually kiss and make up—continued to push boundaries. The episode The Answer delves into Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship and we get a flashback about how they met and fell in love with each other, complete with a song—Something Entirely New—which explores these new feelings the characters are having. All of this was very blatant and out in the open. Steven Universe was really the first show to actually push these boundaries, and it has led to even more criticism of The Legend of Korra. After all, if Steven Universe could be so obvious with its lesbian relationships, why did The Legend of Korra have to hide behind subtext? Ruby and Sapphire were actually able to show their love on screen without it being left up to interpretation. As a result, several episodes of Steven Universe were banned in places like Russia and the show was banned outright in several places. The Crewniverse had to fight for these episodes, these scenes, and the threat of cancellation was constantly hanging over their heads. But with the momentum of the show’s popularity, the threats of cancellation never really stuck. Well, until the last season.

Reunited is widely considered to be one of the best episodes in the entire series and a landmark for queer representation. And it’s now become obvious just how difficult it was for the Crewniverse to even get this episode on the air. It’s a miracle that it was produced and aired in the first place. And despite it heralding the beginning of the end for the original Steven Universe, the effects are still being felt. Sugar’s actions weren’t in vain. This episode opened the door to a brand new era of childrens’ cartoons and many creators were grateful for the sacrifices she made. And despite the odds being stacked against them, the Crewniverse tried their best and they managed to get both a movie and a mini-series out of it.

The network executives told her that if she aired this episode, her show was basically finished. Despite the threat, Sugar persisted and the episode aired anyway. While the executives were willing to put up with many things because of the show’s popularity, they drew the line at an episode that not only explicitly confirmed Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship, but also heavily revolved around the two female-coded Gems getting married. The majority of the fanbase were perfectly aware that Ruby and Sapphire are in love, but it had never been obviously stated, therefore the executives still had that sliver of deniability. Reunited completely destroyed any lingering deniability. And to dissuade foreign censorship boards from just banning the episode altogether, the entire second half of the episode—after the wedding—involves some very important plot development. It was impossible to ban this episode without leaving a huge gaping plot hole and confusing viewers. And just as an extra fail-safe, the episode features Ruby—the more masculine of the couple—in a wedding dress, while the more feminine Sapphire wears a suit. This prevented the same foreign censorship boards from just using male pronouns for Ruby—a tactic that was used in the past to hide the explicit lesbian relationship in the show while still airing the episodes—without further confusing the audience. It was a bold and intentional move. And as expected, this boldness has led to the show being banned in certain places that would have otherwise just censored or not aired the episode. Sugar’s insistence on airing the wedding episode was what finally led to the situation boiling over. Originally, there were going to be two more seasons. But with this development, the Crewniverse was told that Season 5 would be their last. This led to them hastily writing an ending, scrapping several of their less relevant storylines, and rushing several plot lines that would have otherwise spanned an entire season. Ultimately, it wasn’t what the Crewniverse wanted or planned for. It was very much a rush job and it shows.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a unique situation. It isn’t even a situation that is unique to childrens’ cartoons. While most people are quick to jump to a very obvious conclusion—that the choice to not show blatant gay relationships in a cartoon intended for a “family” audience is mostly due to expected backlash from angry parents—there are occasions in which this issue didn’t seem at all related to potentially upset parents. In the 2013 Tomb Raider game—which was very well-received by both critics and franchise fans—there seems to be a potentially romantic connection between main character Lara Croft and her friend Samantha. A big chunk of the fanbase eagerly latched onto this and were very enthusiastic about the possibility of Samantha and Lara’s relationship being explored in future games. However, Samantha has—to date—not appeared in any of the other games, leaving Samantha and Lara’s potential relationship as untapped potential. However, Samantha has appeared in a graphic novel entitled Tomb Raider: Inferno, a companion novel to the video game franchise. However, their interaction ultimately culminates with a hug, much to the disappointment of fans. Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? Well, a tweet by Jackson Lanzing—who worked on the graphic novel—shines some light on the situation: apparently Lara and Samantha were supposed to kiss in Tomb Raider: Inferno. They—the writers and artists—had an entire scene planned out in which Lara realized her feelings for Samantha and they shared a kiss. However, at some point during the editing-to-publication line, this was completely scrapped and replaced by Lara and Samantha sharing a decidedly platonic hug. It is unknown why the higher-ups demanded that Samantha and Lara’s relationship not be confirmed, but this was a clear case of censorship. And unlike with Steven Universe and The Legend of Korra, the “potentially angry parents” excuse just doesn’t work. The Tomb Raider games—and presumably the graphic novels—contain a lot of adult themes and are very clearly intended for a more mature audience, yet apparently Lara and Samantha being romantically involved crossed some kind of line.

There have been many cases of studios robbing people of queer representation, either through censoring queer storylines or forcing writers to “leave it up to interpretation”. It is an ongoing problem, even as more and more queer characters appear on television and in movies. And despite what happened with Steven Universe and Legend of Korra, it is thanks to these shows that the situation has at least mildly improved. Shows like the She-Ra reboot and The Owl House would not be able to exist if it weren’t for the efforts of the Crewniverse. They opened the door to a brand new generation of entertainment in which queer representation can exist in any medium and for any demographic. Through their sacrifices, LGBTQ+ kids are finally getting the representation they’ve wanted for years. So it wasn’t all for nothing, despite the results. Fighting for representation is always worth it, even if it costs greatly in the end.

References

Just finished The Legend of Korra? We answer your burning questions about Korrasami and more (Rachel Yang, Entertainment Weekly)

Korrasami is canon. (Brian Konietzko’s official tumblr)

Steven Universe creator has done more for LGBTQ visibility than you might know (Nick Romano, Entertainment Weekly)

Tomb Raider comic originally had Lara and Sam Nishimura end up together (Cian Maher, VG247)

The tweet by Jackson Lanzing

How Do We Solve A Problem Like “Queerbaiting”?: On TV’s Not-So-Subtle Gay Subtext (Rose, AutoStraddle)

Why infantilizing characters is super creepy and weird

CW: Mentions of abuse, power imbalances, implied grooming, age difference, unhealthy relationships, BDSM, and kinks. Spoilers for “Lore Olympus”, “Life is Strange”, “Lucifer”, and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”.

Trying out a new more “article-esque” format for the sake of style and simplicity.

In the wild world of fiction, there are certain tropes that seem to pop up again and again. While some of these are harmless, a lot of common tropes present unique problematic elements into an otherwise airtight narrative. There’s nothing particularly bad about dragging problematic elements into a story, if the author realizes that these elements are problematic and treats them as they are. It would be nice if fiction existed in a bubble, but that’s really not how it works. Fiction does have a distinct impact on reality. Normalization is one of the most obvious ways we can see fiction influencing the world around us. Certain behaviors that are normalized in fiction tend to be more tolerated or even celebrated in real life, which can be either a good thing—in cases such as Adventure Time dissecting and tearing down the infamous “love at first sight” trope that permeates popular fiction—or a bad thing. And way too often—especially in fiction aimed at impressionable teenagers and young adults—it tends to be bad. And that is why “infantilization” is such a sinister and often misused trope that needs to be talked about.

What is infantilization?

“Infantilization” can mean a lot of things, but it’s usually used as a catch-all term for a handful of harmful tropes in fiction. Commonly, “infantilized” characters are naive, childish, and extremely optimistic. They are ignorant about the inner workings of the world, react with childlike wonder to simple everyday things, and they are often lacking in basic life skills. A shining and relevant example of this is seen in the famous/infamous webtoon Lore Olympus, a modern retelling of the classic Greek myth about Persephone and Hades. In this web comic, Persephone is presented as this cute, naive, childish, optimistic young nineteen-year-old who is hopelessly in love with a much older man. Ignoring the inherent problematic elements of the narrative—which will be discussed shortly—Persephone is a perfect example of infantilization and why this trope is often problematic. It’s not that the idea is inherently bad. It’s actually an interesting idea to explore in a serious narrative. The effects of a sheltered life and years of emotional abuse on a young woman—in this case Persephone—could easily fit into a wider narrative in which characters from Greek mythology are re-contextualized in a more modern context. A lot of Greek myths involve people—particularly young women—being taken advantage of, wronged, or otherwise hurt by gods and mortals. So a modern narrative focusing on a character dealing with very real problems while also wrestling with magical powers and literal god-level obstacles is actually kind of perfect for this kind of characterization. Unfortunately, Lore Olympus isn’t a riveting exploration of modern societal issues couched inside an engaging fantasy world with wonderfully relatable millennial and Gen Z characters. It is two of those things. Rather than using Persephone’s innocence in a constructive way, the story instead decides to do what almost every narrative does with its infantilized female characters: it turns this young and naive character into a sex object to be ogled and lusted after by both the readers and the characters. Persephone is basically everything you would expect from a sheltered nineteen-year-old: she’s childish, she’s directionless, she is finally getting her first taste of independence, and she lacks the life experience to take care of herself. Because she is a teenager and the narrative hardly ever portrays her as anything other than a teenager. This is especially problematic given the fact that the main love interest is literally a fully grown adult. A fully grown adult who sees nothing wrong with pursuing and sexualizing a sheltered young girl who is also (spoiler) working for him. And like most female characters who are infantilized in this way, Persephone often displays a weirdly childish view of sex. Because characters like this are meant to be sexualized, but not sexual. In one of the early chapters, Persephone misunderstands what “sleeping to the top” means, a scene meant to endear her to the audience by showing off just how “innocent” she is. And later we discover that Persephone refers to making out with someone as “hooking up”, again showing off that she is incredibly innocent and oblivious. Persephone has very little sexual agency, a fact that contrasts very heavily with an older man like Hades. Again, none of these things are an inherently bad thing to have in a narrative. However, rather than presenting these tropes as problematic, Persephone is instead supposed to be relatable and endearing to the audience. And most importantly, sexualized while hardly ever being overtly sexual. Because if Persephone were to exercise any level of sexual agency, it would break the immersive fantasy of a young naive woman whose sexuality only exists in a bubble and only for the direct pleasure of the audience and/or main love interest. There is a video by Pop Culture Detective entitled “Born Sexy Yesterday” which breaks this down even better and more thoroughly, although he doesn’t directly reference or talk about Lore Olympus. This entire trope pops up very often in fiction, especially fiction aimed at a mostly male audience. But even female-created and female-focused media like Lore Olympus is not exempt.

What is the difference between “infantilization” and “innocence”?

You can write a character who has all of the before-mentioned traits without infantilizing them and/or turning them into a sex object/kink fulfillment. A good example of this is Kate Marsh from the Life is Strange series. Kate has a lot of the traits normally associated with this trope, but contextualized and grounded in a more realistic environment. Kate is also naive, she’s a little childish, she’s optimistic—although we don’t see a lot of that for the first chunk of the game—and she seems to have had a somewhat sheltered life with her religious family. But Kate demonstrates an understanding—although filtered through the lens of her personal beliefs—of sex and sexuality in a way that is very uncharacteristic of this trope. Many elements of Kate’s story actually mirror some plot points from Lore Olympus, despite these works of fiction existing in completely different genres and complete different formats and written by completely different people. For example, it is implied—although this is very much a fan theory—that Mark Jefferson—the main antagonist of Life is Strange and Kate’s teacher—might have been sleeping with Kate. An older man taking advantage of a vulnerable and naive young woman, much like Hades and his relationship with Persephone. But rather than romanticizing and sexualizing this harmful behavior, Life is Strange makes it very obvious that Jefferson is, well, the villain. Mark Jefferson is—in many ways—the perfect antagonist for a game grounded in reality and primarily centered around teenage girls. Yes, magic exists in the Life is Strange universe. But the conflicts are very much grounded in real life, such as Max and Chloe’s struggling relationship, Nathan’s unhinged behavior, and Mark Jefferson. The magic—Max’s time powers—is mostly used as a vessel for the ultimate point of the narrative. A means to an end, but also an important component for the underlying themes of regret, sacrifice, abuse, and unconditional love. There is also the essential component of giving Max—a shy girl lacking in confidence—power in a situation in which she would normally be powerless. This is good writing and overall an example of why tropes like Born Sexy Yesterday and all its related—and equally problematic—variations are unfortunate. It’s very easy to write a character like that and fit them into a narrative without using the narrative to normalize or sexualize these aspects of the character. The story—or rather the person who wrote/animated/directed/etc. it—is choosing to do these things.

Another example of this is Kimmy Schmidt from the Netflix original series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The series centers around a woman who—after being trapped in a bunker for fifteen years—moves to New York to start a brand new life. Kimmy is incredibly naive and childish, having spent most of her formative years imprisoned by a psychopath. She is also implied to have lived a rather sheltered life before she was captured. Stuck at the approximate mental age of fifteen, Kimmy is constantly tossed into situations in which she demonstrates her lack of life experience and her ignorance of basic life skills. Of course all of this is mostly played for comedy, but the show has some genuinely dark undertones and is full of very morbid humor. It’s incredibly surreal and over-exaggerated for comedic effect, satirizing real life situations and using hyperbole in ways reminiscent of the comedy series 30 Rock. And while Kimmy shows some awareness of her own sexuality and agency, she’s often portrayed as being extremely innocent about sex in general. Her innocence is never sexualized. Instead it’s portrayed as what it is within the show’s narrative: another effect of Kimmy’s trauma and isolation. The show does give Kimmy several love interests, most of which don’t work out due to Kimmy’s various issues and circumstances beyond her control. Despite the show technically being a comedy, Kimmy is a very tragic character whose entire arc involves getting over her trauma. Through therapy, Kimmy finally begins to grow and even learns to maintain healthy relationships despite all the awful things that happened to her in the bunker. And she eventually channels her energy into blazing a path forward for herself. And most important to the current topic, Kimmy always has agency. In fact, having agency is one of the biggest themes of the show, given that Kimmy was denied any form of autonomy for most of her time in the bunker. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has its own problematic elements, but it takes the Born Sexy Yesterday trope—and its variations—and unintentionally demonstrates just how messed up they are.

Are power imbalances always bad?

Technically, yes. While every relationship has at least some subtle level of power imbalance—both in fiction and real life—it’s the particularly massive ones—like the imbalance between Hades and Persephone—that show up way too often in fiction meant to be consumed by a younger audience. As a direct contrast, there is another piece of fictional media that deals with a similar relationship in a far healthier way: the Fox/Netflix crime drama/fantasy series Lucifer. Lucifer centers around Lucifer—yes, that Lucifer, the one from the Bible—and his relationship with a human detective named Chloe. While there is definitely a huge power imbalance between an immortal creature and a human woman, this stumbling block is easily surpassed. Despite being several thousand years older than Chloe, Lucifer is far less emotionally mature than her. And even though Chloe is just a human—as in she has no supernatural abilities—she definitely has agency. She is incredibly competent, she has life experience, she exercises her autonomy, and she can take care of herself. She isn’t Lucifer’s equal, but she does demonstrate a level of emotional maturity that far surpasses Lucifer’s despite his inherent supernatural abilities. The power imbalance hardly even factors into the equation because it is never exploited for sexual purposes. Chloe is not helpless or submissive and Lucifer—despite being way more sexually experienced than Chloe could ever be—never treats her as if she should be. Yes, exploiting a power imbalance—especially to titillate the audience—is bad and it normalizes disgusting behavior. But it is possible to write a relationship with such a glaring power imbalance and not turn it into a rather gross and obvious sexual fantasy disguised as romance. In fact, it is incredibly simple. If the other person in the relationship has significantly more power—such as being the literal angel of the underworld—that power needs limitations. While Lucifer is able to charm pretty much every person he comes in contact with, his charm—which is an inherent trait—ultimately fails on Chloe. And that is very important. Lucifer can use this power on pretty much everyone, with Chloe being the one exception. Any perceived power he might have over her with his abilities is taken away instantly. It doesn’t solve the wider power gap between them, but it establishes the fact that Chloe is not automatically under Lucifer’s spell against her will. Yes, you can write a relationship with a power imbalance and have it be healthy. But you need to understand what a power imbalance is and how to work around it without turning the movie/show/book/webtoon into a showcase for a very specific kink. Kinks are fine of course, but using them as the basis for a romantic relationship in a piece of media marketed towards young impressionable girls isn’t a particularly good idea.

Why is this trope so prevalent?

Fifty Shades of Grey had many problems, the main ones being its complete mischaracterization of BDSM and the romantization of abuse. Both of these problems boil down to the author attempting to write romance filtered through their own kinks and sexual fantasies. The result is a deeply unhealthy relationship that glorifies emotional and sexual abuse, coercion, power imbalances, and infantilization of a young woman. There is nothing inherently wrong with having kinks, writing about kinks, etc. The problem is trying to remove the sexual aspect and pretend these dynamics are normal and healthy for everyday life. Specifically, Fifty Shades of Grey and Lore Olympus fall into the same trap, although in different ways. Lore Olympus has no overt sexual content in the comic itself. It is not presented as erotica. And yet it is erotica, the kind of erotica that can be marketed towards a wider audience mostly consisting of impressionable teenage girls. It is erotica in the sense that it is heavily based on the creator’s sexual fantasies, except these fantasies have been sanitized and presented as “romantic”. Power imbalance, submissive innocent young woman and experienced attractive older man, size difference, and some very heavy sub/dom vibes without ever explicitly drawing attention to it. It’s all there. Fifty Shades of Grey does the same thing, except with the caveat of actual sex scenes and a very bad attempt at utilizing legitimate BDSM as a plot device by someone who has never engaged in or researched BDSM. There is a massive gap between sexual fantasies and romance. A person’s sexual fantasies hardly ever perfectly align with their ideal romantic relationship. It is the element of fantasy vs. the element of reality, a line that is often blurred by people who are too young or inexperienced to understand the stark difference between porn and real life. While a sexual fantasy in which a simple working class woman ends up in a sexual relationship with her boss might be exciting for some people, it is hardly what most people want or expect from their actual love life.

The “token straight” character and queer fiction

Content Warning: Contains spoilers for “Bojack Horseman”, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”, “She-Ra: Princesses of Power”, and “Night in the Woods”.

With The Last of Us 2 finally out and a large portion of the gaming community fighting about whether representation matters—again–it’s probably worth talking about Jackie from Night in the Woods. Remember Jackie? Probably not. Even those who’ve played the game might have completely missed this character. And those who played the game when it first came out and haven’t touched it since have likely completely forgotten about this character. For those who are totally blanking on Jackie, she’s a friend of Bea. The two of them are seen talking during the infamous party and she clearly has a problem with Mae. During the final Bea hangout, Mae and Bea attend Jackie’s party and Jackie makes it very clear that she dislikes Mae. Other than those brief interactions, we don’t really learn a lot about Jackie. However, one thing that is barely even mentioned in the game is the fact that Jackie is trans. And by “barely even mentioned”, I mean it’s literally never directly stated. There was originally going to be a line addressing it, but it got cut. It gets alluded to pretty directly in a line from Bea that was added in the Weird Autumn update as a kind of side note. But like a lot of the stuff in this game, it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it type line that requires you to get a particular scene, so I’m sure a lot of players just missed it. As far as trans rep goes, it’s the most subtle and Jackie is very much a side character who primarily exists outside of the main story. Most of the characters exist outside of the main story, so it’s not like Jackie was intentionally shuffled to the side. However, that does bring up a very interesting and completely unique part of Night in the Woods that a lot of people don’t seem to realize: this game was absolutely packed with queer representation. And Beatrice Santello is the only straight cisgender person in her group of friends.

Angus is gay, Gregg is gay, and Mae seems to be pansexual based on what she says in the graveyard scene. So where does Bea fall? Given that she only demonstrates attraction to the opposite gender—this is also brought up in the graveyard scene—it’s pretty safe to assume that she is intended to be straight. Which makes Bea the only straight person among the four of them. Why is this in any way worth talking about? Well, this isn’t something you often see in fiction. In fact, it’s never seen in fiction that doesn’t feature being queer as its central storyline—i.e. Kit from The L Word—and that makes sense. The “token gay character” has become such a staple of fiction that people don’t even really notice it anymore. Rosa and Captain Holt from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, David from Schitt’s Creek, etc. There’s usually only allowed to be one queer character (or sometimes two like in the case of B99) per main cast. There can be a countless number of queer secondary or minor characters, although there’s usually only one or two. And in some rare cases—such as The Good Place—the main character themselves is queer and it’s not a focal point of the series. Yes, I’m talking about Eleanor Shellstrop. Even Bojack Horseman does this, with Todd being asexual and there being a minor reoccurring character who is a lesbian and a dead but often mentioned character who is a gay man.She-Ra: Princesses of Power and Steven Universe are notable exceptions to this rule, with a cast of mostly queer characters and very few “token” straight characters by comparison. Although She-Ra doesn’t exactly break the rule, as it is technically an overtly queer story that focuses heavily on Catra and Adora’s love story. Steven Universe does have three queer main characters and one non-queer main character, but the show also deals heavily with queerness as a topic in several ways and is widely considered a very queer-focused show.Night in the Woods is so far the only piece of fiction that does the absolute reverse of the “token gay” rule in a story that is not about being gay.

Are “token gay” characters a problem? Intrinsically, no. Brooklyn Nine-Nine handles Rosa’s bisexuality with incredible care, giving her an entire coming out arc that involves getting up the courage to tell her parents. Captain Holt’s sexuality is just another aspect of his character, but it’s never ignored or brushed under the rug. David from Schitt’s Creek openly talks about being pansexual and he ends up getting married at the end of the series. In fact, the term “token gay” doesn’t even really apply to these instances. Because “token gay” characters are a lot less common these days. “Token” implies that these characters are just there for woke points. But that would undermine the fact that these characters are multifaceted and very well-written.

Queer relationships in fiction need a little work

Spoilers for She-Ra: Princesses of Power and Life is Strange.

Content Warning: Discussion of homophobia

With the fifth and final season of She-Ra: Princesses of Power in the rear-view mirror and several gay little hearts full to bursting, I think it’s time to ask that age-old question: why the hell is virtually every queer relationship in animated fiction two girls? No, seriously, why? It became even more noticeable after the She-Ra finale, what with all the completely canon queer and straight relationships and only one blink-and-you-might-miss-it instance of a queer male relationship being confirmed. Of course there’s Bow’s dads, but a pre-established gay male relationship is pretty commonplace. When was the last time we saw one in animated fiction that was allowed to thrive, grow, and eventually come to fruition in the final season without fan inference? The answer is hardly ever. Steven Universe, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and She-Ra: Princesses of Power all dipped into the queer pot, but none of them came up with anything more substantial than a few lines of dialogue for a gay male relationship that wasn’t already perfectly up and running before the series started.

It’s a combination of things, the biggest one being how lesbian relationships rank on the acceptability scale. Hint: they are ranked a lot higher than any potential gay male romance in animated fiction (or any fiction really, but especially animated fiction). If we see a gay male relationship in fiction, it’s usually pre-established—two gay dads or something like that—and just needs to be there. That doesn’t mean the characters can’t have depth and interesting story lines, but we basically never see a gay male relationship in fiction that starts off the same way Catra and She-Ra did in Princesses of Power. Lesbians are—on average—a lot more “acceptable” than gay male relationships. Unfortunately, this is partly because of how lesbian relationships are viewed by a decent portion of society. They are viewed as “invalid” or “innocent”. So it seems more acceptable to portray these kinds of relationships in fiction, especially fiction aimed at families. But on the other hand, this misconception of lesbian relationships is actually a good reason why fiction needs these kinds of portrayals. We need to see these relationships develop, falter, and change so they become more valid and less sexualized by mainstream audiences. While people definitely still sexualize the absolute hell out of gay men—most mainstream yaoi does this—lesbian relationships often get the double whammy of being needlessly sexualized—mostly by straight men—and not taken seriously. A nuanced and non-sexualized portrayal of a lesbian relationship that does not lean on tropes helps combat these misconceptions.

There’s also the fact that most of these shows are being made by women—or in the case of Rebecca Sugar, a non-binary woman—and that effects the kinds of queer relationships we’re going to see. Creators put a lot of themselves into their work. Rebecca Sugar has stated in interviews that the show is very personal to her because the Gems are non-binary women—the Gems have no real gender or sex, but they refer to themselves by she/her pronouns and present themselves in a feminine way—and she relates to all of them. While Steven very easily could have been gay, that would have defeated the whole purpose of his character. Steven is meant to be an example of how a boy can embrace his femininity and how doing that doesn’t make him gay. But even in shows created by men—like Adventure Time—there are barely any gay male couples to be seen. So this excuse only holds up for a few examples.

But this problem is only unique to animated fiction. Video games actually have the opposite bias when it comes to queerness. Everyone talks about Chloe and Max in Life is Strange. But Chloe and Max are kind of outliers in the video game world when it comes to queer relationships. There’s a pretty decent balance sometimes, but very often the curve slants more in favor of gay male relationships. Angus and Gregg from Night in the Woods, the entire Dream Daddy dating sim, etc. This could possibly be reflective of the fact that the gaming community is still mostly male and therefore of course gay male relationships are going to be more common. Whatever the reason, the video game industry fills the gap. It’s not too difficult to find a game with a canon gay male relationship, regardless of your genre preferences. But even then, there is another massive difference between the queer relationship in Night in the Woods and the one in the Life is Strange. The games—put side by side—fall into the same familiar queer trope. Angus and Gregg are already fully established as a couple before the game starts. Life is Strange follows Max and Chloe’s adventures and the natural development of their relationship, culminating in either a passionate friendship or a romantic relationship based on the player’s decisions. They are fundamentally different games, but it’s worth looking at them as examples of how queer relationships are often handled in fiction.

Rambling about bad horror and good horror

Major spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club ahead

Very few games, movies, etc. manage to squeeze themselves into the I didn’t see that coming genre without breaking a few bones. It’s just the nature of horror. As an audience, we’ve all seen it before. The only truly great twist can be something so out of left field that it literally destroys the plot from the inside out. And what is even the point of amazing twist endings? Most good twists get spoiled by online reviews—which some people watch before they actually see the movie for some reason—and there’s really nothing new or cool about squeezing a twist into something. In fact, a lot of the time it just ruins the whole thing. And the twist is hardly ever what would actually make the story stand out. Until Dawn attempts a cliché teen movie twist, but it kind of falls apart because it’s just so fucking predictable. Wow, the guy we’ve literally never gotten the chance to play as is the killer? The guy directly related to one of the girls who died? The one who arranged this entire thing? Who would have thought???!!! The answer is everyone. Very few people were caught off guard by that twist. The game actually has a somewhat better twist with the fact that the entire storyline is an amalgamation of supernatural and non-supernatural horror tropes. Now that is a good twist. But the game gets a pass because it’s literally one huge cliché on top of smaller cliches. It’s not supposed to be taken one hundred percent seriously. Why else would it be almost entirely comprised of teen horror movie tropes? It’s not a bad game, but it’s definitely not the best example of a “good twist”.

Doki Doki Literature Club understands horror in a way most games and movies don’t. It understands build-up, it understands misdirection, and it understands how to structure a story in such a way that barely anyone sees the twist coming. Because the twist is actually three different twists nestled inside each other. How many people were spoiled on this game being a horror game? Probably most of them, including me. Most of us went into this game knowing it was going to be scary. But very few of us knew the exact way it was going to scare us. There are two or three hours of build-up before the huge reveal. And when the reveal happens, it’s instantly actually a misdirect. When the game starts to really break down, the warnings at the beginning suddenly make perfect sense. Most players assume that the big twist is (massive spoiler) Sayori’s depression. It makes sense. We—the players—were likely spoiled that the game was darker than it looked. So when the seemingly true nature of the game is revealed, it makes perfect sense. But then we get to Sayori’s death scene and the whole thing falls apart. This is a game about mental illness, but it’s also a meta fourth-wall-shattering game in which the actual game files are being manipulated by what we’re led to believe is an “outside” source. Sayori’s death feels like it’s the twist, yet it’s only one twist nestled inside of a larger one. And it takes two or three hours of build-up to get to this point. The structure is almost perfect. The game masquerades as a normal dating sim, nose-dives into something dark, and finally reveals itself to be a meta horror game controlled primarily by J̩̃U͗̑ST̩̠̤̲͙ ͓̞̎̏̆ͅM̠̗̊ͫO͕͔̠̹̳͒ͤ̐̍͛N̤̱̙I̳̙͈̟̘͇͊̊̊͆̓͋ͮͅK͚̝̟̖̖ͭ͂̈͐͛Aͨ́. Hardly anyone saw that twist coming. And that’s how a good twist should be: it needs to catch us off guard. Otherwise what’s the point? If we see it coming a mile away, it’s not a twist.

The Invitation does this slightly less well, but it’s still an amazing movie. Throughout the entire movie, the constricted and oppressive atmosphere leads us—the viewer—to think something is very wrong. But it’s not the “Get out of there you stupid dumbasses” brand of wrong that most horror movies try. It’s more of a “there is clearly something going on, but all signs point to the opposite and that contradiction makes the build-up even more tense” kind of wrong. What makes this twist so effective is that it doesn’t feel like a twist until it suddenly is one. We keep expecting some nefarious plot to be revealed, but every lead runs the main character straight into a brick wall. It starts to seem like the main character really is having a mental break of some kind and he might end up being the one who snaps. With nothing really happening up until the end, it makes the twist more jarring. And somehow the movie manages to squeeze in another twist right before the credits roll. Awesome movie. Highly recommended. Not the kind of movie you can watch more than once.

Most horror movies and games are shitty because they’re trying to do things that they really shouldn’t be trying to do. And it’s not just terrible predictable twists. The new Blair Witch horror game—the one with the dog—could have been so good if it wasn’t a Blair Witch game. The witch adds barely anything to the storyline. She’s just an explanation for the horrifying events that take place in the woods. It’s not a shitty horror game, but it probably would have been better if it had either been a game about the Blair Witch tormenting a guy or a game about a man suffering from PTSD. Squashing those two together sort of took away from the game’s overall story. It was like there were two distinct games with their own plots running in tandem with each other, one character-driven and the other driven by the name of a well-known horror creature.

Speaking of horror games, how many horror games have tried to use mental illness as a “plot point”? Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with having a game based around or dealing with mental illness. Neverending Nightmares is one of the best horror games out there. I’m talking about games where the “twist” is that the character was mentally ill all along. Games that use “the character is mentally ill” as a justification for anything and everything, especially if it’s a thin justification for the character committing murder. It’s a very cheap and unimaginative way to justify a character’s actions or surreal imagery, especially if the exact nature of the mental illness is kept vague on purpose because the writers didn’t bother doing any research on the topic. Night in the Woods has a more nuanced and balanced approach to mental illness. But of course Night in the Woods isn’t technically a horror game.

Okay, so why are horror games so crappy a lot of the time? Why is the horror genre in particular so susceptible to this bad writing? Honestly, if I had to guess, it’s most likely because the horror genre is very over-hyped and over-saturated. Creating a horror game is so ridiculously easy nowadays. Creating a good horror game is a unique challenge that many developers just aren’t up for. Why bother creating an actual good game if you can just download one of those pre-made environments, slap in some jump scares, and give an intentionally vague back story? Of course indie game development is—mostly–one of the best creations of the modern era and most of the good indie games are fantastic. But it’s a double-edged sword. For every amazing thought-provoking indie game that comes out, dozens of terrible games are created and released. Games trying to mimic the success of Five Nights at Freddy’s without understanding what made any of those iconic games good in the first place. It’s unfortunate, but it’s just how the horror genre is. Everyone remembers when horror movies became repetitive and every franchise started getting a thousand sequels and remakes. Horror lends itself to tropes more than any other genre. It’s all about what the audience finds scary. Whether it gets implemented in a unique way doesn’t always matter.

Steven Universe and the hero’s journey

Spoilers for Steven Universe Future, Steven Universe, and How to Train Your Dragon.

The Hero’s Journey is the most important—and most used—trope in fiction. It’s basically a catch-all term for the trials, tribulations, and challenges faced by the protagonist. It’s usually a very simple story told in three distinct acts over the course of a movie, show, or book series: The hero learns they’re special, they train under a wise master and/or masters, and eventually they defeat the story’s designated Big Bad. Roll credits. That’s how its been done since basically the beginning of fiction. But sometimes writers like to shake it up. Sometimes writers like to completely break apart the whole concept of the Hero’s Journey and examine every piece under a modern lens. And one of those sometimes was the show Steven Universe and—more relevant—the follow-up mini-series Steven Universe Future. Have you ever wanted to see the complete destruction of the Hero’s Journey? Well, here it is! Sucrose delivers.

The show actually sticks to the regular formula rather well in the first Act. Steven realizes he has a magical destiny—Connie even says it out loud just in case we’ve all missed it—and he trains under three masters—Garnet, Amethyst, and Peaaarl—before coming up against the Big Bad. But the show has multiple Big Bads, all leading Steven to the Biggest and Baddest. And how does Steven defeat the Ultimate Bad? By (huge spoiler) being himself and delivering the sickest burn in animated history. That’s one huge thing that separates Steven from most male protagonists. When it’s time for Steven to face his demons—both real and metaphorical—he uses his words, not his fists. In fact, Steven can’t use his fists because his Gem weapon is a shield. And there we have the entire crux of Steven’s character. In the typical Hero’s Journey, it’s all about getting stronger and thrashing the Big Bad. It’s all about physical strength and leveling up in combat. But Steven’s story is all about him leveling up in emotion. His powers are literally controlled by how he feels and expressing his emotions makes him better-equipped to face any threats that show up on his radar. And when Steven is faced with a villain he can’t talk with, someone who won’t listen to reason? Steven defeats them just by being Steven. He doesn’t compromise his morals and character development, even after being backed into a corner. Well, not yet. That comes later. The point is that Steven basically defeats White Diamond by wielding the strong sense of self-identity he’s built up over the seasons. This isn’t something we normally see in a Hero’s Journey. In fact, a Hero’s Journey usually comes with a distinct loss of identity. If the character starts out weak and unable to fight, they’re mocked by both the narrative and the people around them until they get stronger. They’re trained to be stoic, to repress how they really feel, to use the full extent of their power. Emotional growth tends to get a focus, but it’s never in the spotlight. If anything, it’s secondary. Just look at Harry Potter, the most famous example of this trope: Harry discovers he has a magical destiny and spends basically all of the books training to fight the Big Bad. The closest the series ever comes to making emotional growth an important part of Harry’s journey is in Book Five, when Harry is forced to learn Occulumency to prevent his mind from being compromised. Keep in mind that Harry is taught this by Snape, an emotionally abusive asshole who is using the skill mainly to help in his spying. And rather than focusing on emotional maturity, it’s all about Harry emptying his mind and using forceful methods to keep Snape out. So it doesn’t really count.

By the end of Future, Steven is suffering from some pretty bad PTSD and in desperate need of help after all the shit he’s gone through. This complete vulnerability is pretty much unknown in a Hero’s Journey, since the Hero’s Journey is usually supposed to involve some kind of emotional repression that somehow doesn’t totally fuck up the protagonist. We rarely get to see the results of all the trauma. At the end of the Harry Potter series, we see Harry and his new family. Is there any hint of trauma or PTSD or anything? Nope. Harry is perfectly happy because his scar hasn’t hurt in a long time. His journey is over, the Big Bad is dead, and he has a family. Everything is fine, even though Harry should be emotionally scarred and seeing a therapist at least twice a week after all the insane stuff he went through as a child. But in the short epilogue, Harry is showing no adverse effects to being betrayed, having a magical destiny basically forced on him from a very young age, living and fighting through a war, facing the most evil wizard in existence on a 1v1 battlefield, being targeted by the Ministry of Magic, having several of his friends die or almost die in front of him, getting slightly soul-sucked by Dementors, having his mind invaded several times, being possessed very briefly, almost torturing someone, living with his abusive relatives…and the list goes on. Laying it all out like that, it sure does sound like Harry’s “happy ending” really shouldn’t have been happy. Or at the very least, we should have seen a bit of his recovery and how he got to this point in his life. Was it therapy? Was it magical drugs? Probably the latter. And not seeing any of Harry’s trauma kind of undermines the whole narrative because it seems to suggest that Harry somehow wasn’t effected by everything that happened to him. And that’s impossible, because even a grown adult would have been seriously messed up by going through all of that in just seven short years. Harry was eleven when he first almost died and younger than that when he was being abused by the Dursleys. And yet the Harry we see at the very end of the series has a happy family and doesn’t seem at all concerned with the fact that he’s passively working for the same Ministry that tried to smear him when he was a teenager. If Harry has any trauma, we never see it and we instead get the impression that he is somehow a one hundred percent well-adjusted person. Because of course there had to be a happy ending. That is an important part of the Hero’s Journey: the Happy Ending. Everything works out, the dead are mourned, and ultimately the survivors go on to live their best lives. While writing that kind of ending is perfectly fine, it’s also unintentionally deceptive. Because the emotional state and the consequences of trauma are important aspects of the hero narrative, especially for male protagonists. Male protagonists don’t often get to experience trauma in a significant way within the narrative. Lasting physical effects are there to show how strong and badass the male protagonist is, while all lasting mental effects are ignored. Are there any hints of—for example—Harry freaking out every time someone points a wand at him and having horrible flashbacks to that intense final fight? Or Harry having nightmares about the fact that he basically died? Of course not. Because that would disrupt the Happy Ending. This is mainly because we actually don’t get to see Harry’s life in the interim or his recovery. We jump straight to the next stage of life and we don’t get a good look at anything that happened between then and now. Basically we go from all the bad and traumatic pieces of the story straight to presumably after Harry has recovered and is living his best life.

Steven Universe does the exact opposite. We see how much Steven is hurting in Future, how much all of the messed up crap he’s been through has destroyed his mental state. And most importantly, we see how much worse off he is because he’s been repressing his negative emotions. Rather than being stoic and violent being painted as positive traits for a fictional male hero, Steven’s descent into violence is directly connected to how bad he is at processing his own emotions at this point in the narrative. When he finally embraces his full power and lets himself go, he ends up hurting someone he cares about and causing himself further trauma. Steven ultimately learns that all emotions—positive or negative—need to be in moderation. Ironically, Future actually gives us some elements of the typical Hero’s Journey, specifically Steven leveling up his strength. Except the Big Bad is Steven’s own emotional problems and the only one he ends up “defeating” is himself. It’s more realistic because there are real consequences for Steven being forced into this magical destiny from a young age. Rather than giving us a happy ending where everything works out perfectly in the end, Steven realizes that he needs to move on to the next stage in his life if he really wants to grow. He leaves everything and everyone behind, giving the entire finale a kind of bittersweet feeling. Imagine if at the end of the Harry Potter series, Harry had decided he was sick of the wizarding world and its various flaws—most of which were directly responsible for Voldemort’s rise to power—and distanced himself from it, leaving all of his friends behind so he could deal with his trauma. A bittersweet ending to the series that actually addressed the main character’s emotions. Steven manages to get something that very few well-known male protagonists ever have: a chance to grow and heal after being repeatedly thrust into traumatic situations since he was very young. Open-ended endings are one thing, but a resounding Everything is fine feels very fake and almost like fan service at the end of the story.

A good companion to this is How to Train Your Dragon, one of the first examples of a male protagonist using empathy and emotional maturity to defeat a Big Bad. Rather than becoming stronger through combat, Hiccup learns the truth about dragons by refusing to attack and instead befriending the scary murder beast. And the scary murder beast turns out to be a lot less scary and murdery than Hiccup was led to believe. Rather than being punished for his “weaknesses”, Hiccup is rewarded for being sensitive and understanding. This is such a rarity in fiction that it’s worth pointing out. And in another unexpected bit of role reversal, the female love interest—Astrid—is the violent “brute” who needs to be taught empathy by the kind and sensitive male main character. The movie kind of off-sets some of its more bold and genre-defying elements by leaning into a few tired tropes, but it’s honestly not one of the worst offenders and it’s a wonderful subversion of the normal Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey is very much rooted in traditional masculinity, based around this idea that a boy’s journey into manhood involves leveling up physically, scoring an attractive girl, and suppressing his “weaknesses”–i.e. his normal human emotions—so he can defeat the Big Bad. In almost any other series, Steven would be the comic relief or “sidekick” character who exists to make the Hero look manlier by comparison.

David Rose and traditional masculinity in fiction

The word “masculine” has kind of gone through a transition in fiction—and in real life, but that’s another topic altogether—because the definition has never really been completely static. We all—or a lot of us anyway—still love the Indiana Jones movies, even if most of us realize how problematic—and also downright fucking creepy—those movies are by today’s standards. The same goes for James Bond and other popular franchises. The saga of the Manly Movie Man has officially ended and now writers are trying to approach the whole idea of “good likable male character” from a different angle. There’s nothing more masculine than being completely comfortable with your sexuality and open to expressing your emotions. A good example of this brand new era of male characters is Todd Brotzman from Dirk Gently’s Detective Agency, because I haven’t actually talked about Todd before except in relation to Dirk. But all by himself? Todd is kind of awkward, he’s complex, he has a very strong platonic—“platonic” as far as we know, given that the series was canceled—love for Dirk, and—most importantly—he doesn’t get away with shit. There are actual consequences for Todd being an asshole to Amanda. Even after Amanda partially forgives him, she still doesn’t let him completely off the hook and she’d much rather live her own life away from him. It’s complicated and surprisingly well-written. But enough about Todd, as much as I love Elijah Wood’s stunning performance. It’s time to talk about David Rose from Schitt’s Creek.

David is an interesting character. He has the general mannerisms of a stereotypical flamboyant gay man, right down to the overly dramatic hand gestures. If this show had been made less than a decade earlier, David would have been a punchline. He has pretty much all of the personality traits that have been used to define and mock gay male characters in fiction for literal decades. But what sets David apart from all those demeaning depictions of gay male characters is that David isn’t really mocked for how he acts. While David being over-dramatic is often used as a punchline in itself—like when he ran away from home that one time—he’s actually not nearly as over-dramatic as his mother Moira. Being over-dramatic seems more like something that runs in his family because David was born into a social caste of spoiled rich people. David mellows out a little as the series goes on and he slowly stops freaking out so much over little things. And David’s effeminate behavior is never mocked for being, well, effeminate behavior. Usually it’s the opposite. When male characters show any hint of femininity—even something as simple as an interest in cooking—it’s often used as the punchline to a joke, as both the characters and the narrative itself urges him to “man up”. Basically male characters who don’t perform their masculinity well enough tend to be scorned, mocked, and kicked around by the narrative until they conform, even if the character himself is perfectly content. David is never subjected to this. His character arc is not about him embracing traditional masculinity, it’s about him becoming less self-absorbed and narcissistic. And David is never demonized for being the way he is or talked down to. He doesn’t get told to “man up” by those close to him. Because David is content with himself and he doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone.

There’s also the matter of David’s sexuality, which gets discussed fairly early in the series after he sleeps with Stevie. Stevie tells David that she thought he was gay and David explains—using wine as a metaphor—that he’s pansexual. As well as being the first openly pansexual character on a mainstream television series, David’s sexuality isn’t brushed under the rug as soon as it comes up. Despite ending up with Patrick—a man—the show doesn’t dismiss or ignore David’s sexuality, which is often a problem. It is referenced more than once that David is still attracted to women, non-binary people, etc. despite currently being in a relationship with a man. And just as a side note, Patrick is actually the exact opposite of David personality-wise. This is incredibly important: having two gay characters with different or opposite personalities in the narrative and showcasing that it’s fine to adhere to stereotypes—like David—and it’s also fine to be the exact opposite of most stereotypes. It’s important because shaming men—including gay men—for being flamboyant has been traditional both in fictional media and in real life. It’s unfortunate, because there’s nothing wrong with men—gay or otherwise—being feminine, but gay men tend to be pressured into performing traditional masculinity. There are elements of internalized homophobia in this, as overly masculine gay men will sometimes perpetuate this as well by making fun of their fellow gay men if they act, well, like David. Having a character like David is actually pretty revolutionary and it shows how far fictional media has come in terms of redefining masculinity.

Schitt’s Creek is a huge recommendation of mine and that shouldn’t be taken lightly. It has everything a modern sitcom should: good queer representation, amazing memorable characters, and great writing. It’s just a good show.

iCarly teaches us about toxic relationships

Content Warning: Discussions of physical/emotional abuse, unhealthy relationship dynamics, and generally toxic behaviour in a kids’ show.

Toxic relationships in fiction are tricky to talk about, because often you run up against the obvious “But it’s not supposed to be a healthy relationship!” argument. There’s nothing inherently bad about portraying an unhealthy relationship in fiction. But there’s something problematic about presenting a clearly toxic relationship as romantic or attainable. Especially in a piece of media aimed primarily at young kids and teenagers, two key demographics most likely to be negatively influenced by seeing unhealthy relationships portrayed as “goals”. Sometimes it’s a mistake, other times it’s a misunderstanding. And sometimes it’s just shitty writing. So what category do Sam and Freddie from iCarly fall into?

In my endless quest to crap all over everything I loved as a kid, I decided to re-examine one of my biggest OTPs. Back in the day, Sam and Freddie were definitely goals. An angry girl and a tech-savvy guy with an intense love-hate relationship? Hilarious and cute. What more could anyone ask for? But as with most stuff that seemed harmless and fun back in the day, it really wasn’t either of those things. In fact, Sam and Freddie’s relationship was so horrendously toxic that I’m surprised people don’t talk about it more post-iCarly. But that sort of makes sense, because most people who grew up watching that show haven’t thought about it since the finale. Or if they have, they only remember the good parts, the stuff that made them laugh. And of course it was a funny show, very vibrant and full of fun little storylines. And more than anything else, everything was overblown for the sake of comedy. It was ridiculous, random, and bursting with Internet culture from a bygone era. The show was never meant to be taken seriously. But at the same time, I can’t help but look at Sam and Freddie’s relationship under a microscope because it was just so glaringly unhealthy. Unhealthy to the point that—in hindsight—it was actually kind of terrifying. The rampant physical abuse—mostly on Sam’s side—and the emotional abuse. Of course it was all a big joke, because violence against men as perpetuated by women in fiction is hardly ever not played for laughs. That’s a problem in its own right. But even ignoring the wider implications of this running “gag”, there’s something deeply uncomfortable about watching those scenes again and seeing just how much of Sam and Freddie’s relationship was legitimate abuse and nothing else. One particular episode stands out: the one where Freddie insults Fred Figglehorn. Yes, that Fred Figglehorn, if anyone even remembers when he was more widely known for his YouTube channel and not for his short-lived rise to TV fame. Just like the first season of iCarly, Fred feels like a relic from a bygone era of Internet culture. In any case, Freddie refuses to apologize for his comment and Sam ends up beating the shit out of him—off-screen–until he agrees to give a false apology. Fred remarks that the two of them are “cute”. Yes, cute. After Sam just beat the crap out of Freddie multiple times for refusing to change his opinion. It’s a rough scene to watch after the nostalgia wears off.

The show wasn’t exactly known for having good takes. There’s literally an episode in which Carly breaks up with a guy for collecting stuffed animals. The show never really had what anyone would call good or sane views on relationships, but that was partially okay because the characters are teenagers. At the same time, the toxic aspects of Sam and Freddie’s relationship are never seriously addressed. It’s all just used as a punchline. Of course Sam being overly violent and angry all the time is a key part of her character. Just like Freddie being a nerd and Carly having a really bad case of Main Character Syndrome, the characters are built to be joke factories. But even knowing that, it’s really hard to understand why anyone would root for Freddie and Sam’s relationship. Because quite frankly, the running joke was never funny in the first place. It’s yet another example of a very old trope being milked for laughs.

Is there anything positive to say about Sam and Freddie’s relationship? Not really. It was unhealthy from start to finish, neither of them learned anything, and character development was pretty much nonexistent in the show. The Schneider-verse was great to experience as a kid, but then you grow up and realize that—as good as the shows were—there was also some really bad stuff that we were all too young to recognize as fucked up. This might be true for a lot of shows, but Sam and Freddie’s relationship is an especially glaring example. Even kids deserve to see good healthy relationships in their media.

The L Word is even worse than I remembered

Content Warning: Mentions of/implied rape, gender dysphoria, and implied transphobia.

Of all the characters who get significantly worse on a second viewing, Tina Kinnard from The L Word is maybe the least talked about outside of the show’s general audience. It makes sense: The L Word was aimed at a specific demographic and really only those within the demographic spend any huge amount of time poring over episodes and discussing just how terrible the show was. But there’s a lot to talk about in regards to what the show did wrong. In fact, you could literally write ten entire essays about all the particularly shitty missteps the show took during its six-season run. As far as representation goes, it definitely helped shape and grow the landscape of queer television. But as far as actual story, characters, etc.? Definitely a product of its time. Even most die-hard fans agree that the show was actually pretty terrible, especially compared to today’s queer television landscape. Arguably, the largest gripes everyone has with the show have to do with its soap opera portrayal of queer life. It’s not a good show. But amazing for a casual hate-watch if you don’t take anything seriously. A great way to burn some time if you want to binge something and you’re fully prepared to get pissed off at the characters.

Speaking of characters, does anyone remember Lisa? Lisa, a character from Season 1 who was Alice’s love interest for a while when she got sick of dating lesbians? Except Lisa turned out to be—in Alice’s words—just as bad as a lesbian. But while Lisa’s feminine behavior wasn’t really the focal point of Alice’s dislike for him, Lisa was definitely meant to be a “joke” character. We weren’t intended to take him seriously because he was just so “weird” and “bizarre”, what with his whole “male lesbian” thing. Right? Lisa’s gender identity is never discussed because the show wasn’t the least bit interested in exploring a “fringe” gender identity. And as proven with Max, the show was actually kind of dog-shit at it anyway. Lisa seems to be genderqueer in some way or another and he seems to also be suffering from some measure of gender dysphoria, as evidenced from that entire scene with Alice on the boat. And in case anyone wants to dredge up that horrible memory, here’s a rundown of that scene: Alice wants to have sex with Lisa. Lisa says he “has something” and pulls out a plastic phallus (probably a strap-on). Alice gets annoyed, pointing out that Lisa already has a penis. Lisa becomes upset and insists that they use the strap-on because he’s not comfortable using his penis. Alice ignores his protest and gets mad at him, causing a very uncomfortable scene in which she forces Lisa to have sex in a way he’s clearly uncomfortable with. Later when Lisa storms out of the room, Alice rolls her eyes at him and says that he “enjoyed himself”. Lisa is clearly mad at her and Alice doesn’t seem to understand what she did wrong. In a bubble, this isn’t necessarily a bad scene. Uncomfortable to watch and horrific when you think about it, but not necessarily bad. The problem is that Alice is clearly supposed to be in the right. Because Lisa isn’t a character we are meant to take seriously, so his behavior is framed as if he’s being unreasonable. Lisa is supposed to be a punchline, something for Alice to be exasperated about as she flails around in pursuit of a worthwhile relationship. That is Alice’s entire character, isn’t it? Flailing around for a worthwhile relationship while burning through a series of strange and eccentric people within the queer world. That’s the entire crux of her character. Even when the show pairs her with someone level-headed for once—like Tasha or Dana—Alice ends up finding some way to make her life more exciting. Lisa is one of the first examples of this: he exists for the audience to gawk and/or laugh at and then he’s quickly discarded after the plot is finished making fun of him. He’s just another weird person for Alice to date. The main problem with this is that—regardless of how the show frames him—Lisa is clearly the one we should sympathize with. He’s as much a character as anyone else in the show, even though he’s never a main character. And everything that happens to him is more tragic than funny. There are numerous problems with how Lisa is portrayed and how the show clearly wants us to see him.

Lisa’s experience is pretty much a light precursor to what happens with Max later, although Lisa’s entire storyline is more tragic because it’s never resolved or really addressed again. And unlike Max, Lisa literally never does anything wrong. Yet the writers clearly want us to think Lisa is “doing something wrong” simply by inconveniencing Alice with his existence. Lisa wants to live and exist in a way that Alice clearly doesn’t approve of and we—the audience—are meant to side with Alice. Or at the very least, we’re meant to have sympathy for Alice because of how frustrated she is. But how can we have sympathy for someone who ignores someone’s bodily autonomy, ignores consent, and feels she’s entitled to someone’s body just because it’s what she wants? Alice never had to force Lisa if she didn’t want to. She could have respected his boundaries, respected the fact that he didn’t want her to touch his genitals. But getting her way was more important than any of those things and we—the audience—are meant to think this is funny. This connects to a broader issue about how consent is often handled in fiction, especially consent that has to do with men. Pop Culture Detective actually has an excellent two-part series addressing this. But ignoring that for a moment because it’s a whole other topic, Lisa’s actual gender identity is casually danced around within the storyline. Is he genderqueer? Is he trans? Or is he just gender non-conforming? It’s seemingly left ambiguous on purpose, although Lisa’s obvious dysphoria about his own body, his insistence on being called a “lesbian”, etc. seems to suggest that it’s a little more than just “non-conforming”. And the show never even attempts to address this, using Lisa’s entire existence as the punchline to a joke that was never funny.

It’s a huge shame. Lisa’s entire storyline could have been an interesting way of introducing the whole concept of genderqueer to an audience who’d probably never heard of it before. This show did a lot for proving that queer-focused television is profitable—although at what cost?–and it helped introduce the general concept of queer lives and queer relationships to an audience in a time when queer-focused entertainment was just barely a thing. But it also committed several grave sins when it comes to representation. The show was never obligated to represent the entire queer community. But it seemed like the writers weren’t sure how to address anything that wasn’t heterosexual or lesbian-focused. They tried their best, but instead of decent representation there were characters like Lisa and Max. Max wasn’t the worst representation anyone could have asked for—especially at that point in time—but there are some glaring wrongs with his character that could have easily been prevented. At its core, the problem with the show was that it tried so hard to start drama at every turn. Surprise pregnancies, cheating, shameful secrets, etc. No character was free from pointless drama for the sake of it. No one was allowed to have a perfectly happy relationship without something going horribly wrong. Everyone—other than Dana and later Tasha—were completely toxic to one another. Not to mention the show swung wildly between wanting to be taken seriously and being ridiculously cheesy. That in itself isn’t bad, but the tonal shift often came out of nowhere.

It’s kind of doubly unfortunate, because The L Word had so many decent characters who would have worked well outside of the show (Jodi, Helena, etc.). Characters who could have carried a more interesting and nuanced portrayal of queer life all on their own. In other words, this show had oodles of spin-off material. That’s one of the largest problems with the show that never really gets talked about: it had a ton of good one-off and side characters who never got to spread their wings. If I had the choice, I would have watched an entire spin-off about Jodi, Papi, or even just Alan Cummings’ character. There was so much meat to this show, so many plot lines and characters. It’s difficult to hate this show because there was so much in it and not all of it was shitty. For example, Jenny’s whole character arc—upon review—is actually a very interesting look at mental health, self-hatred, toxic relationships, compulsive heterosexuality, and the effects of trauma. Jenny is overall a very tragic character worthy of study. But as the show goes on, the writers seemingly become less and less interested in portraying Jenny as anything other than a sad and broken shell of a woman whose actions trend towards malicious. Jenny becomes more and more unlikable, leading to the writers deciding to kill her off in the last season. While a hopeful or positive resolution to Jenny’s character arc was becoming less possible with every passing episode, it honestly feels like the writers just enjoyed making Jenny suffer and making everyone around her suffer for no good reason. And there’s no awareness to it, because we’re clearly supposed to feel sorry for her sometimes—like when her movie gets stolen by Adele—and yet it’s nearly impossible because Jenny has shown herself to be incapable of empathy. At the very least, Jenny is fun to watch. Her terrible behavior is actually really entertaining because she’s so over the top. That’s more than can be said for most of the characters. Jenny is so blatantly a soap opera character that it’s almost satire.

Ouran High School Host Club destroys the gender binary

That’s right. Due to this anime from several years ago, gender is no more.

Does anyone outside of certain anime circles even know this show exists? It wasn’t exactly a flash in the pan, but people also aren’t discussing it daily like some of the classics. As a former card-carrying weeb, this show was my jam. There was something so charming about the story and the characters and how the show handled common anime tropes. But more important than that, Haruhi Fujioka is a very interesting character study.

The show is first and foremost a romantic comedy, but it plays fast and loose with the concepts of gender identity, gender expression etc. Haruhi is the most obvious example, but there are also smaller examples of the show fucking with the entire perception of gender. In fact, gender fuckery is a huge part of the entire storyline, starting with our protagonist Haruhi. There are many indications throughout the series that Haruhi might be genderfluid or something similar, due to how she—and she actually says this—doesn’t care about gender. Her gender expression fluctuates between feminine and masculine. Of course most promotional art for the series features her wearing that iconic host uniform with the other—male—members of the club. In more casual promotional material, Haruhi is usually depicted in feminine clothing while all the boys wear masculine outfits. As far as gender identity goes in both the anime and manga, it’s very clear that Haruhi isn’t simply a “tomboy”. She responds to both masculine and feminine pronouns, but she also doesn’t particularly mind being called “daughter”. Haruhi never outright states her gender identity as anything other than cis, but she doesn’t really have to. The interpretation is there for anyone who wants to use it. And yet it’s one of the less talked about aspects of Haruhi as a character, probably because it isn’t spelled out so bluntly in the anime.

So what if Haruhi is genderfluid? What does that mean for the series? Why the hell does it matter? Well, as the series (and the manga) ended a long time ago, Haruhi’s gender identity doesn’t really mean very much in the year of our lord 2020. But at the same time, it’s an interesting topic to look into. Gender fluidity gets treated as a joke or a punchline very often in media, if it even gets mentioned. I get it. It’s a difficult concept to grasp. But Haruhi—as a character—actually gives some pretty good groundwork for understanding what being genderfluid means. While “Who cares about gender?” is a nebulous statement that could mean anything to the person saying it, Haruhi’s use of the phrase bears itself out as a true statement of who she is as a person. And yes, there are genderfluid/non-binary/etc. people who refer to themselves by “she/her” pronouns. It’s up to individual choice. “I don’t care about gender” or “my gender doesn’t really matter” or anything similar are common phrases used by those who fall under the non-binary umbrella either before or after realizing their identity.

A huge problem with the representation of non-binary people in media is the fact that so many of these characters aren’t human. Stevonnie from Steven Universe is at least part-human, but they are also part-alien and also an impossible fusion of a boy and a girl. While Stevonnie is their own separate person completely independent of Steven and Connie, they are still a part-alien fusion whose gender identity can be explained away by their components. Not that Stevonnie isn’t an amazing character and wonderful representation. But at the same time, that’s a very low bar. The series does a little better with Shep—who is an actual human—even though they barely get any screen time. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power has Double Trouble, a shapeshifter. For the most part, characters who are identified as falling outside of the common gender binary are usually assigned a gender—male or female—or they are a non-human creature who falls outside of the gender binary for some fantasy or sci-fi reason. For example, robots can easily identify as “non-binary” because there is no reason—in most stories—for a robot to have a gender. The same goes for a shapeshifter or a part-alien part-human hybrid who is made up of two gendered components (and also their own person, to be fair). It is extremely rare to see a character who is completely one hundred percent human and also very clearly under the non-binary umbrella. Haruhi fits into this gap very nicely, as both a main protagonist with plenty of screen time and a completely human character who doesn’t live in a magical fantasy world.

Cheers to all the people who were helped along in their own journey of self-discovery thanks to Haruhi Fujioka and this series in general.

Some cute little links for the curious:

https://gender.wikia.org/wiki/Non-binary

https://nonbinary.wiki/wiki/Research

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