I don’t really write or talk about being genderqueer or queerness in general. It’s hard to talk about things I haven’t really figured out, I guess. I don’t really have self-consensus on much.
But in some ways, the story I’m the right person to tell should be based on who I am, I guess. (Technically I’ve written more with DID representation than genderqueer representation, but that just sorta happened.)
Anyways, a while back Jennachat folks, largely @geostatonary and @laenan, had some discourse about what a Queer Narrative might be, as distinct from queer representation. I won’t try to present their perspectives; I’m sure I’d get it wrong. But that, in combination with some other stuff like @templeofshame‘s Flying V JoCo show, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine, and my continual desire to figure out what a non-fanfic response to Hitherby would look like, has had me thinking about this stuff a lot.
The way I’m seeing it right now, there are different “levels” a… non-defaulting, or whatever, work can operate on. (I’m primarily thinking about queerness, but hypothetical distinctly queer examples are also hard for me to think of and insert concisely, and I feel like this same analysis also applies to other things like “feminist” gender-role subversions as well as other types of marginalization I’m less well-situated to speak on. I’m gonna mostly say “queer” here and handwave the fact that some of my examples are more properly gay, because it’s my party, but I think the same analysis applies to other forms of non-defaulting to varying extents.)
Level 1: Representation by Substitution/Normalizing Queerness
A knight rescues a princess from a dragon and they get married, except the knight’s a girl. Or maybe a girl rescues a prince. Nothing changes about the story.
Basic representation is good! I want there to be books like that for my kids to read, and not have everything fit in problematic defaults.
But it’s also sort of fundamentally boring and superficial? It doesn’t really acknowledge that there’s more to the queer, or gay, or whatever experience than just gender substitutions.
At least one queer character needs to be main or central to get this far. If you have people being queer in the background or whatever, I’mma knock you down to Level .5.
Level 2: Representation With Consequences/Informing
This is about media that deals with realistic or expected consequences of the non-defaulting aspects. Someone gets disowned for being a lesbian. People worry about how to come out. People deal with stereotypes, bias, and other types of marginalization.
These can be great. I love Freakboy a lot. In some ways these are educational, and they can be good in both showing queers dealing with these realistic issues that they’re not alone and show them possible positive paths forward.
I’d put Alanna and Protector of the Small in the feminism version of this category.
Level 1.5: Provocative Normalization
There are some things that might be strictly in Level 1 but I really like them so I put them in their own category: straightforward substitutions that don’t necessarily have meaningful in-universe consequences but nevertheless are thought-provoking or boundary-pushing to the audience in a way that seems well-considered and perhaps designed to confront the audience with their preconceptions. Flying V’s Skullcrusher Mountain with a woman as the supervillian and a man as the helpless prisoner felt like this to me (for the gender roles ladder). Gems all being identified as female would maybe be this on its own (though Steven Universe overall is Level 3). In A World Rapidly Turning To Cards might barely sneak its way because of Mathilda’s last line.
I guess @prokopetz’s Costume Fairy Adventures is here, near as I can tell assuming that all characters are girls without ever actually saying this anywhere? Golden Sky Stories is in a similar but less punch-you-in-the-face place with the example characters being girls but not being prescriptive about it.
Level 3: Extended/Speculative Queerness
But there’s a different sort of queer reader, one that’s seen level 2 narratives, is generally well-informed, and maybe has figured out something about their life. While Level 2 issues are still hard in various ways, they’re familiar in a way they aren’t to a nonqueer or a “new” queer. Their queerness is no longer uncomfortable or transgressive.
At the same time, equality is not a checklist where you check off everything and then you’ve won. Gay marriage, check. Trans gender recognition, check. There’ll always be new pokemon to catch, so to speak. There will always be queerness on the margins, there will always be a new struggle.
So, to have this sort of impact, particularly in a work targeting a queer audience, you need to be speculative, go beyond the “standard” forms. You need to push the boundaries into what’s uncomfortable or transgressive even to queer readers.
In a sense, it’s similar to what magical realism does. If I was doing this as a proper manifesto, it’d include something like “A queer narrative can’t be purely realistic. Queer lives don’t fit into the consensus reality around them.”
Examples that I put in this category include:
- Dream Askew, with gender presentations like “gargoyle” and “goddess”
- Monsterhearts as well
- that story by @porpentine
- presumably We Know The Devil, which I was totally actually going to play for real this time and then Where The Water Tastes Like Wine took over my quanta
- Hitherby Dragons is arguably this for abuse victims? Though the analysis on why you take an indirect/speculative/magical realism approach is presumably quite a bit different.
- Singularity, the transhuman dating show LARP
This is obviously the interesting, challenging space that I’d want to try to position myself in.
Level 3x: Metaphors with Plausible Deniability
Some things feel like they’re almost at Level 3 except they don’t come out and talk about the queerness of their metaphors, and they’re not blatant enough to have unambiguous authorial intent. The example that comes to mind is Flying V’s lesbian version of I’m Your Moon, which ends up making the song feel very trans to me (even though probably neither the song nor the staging had that in mind).
A trans reading of The Girl Who Was Plugged In might be in this category? (The presumably more-conventional feminist reading would be straight Level 3.)
I guess this whole category is questionable because it’s more a function of an analysis of the work than the work itself. But death of the author and all that.
A Different Lens
Another way to look at the concepts I’m thinking about here is in what terms things are defined. In a Level 1 story, relationships/identities/interactions are based on mainstream structures with superficial changes or swaps. At Level 2, mainstream structures are fundamentally not working but new structures are being understood in terms of more familiar mainstream structures because that’s the available basis point. At Level 3, perhaps there’s more active rejection of mainstream structures as a basis, or maybe there’s active pursuit of relationships/identities/interactions that are sufficiently radical as to not directly derive from familiar mainstream structures. Gem Fusion is like sex or dating in some ways, but it can’t be defined just in terms of sex and accurately reflect how it works in the show.
(I do feel like I like this as an aspect of queerness, an explicit refusal to be content to subvert expectations because that’s still defining oneself in terms of expectations. Something for me to think about more.)
I sorta want to make a case about queer narratives breaking medium assumptions, based on Queers in love at the End of the World, Undertale, and Dream Askew, but I don’t have enough examples or well-formed analysis as of currently.
All models are wrong. Some are useful. Do not mistake another’s model for your own truth.