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Monday, January 24, 2011

Sexuality and Story: When Relevance Is Arbitrary

God, you know this argument bothers me so much.

Well, okay, a lot of arguments in that post bother me but the one that's the subject of this post is one I've seen a lot of places. Basically, that producers/creators/writers/artists should only add gay characters if it's significant to the story, they shouldn't just feel obligated to add them for the sake of having gay and lesbian characters.

Which always leads me to think: well, why not?

Not every straight character in comics is straight because it's relevant to the story. Granted, a lot of straight characters' love for the opposite sex is relevant to the story. I would argue Superman, for example, has been defined as much by his relationship with Lois Lane as anything else in his life. But there are others who really aren't.

Take Cassandra Cain for example. Cassandra Cain didn't have an even remote possibility of a love interest until somewhere around issue 40 in her comic. Her story was all about her, her morality, her role in the bat clan and her place in the world. Romance and sex weren't issues for a very long time, though the character is clearly straight. (Or at least, attracted to men. That doesn't rule out bisexual, I suppose, but I haven't seen any indication that she has the same attraction to women.)

Plenty of heroes have concepts that aren't directly tied to their sexuality but still have clearly defined heterosexual traits. How about Batman? Sure, every so often there'll be a story about one of his girlfriends, such as when Sasha Bordeaux got OMAC-ed or when Vesper Fairchild was murdered, and of course it's always fun when Selina shows up to make his life interesting, but none of these relationships really have the same prominence as say Batman's role in Gotham, Batman's role as a mentor, and so on.

So why can't we have some heroes who are created specifically as gay heroes?

I'm not talking Rawhide Kid type stuff here, but how about Teddy and Billy in Young Avengers? I don't have a citation for you or anything, but I remember reading somewhere that the original idea for them was as a heterosexual couple. And really, I can't think of a Young Avenger storyline that would have been THAT different if Teddy had been a prospective Skrull Empress rather than Emperor. I think we can conclude then that Billy and Teddy were specifically created for the sake of having gay heroes in the Young Avengers.

And what's wrong with that? Teddy and Billy are great characters. They're cute, their personalities are appealing, their powers are fun, they have lots of ties across the Marvel universe. And they're gay. Works for me!

So why can't we see more of that?

The weirdest part of the whole "gay only if storyline-relevant" idea to me is that we're not talking about a book or movie here, where ultimately you're dealing with one main plot, maybe a couple of subplots, in a finite amount of space. We're talking about a shared universe involving characters created long before most of us were born!

The stories being told now in Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and so on, are not the same stories that were told in the 1940s. I'd imagine that the creators of Hal Jordan back in 1959 never anticipated the whole Parallax storyline (no matter which incarnation). Superman was around for what fifty, sixty years before he and Lois got married. There will always be new stories and just because a detail isn't particularly relevant NOW, that doesn't mean it can't be.

I mean, let's revisit Teddy and Billy for a moment. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a Young Avengers plot where their sexual orientation was particularly relevant beyond the fact that they're two boys in a romantic relationship. But if a writer wanted to write a story in which it's relevant, it wouldn't be that hard.

I mean, Teddy's basically the Skrull Emperor (albeit reluctant and in hiding), right? Well, at some point someone'll want to fix him up with an Empress. Marriage alliances are important bargaining tools. I don't know if Skrulls can or would shift gender in their own species (I'm not too knowledgeable about the skrulls, but from what I remember even though Xavin took a female human form in Runaways, he/she never seemed to take a skrull female form.) But even if they can, Teddy still identifies as male (and was raised as an American human, for that matter) and is romantically attracted to boys, not girls. Well, now his sexuality is relevant to the story!

Or take Billy. His grandfather is Magneto, right? Magneto's obsessed with mutant survival. Mutants are (currently) a dying breed. His son married an alien and had a non-mutant daughter. His daughter married a robot, but ended up with offspring anyway. He has two mutant grandsons approaching adulthood. So it's not hard to imagine that Magneto, who's not likely to be an X-Man forever, might decide to take a more personal interest in the future of his family line. And one of his sons is dating a male alien. So now, his sexuality is relevant to the story!

And when those stories are over with, the characters will still be gay and will have new stories in which their sexuality may or may not be particularly relevant. Just like straight characters.

I don't have anything against creating a character with the intention of making sexuality relevant to her storyline. Kate Kane, for example, is totally awesome. But I don't think that relevance should be a prerequisite.

And, I could be wrong about this, but I think some creators actually like creating gay (or female, or non-white, or disabled, et cetera) characters because they like creating characters, not because they feel obligated. I don't see anything wrong with asking/suggesting/wanting to see more.


  • At January 25, 2011 9:16 AM, Blogger ARS said…

    Well said.

  • At January 25, 2011 4:07 PM, Blogger SallyP said…

    Makes perfect sense to me. It would be nice to have more characters who are gay simply because they The same way that some people have dark hair and some people have blond hair.

    In a way this reminds me of watching CSI, where Every Single Piece of Stuff that they find at a crime scene is completely relevant to the plot. They never find old blood stains that have absolutely NOTHING to do with the current murder. Which is a labored analogy, but still!

  • At January 25, 2011 9:56 PM, Blogger notintheface said…

    TO use the Kyle Rayner GL series as an analogy, it's like Lee and Li compared to Terry Berg.

  • At January 26, 2011 1:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Good post. His thing is flattly stupid - Following his logic we should have everyone as American born Christian white males, on top of being hetero, unless something else is pertinent to the story... an idea that actual creative people have been fighting against for years.

    Maybe he'll get a job writing for CSI

  • At January 26, 2011 3:26 PM, Blogger Fiona Ryan said…

    Excellent post.

    This isn't about comics, but I remember reading some old AOL chats (like '97-'98) with Ron Moore about a year ago. People were talking about how ridiculous it was for Star Trek to continue to call itself an enlightened show without bothering to include gay characters. Since the subject was DS9, Moore's rationalisation was that they were getting ready to end the show and they couldn't devote precious story time to an arbitrary gay romance. So, during the last story arcs we instead got a time-wasting relationship between Bashir and Dax.

    What really bugs me is that I'm positive Moore figured they'd have to spend some time dealing with the fact that character X is gay, which totally misses the point of Star Trek's idealistic future. If a show like Star Trek can't just casually include a gay couple without making a big deal of it what show can?

    I like to think we've progressed since the 90s, but until writers stop treating heterosexuality as the default orientation we won't have progressed nearly far enough.

  • At January 27, 2011 1:17 AM, Blogger Rocketlex said…

    Only having a character be gay if it's relevant to the story seems ridiculous. How many stories can a character being gay be relevant to?

    The problem is that the other half of the argument is a better one. That is to say "Don't create a gay character if the only reason you're doing it is to have a gay character." In general, I'm a firm believer in creating a character by starting with their personality, then choosing what race, gender, sexual orientation and so on seem to fit the personality I've created.

    If the first bullet point when you create a character is "She's gay. Okay, where do I go from here?" it seems less likely you'll come up with something compelling.

  • At January 27, 2011 2:43 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    See, I don't really agree that that's what creators do, Rocketlex. I suspect that things like "hero" and "heroine" are figured out before the personality.

    I mean, take Supergirl. Legendary beloved character. Clearly started out with a concept like "girl Superman." So why not start with a "gay superman" type concept.

    Obviously you don't end there. You go, "Okay, what do I mean by that? Do I mean 'another Kryptonian' or do I mean 'I want a gay hero that fulfills the same role inspiration-wise that Superman does.'"

    Then go with that. What does that mean? What kind of person would that be? You develop from there. As long as you don't lazily stop halfway through, you should end up with a sufficiently compelling character.

    See: Apollo from the Authority. It does work.

    Besides, personalities are molded by experience. Why on Earth would you try to create a compelling dynamic personality before figuring out the experiences that define it?


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