In Plain Sight: On the Authenticity of Queer Characters

The Legend of Korra, Book 4, Episode 14, 2014

I have been thinking about the ways in which queer people hide.

All-New X-Men #40 | Marvel Comics 2015

This thought process was prompted, strangely, by a comic that I do not read: Brian Michael Bendis’ All New X-Men. (I don’t not-read it for any particular reason; X-Men just isn’t my jam.) Panels leaked onto tumblr from issue 40 revealed that Bobby Drake, AKA Iceman, is gay, prompting a series of articles exploring and analyzing his coming out. Among the fantastic arguments that have already been made are Carolyn Cox’s article about bi-erasure at The Mary Sue, Jon Erik Christianson’s piece about queer invisibility for Panels, and Brian Cronin’s in-depth analysis of past evidence of Bobby’s sexuality for Comic Book Resources.

Here at Women Write about Comics, MJ Feuerborn wrote an article discussing the pros and cons of Bobby’s coming out moment, and noted that Iceman being gay is a big step away from writing queer characters who are disposable: “[Bobby is] a staple of the X-Men, with a long history and a large pre-existing fanbase. Beyond being consistently utilized in comics, he’s been featured in movies, video games, and cartoons. The character coming out as queer in any capacity offers hope that a queer character will remain in Marvel’s spotlight as an integral part of its cornerstone properties.”

Feuerborn’s point about disposability really struck a chord with me. I’ve read a fair few articles that criticize various series for “queerbaiting,” or teasing that characters might be queer in order to draw in fans who identify as such. We have become fairly adept at noting the lack of visible queers in the stories we love, but don’t always check for disposability. Bobby’s coming out checks off both boxes; he has a coming out scene that declares him to be a real, visible gay character, and he’s a main character. However, even after reading each of these articles, I couldn’t help but feel that something – other than acknowledgment that bisexuality is real – was missing from the puzzle.

Fortunately, Bendis responded to a question on his tumblr about bi-erasure, and delivered that missing piece. While defending his writing, Bendis argued that “this is a very unique story because one character, from a different time and a somewhat limited worldview, is reading another character’s mind. this is in no way the traditional ‘coming-out’ story if there even is one, there is also this big chunk of time travel weirdness involved” (emphasis added.) Bobby doesn’t come out to Jean on his own. Rather, she reads his mind and tells him he is gay.

Now, Bendis is right to note that there isn’t one coming out story, but in my own experience as a queer person who had friends try to tell her what her sexuality was before she came out, being told how you identify does not lead to love and hugs. It leads to awkward silences, denial, and burying yourself deeper in the closet. As a queer person trying to relate to this moment, Bobby’s coming out completely lacks authenticity. What’s worse, however, is that this moment also takes away his agency. Bobby doesn’t come out, Jean outs him.

This brings us back to the concept of hiding. An argument commonly made for the acceptance of LGBTQIA people is that we are everywhere. We could be your close friends and family, and if you don’t accept us, you will lose us. There is something hilarious about this image – We’re everywhere! We’re a secret army! We could attack at any minute, with our top-secret gay agenda that we all meet to discuss every third Tuesday! – but it’s also true. Like Bobby has for so many years, queer and transgender people often hide in plain sight both because coming out can have terrifying consequences, but also because sometimes we aren’t fully out to ourselves yet. I find it satisfying and realistic to see queer folks “come out of hiding” in comics or on TV, because I feel like that’s what I did. I stopped hiding. However, the fact that we are identifying with these moments that are still rarely and often unrealistically represented means that we need to be highly critical of them. I’m done compromising on our representation; we deserve better.

With this in mind, I’d like to propose a checklist. Like the Bechdel Test, this checklist would allow us to further discuss moments like Bobby’s coming out, and analyze their validity. My checklist is as follows:

1) Visibility: Are the queer and/or trans* characters visible? (I.e. Is the character a frequent/recurring character? Also, are the creators just queerbaiting?)

2) Disposability: Are the queer and/or trans* characters disposable?

3) Authenticity: Does the moment (and/or relationship) feel authentic?

Before I discuss Bobby any further, I’ll apply the checklist to coming out moments from a few series that I know more intimately than All New X-Men. Please be warned that these examples contain some spoilers! Skip past any titles that you’re waiting on to binge on. Also, I’d like to note that I am not comparing these series to All New X-Men. I think that each story’s treatment of queer and transgender characters should be analyzed separately, but with the same critical lens.

Legend of Korra

The Legend of Korra, Book 4, Episode 14, 2014

Quick Summary: At the end of the Legend of Korra series Korra and Asami, two women who had been growing closer over the course of the final two seasons, decided to travel to the spirit world together. They joined hands and faced each other in the final scene, signaling that they were now a couple.

Visibility: The question of Korra and Asami’s visibility as queer characters is tricky. There was controversy over their relationship, and it took a formal statement from creator Bryan Konietzko to confirm (for some) that they had indeed become a couple. However, many fans had been arguing for the Korrasami pairing for a long time, and several documented evidence of the buildup to their relationship. Examples include Korra writing only to Asami after her traumatizing battle with Zaheer, and the super adorable scene in which Asami teaches Korra to drive. Without an onscreen kiss – Aang and Katara got to kiss! – I just can’t give Legend of Korra full credit.

Disposability: Korra is the main character! The show is named after her. Let me say that one more time: Korra is the main character. Additionally, Asami is a recurring character who has had key roles in various plotlines since season 1, so I’d say Korra is killing it in the disposability category.

Authenticity: The question of authenticity in Korra is particularly interesting, because if you take a hetereonormative lens to the show it’s easy to ignore Korra and Asami’s growing bond. However, if you take a queer lens to the show it is hella there. Their relationship feels very teenage and awkward to me. In addition, they are weighed down by incredibly heavy responsibilities and traumas, and they are often far apart from each other. Korra and Asami’s grew in a subtle and complicated way, but it is there.

The Wicked and the Divine

The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen, Jaime McKelvie and Matthew Wilson , issue #9. Image, 2015.

Quick Summary: There are tons of queer characters from WicDiv I could discuss, but I’m going to focus on Cassandra. Cassandra, a filmmaker determined to demystify the event known as “the reoccurrence,” is outed by Lucifer, AKA Lucy, as transgender when the god makes a nasty comment about her name, but later apologizes.

Visibility: Cassandra’s outing in the comic is particularly interesting. Lucy strongly dislikes Cassandra’s faithlessness, and aims a transphobic insult at her. Later, however, Lucy admits to using this particular insult because she knew Cassandra was trans, and says that it was a wrong action. (A side note: LUCIFER says something transphobic, and acknowledges that she shouldn’t have said it before apologizing. World, if Lucifer knows that it’s wrong to be transphobic, you seriously need to get your act together.) This is a really rough coming out. Cassandra is not in control, and is outed because she’s insulted. However, Cassandra is integral to the comic’s plot and has been present in the story from issue 1. Full credit for visibility.

Disposability: From the get-go, Cassandra has been a key character because her skepticism of the gods allows her to play foil to Laura’s whole-hearted faith and devotion. SPOILER ALERT – as one of the gods herself, Cassandra has recently become even more vital to the narrative, so WicDiv aces this category.

Authenticity: What’s so wonderful about Cassandra is not just that she is a central character with a really interesting story who also happens to be a trans woman of color – it’s that being transgender is not central to her storyline. She is a fully authentic person whose motivations have nothing to do with being transgender, and that’s pretty rare in our media. A+!

Freaks and Geeks

Quick Summary: Obviously Freaks and Geeks is not a contemporary show, but it is the only television show I have ever seen or heard of that includes an intersex character. In the episode “The Little Things,” Amy comes out to her boyfriend Ken as intersex.

Visibility: While Amy does explicitly come out to Ken, she enters the show late and is only present in a couple episodes. Being in a relationship is a big deal for a character like Ken who pretends he has no feelings, and their relationship on the show, except for Lindsey and Sam’s parents, is the most stable. For this reason I think that, had Freaks and Geeks not been canceled, Amy had a real shot at being a recurring character. Partial credit.

Disposability: Unfortunately, Amy is pretty disposable. Sure, being with her was a big deal for Ken’s character development, but she doesn’t get much character development of her own. The episode in which Amy comes out as intersex isn’t really about her; it’s about Ken, how it changes his sense of his own sexual identity, and how he learns not to listen to his asshole friends. Again, we don’t know what would’ve happened if the show hadn’t been canceled, but Freaks and Geeks fails here.

Authenticity: When Amy comes out to Ken she says she is glad the doctors performed surgery on her when she was a baby. This is a tricky moment: Amy identifies as female and is happy with herself, which is fine, but there is no acknowledgement that the lack of control and choice given to intersex people is totally messed up. However, Amy’s interactions with Ken and with his friends do feel authentic. Telling Ken that she is intersex is an act of trust, and she is rightfully furious and sad when that trust is betrayed. Partial credit.

Now that you’re convinced by the checklist’s usefulness, let’s apply it to Bobby’s coming out in All-New X-Men.

All-New X-Men

All-New X-Men #40 | Marvel Comics 2015Visibility: Bobby is very visible. In addition to being a big presence in the comics, he is also present in the X-Men movies. He was essentially given a coming out scene in X2, when the kids hide out in his house and Bobby reveals his mutant powers to his parents. (His mother memorably asks, “Have you tried not being a mutant?”) Full credit, here.

Disposability: I won’t waste much time on this because, as mentioned earlier, MJ has already written about the importance of Bobby’s lack of disposability. You can read that article for more analysis!

Authenticity: Friends, we have arrived. This is where it all falls apart. When Jean tells Bobby that he is gay, he hides behind an ice shield but almost immediately takes it down. That’s it; Bobby – a character who has spent his whole life denying himself – spends about two seconds hiding from Jean. When I was accused of being not-straight, I did not engage in the idea. I buried myself deeper, because being told outright that you are queer does not feel like some incredible dawning of sense of self. It feels like being pushed off a cliff. So, does Bobby coming out to Jean because she TELLS him he is gay feel authentic? HELL NO.

I don’t think this checklist will solve all of media’s problems. Like the Bechdel Test, we can use it as a tool that allows us to ask the right questions. When I thought through each aspect of Bobby’s coming out – visibility, disposability and authenticity – I couldn’t help but feel that this was a moment written by a straight person with no knowledge of what it feels like to be in the closet. Bendis doesn’t seem to understand how empowering and important it can be to feel in control of one’s coming out, and how terrible it feels to lose that control.

None of this is OK. Queer people deserve better, so stop letting us down.

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka is a queer librarian and intense cat parent. They spends their days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts @alenkafiga.

One thought on “In Plain Sight: On the Authenticity of Queer Characters

  1. Nice comparison.

    “Bobby – a character who has spent his whole life denying himself – spends about two seconds hiding from Jean. When I was accused of being not-straight, I did not engage in the idea.”

    This could be something that varies from person to person. I was very deeply closeted myself, at least in the sense of not consciously knowing. When I eventually realized what was going on and what had been going on, I was able to accept this because the idea made so much _sense_, explaining a lot of things about my life. My major traumas relating to come about had to do with not having anyone around me who I knew for a fact I could trust, and not having any idea what my environment was like or how I could safely find out. (It was a good environment, for the record.)

    I don’t find Bobby’s quick turnaround implausible. We know that he was experiencing a lot of turmoil before Jean’s intervention, to the point that in his words he thought he was going crazy. We can be reasonably sure that Jean is someone he trusts, as a teammate and as a friend. Having someone he trusts explain to him what’s going on inside his head would have been a shock, but I can imagine him embracing the idea quickly. Having Jean follow up by telling him that not only does he have her support, but that his environment is much safer than he might have feared, would also have helped.

    Jean’s intervention was not perfect, no. It does fit into a series-long pattern of her using her telepathy in potentially intrusive ways. (Or maybe it doesn’t: Sexual orientation is a basic factor of someone’s personality, and discongruence between a person’s actions and thoughts might well be picked up easily. More, if you know that someone is so confused about a basic part of their personality that they think they are crazy and have reasonable grounds to believe you could help, is it ethical to _not_intervene?) It, and Bobby’s reaction, feel very real to me. If I had someone in my life in a position to stage a similar intervention at that stage, I think I’d have been the better for it.

    I’m not sure that teenage Bobby will be such a challenge compared to the adult Bobby, who has had more than another decade to build up defenses in his mind. From what we’ve seen of the pencils for UXM 600, teenage Bobby will be taking the lead there, Jean as backup, and will be facing significantly more resistance. That issue can’t arrive soon enough, IMHO.

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