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In Defense of Gay Subtext

Fans get angry when creators are coy about beloved characters’ sexual preferences. But queer scholars say there’s value in reading between the lines.
Some Harry Potter fans are mad that the ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ script doesn’t explicitly state that its two main protagonists are a pair of queer teenagers.

Some Harry Potter fans are mad that the ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ script doesn’t explicitly state that its two main protagonists are a pair of queer teenagers.

In the latest installment of the Harry Potter franchise, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling and her collaborators on the play’s original story, director John Tiffany and playwright Jack Thorne, don’t explicitly state that its two main protagonists are a pair of queer teenagers. Yet their sexual identities are clear, according to some fans — who aren’t too happy about the perceived closeting of Hogwarts’ latest heroes. Last month, in an open letter to Rowling titled “The Gay Romance In The Cursed Child,” writer Jack Chellman questioned why the play never realizes what he read as a budding romance between Albus Severus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy. In a story for Fusion in August, author Charles Pulliam-Moore wrote that the play “could and should have been” a gay love story.

The Cursed Child isn’t the only blockbuster story that’s come under scrutiny this year for hinting at, but not fulling committing to, a gay romance.When Paul Feig told the Daily Beast that he couldn’t confirm fan rumors that a character in his Ghostbusters reboot,Jillian Holtzman (Kate McKinnon), is a lesbian, fans got upset — “Free Jillian Holtzmann: It’s time for Sony to let the most compelling Ghostbuster be out and proud,” Nico Lang wrote in protest in Salon. Earlier this year, when actor Oscar Isaac told Ellen DeGeneres that he was performing “a love story” as pilot Poe Dameron in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he fueled fan speculations that he might get romantically involved with actor John Boyega’s character, Finn; Boyega has since called the pair of characters “just friends.” This uncertainty puts queer viewers in a tough spot, as Jessica Mason wrote in The Mary Sue in August. While subtext allows viewers to make characters what they want them to be, without explicit representation “fans feeling betrayed and used,” she wrote, concluding that “representation matters across the board.”

While that may be true, and fans may get angry, writing openly gay characters isn’t the only way that creatives honor queer viewers onscreen: Queer viewers have long found meaning in suggestive spaces. Researchers who have studied “queer readings” — attempts to unearth queer subtext in, or infuse it into, artistic work — say they deepen readers’ engagement with media. Their findings demonstrate that the suggestive, in-between gray area of “queer reading” is a distinctly gay art form — one that, while treated as a relic of a time gone by, remains a creative tool for queer young people today.

As Vito Russo’s breakthrough 1981 book, The Celluloid Closet, outlined, while movies have long featured gay and lesbian characters, they have rarely been explicitly labeled as such. Under the Motion Picture Production Code, a set of moral guidelines that governed movies from 1930 to 1968, homosexuality tacitly fell under the banned theme of “sex perversion” — and was all but banished from Hollywood.

Images of gay men and lesbians became oblique and suggestive in the Code era, but they didn’t disappear entirely. And once the Code was replaced in 1968 by the MPAA rating system, not much changed: Representations were both coy and often negative in nature. The main villains in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948),for example,telegraphedas a pair of dandies whose shameful murderous impulse sounds vaguely erotic (“I don’t remember feeling very much of anything,” one confesses in the film, “until his body went limp and then I knew it was over… I felt tremendously exhilarated!”). Famously, 1961’s The Children’s Hour featured a lesbian relationship that ended in horrible tragedy.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a group created to combat the defamatory HIV and AIDS coverage in the mainstream media, started holding Hollywood accountable for negative portrayals when it was founded in 1985. GLAAD, co-founded by Russo himself, advocated for more LGBTQ characters and protested films like Midnight Caller and Basic Instinct for unfair portrayals of bisexual and lesbian characters (who were HIV transmitters in the former film, and vengeful murderers in the latter). Looking for tangible ways of keeping the media in check, GLAAD developed the “Network Responsibility Index” (NRI), an annual report on the state of LGBT characters on television. The push for more positive LGBT media visibility that GLAAD played a major part in paid off: Critics have lauded Glee, Modern Family, Brokeback Mountain, and I Am Cait in recent years, among others, as breakthrough representations of queerness.

Coy Hollywood depictions have made queer viewers uniquely attentive, active viewers of entertainment.

For some, the recent rise in explicitly gay characters has represented a leap forward for gay rights. “Gays went from having to find hidden meaning in mainstream films — somehow identifying with the aging, campy female lead in a way the rest of the culture missed — to everyone, gay and straight, recognizing and being in on the joke of a character like Big Gay Al from South Park or Jack from Will & Grace,” Andrew Sullivan wrote in The New Republic 2005. Gay rights had come a long way, Sullivan argued, for gay men and women to exist within the public sphere in ways unthinkable decades before. GLAAD would implicitly endorse Sullivan’s argument once it retired its NRI in 2015, citing the fact that “LGBT representation has increased to the point that we can be found in the programming of nearly every major network.”

But as scholars and readers have since argued, coy Hollywood depictions have also made queer viewers uniquely attentive, active viewers of entertainment. In her book Tendencies, which looked back at her own tendency to look for hidden queer meanings in cultural work in her childhood, queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argued that plumbing entertainment for queer meanings has value beyond the ivory tower. Queer readers aim “to make invisible possibilities and desires visible; to make the tacit things explicit; to smuggle queer representation in where it must be smuggled and… to challenge queer-eradicating impulses frontally where they are to be so challenged,” she wrote.

Other researchers building on Russo’s and Sedgwick’s work have argued that, in reading and recoding popular culture, queer youth become “imaginative and dynamic readers of popular culture” in the words of University of Guelph English and theater professor Mark Lipton. For a 2008 article in the edited collection, Queer Youth Cultures, Lipton talked to queer teenagers about their takes on characters who — like Albus and Scorpius in TheCursed Child — leave ample room for suggestion. Citing firsthand accounts from his study participants, Lipton argued that as young, queer audiences analyze unclear character depictions, they help form their senses of selves. “Since popular cultural production is unable to provide queer youth with sufficient models for behavior,” he wrote, “queer reading practices help queer youth negotiate these identity needs.”

While Lipton wrote that “queer reading” is one way that queer people have responded to a lack of representation, queer theorist and University of Michigan English professor David M. Halperin says queer viewers do the same even see themselves onscreen. In his 2012 book, How to Be Gay, Halperin wrote that queer youth adapting and remaking non-gay material remains a vibrant practice in the era of the Ellen DeGeneres Show and Modern Family. While Halperin initially expected students in his college course “How to Be Gay” to embrace openly gay media (like, the fiction he was assigning), for instance, he found the opposite to be the case. His students, he wrote, had “no trouble responding to the queer charm of certain non-gay representations” and attached themselves to The Golden Girls and Sex and the City because “they discovered more queer possibilities in adapting and remaking non-gay material, and thus more uses for it, than they found in good gay writing.”

Queer reading thus has a little bit in common with queer fan fiction writing —where queer artists must also get creative to incorporate their community into beloved franchises. In her chapter for 2006’s Rethinking Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Internet Age, University of Leeds senior lecturer Ika Willis reflects on her own forays into Harry Potter fan fiction — and argues it improves the franchise. “Writing fan fiction that makes room for queerness is making a textual world wider, brighter, bigger, in a way that has particular resonance with the predicament of young people,” she wrote. Fan fiction doesn’t just offer solace to queer adolescents, in other words; it empowers them to write themselves into bigger narrative worlds.

These scholars propose a radical idea about representation onscreen: that seeing oneself — or those like oneself — requires very little imagination; and that the act of responding to characters who identify differently is a culture to be preserved.

While there’s no denying that better and broader LGBT visibility in mainstream media is a desirable outcome of the fight for gay rights, visibility isn’t the only measure of LGBT progress. Indeed, in allowing readers to revel in ambiguity and in subtextual cues, Harry Potter and The Cursed Child assumes that it has a knowing audience — one that understands that gayness need not only be about legible identities, but about readable behavior; not only about flag waving, but about furtive glances. The investment and celebration of subtext need not be antithetical to a progressive agenda of LGBT representation. Its continued embrace by queer audiences is a testament to the power of queer readers nurturing a still-radical way of refusing media as is.