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Presumptions of Heterosexuality - Mo's Journal
July 6th, 2005
09:20 pm

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Presumptions of Heterosexuality
So, penknife was talking about canonical heterosexuality, with a much-too-congenial-to-be-a-rant-even-though-she-calls-it-one post found here . She says, and I agree, that some things about characters (e.g. having had heterosexual relationships or canon not discussing homosexual ones) lead some readers or viewers to assume that the character is canonically heterosexual, and that the assumption is erroneous. This got me thinking a little more about the presumption of heterosexuality - in canon, in fanfic and in society in general.

penknife focussed on presumption of canonical heterosexuality in the reader or viewer. She pointed out that many readers will see certain behaviors exhibited in characters or see other behaviors not exhibited and see those as determinative of heterosexuality of orientation, when they aren't necessarily. I agree with her on that, but I'm a little more interested in the presumption that occurs in other places. I'd like to focus on three of those places here:

* the presumption of heterosexuality within the universe of the fandom, specifically within fandoms set in current North American society or in a society much like current North American society

* the presumption of heterosexuality within the character himself

* the presumption of heterosexuality (or the fear of exhibiting openly homosexual behavior or desire) in the producers of canon.

Note: Because I write m/m slash I'm using male pronouns and focussing on male homoerotic desire and male homosexual identity. Much of what I say applies to lesbian desire and identification, as well. The similarities and differences are subject for another time and place.

Presumption of Heterosexuality Within the Society of the Source Text

In those fandoms set in current society or in a society as heteronormative as our own, I think it's worthwhile for fanfic writers to think about how that presumption of heterosexuality affects our characters. I think that examining the effects on our characters and interpreting their behavior in the light of that examination helps us to understand them. We can, for example, reasonably conclude that there is pressure on some characters to behave in a heterosexual manner even if their core orientation is otherwise. Same sex desire in some of the canonical characters may be deeply hidden - hidden from the supposedly canonically heterosexual character's intimates, hidden from the narrator, if there is one, consequently hidden from the reader or viewer. People go a long way and work hard to suppress same-sex desire and hide same-sex behavior in a heteronormative society. Because of this, heterosexual orientation is not a character trait one can easily and accurately infer from behavior.

Not all people who experience same-sex desire hide it, of course. And of those who do hide it, many do in some venues but not others (e.g. out to close friends, closeted with family of origin and colleagues). Still plenty do hide fairly universally in real life and it's reasonable to me that some would in X-Men movieverse, for example, since it's our society "in the not too distant future." It's reasonable to me that some would in Man from UNCLE, since it's our society in the not too distant past. The closer the society is to the one we live in, with its presumptions of heterosexuality, the more likely it seems to me that some individuals will hide their homosexuality and appear canonically heterosexual.

With a character like Cyclops, whose canonical hallmark characteristics are an obsession with doing things the "right" way - with rules and order and fitting in - it's quite easy to see how same-sex desire would be hard for him to own and act on. I'm in no way saying that a gay Cyclops is the only possible interpretation, but I think it's one that can well be consistent with canon. He's got many of the personality characteristics common in deeply closeted men. He's also in a position where his close friends, the people he lives with, and his colleagues are all the same people, which makes the out-to-friends-but-not-at-work closet option a difficult one. And, in movieverse anyway, he is a teacher as well as a mutant superhero. Closeted high school teachers are certainly still a big part of the educational landscape.

I write Scott in a couple of different versions (X1 and X2) but in both of them he is a gay man who has lived a heterosexual life for a number of years. I think that's an interpretation consistent with canon, and one that allows for exploring and interpreting his canonical characteristics in a manner I find interesting. I hope my readers will, too.

Presumption of Heterosexuality Within the Individual Character

Beyond the presumption in society as a whole, there is the presumption of heterosexuality within the individual. For every gay man who feels like he always knew, there's another whose homoerotic desire came as a complete surprise to him.

Someone may engage in sexual relationships with opposite sex partners and be unaware of same-sex desire. He may reinterpret sexual feelings he has for other men in non-sexual ways (as admiration or competitiveness). The pressure he feels from society as a whole is applied both externally by social convention and internally, as the presumption of heterosexuality is incorporated into the sense of self. He may well not know that he has sexual feelings for a man - or may know but not realize how intense they are - until he is in a sexual situation with a man.

In fanfic the situation that brings about the realization is extra-canonical, but I don't think that makes his homosexual desire anti-canonical. In skillfully written "I never knew I was gay before" stories, he's still the same person he was in canon. Canon was the story of what happened before he found this out about himself. In fanfic, as in real life, it may take experiencing homosex for him to know what his orientation is. For some people it's the realization that homosex is so much better than the heterosexual experiences they had that leads to self-realization of their sexual orientation.

I think fanfic can convincingly be written where the guy just doesn't know what he liked until he tries it. That part is distinct from the situation described above, where the character is hiding his feelings, but the dichotomy of observable heterosexual behavior and homosexual desire present in fanfic but not observed in canon is common to both situations. I've never written one of this type of stories, but I've enjoyed reading them when they're done well and I've certainly heard real life coming out stories that meet this model.

Presumption of Heterosexuality Constraining Producers of Canon

A third area where the presumption of heterosexuality sometimes obtains is in a reticence by the creator of source text to exhibit homosexual behavior or desire, even when leaving it out makes canon less credible. One can look at a lot of books, tv shows of a certain time period, and comic books and wonder "What happened to all the gay people?" Bruce Bawer likens it to African Americans watching "The Andy Griffith Show" (popular television sit com of the 1960s set in a small town in the American South) and seeing no black faces at all. Segregation within communities was certainly commonplace at the time, but there just weren't southern towns like that, with absolutely no black people anywhere. Yet that's what was shown on TV.

Similarly, if one takes off one's heteronormative lenses and looks at an all-heterosexual fandom, something is clearly missing. Often that something is missing because the producers of canon feared that having gay characters would not be acceptable to the audience or to other parts of the society. Comics in particular have long had concerns about backlash to homosexual characters, or characters who might be thought homosexual (at least since publication of Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent in the 1950s).

Sometimes we witness the process by which the producers tentatively open the closet door, and then run back in (e.g. Marvel creating Northstar to be gay and to come out in Alpha Flight issue #50, slamming the closet door until he finally comes out in #106, and then after backlash just kind of forgetting about him being gay for the rest of the run of Alpha Flight). I think it's reasonable to assume that this happens other times when it's not visible to the readers. As fanfic writers we can make our universe more credible by populating it with some non-heterosexual characters, even if the producers of canon didn't show us that part. We can view that lack as reflective of their omission rather than a canonical stamp of heterosexuality on all canon characters. I think even stories that are not slash per se gain verisimilitude when some gay characters are included, even if only on the periphery.

I do think that we need to be careful how far we go in adding homosexual desire and behavior to characters. As I've said elsewhere, I'm very leery of the "Everyone's gay" phenomenon seen sometimes in slash. If too many characters in any particular group are written as gay, I lose my willing suspension of disbelief, unless it's a group that would be expected to have a high proportion of gay people (e.g. I would not think there are too many gay people in a fandom set in a gay social circle, like QAF). I do think that many, even most characters, have the potential to be written as experiencing homosexual desire and/or developing a sense of homosexual identity, if developed as such by a skillful writer. I think part of being a skillful writer is choosing carefully and not overdoing.

For all of the reasons mentioned above I think we err if we see "canonical heterosexuality" as something observable and easy to conclude from canonical behavior. Certainly it is not as observable or easy to conclude from behavior as Democratic party membership or preference for brussels sprouts, to use a couple of examples I've seen compared to canonical heterosexuality. A character may canonically prefer brussels sprouts over asparagus, and I as a reader or viewer have no reason to doubt that. Generally, if people eat brussels sprouts all the time, it's because they like them. OTOH if people project a heterosexual persona it may be because it's true to who they are, but it may not. It may be because they are hiding homosexual desire and/or behavior, have not yet discovered that they have homosexual desire, or because heteronormative conventions in the original medium led to homosexual desire and behavior being excised from the limited views of the characters that we see in canon.

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From:eveningblue
Date:July 7th, 2005 02:34 am (UTC)
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I was in the middle of replying to this section of your post:

A third area where the presumption of heterosexuality sometimes obtains is in a reticence by the creator of source text to exhibit homosexual behavior or desire, even whenleaving it out makes canon less credible.

when my computer crashed, and I lost it. My karma is not good tonight, and I don't have the energy to retype, but basically it was about the impossibility of depicting characters as gay in works of film, tv, literature, etc. during certain time periods. Including, arguably, our own, as you mention with the Northstar example.

I know this isn't the main point you are making, but since I was just talking about it over on gwynfyd's lj, I thought I'd mention it.

Authorial intent may not matter, but even if it did, how can we even know what authorial intent is if it's stifled by social norms of the time?

See also: queer theory, The Celluloid Closet, etc.
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From:mofic
Date:July 7th, 2005 02:43 am (UTC)
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Sorry you're having a tough night, lemurgrrl! I just saw that in your journal as well. Anything I can do to cheer you up? Anyway, I think you're quite right about authorial intent being hampered by publishing or movie conventions. I think that's more true at some times and places than others and more true in some media (comic books, children's books) than others.

I also just don't care so much about authorial intent. Or, rather, I think it can be an interesting topic to discuss but don't think it should be a directive we need to follow as fanfic writers. As I said on penknife's journal, I'm not a fan of the Original Intent argument in either fanfic or Constitutional Law. So, I come down on the side of authorial intent doesn't matter. What matters to me - as a reader and a writer - is that the fiction be consistent with canon and that it give me something beyond canon. If it only repeats what's in canon, well why read fanfic?
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From:eveningblue
Date:July 7th, 2005 03:07 am (UTC)

authorial intent

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Oh, I agree. Authorial intent doesn't really matter, and anyway you can never really know it, because authors lie.

I, too, want fanfiction to take me somewhere else, somewhere not explored in canon, while remaining true in some basic way to the characters. I find AUs to be possibly the most fascinating kind of fanfic, in the hands of a talented writer, because very often the writer is exploring just how different she can make the world in which the characters exist without changing the essence of the characters. So that, of course, leads to the question, what *is* the essence of these characters? Is their sexuality essential? Or is it more fluid? Always an interesting question.

Anything I can do to cheer you up?

Actually, your icon cheered me right up! :-)

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From:mofic
Date:July 7th, 2005 10:32 am (UTC)

Re: AU

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I mostly don't "get" AU. They're very popular in TPM fandom - Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan in Ancient Rome or whatever. I guess the question is what is the essence of the character, as you say. I think I find the characters and the universe they inhabit kind of inextricably bound up.

I like tweaking with the universe, and the characters for that matter. I love post-TPM stories where Qui-Gon didn't die (they're so prevalent in that fandom that his death is referred to as "The Scene That Didn't Happen") In X-Men I like some mixing of comicsverse, movieverse and authorverse :-). minisinoo had a brilliantly anti-canonical idea of having Cyclops come into his powers after Professor X takes him in, and does some fascinating things with that in her novel Special.

Still, I want what I see as the essence of the X-Men or Star Wars or [Insert Fandom Here] universe maintained, because for me that is part of what is basic to the characters, or at least to my love for them. It's the sense of being immersed in that universe that attracted me to the fandom in the first place, and nourished my love for the characters.

I do think it's all very individual, maybe even quirky. For example, I've read some interesting stories where Rogue learns to control her powers and can touch people. But I don't like it when Cyclops does, and gets to take off the glasses, even those with some canonical basis (e.g. if he's deprived of sunlight, which powers the blasts). I don't know if that's because I see his limitations as more essential to his character than hers are, or if I'm more invested in his character than in hers...

Anyway, far from the initial topic of the post, but I'm just musing. And - to get back on track - I do think that, for some, heterosexuality feels essential to the characters and that's why they don't read slash. Clearly, I'm not one of them :-).
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 8th, 2005 08:19 am (UTC)

Re: AU

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Hi, it's CC! Very interesting discussion here on many topics. The presumption of heterosexuality is endemic in society and therefore throughout our media and literature, that is of course true, And that many of us have an investment in the sexuality of our characters is true because in many ways we identify with those characters or even have a 'crush' on them. And, of course, there are reasons of bigotry or prejudice. But, I also think that sometimes there is just 'I really can't see that'. I don't, in general, have that much of an investment in that aspect of the characters I enjoy reading about. But sometimes... I mean there is no way on God's green Earth [to me] that Kirk and Spock are doing it. But maybe that's just me.
I think that there are also characters who are easier to slash than others because of the way we have seen their characters interact, even while living heterosexual lives. For instance, Jim and Blair from the Sentinel. Those were some touchy feely guys and even the very macho Jim held Blair in his arms after he had been overdosed on drugs and almost shot. Plus, they lived together. And the actors had a great chemistry with each other, better than the females they were paired with. Currently, I think that latter point is also true of House and Wilson on House.
I think that the main problem I have with AUs (don't get me started on 'how the Hell can they have the same name in Ancient Rome, alien civilizations, the far flung future of Earth, etc.)is that alot of writers also then make the characters OOC so I agree with you there.
But, I think that OOC also ties into why alot of writers fail in successfully slashing their characters. Too many writers demonize the previous women (or in the case of Buffy's Willow and Oz - men) in their character's lives: SG1-Sara. X-Men-Jean, The Sentinel-Carolyn, Buffy-Buffy, and so on. Unlike Due South where we are shown a very problematic relationship between Ray Kowalski and his wife and Fraser's ex-girlfriend was a thief and a murderer, we are often shown warm relationships or memories of these women. Why that must be destroyed because a character has now realized [or admitted] their bi- or homosexuality is beyond me. And it usually leads me to not read the story unless this character change is accounted fro in the narrative and is part of the plot.
Ok, wow, I did not mean for this to be nearly this long. Goodnight.
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From:mofic
Date:July 8th, 2005 01:19 pm (UTC)

Slash and characterization

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I changed the subject line because it wasn't much about AU :-).

And that many of us have an investment in the sexuality of our characters is true because in many ways we identify with those characters or even have a 'crush' on them.

Yes, I think that's true. Now, if someone is against all slash, then I'm more likely to think there's an element of discomfort with homoeroticism. But if someone just abhors certain slash pairings, it's more likely - as you say - an investment in the character. That's no different to me than my dislike of stories where Scott's "cured" and can take off his glasses. His dependency on them feels to me a key part of his personality.

I don't criticize anyone who doesn't want to read him slashed because for them his heterosexuality is a key part of his personality. Of course, it depends what you do with that feeling. I don't go around telling people not to write stories where he can see unassisted and not cause damage. And I don't tell them they're violating canon, since some really work at making it work with canon. I just don't generally read those stories. If people deal similarly with Cyclops slash, I'm happy.

On the crush thing, though, that kind of goes both ways, depending on the reader in question. There are a number of slash fen who only want to read slash if reading about the objects of their crushes. And, similarly, I think some straight women like to read slash with the characters they most identify with. Yk, since they like sex with men, they want the guy they identify with to like sex with men.

Too many writers demonize the previous women (or in the case of Buffy's Willow and Oz - men) in their character's lives: SG1-Sara. X-Men-Jean, The Sentinel-Carolyn, Buffy-Buffy, and so on.

I agree with you there. It seems a kind of cheap trick or something, a way to get the guy having TEH HOT HOMOSEX with no guilt about the loving woman he left behind. Sex without responsibility. I particularly hate that with Cyclops, because he's all about responsibility. I also hate it because I think poor Jean gets abused enough in the comics and doesn't have to be treated badly in fanfic, too. My model for Jean during Scott's coming out is a woman I admire greatly who handled a similar situation (well, minus the telepathy and the optic blasts) with grace, dignity, and abiding affection.
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From:midnitemaraud_r
Date:July 9th, 2005 06:00 am (UTC)

Re: AU

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Just an observation about AU's in general.

There's a huge difference - to me at least - between an AU where, like in Harry Potter, an author writes a story on the premise that Sirius never went to Azkaban and Peter was caught instead, and an alternate reality universe where, like you mentioned in TPM fandom, having Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan in Rome, or taking any fandom set in modern times and writing the same characters in a Victorian Era setting, or a Western (1800's America) setting.

To me, the latter aren't AU's, but rather AR's - alternate realities. I define an AU as changing one tiny aspect of the canon story/plot and writing a "what if" scenario - more like an alternate timeline that branches off to the side and runs parallel to canon. Like those "What if Qui-Gon didn't die" fics you mention.

On another note, I very much enjoyed your essay, which I found via metafandom
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From:mofic
Date:July 9th, 2005 12:31 pm (UTC)

Re: AU

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I define an AU as changing one tiny aspect of the canon story/plot and writing a "what if" scenario - more like an alternate timeline that branches off to the side and runs parallel to canon. Like those "What if Qui-Gon didn't die" fics you mention.

Yeah, you're right. I was kind of lumping them all in together. I haven't seen any consistent usage for terminology although it certainly makes sense to have a distinction between AU and alternate reality, as you present them. Unfortunately I've seen them used exactly the opposite way, too - AU meaning the whole universe changes and AR meaning just one bit. We never seem to have consistent definitions in fanfic. Hell, we can't even agree on what "slash" means.

I look to fanfic to answer one or more of the following questions:

What happened before the book/movie/series started?
What happened in the parts they didn't show us?
What happened after it was over?
What would have happened if X were different?

The last one is what you're calling AU, and I think it's really fertile ground for fanfic.

On another note, I very much enjoyed your essay, which I found via metafandom

Glad you liked it!

I love the drawing in your icon. Is it yours?
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From:midnitemaraud_r
Date:July 9th, 2005 08:08 pm (UTC)

Re: AU

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We never seem to have consistent definitions in fanfic. Hell, we can't even agree on what "slash" means.

That's so true! Even within fandoms! We can't agree on the definition of "gen" either! And I also agree with your 'purposes for fanfic'. There are people who attempt to write what they think the author(screenwriter) would write as well, and I so rarely read those. I mean, what's the point of trying to mimic authorial intent when, to me, the point of fanfic is to use our own imaginations? If we tried to write exactly how we felt the author would write, well, first, in the case of JKR, we'd have a lot of adverb abuse in fanfic (or in the case of George Lucas we'd have abominable dialogue) *g*, and second, it would be very dull and limiting. It's one thing to keep the characters...well, in character. It's quite another to limit ourselves to scenarios that occur (or we think will occur) in canon.

As for my icon(s) - gosh no! I can barely draw stick figures! The artist is Marta (a/k/a seviet/slashiet) and she's fantastic! She draws all of the HP characters, not just Remus and Sirius: Art Dungeon
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From:mofic
Date:July 7th, 2005 11:07 am (UTC)
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I'm rambly at 2:30 in the morning

Don't you ever sleep? :-) Anyway, interesting ramblings. Some rambles on your rambles:

* Yes, there's some parallelism within queer community to what you describe of "Who is Red enough?" Of course, each group identification has unique features, but there has been lots of discussion (and a fair amount of pain) in the lesbian community over the whole "Who is a lesbian?" question for many, many years. It shows up in a number of ways, from arguments over the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival policy of not accepting MTFs, to issues of women partnered to men in queer space, to FTMs who identify as male but still want connection to lesbian community. In former times it presented in terms of whether "politicalesbians" counted. In general, I think discussions of "Who is a Lesbian?" result in more heat than light. But I was raised on arguments about "Who is a Jew?" so I've seen this before...

* I agree that it's harder to slash Cyclops convincingly in comicsverse because of the long history. Actually, I think trying to do *anything* with that long history is very challenging to do convincingly. It's just too contradictory and too complicated. My favorite comicsverse stories - slash and otherwise - take a piece of it and don't try to encompass the whole thing. I don't know who wrote it or what it was called or where to find it (big help I am :-)) but my favorite Cyclops comics slash was also a Cyclops/Angel one, taking place after Jean's death on the moon. Part of what made it believable is that it was a vignette dealing just with that time and kind of removed from the rest of canon. I think, also, that's part of the appeal of writing and reading Ultimate comicsverse.

* It's a little different from what you say about mutant attraction to identification as queer because it is different and "cool," but I think some slash authors do interesting things with the idea that mutants would be more tolerant of queerness because of their outsider status. It has a certain logic to it. OTOH, it's not generally true of ethnic, racial and religious minorities - being discriminated against has not made them more accepting of homosexuality. OT3H (lend me a hand, will you) being a mutant is more like being gay in some ways, since people aren't born into it (or, more accurately, don't know they are born into it). So, maybe a better parallel is various counter-culture affiliations or pagan religious affiliations that people tend to take on later in life, and I think it's true that those groups are more tolerant of non-standard sexual expressions and identities.

* I'm totally with you on the Cyclops/Gambit distinction (the / character there not implying sexual or romantic connection). Gambit has a kind of polymorphously perverse persona (ooooh, alliteration) and it's quite easy to see him as sexually interacting with men. I find it harder to see him as not sexually attracted to or involved with women. He clearly isn't looking for conventional acceptance, so he has to be getting something else out of sex with women.

* I also agree on definition of other-than-heterosexual as being more definitive. The "Who is a Jew?" equivalent of that is the Ben Gurion prescription - "a Jew is anyone who says he is." He felt that it's a hard enough, a maligned enough, a dangerous enough identity that we need to accept self-identification at face value. His views did not prevail in Israel, though. And, as you point out, even maligned identities have appeal to some.

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From:executrix
Date:July 9th, 2005 04:53 pm (UTC)

I Got My Job Through the New York Times

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Here via metafandom.

Two people who are having sex aren't always doing it for the same reasons either. I like Gore Vidal's anecdote about a friend of his who hooked up with a young cowboy during a road trip. When GV's friend got into his usual woe-is-me guilt trip, the cowboy said, "Y'know, you guys from the East do this because you're sick. We do it because we're horny."

Personally I save a lot of time and trouble by slashing characters that I have NO trouble in believing are attracted to members of their own sex. There are also characters who I think fundamentally wouldn't care about either sexual orientation or anybody's version of respectability (like Farascape's Chiana) or who would put up with a lot for a cuddle (like Blakes7's Vila) or can't see why somebody would pay him to suck HIS cock but figures a blowjob plus some coin beats a plain blowjob (Jayne in Firefly).

(The subject line relates to an inadvertently hilarious article in the alleged-science section of the New York Times: we wired up 12 guys who said they were bisexual and they liked gay porn a lot better than straight porn. So there's no such thing as bisexuality, nyah-nyah-nyah!)
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From:mofic
Date:July 9th, 2005 07:02 pm (UTC)

Re: I Got My Job Through the New York Times

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Two people who are having sex aren't always doing it for the same reasons either.

Yes, I think that's true. The main pairing I write about is Scott/Logan. They have very different reasons for having sex initially. I like to say they kind of fashion a relationship out of intersecting neuroses.

Thanks for weighing in. I've seen a lot of discussion about that NY Times article...
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