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Imperfect reflections: a defence of bad queer representation

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There is a myth, sometimes perpetuated within queer communities, that bad representation is worse than no representation at all. Proponents of this idea often point to the multitude of queer-coded villains that litter our screens as evidence: from Ursula in The Little Mermaid to Javier Bardem’s lisping, sexually suggestive villain in Skyfall. Although the recent success of such films as Call Me by Your Name and Love, Simon might suggest that Hollywood has since moved on from such depictions, GLAAD’s yearly report reveals that less than 19% of major motion pictures in 2017 featured queer characters to begin with.

Even when they are depicted, stereotypes continue to abound: as recently as 2016, major blockbusters like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them were still layering their villains with homosexual subtext, in this case conflating Grindelwald’s manipulation of the implicitly queer Credence Barebone with a kind of homosexual grooming. The sequel, meanwhile, plans to elide Dumbledore’s homosexuality entirely, leaving audiences with a single vision of queerness in a film franchise spanning ten films and hundreds of characters: unspoken, deceitful and predatory.

Flawed and offensive as these depictions might be, there remains something uniquely powerful in seeing LGBTQAI+ characters on screen. As any queer person knows, growing up looking for your reflection in popular media is a masterclass in learning to make do with very little. Sometimes it’s about learning to project our non-white-gay-male identities onto the predominance of white-gay-male characters on our screens; other times, it’s about learning to construct our fictional identities from scratch, like assembling a jigsaw, out of the imperfect versions we’ve been given.

Credence and Grindelwald in Fantastic Beasts are two such versions: dramatised and distorted but familiar in outline, like reflections in a carnival mirror. Though a caricature of sexual repression, Credence’s guilty eagerness and wordless, uncertain longing will be familiar to anyone who has struggled with non-normative desires. Meanwhile Grindelwald, for all his villainy, remains one of the few characters in the film to show Credence any kindness, if temporary and self-serving. Once he discovers the extent of Credence’s powers, his playacted affection transforms into a faintly erotic reverence: selfish and exploitative, but also in spite of the obstacles presented by Credence’s body – whether male or inhuman. To the queer viewer, bad representation is a flawed but rich tapestry of possibility, an opportunity to take something rare and powerful and rework it in ways that resonate intimately.

A man in a dark suit and coat stands in a street at night

As a teenager, I first encountered queerness in Cate Tiernan’s Sweep book series, in Wiccan high-school students Sky Eventide and Raven Meltzer. In retrospect, Sky was coded as masculine and Raven a promiscuous bisexual stereotype, but at the time, these were the characters I reached for when it came to describing my orientation to friends, parroting Sky’s self-definition: “I like who I like.” In time, I’d move away from this deliberately non-threatening terminology – but this was a journey I now embarked on with a map and point of reference. Imperfect role-models though they may have been, Sky and Raven set me on the path to discovering what it was I liked, exactly – and what it might mean about my identity.

More recently, videogames helped to trigger a similar discovery. Two years ago, and very late to the party, I started playing the PS Vita remaster of Atlus’s acclaimed role-playing game, Persona 4, and found myself in a new terra incognita. Appropriately, one of the main conceits of Persona 4 is the concept of Shadows: evil doppelgangers of the main characters who represent shameful, repressed aspects of their personalities. For one of the characters, sweet-natured, insecure tough-guy Kanji Tatsumi, the game strongly implies this secret concerns his sexuality. For another, the young, female-assigned but male-presenting detective Naoto Shirogane, the culprit appears to be gender nonconformity.  

Two side-by-side in-game stills. On the left Shadow Kanji says "You like to sew? What a queer!" and on the right Other Naoto says "How could you become an ideal man when you were never male to begin with?"

Much ink has already been spilled on the topic of queer representation in Persona 4. Coming out in 2008, the game is often lauded for breaking the taboo on LGBTQAI+ representation in mainstream gaming – while also being rightly criticised for the ultimately disappointing way the narrative fails to commit to either Kanji or Naoto’s queerness. When the characters finally confront their Shadows, rather than revealing and accepting these parts of themselves, Kanji’s same-sex attraction is skirted in favour of an examination of the strictures of masculinity, while Naoto’s nonconformity is explained away as insecurity about their youth and gender. Ultimately, Persona 4 questions the constraints of gender and sexuality only to reify its characters even more firmly within their assigned categories. Definitions of these categories might expand – enabling Kanji to be a male sewing aficionado and Naoto a logic-driven female detective – but any movement between categories is still a discrepancy to be resolved, rather than embraced.

On its face, Persona 4’s queer representation might seem indefensible. The game is practically a posterchild for doing it wrong, covering everything from oversexualised, feminised gay stereotypes to gender reveal plot-twists and debunking transness as internalised misogyny. And yet, despite this, or perhaps because of it, Persona 4 was instrumental to my queer self-discovery. As a young, closeted non-binary person, I saw too much of myself in Naoto’s contradictory behaviour to read them as cisgender: reserved yet confident in their opinion, instinctively emotional yet uncomfortable showing it. They preferred formal, gender-neutral clothing, just like I did; they were self-serious and prematurely sophisticated, just like I had been. Even after resolving to “accept” their female self, Naoto’s small collection of pixels continued to wear a binder, dress in a male school uniform and use masculine pronouns. For all of Atlus’s exhortations, this was not a character happily embracing their femininity, but one still struggling against it – perhaps no longer so eager to become a man, but equally discomforted by the notion of becoming female. To me, the resolution seemed obvious: Naoto was non-binary.

Within the fan community, the debate still rages on Kanji and Naoto’s genders and sexualities. Some people take the canon at face value, and see Kanji as ultimately straight and Naoto as ultimately female. An equal amount prefer to interpret the canon divergently, fashioning interpretations for every permutation of sexuality and identity. Personally, I found in Naoto a character whose articulation of gender nonconformity mimicked my own in a way I’d never seen. For the first time, I could imagine transness not as a present sense of wrongness, but a future sense of rightness: the way Naoto dreams of becoming their ideal adult detective. Unlike so many female-assigned trans people on TV, Naoto isn’t a tomboy. On the contrary, Naoto’s male presentation is implicitly feminised in order to later discredit their transness: softly spoken, self-controlled and genteel. Yet by rooting Naoto’s nonconformity in their desire to escape a feminised social role rather than strict femininity, Atlus accidentally offered me – and thousands of others – a vision of queerness that didn’t fit the limited mainstream narrative.

Two animated characters, Naoto - a young girl wearing a hat and male school uniform- walks beside Kanji - a tall make wearing a jacket and t-shirt with a skull and crossbones print.

Persona 4 is neither the first nor the last game to stumble across authenticity in the process of bowdlerising the queerness of its narrative. As pressure increases on media producers to include more LGBTQAI+ characters in the stories they tell, so too do the myriad shortcuts of tokenistic inclusion, subtextual representation, and extreme stereotyping that media industries have been using to attract queer audiences without alienating mainstream ones for decades. DontNod’s 2015 adventure game, Life is Strange, arguably takes many of these shortcuts in depicting the queer relationship between its two main characters, Max Caulfield and Chloe Price. Throughout the game, Max and Chloe’s relationship is largely implicit, culminating in a single clearly romantic kiss dependent on player decisions. This kiss – which many players may never encounter – comes right before Chloe joins the overpopulated ranks of lesbian and bisexual characters killed on screen: sacrificed by Max in order to save the rest of the town.

And yet, playing the game myself, I found myself once again confronted with a narrative that echoed the awkwardness of my own queer coming-of-age. In one of the game’s most resonant scenes, Chloe dares Max to kiss her, potentially resulting in a hasty press-of-the-lips that both girls immediately dismiss. Even without an analogous experience, both the act and its dismissal ring true to the uncertain, clumsy advances of my younger self: affections no sooner expressed than retracted; a kiss no sooner shared than justified as a drunken mistake. Max and Chloe’s relationship can easily be interpreted as no more than close female friendship – much the same way I once agonised over the exact nature of my feelings for girls in high school. For once, a narrative’s coyness about the exact nature of the queer relationship within it felt realistic rather than cowardly. What’s more, Life is Strange’s recently released DLC, Before the Storm, improves on the failures of its predecessor to feature new unambiguously queer characters and give players the opportunity to finally make Chloe explicitly queer herself.

Two 3D animated characters, Max Caulfield and Chloe Price share a passionate kiss in the rain

Imperfect queer representations might be imperfect, but that’s what makes them such good mirrors for our imperfect, messy lives and the rambling and circuitous routes we take to self-discovery. By presenting a vision of Kanji’s same-sex attraction and Naoto’s gender nonconformity that is confused and contradictory, Persona 4 offers a parallel to the real way these things often play out: hesitantly, circuitously and in the dark. Off-screen, not everyone discovers they’re trans by trying on their mother’s high-heels, nor that they’re gay by falling for the captain of the football team. Sometimes it starts with the new girl in English class, who just happens to look strikingly boyish. After all, directions don’t have to be clear to be better than nothing – especially when you still don’t know exactly where you’re going.

- Yen Radecki

Yen Radecki is a writer, poet, and perpetual traveller. Born in France and raised across three continents, they're now based somewhere or other on planet Earth, exactly where depending on when you read this. Online, they can be found more easily at @yenradecki.