Queer Representation in Children’s Media

When I was a little girl, one of my absolute favourite things in the whole wide world was Harry Potter. (Oh, who am I kidding? That’s still true today.) The books. The movies. Everything. I loved it. I ate it up like a proverbial fat kid eats cake.

Now, I don’t know how familiar you, the reader, are with Harry Potter. Maybe you’ve never seen the movies or read the books, and you just have a basic understanding of it being about wizards or some shit like that. Maybe you’re more like me, and have the entire text of the books tattooed onto your soul. But I’m just going to assume that you’re a little closer to the former, just for safety’s sake, because I want to draw your attention toward a brief, seemingly unimportant scene in the third movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (which was released when I was nine years old. Trust me; that bit will become important later).

Near the end of this movie, two male characters are revealed to have a close friendship (if I’m spoiling anything for you here, too bad, the movie’s been out nearly fourteen years now). These characters in question are Remus Lupin, a werewolf, and Sirius Black, not a werewolf. At one point, shortly after a reunion scene between the two of them that involved close hugging, the moon comes out from behind a cloud, and Lupin begins to turn into a werewolf. At this point, Sirius grabs hold of Lupin and tries to get through to him, saying things like, “this heart is where you belong, this heart!” indicating Lupin’s own chest.

Now, what about any of this matters, you might be asking? This is just a meaningless, nothing little scene that establishes nothing besides the fact that Lupin is turning into a werewolf, right? Well… yes. Yes it is. But at the age of nine years old, when I first saw this scene, something got confused along the way in my head. I think it might have been something about Sirius screaming about hearts as he held Lupin close. What I’m trying to say is, when I was nine years old, I seriously, genuinely thought that Sirius and Lupin were a couple in the context of the movies. And I’m not talking about “shipping” them (for those of you who aren’t familiar with the lingo, that’s geek-talk for thinking that two characters would make an amazing couple, even if they are not actually romantically or sexually involved in the actual text). I mean that I actually believed that they were “together”.

This wasn’t an isolated incident either. In the Disney movie “Mulan” (which came out when I was three years old; I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw it, but it was probably around then), there is a character simply called “the Matchmaker”, and I was completely convinced that that character was a drag queen. Maybe it was the heavy make-up combined with the fact that she accidentally draws a goatee on herself later on in the movie. Maybe I just didn’t catch onto the fact that it was a goatee made of ink, not hair. I don’t know, for some reason, when I was a kid, I was simply convinced that children’s movies were much more progressive than they actually were.

It wasn’t until I was in my late teens did I discover that Lupin and Sirius are not actually a couple in the context of the story, they’re just good friends, or that the Matchmaker was actually intended to be interpreted as a cis-gendered woman.

Now, the reason why I interpreted these characters this way could be manifold. It could simply because my parents did not try to hide the existence of other sexualities and genders from me as a kid, and so it simply made sense to me that, if these people existed, they would exist in my media as well. Or maybe it all has something to do with the fact that I personally grew up to be bisexual; maybe whatever it is that has hardwired me to be queer automatically made me search for role models in my media as early as three years old. I don’t know what the reason is, all I know is that I can now make people laugh with the funny “I genuinely thought Lupin and Sirius were a couple” story now.

But, personally, I think that the fact that I thought this way as young as I did is important to a discussion that we have been having in our media lately: namely, is it okay for children to be exposed to queer characters in media?

Actual queer characters (not just the ones I’ve made up in my head) have been confirmed in some children’s media lately, possibly the most famous example being LeFou in Disney’s live action remake of Beauty and the Beast. Yet, LeFou sort of ended up being a disappointment to both sides of the argument. Parents who disagreed with queer representation in children’s media refused to take their children to this movie because they didn’t want them exposed to a message that they thought could potentially be harmful. Meanwhile, audience members who wanted to see explicit queer representation got little more than a split-second dance scene between two men, hardly confirming or denying anything (after all, even as a nine-year-old, I would have known that two men can dance together without being in love with each other).

Since then, we’ve had character after character in children’s media (including Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarok and Yellow Ranger Trini from the Power Rangers movie) either hint at potential queerness, or be marketed to the audience as a queer character, while never actually coming right out and saying, “hello, yes, I am actual queer character, pleased to meet you!”

In other words, this media can bring in an audience that desperately wants to see actual, confirmed queer representation in mainstream, children’s media, while simultaneously appeasing the parents who don’t want their children exposed to that gross, gay stuff.

But, end of day, really, what’s wrong with exposing children to the existence of queer individuals?

I know that I’m probably not a convincing example of someone who grew up exposed to this in my media and turned out fine, considering the fact that one of the major fears of including these characters in these movies is that it will somehow turn their kids gay. But at the same time, to that, I say two things: 1) I don’t think that I “became bisexual” the moment that I heard Gary Oldman screaming “this heart is where you belong” to David Thewlis. I sort of think that being bisexual was somewhere in my genetic code long before that. And, 2) at the time, when I was a young, pre-pubescent nerd wearing a lightning bolt scar drawn onto my forehead with eyeliner, I actually didn’t think anything of this quote-unquote ‘relationship’. I didn’t think that it was weird that Sirius and Lupin “were a couple”. I mean, yeah, at the time I decided that they were my favourite couple in the series, but that was mostly because this was movie three and the only other couples that I had to choose from were all parents (which, to a nine year old girl, was gross).

You know those stories that you hear of a little kid asking, “what are gay people?” and the parents explains it calmly, to which the kid goes, “oh. Can I go play now?” Yeah, that was pretty much just my reaction to these movies. I didn’t linger on it. I didn’t hate it or think it was gross, or even really decide that I was going to grow up to be in a same-sex relationship, just like Lupin and Sirius. I just saw it, thought it was kind of romantic, the way that Sirius tried to pull Lupin back from being a monster just like some sort of Beauty and the Beast, and then I moved onto the awesome werewolf fight scene and the flying broomsticks and the supposed devil worship. Truth be told, if this wasn’t an argument that we were having now, and if I hadn’t been wrong in my interpretation of the film, I might never have thought about any of it ever again.

So when people nowadays discuss the potential “dangers” of including queer characters in children’s media, I always go back to that nine year old girl who thought nothing of the possibility that two wizards were also a couple, or that the Matchmaker was openly a drag queen in ancient China. None of this bothered me as a kid, none of it even phased me. Perhaps it would have if I had told the adults in my life how I had interpreted these characters and they had laughed at me or told me that I was wrong, but no one ever did that to me. No one ever told me that queer characters didn’t belong in my media, and so I simply assumed that queer people belonged everywhere. Being informed on these matters, being allowed to think about them and interpret them freely, made me more open-minded and accepting, not only of queer characters, but of queer people in real life, and eventually, of my own queerness as well.

It wasn’t until I grew up did I discover that others disagreed with me. And, to this day, I still don’t think I understand why.

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The Monsters in My Head

In my head, there live two monsters.

The first calls itself Depression, and it is a mass of shadows, dark and lazy and heavy, oh so heavy. Sometimes it goes to sleep, and it stays there for weeks, months even. Sometimes I think Depression has moved out, moved on, realized that there are better things for it to do than sit in my head all the damn time. Then it wakes up. It wakes up, and it sits there, weighing a ton, and it never shuts. The fuck. Up.

“Why are you doing that? I mean, why do you bother? You aren’t even all that good. Nobody cares.”

“Why are you even saying that? It isn’t like you have any friends. Nobody will respond. Nobody really likes you.”

“Oh. My. God. Did you really just say that? God, it’s no wonder all your friends left you and you’ve been single since the dawn of time.”

“Maybe it would just be better for everyone if you would just give up, you know?”

Opposite Depression, there exists its roommate: Anxiety. Depression and Anxiety don’t like each other much, but they’ve learned to coexist. While Depression sits on the couch all day, eating potato chips out of the bag and binge-watching a show it really doesn’t care for all that much, Anxiety is poised, ready to strike at a giving moment. Depression is still, but Anxiety vibrates with energy, excited and scared all at the same time.

Anxiety speaks just as often as Depression does.

“Why are we sitting still right now? There are things we have to do! Come on! Move it! Move it! Move it!”

“In case you haven’t realized, you don’t have any friends, so what you need to do is talk to that person! Go! Say something! What do you say? I have no fucking clue, just say something, because if you don’t, you won’t ever make any friends and you’re going to die alone, having contributed nothing to the world! Do you want that? Do you really fucking want that?”

“Oh no! You said the wrong thing! Well, now they hate you. You aren’t going to be alone now; you’re going to be a social pariah. Have fun with that!”

Sometimes, Depression and Anxiety speak together.

Depression: I don’t feel like doing anything today. I’m tired. I think I’m just going to stay here all day.

Anxiety: No! No, we can’t do that! We have things to do, goddamnit! And if we don’t do them, then we’re going to lose our fucking job, and have no fucking money, and not be able to do anything, so we’re just going to die alone and mean nothing.

Depression: So what? We already mean nothing. It’s not like getting up is going to change any of that.

Anxiety: Well, we have to try, don’t we? We have to do something? Get up, get up, get up! Move, move, move! Why aren’t you moving? Fuck!

Depression: Because we’re worthless. We’re lazy and stupid and nothing we ever do matters.

Anxiety: Not with that attitude, it doesn’t!

Depression: I’m tired. You’re making me tired. Can’t we just go to bed?

Anxiety: If you do, then I swear to god, I will nag you until you get up again!

Depression: That’s fine. This is fine. I’ll just lay here then.

I don’t know when they moved it. I don’t remember ever letting them in; I just discovered them one day, both living in my head. By that time, they had already wrecked the place, leaving me to do the clean-up. I despised them for that. I wanted to kick them out. I wanted them gone. I told them: get the fuck out of my head! I told them I didn’t want them, I tried to chase them out with pills. They responded differently. Depression would hide, going back to the shadows and remaining there until precisely the right time when it could return again, and I wouldn’t even notice. Anxiety would try to bribe me with new promises: “you can’t kick me out; you need me! I am what makes you brilliant! Without me, what would you be? How would you get anything done? I am your motivation, your muse! You can’t deny that, can you?”

But as time went on, I began to learn more about these annoying little tenants in my head. For one, I learned that I couldn’t just kick them out; it wasn’t as simple as all that. And I learned that they were both filthy liars who would say anything to get my attention.

I learned that they were different from one another, that Depression preyed upon insecurities so that it would be easier to ignore, but end of day, there was still nothing to prove that it was correct. Depression said that I wasn’t good at what I did, and yet I received compliments. Depression told me that they were making it up, and yet logic pointed out that that didn’t make any fucking sense. Depression could sit in my head for weeks, and I could have a hard time ignoring its drivel, but eventually, I did learn that that was all it was: drivel. The ramblings made up by some terrible tenant in my head, bent on my pain and destruction because that was what it thrived on. When I gave in, Depression won.

Anxiety, on the other hand, could never be satisfied. It lived on the idea of moremore work, more friends, more success, more more more. There was never enough. I was never enough, and Depression was quick to agree on that point. And when I really sat down and thought about it, I decided that I didn’t like the way that Anxiety thought. I wanted to be good, yes, great even, but I wanted to be satisfied. I wanted to be comfortable and open and happy, but Anxiety could never be any of that. And when Anxiety realized that I was pulling away, it would say anything it needed to draw me back, like any abusive partner would. It needed me much more than I needed it, because without me, it could not live.

Depression and Anxiety continue to live in my head together. They continue to chatter, on and off, and I know now that they will never leave, but their voices are quieter now, easier to ignore, because while they still prey off of insecurities, I recognize now that the things they say are a lie. And I do not want to listen to them. I set up the rules, I put them back in their place when I can, and when I can’t, I try to remind myself that it is not for the reasons that they give; I am not weak or worthless or unable to deal with them. I am strong, but I am struggling, as all those who are strong do. And when I need help, I will ask for help, because that is precisely what Depression and Anxiety do not want me to do. And if I am going to best them, I do not want them to be comfortable.

Who I Am Supposed to Be

Once upon a time, I knew who I was.

I was the dreamer. The hopeless romantic. The artist who did things because I enjoyed them and because they mattered, not because they paid well. I loved, I felt, I never did things half-way. I put my heart and soul into everything I did, because that was the sort of person I was. The whole world was all or nothing to me.

At what point did I become the scorned lover? Angry and lost and confused? When did control began to matter more than happiness or comfort? When did I begin shooting down dreams with the question, “yeah, but how are you going to make money?”

I don’t know how I got from point A to point B. Carelessness? Did I merely stop paying attention to who I was, and in the process become someone else? Or was it gradual, a build-up? I adopt a habit, a thought process, to shield myself from one heartbreak, and then another, and then another? “This is how I have to act now; it’s just the way the world is.”

God, I sound like everyone I never wanted to be.

I told myself once that, when I got my heart broken, I wouldn’t be the one to stop myself from opening up to another, because pain teaches us lessons and it’s all part of the experience.

I told myself once that, when someone hurt me, I wouldn’t hate them, but I wouldn’t forget them. I’d never be the sort to dismiss an entire group of people because of a bad experience with one.

I told myself once that it was never too late to change everything. I told myself that I was young, I had the whole world before me, I could do anything. I could be a small town girl today and city girl tomorrow, and that was exciting. That was the way life should be.

I want to go back to that.

I want to be myself again.

I want to stop burying these thoughts beneath doubts, beneath “but how are you going to get money” and “I don’t know; that sounds awfully scary”.

So forgive me if I bore you. Forgive me if you can’t relate to this, or if you think I’m silly and immature. Forgive me if you expected better, and I delivered this: who I am. A dreamer. An artist who does what feels right in the moment. A stuck-up, self-important child who actually believes that I have the ability to change the whole fucking world. Forgive me, but don’t expect me to apologize. I won’t. Because, while time and pain may have temporarily hardened me, it also taught me exactly who I am supposed to be.

 

The Objectification of Men

Recently, Suistudio launched the campaign #NOTDRESSINGMEN in order to advertise their line of business suits created for women. The images that have been released for this campaign are, in some ways, fairly standard for this sort of product: two people, one dressed head-to-toe in a suit and standing in a position of power and domination, the other posed provocatively, their identity meaningless, their body completely on display. Now, this is an image that we have seen before – many, many times, in fact. Yet, there is one thing about this campaign that not only makes it different, but has caused plenty of controversy, and that is the fact that a woman is placed in a position of power, while a male model is the one being sexualized and objectified.

There are many who have taken to social media to show their disagreement with this campaign, despite the fact that these images are not entirely new. In fact, it is nearly common for us to see the genders reversed. In many advertisements, women are depicted as sexual objects, to the point where we barely even think about it anymore. We’re used to the images of big-breasted women with their heads tipped back and their lips parted. All the time, we see men standing squarely facing the camera, their stances strong, their jaws locked, their power confirmed. This is the language of our media, and we speak it fluently.

But at the same time, the majority of comments that I have seen disagreeing with the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign have not been upset with it because it dares to reverse the gender roles; rather, they disagree with it because they know that this is an injustice that society already does to women all the time, and they don’t think that it’s right to spread this injustice to men as well.

As one Instagram commenter said, “If it was the other way around with the woman on the couch and man above her, feminist groups would jump and criticise. This double standard needs to end.”

Some people have accused this campaign of “making feminism look bad”, turning it into a movement of women who merely want to dominate and control men, rather than being about equal rights. And is this what the campaign is doing? Are these images trying to destroy the patriarchy and replace it with a matriarchy?

Well, the way I see it, my opinion on this campaign rests heavily on the campaign’s intent.

On the one hand, it is very possible that the commenters are correct, and the purpose of this campaign is not necessarily to challenge anything, but rather, to use the accepted language of our media to convey the age-old message, but with the genders swapped. And, in fact, many of the images do seem to be indicating that.

The reason why we often see men standing firm and square-jawed, staring directly at the camera, is because the image is very clearly trying to convey a message, and that message is very connected with gender: he is strong. He is capable. He can do whatever he needs to do, and he can do it without wrinkling his suit or breaking an expression. It just so happens, all of these tend to be masculine traits, and I don’t think that’s incidental. Similarly, when we see women lounging out over objects without much of anything on, that too is meant to convey a message: she is passive, but sexually available. When we see women compared to or used in place of objects, then that is the ultimate passivity: she isn’t even a person, she’s just a thing, waiting around to be used by whoever shows up and wants her.

So when we see the same poses used but the genders reversed, the messages don’t really change, although the gender roles might be challenged. But, still, the photographer is relying on a specific language, one that the viewer will undeniably be familiar with, to convey a message. And the message really isn’t okay. End of day, whether it’s a man or a woman being objectified, the message is that they aren’t really a person. They’re a sexy object, a thing that can be used and disposed of. And not only that, but in both cases, a specific language is being used to convey the message of ‘sexy’ as well; only one body type is displayed, because the viewer will automatically connect that body type to sex appeal. And when that happens, then that dismisses all other body types as being even potentially accepted by society.

So, essentially, if the intent behind this campaign was to rely upon a harmful language that feminism is, in fact, trying to combat, all so that they could convey to their presumably female audience that this company’s suits will make them powerful and alluring to men, then that is not okay.

But there is one other possible intent that this campaign might have, one that I am more comfortable with accepting: the intent to challenge the majority of media.

As I have mentioned, advertisers have made use of sexualizing and objectifying women for decades in order to make their product look somehow superior, and one thing that I think many commenters are forgetting when they show their distaste for the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign is that it is only one campaign. It is not an entire industry, meaning that women are not quite at the precipice of taking over the world quite yet. And, more than that, campaigns that rely on switching societal roles are released all the time with the intent of showing just how unfair our society really is.

For example, in 2004, the Disability Rights Commission released a short film called “Talk”, which follows an able-bodied man who suddenly wakes up in a world designed for the new majority, people with disabilities. Another short film, entitled “Love Is All You Need”, takes place in a world where homosexuality is the norm, and heterosexuality is looked down upon as “weird” and “unnatural”.

There are many issues in our society that are sometimes difficult for us to wrap our heads around – not because we never experience them, but because we experience them everyday. They are normal to us, so we don’t even second-guess them. And the purpose of media like “Talk” and “Love Is All You Need” is to try to point out just how wrong our society is. It forces able-bodied people to imagine, not what it would be like to be disabled, but what it would be like to live with the stigma of disability. It forces heterosexual people to imagine what it would be like if they couldn’t safely take their partners home to meet their parents, or hold hands with them in public.

And, maybe, the intent behind the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign is not to create a new norm, but rather, to force us to question the old one, to make us realize that the over-sexualizing and objectification of women is wrong by forcing us to see it from a new perspective. And, I mean, while I said that there was plenty of evidence in the photographs to suggest the other intention, there is also plenty of evidence to suggest this as well. The photographs, after all, are overly sexual, and overly objectifying, even going so far as to intentionally remove the man’s face from the images, as though to completely remove his identity and force the viewer to look at him only as an object – a body without a soul.

Now, what the company’s actual intent was is difficult to decipher. They have not made any attempt to comment either way, although Suistudio has confessed to intending controversy. Besides that, I suppose that the viewer can merely take what they want from the campaign: are they a frightening image of a new sort of objectification, or an isolated incident intending only to make us question our past and present?

We Need to Listen

While I find my voice quite frequently in the form of writing, if you were to meet me face-to-face, you’d discover that I tend to be a very quiet person. And all my life, people have told me that this is a problem.

In school, my teachers would tell me again and again that I had very good things to say when they read my essays or my homework, but that I never contributed to the conversation in class. This more than anything brought my grade down.

At jobs, while I have absolutely no problem speaking the words that need to be spoken, and even engaging in conversations when I come across people who are particularly chatty, I have been told by employers that I need to be more talkative, more socially engaging, and if I can’t do that, then I shouldn’t be here.

In social settings, I have always felt bad about the fact that I am quiet. People will tell me things like “don’t be shy” or “you don’t need to be nervous”, but that has never been the case for me. I’m not shy, and people don’t make me nervous. I’m just quiet. That’s just the nature of me. When I am very talkative, that usually means one of two things: that a topic of conversation has been brought up that I am particularly passionate about, or that I am trying to push myself into a place where I am not being myself and I am not comfortable.

And I think that these two comments really sum up the misconception that tends to be made about me, or quiet people in general: that we’re shy. That we don’t like people. That people make us nervous, and as a result, we are weak, or there is something wrong with us. But, at least in my experience, none of this is true. I love people. I love to be around people, and I love to hear what they have to say, and I love to receive attention from them. And yet, I’m quiet.

And as much as I’ve heard people say, over and over again, that this is a character flaw of mine that needs to be overcome, as much as I’ve had people praise me for making myself uncomfortable and speaking when I wouldn’t normally have spoken, I disagree with all this. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d understand forcing myself to be uncomfortable for something that I actually believed would make me a better person, but I don’t believe this will.

Because, while everyone else seems to believe that, when I’m not talking, I’m not doing anything, this isn’t the case. When I’m not talking, I’m listening, and I’m thinking. And these are two actions that I sincerely do not want to do less of.

Let’s go back to the classroom setting, for an easy example of what I mean here. When I was sitting in class, I was so busy listening to what my teachers and peers had to say that I wasn’t really thinking about what I could contribute myself, and this was what made me a decent student. Because I already knew my own thoughts on the matter, but I was obsessed with hearing other thoughts, because frequently enough, they differed from mine. And once I stocked up on all of these differing perspectives, when I left the classroom, I would sort through them, decide which perspectives made sense to me and which didn’t, and then I would take this thought and put it in my homework and essays. I felt that it was incredibly important for me to listen and think through everything I had heard because I didn’t think that my own opinion on the matter was wrong, but I firmly upheld the belief that my opinion wasn’t the only one that mattered. In fact, I sort of believed that all these opinions mattered, and that the truth lay somewhere in between them all.

And if I tried to tell this to my teachers, they would tell me that the other students could benefit from hearing my opinion as well, but when I tried to force myself to speak in class, then I found that I was so preoccupied with trying to come up with something to say that I forgot to even listen. And listening was just too important for me to give up.

And the classroom is not the only place where my penchant for listening has helped me. When a friend is going through a difficult time, before I judge or suggest any action for them to take, I make sure that I listen to them and try to understand what they are going through. I try to see things from all perspectives, and while this takes more time, it has also helped me gain a deeper kinship with certain people.

Listening has also helped me to become a much more empathetic person than I might otherwise be. For example, as a white woman, I have no idea what it is like to live life as a person of colour – I’ve never done it myself. But I have listened to people, and I have tried to understand them and think about their perspective. So while I am aware that my voice, when it comes to these matters, is not the most important voice, it is essential that I lend these matters my ear and my eye, because that is the only way that I will learn about them.

There is a time and a place to speak, and there is a time and a place to listen, and personally, I believe that one of our society’s problems is that we think that the time to speak is constant. We forget the value of listening, because everyone is so obsessed with talking, with having their voices heard above anyone else’s, that they’re completely forgetting that other perspectives even exist, or that they might also be important.

And we all, every single one of us, have something to say. But what good will that do if there is no one to hear it?