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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Bisexual People Are Not Just Going Through A Phase

So, full disclosure here: I’m a bit of a geek, and as such, I’m a bit of a fan of trivia, especially trivia that’s related to movies and books. So it should come as no surprise that today’s rant stemmed from a little bit of trivia. Namely, a bit of obscure Harry Potter trivia.

According to an interview with Entertainment Weekly, actor David Thewlis, who played the character Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter films, was quoted as saying, “Alfonso Cuarón (the director of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), in the rehearsals, without J.K. Rowling’s knowledge, told me that [my character] was, in fact, gay. So I’d been playing a part like a gay man for quite a long time. Until it turned out that I indeed got married to Tonks. I changed my whole performance after that. Just saw it as a phase he went through.” Perhaps as a result of this statement, I have also found some sources claiming that J.K. Rowling herself claimed that Lupin was an ‘ex-gay‘ who, over the course of the series, learns to be straight when he falls in love with Tonks, a female character. However, as the leading source of this latter claim seems to be a user’s comment on IMDB, I wouldn’t put too much stock in the claim that this is something that Rowling actually said.

Now, why am I sharing this piece of trivia, you might be asking? Well, besides it simply being interesting to know from a total geek perspective, I also find it to be very telling as far as how we as a society tends to view sexual orientation.

Look at the language that was used in the above trivia. Regardless of what the sexual orientation of Lupin’s character is actually supposed to be, Thewlis decided that, if Lupin was interested in men at one point and interested in women at another, then that must mean that he was just “going through a phase”. And regardless of whether J.K. Rowling was the one who identified Lupin as an “ex-gay” or not, that is a term that some fans have come to use toward him. So then, what is Lupin’s sexual orientation? He likes men at some point, women at others… it’s almost as though he likes both… as though he might be some sort of strange, previously unknown sexual orientation that lands somewhere between straight and gay, like some sort of… bisexual or something…

Seriously though, why wasn’t this the first place that everyone’s mind went to when Lupin’s sexual orientation supposedly changed between movies? (I’m foregrounding the movies here because that seems to be where this issue is most apparent to the actors and the audience.) Why was there even this mention of “going through a phase”, of being an “ex-gay”, when we all know that bisexual people exist?

Or do we?

The issue of bi visibility has been an ongoing one for the bisexual community for pretty much… forever. In fact, there’s even a whole day in the year dedicated to spreading awareness about the existence of bisexual people, because apparently, the majority of people haven’t caught on yet. Bisexual people are frequently assumed to be going through a phase that they’ll eventually grow out of or overcome. Bisexual men are interpreted as being gay men who are simply afraid to come “all the way” out of the closet (as though coming out as bisexual isn’t coming all the way out). Bisexual women are interpreted as straight women who are looking to impress men with promises of threesomes and getting to watch them make out with other women (because it always comes back to being about men in the end somehow). Or, sometimes, bisexual people of both sexes are merely interpreted as experimenting, being curious, being rebellious, but not actually being what they claim to be.

And when it comes to real people with actual sexual orientations, we still tend to use a perspective that mirrors the one we saw with poor Lupin. When we see actual queer couples, we automatically assume that they are a gay or lesbian couple. A wedding between two men is always referred to as a gay wedding, even if it’s totally plausible that neither man is actually gay. And do you know how many times I have seen someone come from dating someone of the opposite gender to dating someone of the same gender, and the common response is, “oh, so you’re gay now?” or “I didn’t know you were gay!”

And if you do this or have done this, I’m not trying to make you feel bad about it. As human beings, we tend to want to separate everything into two categories, sometimes referred to as a ‘binary’. We want everything and everyone to be male or female, light or dark, straight or gay. And when something doesn’t fit easily into that binary, we tend to ignore it; I mean, what have we done to gender non-conforming or intersex people?

But the truth is, the world doesn’t exactly work this way.

The truth is, of all adults living in the U.S. and identifying as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, bisexuals comprise of a very slight majority (1.8% compared to the 1.7% that identify as gay or lesbian). And of these people, not all of them can be confused, questioning, or going through a phase.

The truth is, I identify as bisexual, and I have since I was ten years old. I tried to change myself. I tried to force myself to belong on either end of the binary, because that was what I thought people expected of me, but I just can’t change who I am. I just can’t not be bisexual, because the way that I identify is very real and very unavoidable.

The truth is, we have been ignored for far too long. We have been dismissed as not even an option for far too long. We have been invisible for far too long.

And it’s time for that to stop.

It’s time for us to talk about bi visibility.

Documenting Grief

So my grandfather has been checked into the hospice, and it’s really starting to look like he won’t check back out again.

I’m not saying that to gain sympathy or anything. I don’t want anyone to feel bad for me. I’m just saying it because it’s true. And the way that I deal with things that are true is by writing about them.

So I’m going to write.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend that my grandfather was a perfect man, because he wasn’t. He was flawed. And I’m not going to pretend that I always agreed with everything that he ever said, because I didn’t.

But he was a man who scraped up his knees diving heroically to grab me when I fell through the centre of the tire swing when I was little.

He was a man who I praised to no end as a kid because he let me eat ice cream before my dinner.

He was a man who made stupid comments like “my name is only eight letters and half of them are L’s, so it’s easy enough to spell” (his name’s Bill Hall), and “is there any other flavour than chocolate?”

So I guess I need to prepare to start grieving.

In preparation, I did a Google search of the stages of grief, because I can never remember them even though I know that, as a writer, I should. And when I looked over the list, I recognized that I’ve already gone through a few of the stages.

The first stage is denial. And when he was first diagnosed with cancer, I figured that it wasn’t that bad; he had beat cancer twice already, he could do it again, no problem. When they first told him it was terminal, I thought that that was nothing; terminal can mean a lot of things – it can mean one week or three years, who knows? And besides, the more that he fought this, the better chance he had of surviving.

The second stage is anger. I don’t logically know where this stage comes from. Why do people have to get angry when they lose someone? Either way, this stage came upon me when I received the news that the doctors weren’t going to do any more for him and they were entering him into the hospice. At that point, I was just mad. Mad at everyone. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, because I’m fully aware that my anger isn’t necessarily my shining moment, but suffice it to say that I was mad until someone pointed out to me that that was just my way of dealing, that what I was really doing was grieving.

And I guess I am.

So what next?

Bargaining. That’s a stupid one too. Who do I bargain to? I don’t have a religion. I don’t have any hope left that he’s going to get better. And if (when) he does die, I don’t believe that any miracle or last-minute conspiracy theory will be revealed. He’ll just be dead, and as much as I do believe that there will be an afterlife for him, I don’t have any hope that I’ll see him again before my time comes.

I don’t have anything to turn to besides the one religion that I do hold onto: my books.

I have all my favourite quotes on death to cling to.

“To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure” – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling.

“To die will be an awfully big adventure” – Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie.

“Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living. And above all, those who live without love” – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling.

These quotes make me feel better.

And I know that we all must die, that it’s just a part of life, that the only thing scary about it is the fact that it is so unknown to us who are still alive. I know all that.

But still, 60-something is such a short amount of time to get in this world.

After that, I suppose I’ll have to deal with depression, followed by acceptance, assuming that everything is as straight-forward as it looks when I’m staring at it on a computer screen (and let’s face it, life never is).

But maybe I’m jumping the gun by writing all of this. Maybe he’ll be alright after all. Maybe, with just a little bit of time, I can go right on back to disagreeing with him.

Stage one, denial.

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Why I Love Fantasy

“It seems as though there needs to be a monster in a story for you to like it.”

I remember being told this a few years ago, and at the time I felt the need to deny it. Because there are, in fact, many stories that I enjoy that don’t have monsters or creatures or magic in them. I like a lot of realistic fiction just fine, but when I think about the stories that I love, the ones that I, as a writer, want to emulate and would die of joy if I was even just compared to, they’re always fantasy stories.

I love fantasy stories. I love myths, legends, and fairy tales. I love Victorian Gothic novels, like Le Fanu’s Carmilla or Shelley’s Frankenstein. I love the classic works of fantasy, like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling. I love fantasy novels, short works of fantasy, fantasy films, fantasy television, fantasy comics, fantasy video games. I love Star Wars, Star Trek, Disney films, Marvel, DC, Buffy the Vampire Slayer – whatever medium fantasy comes in, I love it.

And the strange thing about fantasy is that it seems to get a bit of a bad name. Not from everybody, of course – some people have more tolerance for it than others, but there are still some that will scoff at my fantasy obsession and think of it as lowly, unintelligent, a waste of time when I could be indulging in more realistic works. But the more time I spend exploring fantasy, the more I disagree.

Fantasy, as we all know, is a genre dependant on imagination. The only limits to fantasy are how far one can extend their mind. But, at the same time, fantasy doesn’t just come from nothing. A lot of fantasy stories are dependant upon the context of culture and mythology to inform them – and there’s no limit to the mythologies that they can borrow from. They can borrow from Norse mythology, Greek mythology, middle eastern mythology, Arthurian legends, pagan superstition, the Bible – they can sift through all of this, choose what suits their needs and they can make these things exist alongside one another. For this, I would argue that fantasy is actually a highly intelligent genre, continuing to teach people about ancient beliefs and mythologies.

Or, they can choose to ignore all of this background (which is also a perfectly valid choice) and they can instead choose to defamiliarize the world in which they live – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a very good example of this, taking the Victorian society of Lewis Carroll and turning it into something insane, something just barely recognizable, and therefore, satirizing it. It forces the reader to look at the things around them from a different angle. Something as mundane and constant as the lessons upper class Victorian girls were forced to repeat suddenly become ridiculous and not very useful when placed in the context of the fantastical world known as Wonderland.

And then there’s the ways in which fantasy writers place their own experiences into their work. Tolkien, for example, spent a lot of Lord of the Rings reflecting on his experiences living through World War Two. J.K. Rowling used Harry Potter as a vehicle to come to terms with her mother’s death. And only recently, Howard Ashman, one of the writers to have worked prominently on Disney’s original 1991 Beauty and the Beast, was in the news because it was revealed that he saw the Beast’s curse as a metaphor for AIDs. All of these examples are real, human issues – so big that it’s very difficult to actually put them into words, but nonetheless, they found a way to properly convey them through fantasy, and in my opinion, it doesn’t take anything away that these issues are being vocalized through hobbits, wizards, and beasts.

Fantasy forces people to open their minds and put aside their biases. Think about Harry Potter’s Professor Lupin – another character who was written as a metaphor for someone suffering from AIDs. Going into the story, one might have their own preconceived notions about someone with AIDs – they might think that they’re dirty, that they’re sick because of their own doing (I feel uncomfortable lingering on this, but you get the idea). They might be too quick to dismiss a character who is introduced, right off the bat, as someone with AIDs. But the thing is, Lupin is not a man with AIDs. Lupin is a werewolf who has been forced to live in near-poverty, shunned by society because of it. And most people don’t have preconceived biases against werewolves, so of course they sympathize for Lupin. And maybe once they find out what his character is intended to be read as a metaphor for, they might reflect on their own opinions about people with AIDs and how they are treated by society.

Fantasy forces people to consider others’ perspectives. If you can easily understand the perspective of a wizard, a hobbit, a prophesied hero – three things that you will never be – then why wouldn’t you be able to understand the perspective of someone of a different gender, or race, or sexual orientation?

Fantasy teaches people about the world around them – not by representing it exactly as it is, but by discussing its issues in a context where you’re mind is free, where you aren’t grounded by reality. Fantasy makes you think that anything could be possible – maybe not dragons and sorcerers, but at least bravery and standing up for what’s right. Fantasy is an open genre, one that you can take anything to. Fantasy is not just one thing.