I have a problem with homoerotic subtext. It’s not that I totally hate it or anything. I just… have a teeny, tiny beef with it.
Analyzing homoerotic subtext can be exciting, particularly when it comes to canon character development and fan interpretation. I also think it’s a powerful social tool, used to subtly rebel against our culture’s suffocating blanket of heteronormativity.
On the other hand, historically it has revealed that same culture’s suppression of sexual expression and the media’s (un)conscious habit of alluding to homoerotic tension without ever planning to deliver on it. Even worse, creators use it so they can justify refusing to overtly acknowledge queer sexuality. It’s inclusive enough without offending anyone who both disapproves of LGBTQIA relationships and has a pocketbook.
That last one is where most of my issues with the device lie. Recently, there’s been a growing inclination within fan culture and media critique to label subtext as progress. Vulture’s “Deadpool and the Promising Rise of Heteroflexibility in Comedies” did exactly that earlier this week when it examined how the film promoted the character’s pansexuality. Stringing together evidence from several recent comedies, the piece argued we should see the character as a step forward in LGBTQIA representation. Deadpool is speckled with subtextual nods to his sexuality, very much like the comics. And you’d certainly be surprised about how much of the original source material made it over into the film’s interpretation of the character. That’s a large part of why the movie (proudly) earned its R-rating.
But see, subtext is exactly what it sounds like: beneath the text. The issue with character development that occurs underneath the surface is that you can’t totally confirm or deny that it’s happening or what it means. It’s sort of like that riddle about the tree in the forest. If no one is there to hear it fall, did it really fall at all?
If we define progress as “forward or onward movement,” we need to identify point A and point B, and then see the tree fall. So while I think Vulture’s position–which is shared by a good few–is a well-intentioned one, I question whether failing to show sexuality outside of opposite-gender attraction is good representation. Or rather, progressive representation. Even when the lead male character in a major motion picture is seen taking a strap-on from his girlfriend.
Homoerotic humor has certainly evolved from the days of Zoolander. Now more than ever we’re seeing people walk the line. Sometimes with a sleep deprived sloppy peck, or if a studio is really feeling edgy, a night of drunken stupor. After these characters realize what they’ve done, though, that experience isn’t framed as an exploration or expression of identity. It was just that one wild moment, when their guard was totally down and the question of whether they could make a sound judgment call (or worse, properly consent) comes up. Any erotic build up between that character and the character they were subtexting with is immediately snuffed. Their point B doesn’t exist.
In this instance, comedy is a coded way of acknowledging potential audience discomfort, a feeble attempt at using homophobia against itself. It usually goes down via two scenarios: the game of gay chicken, as Vulture pointed out, and the “progressive” appeal. The latter often has a character played as a “cool straight,” a heterosexual who is comfortable kissing someone of the same gender, but, unlike other identities on the spectrum, possesses no actual sexual or romantic desire for same sex or same gender intimacy.
The joke has essentially turned from being about two men kissing, to how much of two men kissing can we take, to the fact that some people might be uncomfortable with two men kissing but whatever, they live in the stone age. Jokes on them, but remember no actual homo.
The full feature first appeared at The Mary Sue on Feb. 15, 2016.