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Queer Canons and Sapphic Ships

I have a confession to make.

I apply queer theory to literally all the fiction I watch or read. I can’t remember how young I was when I started doing this, but I’m too old to stop it now.

I will create queer canon even if there’s already a token queer character or two. By the time I’m done with a series, nearly everyone is bi or pan or ace or aro or gay, there’s usually at least one or two trans people, and I will have lengthy explanations for different unseen love entanglements and poly arrangements in order to ship two characters who are not officially together on-screen or on-page.

Daria and Jane? College is going to be an awfully confusing time for them.

Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn? Not only are they a healthier couple than Harley and Joker, but they’re adorable and more effective as a team.

Leopold “Butters” Stotch? That’s pretty much me as a child trying unsuccessfully to be a boy.

Timon and Pumbaa? They’re just raising a son together after they’ve been shunned by their community, nbd.

Gene Belcher? How many times does she have to tell everyone she’s a girl before they finally understand she’s a girl?

Rory and Paris? Baby power couple!

Seamus Finnegan and Dean Thomas? Too. Cute. For. Words.

Bobby Hill? “The boy ain’t right” because the boy ain’t actually a boy.

Straight and cis people can and do become annoyed when they learn about some of my queer theories. Maybe I’ve turned two of their most admired friends into lovers, or torn apart a couple they see themselves and their partner in, or turned a character trans when someone of their assigned gender really identifies with them. And that can bring out a strong emotional reaction. I get that. For those of us who have fandoms, we take our own interpretation of them pretty seriously. Especially when we have a lot of emotional investment in a particular interpretation because it reflects a part of ourselves we have a difficult time communicating.

But here’s the thing, straight canon is always the official canon and straight ships always sail. And that’s true of all privileged identities, including my own. Privileged identities always get preferential treatment by writers, producers, publishers, other fans, and everyone else who makes mass media happen. Fan theories are some of the only ways marginalized people can shape media into something that more closely resembles what we’d actually like to see in media.

Queer canons and queer ships are already easily dismissed by anyone who doesn’t need them, so I don’t see the justification for feeling threatened by queer fans doing the same things straight fans do. We see something in the fictional world that reminds us of ourselves or our lovers or our family or our enemies, and we say, “Hey, that’s just like this particular moment of my life! I’m going to apply my own experiences to this so I can relate even more to the characters and situations going on because I’m really digging this show/book/movie.”

The only difference is our experiences are queer because we are queer, which often makes our interpretation of fictional things queer as well. That’s the beauty of fiction. It’s half what the writers bring to the table, and half what you bring to the table to fill in the gaps.

In the real world, heteronormativity reigns supreme. But in my fictional worlds, “homonormativity” allows my imagination to make me feel welcomed and included, even with things I would probably hate otherwise.

In the real world, most people never directly state their sexuality or gender history because we’re all intended to assume everyone is straight and cis unless they say otherwise. But in my fictional worlds, sexuality and gender history are so uncontested nobody feels the need to talk about them unless the plot demands it. People are just queer and nobody says anything about it because they have more pressing plot points to deal with instead.

In the real world, it’s “rude” to assume someone is queer unless you can prove it beyond the shadow of a doubt with physical evidence and a written confession. But in my fictional worlds, it’s rude to assume someone is straight just because they’re currently part of a hetero pairing or typically prefer to date people of different genders, unless they explicitly identify as straight in a non-defensive way.

In the real world, couples are assumed to be strictly monogamous. Often without even discussing what “strictly monogamous” means for the two people in that relationship. But in my fictional worlds, it really just depends on the couple or triad or quad or polycule in question and what their needs are. So it’s not unusual for a character to have a primary hetero relationship and a secondary Sapphic relationship.

One of the things I love most about discussing media is it gives us a way to discuss emotionally sensitive aspects of who we are and our culture and society, but with the safe distance of discussing characters and plot, not our actual lives. That’s why I love to read fan theories of anyone with marginalized identities, not just queer identities. (Incidentally, The Nerds of Color is pretty rad and queer friendly and you should read them. Just throwing that out there.)

We’re discussing bigger issues, and we all know that’s what we’re doing, but we’re also socially pretending to discuss a TV show or book instead of the bigger and more emotionally-vulnerable issues actually being discussed. Humans are weird social creatures with silly behaviors sometimes, eh?

Marginalized people almost never see ourselves in media. So we take what we can get and sometimes we take a little more just so we have something to work with. Is that wrong? I really don’t think so. If it is, it’s a fraction of wrong compared to the fact that we’ve been reduced to twisting and squinting in order to see ourselves reflected by society.

Yes, there are queer movies and shows. But overwhelmingly, explicitly queer media is:

a) low budget and/or low quality

b) written for a straight and cis audience

c) written/produced/acted by straight and cis people

d) only about being queer and nothing else cool and interesting that happens in other genres

e) sometimes all or some of the above

One of the reasons why I became much more drawn to Buffy the Vampire Slayer once I learned Willow was a lesbian was because I could finally watch a lesbian do something on screen that wasn’t falling in love and coming out of the closet. Oh sure, she did that too, but she was also helping her best friend destroy vampires and demons, being a badass witch, slowly turning into an emotionally manipulative partner, and becoming more powerful than anyone knew how to deal with. She went through magical rehab and recovery, she tried to make amends with her girlfriend who rightly left her for manipulating her memories, she went on a magically-terrifying rampage when her newly-reconciled girlfriend was killed and could only be stopped when her straight guy friend reminded her that not everyone in the world was a terrible person…

Seeing Willow on screen when I had just destroyed my life by coming out as a lesbian gave me some of the earliest stirrings of lesbian pride instead of shame. Watching her struggle with her relationship with Oz made me realize it was okay to be a lesbian who genuinely though she loved a boy at one point in her life. Seeing her aggressively assert herself as a lesbian when her friends wanted to pretend nothing significant about her had changed made me realize I also wanted acknowledgment. I needed that kind of story in my life. And so do all marginalized people.

We need to know that our lives matter and are worthy of being made into badass TV shows and really moving movies and best-selling novels that children hold heated debates on. We need to know that our stories are just as interesting and important as those of privileged people. If fan theories piss you off, then you need to help create a world where they are no longer necessary. Where our fictional worlds finally resemble what our real worlds actually look like and the stories of the marginalized have become just as frequently told as those of the privileged. Until then, we’re just gonna keep doing what marginalized fans do, and make up our own better version of the story.


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Dori Mooneyham

Dori Mooneyham is a psychology student at Texas Woman's University specializing in queer youth and their families. As a feminist, trans woman, and lesbian, she offers many unique insights and perspectives not often seen in the academic world.

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