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Dear Storytellers: Gay Characters Aren’t Going to Show Up ‘Organically’ In Your Stories, You Have to Put Them There

‘Marvel Pride’, by Rey Arzeno

 

We’re nowhere to be found in the Star Trek movies, or the Star Wars movies, or Jurassic Park, or The Fast & The Furious. To the best of my knowledge we’re not in Mission: Impossible, or Planet of the Apes, or Die Hard, or The Dark Knight, or the Transformers movies. We’re not in Lord of the Rings, despite how it may seem, and we’re not obviously in Harry Potter, though the author says we’re there. We’re not in Spider-Man, and somehow we’re not even in the X-Men movies, though they are at least partly about us. We might be in The Hunger Games.

We are in James Bond. Of all the big movie franchises, that’s the one that’s really taken the time to present a handful of gay or bisexual characters in its fifty year history; but as damaged killers, and as uniquely challenging romantic conquests. And we’re definitely not in the Marvel movies. Based on recent comments by Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, we may not turn up there any time soon. You see, Feige isn’t going to force it; he’ll find an “organic” way to introduce LGBTQ characters to his fictional world.

Speaking to SlashFilm at an Ant-Man junket this past weekend, Feige answered a question about LGBT representation in the movies by saying, “there is no reason why that can’t happen any time soon. You know, we pull the characters from the comics, for the most part, and they’ve been forging new ground for decades in the comics. They’ve been very progressive in the comics. And even more recently in a very important and progressive way. And we keep track of all of those things and are inspired by all of those things, so I’d love it to find an organic, meaningful and natural way for that to happen at some point in the not so distant future.”

Feige also told Collider that he “would think” an LGBT character will be introduced in the next ten years. (The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been around for eight years.)

Organic, meaningful and natural. That’s the familiar language of the writer looking for an excuse not to introduce diversity to his (or her; usually his) work. It’s the magical view of storytelling as a gift from the muses, except these muses are a vegetable delivery service, and if they didn’t bring any gay characters in the delivery box, you can’t use any gay characters in your recipe. If the gods of literature did not inspire you with gay characters, you cannot offend the gods and add some anyway.

In this way the writer can present his cowardice, laziness, and lack of imagination, as artistic integrity. “I couldn’t write gay characters; I didn’t have any.” Hand-to-forehead; the tortured auteur.

 

Christian Ward

 

Yet writing is a sequence of decisions, and you can be sure that’s at least as true in Hollywood, or at a publisher like Marvel Comics, as it is anywhere else in storytelling. Writers build worlds, sometimes in advance and sometimes as they go, and if the writer decides that their world should have robots or dragons, you can be sure they’ll contrive ways to put the robots or dragons into key scenes in the story.

Gay characters aren’t like robots or dragons, because the world the writer is building already has same-sex relationships. I’m sorry if that seems prescriptive, but it’s true; people in same-sex relationships exist in all fictional worlds, because they are a natural, meaningful, and organic part of the real world. They are already there. Maybe they’re hiding behind the dragons, but they’re there.

Unless, that is, you choose to exclude them.

And for generations, that is exactly what storytellers have done, because same-sex relationships were often illegal, scandalous, immoral, and ‘adult’.

But on Friday of last week, you and every good person you know were posting rainbow flags on Facebook and Twitter, and celebrating the fact that the United States has at long last decided that two adults who love each other should be allowed to marry each other, yes, even if they’re the same gender. Because same-sex relationships are just relationships, and people in same-sex relationships are just people. We all know (those of us not hidebound by the lies told by people who benefit from dividing us) that this is normal.

So when building a fictional world, you don’t choose to include same-sex relationships. You choose to exclude it. And that is not organic.

When Fox needed a mutant speedster for one standout scene in X-Men: Days of Future Past, it chose to get into a bratty brawl with Marvel about who can use Quicksilver, rather than use Northstar, the single most high-profile gay superhero. When Marvel was pulling together its roster for Guardians of the Galaxy, it took a team with multiple women and threw most of them out, in the process eliminating Moondragon and Phyla-Vell, two women in a romantic relationship.

 

Mike Perkins

 

Was that an “organic” decision, to take a team with queer members and kick them off? Was it organic for Fox to deftly side-step every LGBTQ character that the X-Men have ever introduced — except Mystique, re-imagined as the center of a heterosexual love triangle involving two men who have more chemistry with each other? Was it organic for Spider-Man to attend the only high school in modern New York with no queer students, and to work at the only Manhattan newspaper with no queer employees?

Not that the source material for these movies is rich in queer representation. Feige employs diplomatic finesse in noting that the comics have been especially progressive “even more recently.”

Yes, the comics have been more progressive than they were when same-sex relationships were treated like pornography and presented via innuendo at best. After decades of artificial exclusion, the comics are slowly building up a roster of queer characters that eventually won’t all fit on one bus. Sadly, none of those characters are as famous or as essential as Captain America, but they’d all compare favorably with Maria Hill before the movies elevated her profile.

Not that characters have to be gay in the comics to be gay on-screen. I celebrate the decision made by Marvel and other studios to re-imagine some of its historically white characters as people of color in its adaptations. I’d welcome the same treatment of some historically straight characters. Bucky, Sif, Rhodey, Nick Fury. It would be kind compensation for the failure of past generations to honestly acknowledge the world around them.

 

Captain America: The First Avenger

 

Are these changes organic? No. Nothing in fiction is organic. Nothing just appears. Everything is made. That’s what makes “we don’t want to impose diversity” such a vacuous lie.

Why is your character straight? Why is he white? Why is he “he”? Those are all choices, even if the choice the writer made was to be lazy and go with the first and easiest idea. If there is a default expectation of straight, white, and male, then that is contrived, not organic. Straight, white and male is a cultivated suburbia, a gated community, copy-and-pasted again and again; it is not a random sampling of the wild possibilities of real life.

Yet even in fantasy and science fiction, where the palette of choices is truly infinite, we hear lies of “historical accuracy” and “realism” used to justify tame and unambitious world-building. It’s not accurate. It’s not realistic. It’s your diluted cover version of bland familiarity. Complain all you like about tokenism, but diversity is much more interesting than your relentless Tolkienism.

Writers, editors, producers; Gay characters aren’t going to show up “organically” in the completely artificial fictional world of straight white male heroes that you invent.

It’s time to bury the lie that the only way for gay characters to show up in a story is if the story leads the author there.  Good people are the only force for positive change, and your fictional world is what you make it.

The world is diverse, and bad writing is contriving to make it less so. Bad writing made the Marvel Universe straight, just like the worlds of The Fast & The Furious, and Star Wars. Writers are manufacturing worlds in which people like me cannot see ourselves. That is not organic. You built it that way.

We are people. Real, organic, meaningful people. If Hollywood is so liberal, why is it lagging behind the US Supreme Court in recognizing this truth?

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