Why does today's audience say certain fictional characters are gay?

In this segment of "Pop Quiz," Scripps News explores how historians and viewers are speculating about queer subtext in new and old media.
Posted at 9:33 PM, Mar 22, 2023

Today's entertainment landscape is full of reboots and revivals of popular brands and shows, like "Scooby-Doo" and "Interview with the Vampire." They're a little more updated, maybe more mature, and some — like those two — feature gay characters after years of speculation from viewers about the sexualities of fictional people.

Queer subtext is something historians and fans often read into dating back hundreds of years.

For example, one letter by Emily Dickinson reads, "Dearer you cannot be, for I love you so already, that it almost breaks my heart — perhaps I can love you anew, every day of my life, every morning and evening..." The letter was to for her childhood friend, next-door neighbor and sister-in-law Sue Gilbert. But the subject of hundreds of Dickinson's poems and letters were redacted when her work was originally published. It wasn't until the past century that literary experts and historians began to hypothesize that many of her romantic and sexually charged poems were written for women.

A letter written from the author of "Dracula," Bram Stoker, reads: "How sweet a thing it is for a strong, healthy man with a woman's eye and a child's wishes to feel that he can speak to a man who can be if he wishes father, and brother and wife to his soul." It was Stoker's very first letter to the poet Walt Whitman, of whom Stoker was a huge fan. Stoker and Whitman kept in touch after that, and some historians speculate more from their relationship.

People on the internet often joke that historians always seem to call two people of the same gender — who wrote love letters to each other and spent their lives together — roommates instead of romantic partners. Plus, the phrase "Oh my god, they were roommates," based on a viral Vine video from 2014 is also commonly used online to indicate when two fictional characters of the same sex are shipped — or aspirationally paired — in a romantic relationship, even if they aren't confirmed to be queer.

This queer subtext is the little details in art that draw audiences to speculate about sexuality. 

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Comedian, writer and LGBTQ columnist Justin Perlman used Poe Dameron and Finn from "Star Wars" as an example in talking to Scripps News. The two characters weren't confirmed to be gay, but because of the "vibes" that audiences got from some of their short interactions on-screen, they became one of the most popular ships in the fandom. There are more than 8,000 pieces of fan fiction on the Hugo Award-winning site "Archive of our Own" that ship Poe and Finn.

"There are just certain extra little touches," Perlman said. "There's just, like, an extra spice to the editing of a moment or a certain bit of a performance that floats the idea a little bit where it gets a little more emotionally intimate."

What started as something within the queer Star Wars community eventually became part of the larger mainstream discussion about LGBTQ characters in the franchise. Oscar Isaac, the actor that plays Poe, vocally supports it.

Marcus Collins, an expert on culture and audience engagement as well as the former digital strategist for Beyoncé, can help explain how that queer subtext can spread.

"It happens through this process that is called legitimation — the social process by which we collectively decide what is acceptable, what's in what's out," Collins said. "We cast our votes when we have these discussions, when we do posts, when we tweet, when we create memes."

To think of an LGBTQ-adjacent example, this is also how and why straight celebrities like Britney Spears and Beyoncé become "queer icons." 

"The literature refers to this as consecration, where we set people above — like we set brands above or athletes above," Collins said. "Michael Jordan is consecrated within basketball. Nike is consecrated within street wear sneakers, right? Beyoncé is consecrated within the LGBTQ+ community because she's representative of the ethics and cognitions that they hold. She is what they aspire to because of how she lives her life, and she's been selected by them for that very reason."

Though these last few examples are from the past couple years, fans have been doing this for as long as fandoms have existed. 

Kirk and Spock from the original Star Trek, for example, are beloved characters who have been around since the 60s, and they've been shipped in over 16,000 pieces of A03 fan fiction. The oldest piece on the platform dates back to 1975.

"You just see that Kirk is going through with lady after lady; it's not really doing anything. But when he's with Spock, they're too perfect together," Perlman said.

It can also be argued that some queer viewers were looking for mainstream LGBTQ representation during a time when there wasn't much. 

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Even further back in time, in 1897, Bram Stoker's "Dracula" was published, creating one of the most iconic fictional villains and archetypes in all of horror. He was a taboo figure that represented the evils of sexual promiscuity and immorality, written during a time when Oscar Wilde was convicted of "gross indecency" for having relationships with men. 

Stoker is said to have been heavily influenced by that trial and noted to be very publicly against homosexuality. It'll never be clear exactly what Stoker was feeling, but some historians today speculate that he was a closeted gay man who was attracted to, and possibly even lovers of, Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman.

"When you look at the story of what vampires are, it is a fight against desire, and it is a fight against your urges and who you are underneath and that you see yourself as a monster," Perlman said. "So when you add this sort of extra element that Bram Stoker was, at the very least, interested in, curious, it does sort of alter how you see the entire subtext of the story of Dracula."

That queer reading of desire continues to resonate with audiences today, and several modern stories inspired by vampires — like the web series "Carmilla," the comedy "What We Do In The Shadows" and the streaming remake of "Interview with the Vampire" — now make the queer metaphors less subtextual, more obvious for today's viewers and less taboo.

And when it comes to teaching this subtext, some educators find value in it.

In 1994, the National Council of Teachers of English published an essay called "Literature Out of the Closet" and explored what happens when students explore and acknowledge the gay and lesbian subtexts of works like Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" or Emily Dickinson's poetry. Teacher Vicky Greenbaum, who also identified as a lesbian, wrote that not acknowledging queer subtext gave an incomplete teaching of the books taught in class as well as a sense of "exclusion and fear" against LGBTQ people.

Today, the queerness of Emily Dickinson is front and center, seen in biopics and series like "Wild Nights with Emily" and "Dickinson." 

Though many of these examples have long been full of joy and romance, it's clear this subtext is becoming more publicly celebrated than it was decades ago.