Yes Homo: A Study in Subtext

A comic detailing the issue

Anyone who has ventured far enough into the Intertubes in pursuit of more information on a favourite show or book, or perhaps companionship on the subject, will have stumbled into the glorious and bizarre world of shipping (that is, for those giving their computer screens blank stares right now, the mental pairing up of characters within the show in a romantic context). They will also have discovered a universal rule: everything is shippable.

Yes, children, everything in this series is shippable! Even I’m shippable, but that is called self-insert and is frowned on in many circles.

 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory jokes aside, you shall discover that it’s actually quite true. If any characters appear within the same screen space for more than a few seconds (and sometime if they don’t!) there will be someone somewhere who wants to see them end up together. And this includes (shock and horror!!!) those of the same gender.

But what if they’re not actually gay, someone from the back of the metaphysical crowd I am addressing asks? Oh, you naïve little thing. Do you not remember the above rule? When it comes to shipping, oftentimes time periods, villain and hero status and family relations are thrown to the wind. And most commonly a character’s sexuality.

If, of course, their sexuality is even made a big deal of. How many people feel the need to go around announcing that they’re straight all episode? What a lovely sunny day, a great day to be heterosexual, just like I am! The enemy are attacking the base and certain death is imminent! This would be a great time to mention that I’m straight!

Even if they did, they would be ignored. They would also be ignored if they had a canon love interest of a very heterosexual nature, or if they had lots of them. There’s always a chance, the fans argue, and they cling to it like superglue.

Stiles and Derek of Teen Wolf

Let me show you an example. I know nothing at all about Teen Wolf except that it’s an American show about teenage werewolves (never would’ve guessed) and that two main characters Derek and Stiles are totally hot for each other. I don’t know anything about the plot or the other characters, just that those two are absolutely boyfriends.

In the past, it would be very easy to roll the eye at these clamouring creatures that demand you believe them that their ship is right and true even if the characters were both notably straight dudes, but these days things are getting a little blurry. The potential for the adored gay ship to actually sail officially is looming on the horizon, getting everybody in a flutter.

For an example, let’s look at Merlin. Naturally, as it stars two cute young males with a bit of a strained bromance, they are the most popular pairing. And you can’t blame the fanbase because the writers of the show do absolutely nothing but encourage them.

The relationship between Arthur and Merlin begins as a vitriolic but devoted friendship that grows stronger over the course of the series. As the writer in the above link points out, subtext is always very subjective, but there is definitely an element within, whether you’re looking at the instances where Merlin has to clamber over Arthur’s half-nude sleeping form to snatch a key or Arthur bringing Merlin home to meet his mother. The creators of the series, when asked about this, have declared that it’s just a very strong friendship, while then continuing to throw in suggestive little things that make those looking for them blush and twitter excitedly.

Arthur and Merlin, looking windswept

The same thing goes for another BBC series, Sherlock, which has a creator notorious for teasing his fans and a bucketload of subtext from the word go. This comes in the form, mostly, of the demonstration of the strength of the relationship between Sherlock and John coupled (no pun intended) with accusations and assumptions of their undying love from orbital characters. Sparred, of course, by John’s declarations that “I’m not his date!” and “If anyone cares, I’m not actually gay!” to which all the fans (and the characters he faces in those scenes) just sort of look at him knowingly.

And, once again, nothing has been said or done to confirm or deny the romantic side of their relationship.

Which is interesting. It seems as though the creators of these shows are sending out two conflicting messages, insisting that their male leads are just friends and then filling the show itself with the implications of something more. Is this to simultaneously please the fans and keep the moral guardians at bay, because we can’t possibly have a gay relationship on prime time TV?

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why there’s such a huge enthusiasm for homoeroticism in the fan world—gay relationships are so painfully underrepresented in mainstream media that they have to do their own digging through vaguely suggestive gazes and playful innuendos, desperate to find some sort of portrayal of this aspect of romance.

This, of course, can lead to people reading far too much into things. Which is what people do anyway, and let it never be said that there’s anything wrong with that, because shipping is shipping and as long as it isn’t causing anyone any grief I say let them get on with it. But it’s also given birth to this new breed of television writing that encourages it profusely, without ever stating it outright. It keeps everybody happy, I guess, as happy as one can be when their heart is being torn to pieces by a piece of fiction.

"You're going to suffer, but you're going to be happy about it"

It is a shame, though, that we feel too constricted by society to have to rely on subtext to only dare to imply a homosexual relationship in the show, rather than just being free to have an actual one. Glee did it, and they’re still stupidly popular, so why is everyone else so terrified of losing ratings or being attacked by conservative people?

Or maybe it’s less an issue of that and more that drawing out the implication that a relationship might happen is more fun than having a pair of characters just get together straight up. As Gotye says, you can be addicted to a certain kind of sadness, and languishing in the wonder of whether your favourite characters who are so obviously perfect for each other will ever actually commit definitely counts.

Maybe one day we’ll see Merlin and Arthur share a sweet, family friendly kiss (update: NOPE, thanks for destroying everyone’s hearts, BBC), or Stiles and Derek hook up to ease their teenage werewolf angst (or something, I really actually have no idea what that show is about except their gayness) or we’ll get a show about the true love between two people of the same sex that doesn’t have to torment it’s fans to save face. It’s an interesting issue and it will be interesting to see where it gets taken in the next few years in this changing world.


Filed under Things We Need to Stop Doing

11 responses to “Yes Homo: A Study in Subtext

  1. Lots of shows draw out the possibility (if not to the extent you’re talking about) of a relationship between heterosexual couples, too. Because the will-they, won’t-they conflict makes things interesting (read: exasperating).

    • That is also true. I suppose that the added potential drama and tension of a gay couple, usually a taboo topic, makes it twice as intriguing. Who knows how the intricate twisty turny minds of TV people operate?

  2. *snort* I don’t even watch the show, but have seen enough GIFs of it that my friends post on tumblr to get the idea. Maybe I should watch it and see what it’s like…

    I wasn’t really too aware of gay shipping until I read LotR… O_o They kept saying stuff in the books/movies that made me giggle.

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