Headcanons, Queer Readings, and the Art of “Reading Too Much Into Things”

this cat

The nature of media is that we will all look at it a little bit differently—we all have different brains in our heads, after all, and we’ve all had different life experiences that will frame and shape the way we perceive things. A result of this may be that you’re watching a TV show with your pal and you spot what you see as the blossoming of a beautiful queer romance, but when you mention it to your friend they blink in surprise and say they hadn’t noticed that at all. “Are you sure?” they ask, sincerely but bemused. “They just seem like good friends to me.” Maybe they’ll suppress a sigh, maybe they’ll laugh it off. “Not everything has to be gay all the time. You’re overthinking it.”

Damn, you think, suddenly unsure. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I am reading too much into this—maybe in my hunger for queer representation, for stories and relationships I could genuinely see myself reflected in, I’ve developed a habit of digging too deep and seeing things that aren’t there. Not everything has to be gay all the time, you think, even though you’d actually been headcanon-ing both characters as bi, though that feels like a technicality that will take too long to explain to your already-sceptical buddy.

You settle back on the couch, feeling kind of dumb. But then you hear another voice: there is a flash in the corner of your eye, and though you can’t quite see it, you get the sense that there’s a little human figure sitting on your shoulder, like an angel in a cartoon: a voice of reason.

The figure speaks, and he says:

Queer readings aren’t ‘alternative’ readings, wishful or wilful misreadings, or ‘reading too much into things’ readings. They result from the recognition and articulation of the complex range of queerness that has been in popular culture texts and their audiences all along.

“Wow, you’re right,” you say, smiling. “Thanks, influential queer pop culture scholar Alexander Doty!

Your friend says “What?” and you say “What?” and you get back to watching the show.

51Kjd5u7YPL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Queer readings are an interesting thing to think about in that they’re one of those Academic Things that—like Death of the Author and The Cauldron of Story—intersect quite naturally with fandom interests. You could even say that “headcanon” is just internet fan lingo for a queer reading of a text, and that, vice versa, one scholar’s queer reading of a text is their meta to support their headcanons. And, just as disagreements about the legitimacy of other people’s headcanons (or ships) can spark Fandom Wank™, they have long been a source of academic discourse.

I mentioned Bonnie Ruberg’s book Video Games Have Always Been Queer in the presentation I uploaded a while ago, and I’m going to revisit it now in more depth, since Ruberg engages directly with this idea of “reading too much into things”. The book is, as the title implies, all about queer readings of video games, going beyond just the representation of LGBTQIA+ characters and looking to queer theme, queer allegory, and the phrase I borrowed a lot, queer resonance. Ruberg’s key argument throughout all their analyses is that a work (in this case a game, but this can apply to any story) can be queer even if it doesn’t contain or focus on direct LGBTQIA+ representation. Sometimes all it takes to make a text queer is the fact that queer audiences vibe with it, and these vibes are not something they should necessarily have to justify.

So, do you relate to the text or the characters in it? Does the text speak to you and your experiences as a queer person, whether it engages with queerness directly or not? Do the themes of the text strike a chord? Are there elements of the plot or worldbuilding that you can see a queer allegory in? Do you like it and vibe with it and hold it close to your heart? Well, congrats—by Ruberg’s decree, following from earlier scholars like Doty, you’ve got yourself a queer text! That’s literally all you need, “too-close reading” be darned.

91vzIiORrxLBy nature, queer readers—whether doing this for fun or for work, or a hellish coalescence of both as you attempt to monetise all your hobbies and interests—have had less material to relate to directly in terms of stories. This is where we tend to develop “queer reading strategies” and the knack to look at fiction from different angles and with different tools in hand, ready and able to pry back the surface layer and become perhaps more interpretive and abstract. These strategies are the kind that could be called “reading too much into things”, but we must remember for a long time—and even now, as queer rep in media slowly grows in quantity and quality—“reading too much into things” was the only way queer folks could read themselves in things.

As Ruberg discusses (particularly in chapter two, which is unfortunately not included in the Google Books preview, ugh, so let me try and sum it up nicely here), this knee-jerk against “reading too much into things” often comes from a place of privilege. Sometimes this simply means the dissenter in question hasn’t had to employ those close reading strategies in their life since they’ve been adequately represented, and so it seems strange to them. Sometimes, though, it comes from a place of homophobia and gatekeeping; something that’s obviously particularly relevant to this area of discussion, where queer interpretations of games (whether on the academic/journalistic level, or just fandom) are often hit with a backlash in the vein of (to borrow another quote) “WE HAVE TO PROTECT VIDEO GAMES FROM PEOPLE WHO’VE DONE SOCIAL STUDIES!”

When Ruberg talks about Octodad as a queer game in chapter three, they’re not talking about the LGBTQIA+ rep on the surface level—as far as it appears, the octopus is at least in a position where you can happily assume he’s straight, and the game overall can be blithely presumed straight by default (as most things are). Yet in the mechanics and the themes of the game is a story about trying to “pass” as normal and perform a strict set of behaviours and values, living with the terrifying risk of being “outed” as something non-normative and kicked out of your beloved family. There’s queer metaphor aplenty to be found just below the surface of what is ostensibly “just” a silly game about an octopus wearing a suit and tie, and queer players—like Ruberg themself—can find that sense of “resonance” there and find that connection really rewarding. The fruits of these rewards could just as easily be knocked out of these players hands, however, by players who didn’t feel that personal connection, and thus accuse them of seeing things that aren’t there.

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To dig beneath the surface layer and reveal the queer potential there is seen, often, as defacing or devaluing the work. It’s reading “too close”, “too much”, and “too hard”, and, in the case of quite abstract and theoretical readings like (deep inhale) Ruberg’s later chapters on how speedrunning screws with chrononormativity and can thus be explored as an expression of Halberstam’s concept of Queer Time (deep exhale), thrown out as “way overthinking things” and “sucking the fun out of everything”. Ruberg, though, takes a bit of rebellious joy in “overthinking things”, drawing from the earlier scholars they discuss like D.A. Miller, Eve Sedgwick, and of course our little shoulder angel from before, Alexander Doty. “Overthinking things” sounds dull and pedantic, but it can in fact be a very playful process—not to mention a validating one.

Ruberg’s “so there!” sort of dedication to reading things “too closely” comes from a very academic place, but it did bring to mind an attitude I’ve seen a lot in fandom spaces. I’ve seen it echoed in hundreds of posts over the years: “You will pry my bi Character X headcanons from my cold dead hands”. “Alright gang, it’s 1AM and I’ve had a can of Monster and I’m probably overthinking it, but I have Some Thoughts about the dynamic between Character X and Character Y that I need to write down”. “Every bit of hate I get for reading Character X as bi and shipping them with Character Y only fuels my power. You fools. You absolute imbeciles. I grow stronger by the day”. “This cat is gay and there’s nothing you can do about it”.

As queer rep in media gradually increases, it may seem less and less like those strategies of reading against the grain or between the lines are needed. It may seem imperative to some people to dismiss other people’s queer readings/headcanons because they aren’t canonically marked, officially labelled, or don’t fit with their own personal interpretation of the work. This isn’t a callout post to anyone or any fandom group in particular, I promise, it’s just something I’ve seen around the place in the too-many hours I’ve spent on the Internet since my teens. Diverse perspectives breed discourse, whether you take the connotations of that word positively, negatively, or neutrally (though let’s be honest, on the Internet it’s very rarely neutral).

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What this is, or what it’s intended to be*, is a reminder that no one’s interpretation of a work outstrips the meanings from anyone else’s—the text takes new life in the heart and mind of every new reader (thanks Barthes!). If you find that sense of resonance with Character X, who’s to say Character X isn’t bi? If your reading of their dynamic with Character Y is deemed a “reading too much into things” reading, well, who’s to be the judge of that? Who’s to say there is such thing as a “reading too much into things” reading? Who decides when you hit the “too much” barrier? The truth is, that’s entirely up to you, and someone else’s reading of things may seem like “too much” by your standards (Doty makes the joke, on multiple occasions throughout his body of works, that some heterosexual readings of texts he’s come across seem like a bit of a stretch).

Basically, anything can be read queerly if you look at it from the right angle and, at the risk of sounding corny, read with your heart. If you feel a certain resonance with a character, no matter how specific and personal it gets, then congrats! That character is your kind of queer now, and their origin can be considered A Queer Text. You seeing that, reading that, and taking it to heart, is a totally valid way to interpret the media before you. You don’t need it confirmed in text, nor by the author on Twitter, nor validated by everyone who shares in your interest. Obviously it’s nice to have that, but you finding resonance and joy in this while it may not be “canon” shouldn’t take that resonance and joy away. That’s what queer reading strategies are made of: a little bit of instinct, a knack for detective work, and a rebellious spirit. This cat is gay and there’s nothing you can do about it.

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*Though if I’m being honest it’s also meant to be a lowkey book review for Video Games Have Always Been Queer, which is very good, so give it a look if you’re interested!!

7 Comments

Filed under Pop Culture Ponderings

7 responses to “Headcanons, Queer Readings, and the Art of “Reading Too Much Into Things”

  1. “Thanks, influential queer pop culture scholar Alexander Doty!” – I laughed. 😛
    I had missed the HBomber video, but what a treat (also I can never resist a good dig at the Danish language).
    A very interesting article and I always like how you mix academic and fandom perspectives.

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  4. Reblogged this on Locating Frankenstein's Brain and commented:
    This is some thought-provoking stuff here.

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