Category Archives: Fun with Isms

Queer Resonance and Critiquing Heteronormativity in SPY x FAMILY

There’s something a little bit queer about Spy x Family. It’s not what we would normally shelve as LGBTQIA+ media by any means—none of the characters, for example, seem canonically queer, or even coded as such. But a story can have queer themes even if it doesn’t have queer representation, and can be open to queer readings even if it doesn’t directly acknowledge any queer issues within its narrative or any of its narrative framings. 

There’s something about SpyFam’s tale of traumatized outcasts navigating a strict and normative world, where their fates depend on them adequately performing the roles of a nuclear family… something about that resonates with queer theory and queer experience, and it makes the series a great example of how we can apply these theories to narratives that might not be at all queer on the surface. 

Read the full article on AniFem!

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Whose “Universal” Narrative Is It Anyway?

When you hear the phrase universal themes, what comes to mind? This is a topic that’s been on my brain recently, in part due to my literary research and in part due to something I came across while I was procrastinating my literary research. Pixar’s new movie, Turning Red, dropped on Disney+ this month and has naturally been in the news and in pop culture discussion. CinemaBlend’s managing director Sean O’Connell sparked quite a bit of conversation when, in an early review, he criticised the movie for being “unrelatable”. This review has since been deleted, but its essence is helpfully preserved by articles like this one:

“I recognized the humor in the film, but connected with none of it. By rooting ‘Turning Red’ very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto, the film legitimately feels like it was made for [director] Domee Shi’s friends and immediate family members,” O’Connell wrote in the since-pulled review. “Which is fine — but also, a tad limiting in its scope.”

O’Connell also called the movie “exhausting” because he couldn’t connect with it: “Some Pixar movies are made for a universal audience. Turning Red is not”.

Now, I’m not here today to take apart O’Connell and his argument—the Internet at large has already done that plenty. Instead, I want to use this review as a jumping-off point to unpack this idea of a “universal narrative” in kids’ media. Because in his professionally-published knee-jerk reactions to this film, O’Connell has usefully highlighted some dominant, persistent perceptions at the heart of discussions about diverse media. These are:

  1. Stories that step beyond the mainstream “universal” perspective are “niche” and “limited in scope”
  2. Stories that step beyond the mainstream “universal” perspective must be educational to close this gap

I’ll be using a lot of “air quotes” (though not scare quotes, I hope) in this post because I really want to dig into the constructed nature of these ideas. The idea of a “universal narrative”, or, to be even more specific, the idea of a universal coming-of-age narrative or universal story about childhood, is not something that formed in a vacuum. While the notion of universal tropes or experiences that every viewer can relate to might not sound like anything insidious—surely it sounds inclusive!—it’s one that often ends up framing and stifling conversations about storytelling. When O’Connell talks about universality, what is he picturing? Maybe more to the point, what is he not picturing? And what can his expectations tell us about broader trends in storytelling and reader reception?

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The Orbital Children’s Rejection of Ecofascist Ideas

In Iso Mitsuo’s newest sci-fi, The Orbital Children, the heroes are faced with a cosmic conundrum: they are asked, “is it worth sacrificing the few for the needs of the many?” The heroes of The Orbital Children unilaterally say “no”.

This ambitious, colorful sci-fi story takes place in space, yet deals with themes that are strikingly down to earth. The narrative draws on very real, very present, and very dangerous ideologies like the myth of overpopulation and the way fascist groups weaponize notions of “the greater good” and environmentalism. It positions these ideas as a villainous mindset that must be overcome, not only to save the world, but in order to imagine a better future in the first place.

Read the full post on AniFem!

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Genre-Savvy Protagonists in Queer YA Rom-coms

The rules of the romantic comedy are simple and easy to learn, especially when you’re in love with the concept of love… but what if you’re an LGBTQIA+ teenager and this formula has historically cut you out? Well, you have to tweak those rules to make your own.

Presented as a “podcast” for Deakin University’s online Concepts in Popular Genres symposium, 6 – 8 December 2021. A transcript is available here!

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Playing with Genre and Queer Narrative in the Novels of Malinda Lo

I have a new scholarly paper out, published and free to read in the International Journal of Young Adult Literature!


Malinda Lo has been an invaluable voice in the emerging field of queer YA fiction, both for her accessible statistics on the representation of LGBTQIA+ identities in traditional publishing, and for the content of her novels. Her fictional works place sapphic protagonists into genre narratives – sci-fi, fairy tale, thriller – that are traditionally presumed to be the realm of straight heroes. But the queer rebellion in Lo’s writing goes beyond simply casting queer characters into genres and roles that have historically been considered heteronarrative: Lo’s work is an example of what I define here as ‘queer narrative play’, a process of deliberately and visibly troubling, tweaking, and upturning readers’ expectations of the roles and functions of queer characters within recognisable genre frameworks, deftly challenging the historical binary that has existed between ‘mainstream’ genre fiction and ‘marginal’ queer coming-of-age stories.

Following from Tzvetan Todorov’s suggestion that “genres function as ‘horizons of expectation’”, this paper will explore how Lo’s body of work playfully challenges the traditional representation of LGBTQIA+ characters in a variety of methods; from creating speculative worlds that remove the need for narratives such as the coming-out story, to drawing readers’ attention to tragic queer tropes in order to make later subversions of them visible. Queer narrative play is an example of the ways in which contemporary YA writers may enact a rebellious conversation between author and reader, creating playful and progressive new works by reshaping the pre-existing materials of literary expectations, and Lo’s work makes for a stellar example of the craft.

Read and download the full text here!

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Genre and Gender in Wonder Egg Priority

Wonder Egg Priority is perhaps, by now, most famous for how it started out strong and then scrambled itself. The shift from dreamy fantasy to convoluted sci-fi and the show’s unsympathetic treatment of its young female characters, particularly in its finale, are two key factors in the series’ downturn. But these two storytelling issues do not exist separately; they intertwine and inform each other.

Egg’s shift from magic to sci-fi coincides with its shift in character focus. Early episodes center on the four female protagonists. But by the end, its narrative authority lies with its adult male characters, the Accas and Ai’s teacher Mr. Sawaki, who explain the motivations of teenage girls rather than the girls themselves telling their own stories. Intentional or otherwise, it’s worth examining this shift in priorities from magic and the emotional reality of young women to science and the “logic” of grown men. It provides insight into the author’s biases and underlying gender politics, anchored in a study of the series’ genre politics.

Read the full article on Otaku Tribune!

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Affection That Devours: Beastars and Relationships

“Oh, please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!”

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

This post contains major spoilers for Beastars season two

In Beastars, the friendship between a deer and the wolf who bites his leg off might be the healthiest one there is. Does that sound bananas? Yes? Excellent, welcome to Beastars. This series about anthropomorphic animals trying to navigate their teenaged years (feat. a murder mystery) has always been deliciously weird, and always been layered thickly with themes about power. Chiefly, power imbalances, and the many ways those might manifest. Season two delves even deeper into those quandaries and reveals some intriguing new commentary on the topic.

Whether or not Beastars is a love story is, at this stage, up for debate (we’ll need to see what happens between Legoshi and Haru in the end), but I think it’s becoming clear that Beastars is a story about love. Love, and the ways that even a positive emotion like it might become destructive; and how a relationship might devour the people within it.

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The Half of It: Love Letters, Plato, and the Myth of “Your Other Half”

The Half of It opens with a musing on Plato: specifically, his idea that humans began with two heads, four arms, and four legs, but were sliced and diced by the gods and left forever searching for their missing other half. The stop-motion sequence emphasises the longing for connection that this severing left, showing an increasingly crumpled and shredded figure fumbling miserably after its own reflection. Until, at last, the figure finds its mirror image and they reunite… before the narrator dismisses the whole myth as silly and unrealistic.

It’s easy to see why our protagonist, Ellie—who is introduced to us via that poetic yet cynical voiceover—feels this way. In the first instance, she has no hope of finding her mirror image in her rural American hometown. As the child of Chinese immigrants in a sea of white teenagers, there’s no one who looks like her or can reflect her experiences back to her. As a queer teen, it becomes even more complicated. As both of these things, and as a child who had to grow up very quickly following the death of her mother, she enters the story pre-sapped of romantic naivety. She swats away the Greek myth of the other half in a monotone, and repeatedly dismisses the whole notion of romance throughout the film; yet there’s a sense of impossible yearning that underscores her whole character.

In the end, The Half of It is about longing: for acceptance, for freedom, for love, for something you can’t quite pin a name on, something that you know exists just beyond the horizon but who knows if you’re ever actually going to get your hands on it? It’s about small town isolation, the pressure to fit into expectations, the way that we can easily become silent and stagnant and cynical. And it’s about how love—familial, friendship, romantic, self-love—can haul us out of this. And it’s about the unshakeable bond between a gay nerd and a wholesome himbo, a dynamic that more media should, frankly, be exploring.

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Podcast | Wonder Egg Priority Postmortem

No use crying over cracked eggs. Vrai, Mercedez, and Alex perform a postmortem on the most potentialful disasterpiece of 2021, Wonder Egg Priority!

Listen to the episode (and, in a week’s time, read the transcript!) here on AniFem!

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One Last Stop and the Magic of Queer History

Someone will remember us
I say
Even in another time

Sappho fragment

She lets Jane’s memories transpose over here, now, like double-exposed film, two different generations of messy, loud, brave and scared and brave again people stomping their feet and waving hands with bitten nails, all the things they share and all the things they don’t, the things she has that people like Jane smashed windows and spat blood for.

[…] August can’t stop thinking how much Jane would love to be here. Jane deserves to be here. She deserves to see it, to feel the bass in her chest and know it’s the result of her work, to have a beer in her hand and a twenty between her teeth. She’d be free, lit up by stage lights, dug up from underground and dancing until she can’t breathe, loving it. Living.

McQuiston 2021, p. 267 – 268

It’s very easy to become detached from a sense of queer history. 98% of my knowledge about queer theory and history is self-taught, following recommendations from supervisors and reading lists and otherwise diving down research rabbit holes. I know there are holes in my knowledge base, and I frequently think how impossibly cool and helpful it would have been to have been able to take a class on this. But even if we’re not talking strictly academically, I think it’s easy to feel like you’re scrambling to “catch up on the homework”, so to speak.

There are gaps in the mainstream understanding of queer history, of queer writing, of queer activism, of queer life. From censorship, of course, and from the tragic loss of an entire generation of people who might have carried that information into the twenty-first century. But also from it being cluttered away in the margins, posed only as something hypothetical and weird and over there and not for you. As many benefits as the Internet has, experiencing queer community entirely online (and through uniquely online Community Discourse, good heavens) can leave you without a tangible, humanised sense of what’s come before, and its significance. A lot is rendered invisible and intangible, falls through the cracks. It can all feel a bit… nebulous. Abstract. Ghostly.

Casey McQuiston’s One Last Stop is a novel about history and memory. August, a cynical and practical twenty-three-year-old, moves to New York looking for a fresh start, and quickly develops a crush on Jane, the handsome and charismatic woman August shares a commute with. But Jane doesn’t just look like a cool butch punk-rocker from the ‘70s, she is a cool butch punk-rocker from the ‘70s: somehow unstuck in time, and trapped on the Q trainline for eternity. Jane doesn’t remember how she got stuck here, August doesn’t know how Jane is possible, yet here they both are in a metal tube speeding along electrified rails, their weird little liminal space where the past and the present collide.

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