When Lesbian Subtext is a Good Thing

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Subtext. In the queer female community, the word sparks a variety of emotions. Subtext is the engine that drives some shipper communities, such as the Xena/Gabrielle fandom in the late 1990s/early 2000s and Rizzles and SwanQueen fans today. Fans who ship subtext relationships do so at the risk that their couple will never become canon, but they nevertheless derive pleasure from the ship because of the emotional connection between the two characters—although obviously the fans would much rather the subtext move to maintext. Viewed optimistically,

Viewed optimistically, subtext is an organic side effect of when two actresses have excellent interpersonal chemistry. Viewers, recognizing deep emotional bonds and mutual respect as the cornerstone of good romantic relationships, then begin to view the relationship through a romantic lens. When this unexpected chemistry between two actresses occurs, producers can either choose to ignore it and renounce any hint of subtext, or they can purposely play it up to please queer viewers.

Viewed pessimistically, subtext can be a synonym for cowardice and queerbaiting on the part of producers. The entertainment industry sometimes resorts to subtext when it doesn’t have the courage to allow two same-sex characters to be in a relationship—H.G. Wells and Agent Myka Bering (Warehouse 13), for example—or else it can use subtext to attract and retain queer viewers by dangling the possibility of a “couple” that in the end will never be realized (Rizzoli and Isles).

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Despite the queer community’s well-founded fear of being played by producers just for viewership, it’s important to recognize the positive role subtext has and can play to open the door for maintext queer relationships on screen. Take, for example, the movie Fried Green Tomatoes. Many queer women have criticized the movie for failing to make explicit the fact that “tomboy” Idgie Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison are in a romantic relationship (the book upon which the movie is based, written by queer author Fannie Flagg, is open about the relationship). It is important to remember that the movie was released in 1991, however, two years before Melissa Etheridge came out and six years before Ellen DeGeneres came out. The only mainstream movies with queer relationships that predated it were Personal Best(1982), The Hunger (1983), and Desert Hearts (1985).

Although the movie chose to make Idgie and Ruth’s relationship subtext, their love is nevertheless palpable and vibrant—just barely below maintext. No queer viewer has any doubt that these two women love each other deeply…and romantically. At a time when producers and directors had almost no ability to depict queer characters (and even less queer couples in loving, happy relationships), director Jon Avnet did all he could do for his queer viewers: gave them a symbolic food fight that was supposed to act as a stand-in for a sex scene. Later directors like Joss Whedon were able to use similar workarounds in their own projects, which is how on Buffy the Vampire Slayer spell-casting became synonymous with lesbian sex.

Fried Green Tomatoes is an example of how it’s better to have subtext than no text, and how subtext might be a way to push the envelope in environments in which a maintext same-sex relationship may be prohibited by censors or national laws.

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Another example of subtext paving the way for future queer relationships by sensitizing straight viewers to the idea of two women together was, for all the controversy surrounding its use of subtext, Xena: Warrior Princess. At the time, fan fighting over the show’s decision to keep the relationship subtextual was fierce, but in hindsight, the show didn’t have much of a choice. Even in 2008, when AfterEllen interviewed Renee O’Connor, who played Gabrielle, and writer/producer Steven Sears, both were ambivalent about whether the general (heterosexual) audience would accept a relationship between Xena and Gabrielle if the show was aired in 2008.

During the show’s run, making their relationship explicitly romantic might have cost the show a large percentage of its viewers, possibly causing it to be canceled. By consciously bringing in subtextual elements and encouraging fans to read between the lines, the show acknowledged its queer fanbase and pushed the envelope of showing a loving same-sex relationship on TV, all without having to say the words “lesbians.”

Xena did a lot to move forward the idea that a strong, independent woman can lead a show (no man required!), but also might have directly or indirectly inspired Cara Mason’s bisexuality on Legend of the Seeker (both Xena and Legend of the Seeker were produced by Sam Raimi), the happy ending between Korra and Asami on Legend of Korra, and Clarke and Lexa’s relationship on The 100. But it couldn’t have had that influence had Xena been canceled in the first few seasons for having a maintext same-sex relationship.

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Many lesbian and bisexual women would argue that we no longer need subtext because we have progressed to the point where characters can and should be shown in overt same-sex relationships. By this argument, subtext is the refuge of the weak (producers). While it’s true that the main historic reason for official subtext—to allow a romantic interpretation of two women’s relationship without overtly tipping off an intolerant public—is greatly reduced, and that we really should have more same-sex couples, that is true only in some parts of the West. In much of the developing world and even in some parts of the First World, such as Russia, subtext is the only way queer relationships will be shown.

Subtext has one final quality to commend itself: it enables viewers to imagine two strong, dynamic women in a relationship even if it contradicts their heterosexual cannon relationships. Faberry, for example, the pairing of Quinn Fabray and Rachel Berry on Glee, wasn’t purposely written to be subtext on the show, but many queer women chose to view their relationship as being subtextual. Ditto SwanQueen.

Subtext is like a soft song that some in the lesbian community hear; sometimes the song leads to a concert and a cannon pairing (Brittana on Glee) and sometimes it ends up being a siren song, but it can be fun to listen to the music, however it ends.

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