Does lesbian subtext still matter?

It’s been over a decade since Xena ushered in the golden age of lesbian subtext. For six seasons between 1995 and 2001, the show’s writers danced around the issue of the Warrior Princess’ relationship with Gabrielle. Perpetual innuendo, running jokes and subtle references to Xena and Gabby’s sexuality permeated the plot and dialogue. And though Lucy Lawless is on record as calling the couple “married,” the show’s creative team never offered up a definitive answer about their relationship.

Fast forward to 2011 and the rise of Rizzoli & Isles, another pair of ladies with crackling chemistry and an uncommon fondness for one another. But that’s not all Maura and Jane have in common with Xena and Gabrielle. Both dynamic duos have produced fervent fandoms committed to creating alternate narratives in fan fiction and fan videos, as well scrutinizing every touch and word exchanged between the characters.

Of course, Xena and Rizzoli & Isles aren’t the only shows to send lesbian subtext radars whizzing into high gear. This year alone, Franky and Mini from Skins, HG and Myka from Warehouse 13, and even Rachel and Quinn from Glee incited their online fans who just can’t believe women with that much gravitational pull toward each other could only be friends.

It’s no surprise that lesbians are drawn to stories about women who share a deep affection for one another — but it is interesting to note that lesbian women, who can watch decidedly gay characters and couples on TV these days, are still as drawn to subtext in 2011 as they were in 1995.

In some cases, like Xena, TV writers are purposefully ambiguous about the characters’ sexuality. In other cases, like Rizzoli & Isles, the characters are explicitly portrayed as straight women who happen to share — at least by TV standards — an unconventional bond.

I often hear lesbians complain that subtext is a way for writers to string along their gay viewers. I’ve been writing about lesbian pop culture for a long time, and while I’ve seen writers do some deplorable things to their lesbian and bisexual fans, I’ve very rarely seen them use the ol’ carrot-and-stick to create a will they/won’t they between two straight women. What actually happens most of the time is that lesbian viewers hone in on delicious female/female chemistry and project their own sexuality onto the characters.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that — as long as we’re clear that we’re the ones doing the projecting, rather than the ones being projected upon.

One of the most glorious things about the internet is that it allows online fandoms to create their own fictional universes out of other people’s fictional universes. In the wake of the last Harry Potter film this year, Time magazine wrote a comprehensive article about fan fiction, in which they made the astute observation that “[Today's fans] are not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in their own language.”

But in an age where entertainment culture is getting better and better at speaking Gay, does subtext really matter?

Heck yes, it matters. Subtext matters because strong, well-rounded female characters are still woefully underrepresented on TV. Especially strong, well-rounded female characters who talk to one another about more than their boyfriends. Subtext matters because it creates a virtual playground for lesbian fans to interact with each other on fan forums and Twitter and Tumblr and in the comments sections of the greatest lesbian entertainment website in the world. It matters because lesbians can use that subtext, that chemistry between two female characters, to create their own versions of the story. And it matters because subtext is a gateway drug for main text.

Let’s say, for example, that there is a young lady called Leather Logan who grew up in the rural south where the only exposure she had to even the word “gay” was hell-and-damnation Baptist preachers. Leather Logan would never have watched The L Word. But she might have watched Xena: Warrior Princess. And she might have liked it so much that she decided to chat with other Warriorheads online. And those Warriorheads might have told her to read some fan fiction. And that fan fiction might have gotten explicit about Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship. And while she was reading that fan fiction, Leather Logan might have said to herself, “Holy crap, I’m a lesbian like Xena! I never would have pieced it together if it hadn’t been for this story! Thanks, fandom!”

There are lots of gay ladies — lots of commenters on AfterEllen.com, in fact — who would argue that the time for lesbian subtext has passed. If you enjoy Quinn and Rachel’s relationship on Glee more than you enjoy Callie and Arizona’s relationship on Grey’s Anatomy, you’re delusional, they say. Time to stop scraping the bottom of the barrel, they also say. But I disagree. I say: Enjoying lesbian subtext isn’t about eating crumbs as much as it’s about creating your own feast.

A feast where lesbian fans can find themselves and lose themselves and cook up their very own worlds full of sapphic substance.

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