Writing about writing: 3
Queer coding, queer baiting, queer representation: 3 very different things!
What do the masked mystery men of classic old stories, and the cast of trans, gay and ace characters in my new novel, have in common?
Having to live a double life; pretending to be someone else.
For this entry we're having a look at the 3 stages the LGBTQIA+ community have had to sit through and watch ourselves on stage and screen across the years: Queer coding, queer baiting, and true queer representation. And through it all, however frustrating it's been and however hard we've fought to get here, there's been queer-relatable content in the most surprising of places throughout the old stories, for us to latch on to; we can identify with far more characters in movies and magazines than most of us, and the original writers least of all, even realised when we first set eyes on them in all their tawdry glory (And, as in all my blogs, I'll be claiming the word "queer" with positivity and pride, no longer giving it any right to be the shameful slur it once was).
First, as these blogs are a series, let me catch you up on the story so far...
Once there was a thriving theatre, and its headline attraction was Zorro. Now the curtain has come down. Only a handful of the younger members of the cast and crew are left; and they are nothing but "outsiders" to everyone else, but to each other they are everything in the world.
That's the working blurb for my LGBTQIA+ novel, Playing Zorro. In the prologue blog entry (pro-blog?), I invited you to join me on my writing journey and critique my technique, so your questions and suggestions can be worked into the narrative as I create it.
(Read it here: https://vocal.media/geeks/writing-about-writing-1)
In the second episode of our adventure, I introduced you to the reasons why Zorro was the perfect vehicle to carry the story of my queer cast of characters forward.
(Read it here: https://vocal.media/geeks/writing-about-writing-2)
Now, fittingly for a character with a dual identity, I want to look at it from the other side: what makes my queer cadre of characters so perfect to be the cast and crew of my imaginary production of Zorro?
Queer characters have been there, hidden or open, throughout the respective histories of the movie and magazine media that gave us swashbuckling icons like Zorro. Those of us who were hiding our true natures in public, were given the chance, through the part we played in presenting these stories to that same public, to be true to ourselves through cinematic masks like those of Zorro. We've been portrayed as villains and victims, as helpless and hidden, and lastly, finally, as heroic. But even before we were ever intentionally painted in any positive light at the forefront of these kinds of stories, we were finding ways to silently see ourselves reflected in their portrayals of double lives and secret identities.
1. Queer Coding
The first of any kind of representation our queer qualities were given in movies and magazines was, of course, in the villains. Queer qualities were vices in the eyes of the writers and their readers, movie makers and their viewers. In Johnston McCulley's original Zorro story, The Curse of Capistrano, the villainous Captain of the Guard who wishes for the hand of the fair Lolita is portrayed as less manly, and therefore less worthy, than the hero himself. Zorro's own secret identity, Don Diego, keeps his secret safe by behaving as if he is similarly lacking in any masculine drive or virility - for this his own father is ashamed of him. However negatively this was intended to come across, I can immediately find myself identifying with them both, in ways I'm not sure McCulley ever intended: to have to cover up my self-loathing and self-awareness of my own unworthiness with the bluff and bluster of chest-puffing displays of fake manliness, like our clumsy Captain; to have people close to me look at me as if I am so much less than they were expecting, so much less than they could ever truly respect, constantly having to remind myself that I had my own, unknown, qualities of character that I always felt I couldn't, wouldn't or shouldn't ever show them or ask them to respect.
Even when seen in our heroes, those qualities writers and readers were determined to define as queer were seen as their flaws and failures. Sherlock Holmes, equally as famous as Zorro though perhaps for a different audience, was criticised even by his own creator as notoriously asexual in his experience and expression towards all other human beings (though I seriously doubt the character was ever intended to be a real example of those who identify as Ace in today's world). This is the one area of life in which Watson, the incurable romantic, sees himself as Holmes' superior, especially once he is married. It is a weakness in his character almost as serious as his addiction to cocaine. Even Holmes, ever the singleton, is shown to be silently infatuated with the cunning courtesan Irene Adler; thus denying the existence in him of any genuine asexual tendencies or identity, instead blaming him for his deliberate failure to leave bachelorhood behind him. Adler herself is seen as especially cruel to the world for denying herself, as one who "eclipses the whole of her sex" from the men who desire mastery over her. She is perhaps the original femme fatale, a recurring character type it was permissible for readers and viewers to hate and hiss at, like the wicked witch of old, for her refusal to bow to men, and as far less "feminine" than those who did. Irene Adler is only "redeemed" at the end of the story by her willingness to leave behind her deviant life and enter into a loving and loyal marriage - although, of course, not with Holmes. It has been repeatedly and convincingly suggested that characters like Watson's wife Mary Morstan, the model of virtue. and the irrepressible Irene Adler, model of vice, were both only added to the series to give Watson and Holmes someone to look at besides each other. Because, back then, of course, heroes could not be gay.
Fast forward to a magazine and movie character whose original concept was to be a combination of Zorro and Sherlock Holmes: The Batman. His first and most famous villain, the Joker, was undoubtedly a villain from the first time he appeared on the page. In his very first appearance on the page, he wasn't actually even doing anything vicious - simply standing and smiling; but he had to be a villain, be in no doubt: he was pale faced, flamboyantly dressed, moved with a dancing motion, had a high pitched laugh, and seemed to be wearing (*gasp!*) lipstick. He was designed as a combination of two existing influences, as was his heroic foil. Firstly the literal Joker playing card, which depicts a court jester - a figure kept in medieval royal courts specifically to be laughed at for not being enough of a "man" to go out and fight with the noble knights (But, ironically, more able to bend the ear of the King with his wit and cunning than any of his knights were, since he was his constant companion). Secondly the frightening film character portrayed by Conrad Veidt, The Man Who Laughs - a tragic figure who has had his face so badly scarred that he is fixed with a permanent grin; and thus an object of pity and solitude, since he can no longer conform well enough to a woman's expectations of a handsome man for her to ever truly give herself to him as his lover.
Batman, by contrast, is designed to be a modern Zorro, and thus more than enough of a man to take him down. Even his alter ego Bruce Wayne, is designed to be the most straight-faced, smartly-dressed, character in all of DC Comics' canon - inspired in his heroic design by a movie theatre showing The Mark of Zorro. Ironically, Bob Kane's original design for the Bat costume was skinny and red; this was much improved upon by co-creator Bill Finger, who stayed much closer to the imposing black of Zorro, and the red costume was given to his sidekick Robin - a character who, for his striking contrast with the darkness of the rest of Batman's mythos, is constantly derided as "too camp".
Joaquin Phoenix's recent portrayal of Joker, for all its faults, at least tries to finally turn this dichotomy on its head. We the viewers are meant to sympathise with the clown for being wrongly dismissed as unworthy of love and respect; and the movie that young Bruce Wayne watches, enthralled, is the comical parody of Zorro, The Gay Blade. This follows on from Heath Ledger's portrayal in The Dark Knight: the two reasons he gives for his origin as a villain reflect the two main reasons our society used to believe people "turned queer" - failure in his marriage, and troubles with his father - and both are obviously lies. (I know Jared Leto's Joker was undoubtedly heterosexual, but the less said about the toxic relationship at the centre of that movie, the better).
The irony is that these characters, characteristics, and character types, gave us something to latch on to in the stories so obviously intended to enforce heteronormative ideals in their heteronormative target audience.
In the villains, there's a human being underneath the monstrosity; their old self. The implication is that our queer way of life is not our "natural" state of being, and that we can be "normal" again if we want; but the message so many of us have actually taken from it is that we're not how people see us - we're people too. Underneath the scarred face of the Man Who Laughs is a sensitive soul; inside the foolish costume of the jester is a treasure trove of wit and wisdom. Inside the wild woman who doesn't want men to control her is a woman who doesn't need men to console her.
By contrast, it's often said of the heroes that when they wear the mask, they show their true self. Don Diego is not the selfish, effeminate fop he appears in public in his fine clothes; he is, in reality, possessed of a bravery and kindness he only shows when wearing the mask and cape. Bruce Wayne is not the society playboy he acts out in the manor in the daytime; he is the soul of vengeance he becomes in the cave in the night. The mask is the true face. And just so, underneath the better-stay-quiet exterior that so many of the Trans, Gay, or Ace people among us project in our personal and professional lives, there is the don't-know-whether-I-want-to-dance-or-shout-so-take-me-somewhere-I-can-do-both that we unleash on our neighbourhoods every time Pride rolls around.
Which leads us neatly on to...
2. Queer baiting
When the makers of movies and magazines became wise to the fact that all it took was subtle suggestions to convince their viewers and readers that such-and-such a character was queer; but then began to see it become less and less acceptable as a stereotype, as we began to want to be heroes and helpers as well as villains and victims; the cleverest among them found the perfect loophole to exploit. With subtle (and not so subtle) suggestions around the villains, we convinced people they were queer, without ever actually coming out and saying it in a way that would upset civil rights campaigners; so, in the same way, with subtle (or not so subtle) suggestions around the good guys, we can convince people they are queer; that way we've given those woke snowflakes what they want, but never actually come out and say it clearly enough to upset the clean-living lobbyists.
Bunny Wigglesworth, long-lost (by choice) brother of Don Diego, rolls into the action of The Gay Blade with a foppish, effeminate flair, dresses himself in brightly coloured Zorro costumes, disdains the advances of women, disguises himself as a woman at one point, and is described by a livid Alcalde with an interrupted, play-on-words, exclamation of the sound "poof" - yet, despite the variety of meanings of the movie's title, we're never definitively shown or told that he is homosexual - at least, not a practising one.
the original version of Batgirl - injected into the Batman mythos for the same reason as the women of Holmes and Watson, to allay suspicious gossip of two males living together - was, in daytime civilian life, a librarian. When needed for late-night crimefighting, she would disappear into the library closet, turn her clothes inside out to reveal her costume, and leap into action. Yes, she literally went into the closet as an ordinary girl and came out of the closet as a superhero. Well played, DC. (Now, if you could only pull the people to one side who suspect that Bruce Wayne and his young ward are up to something naughty; remind them that one of the two males under scrutiny is a literal child, and that if anyone's thinking that's what father figures get up to with their adopted or surrogate children, then they're the ones who need therapy. That would be grand).
The recent DC movie Shazam had a genuinely subtle yet conversation-starting moment. A young teen, transported by magic into a strip club, walks out, shrugs and says "not my thing". Now this could mean any number of things - that he didn't like the atmosphere; that women who strip are simply not his type; but internet message boards were flooded with the news that a character had "come out" right in the middle of a superhero movie. Reluctant as I am to rob anyone of a moment that brought them joy, let's not give it to the movie-makers that easily. A token gesture that small should not be enough to make us feel represented. A small moment of same-sex hugging in the last Star Trek movie; a small moment of same-sex kissing in the last Star Wars movie; but even in 2020, the lead romance in a movie saga or magazine story can't be gay without accusations of spoiling the story with our woke snowflake millennial nonbinary agenda.
Queer figures in film and fiction, even now, despite them having existed in fantasy and folklore since forever, have still not escaped the trap of tragicomedy: our stories are either played for laughs or they end in tears. When we relate more to your portrayals of villains than heroes, you're doing it wrong.
3. Queer representation
It becomes abundantly clear that even though "I'm in love with someone I shouldn't be, and that's the whole of my character's story development" will continue to appear in movies and magazines; even though queer coding is all but extinct in our villains; and even though femmes fatales are more often being played as heroes than villain now; that if we want true representation in our fantasy-fulfillment fiction, we're going to have to do it ourselves.
I was struggling to know what examples to fill this section with, and what point I could use them to make. then I realised that the fact I was struggling to find anything to write about under this heading, kind of makes a point in itself.
Batwoman is a lesbian in the current timeline of DC comics; one version of the Joker has admitted that his obsession with Batman is a twisted kind of unrequited love; but Orson Scott Card, an open opponent of gay marriage, is now holding a high position in DC Comics, and an edict has been handed to the writers under him that none of their characters, into whose stories true queer representation has at last begun to creep, are allowed to get married.
And it's been nearly 40 years since any chance of a sequel to The Gay Blade long since faded!
So we continue to survive not on true representation, but on the many ways we can find the content of stories like Zorro relatable on a deeper level than we can ever explain. The struggle for gay rights and trans rights across the world is in many ways the same now that "Votes for Women" and "I have a dream" once were (and in some countries, sadly, still are!). So we take their stories and we see ourselves in them, and write our own stories in their language. We are misjudged as fools, freaks and fops, as Don Diego once was; we show our true selves only through a mask, as he once did. And we are just as brave and beautiful as him, even if no one knows it but ourselves.
Puccini's opera La Boheme, following the lives of freezing and forgotten artists in a Paris full of rich citizens that walk straight past them starving in the snow, translated perfectly into Jonathan Larson's award winning Broadway musical Rent, with its tale of queer Bohemians out on the street in the midst of the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York, while everyone celebrates an affluent Christmas around them. Because the story is the same - not just on the stage, but in the real-life streets. "Bohemia is dead," the characters of Rent are told, in the lyrics of the show's half-time number; "let he among us without sin be the first to condemn, La Vie Boheme!" they reply in joyous show-stopping chorus.
Women, people of colour, Traveller tribes, witches, queer snowflakes - the Pride and protest flags pass from hand to hand, minority to minority, just as the mask of Zorro passes from generation to generation. As the same mask always protects the oppressed, so the same symbolism will always speak through stories in which we can find strength, comfort and equal measures of tears and laughter.
For this and other reasons even a professional author would have trouble putting into words, my cast of queer characters, frequently lost and confused in their attempts to just live their lives and love their chosen others, until the shadow of Zorro miraculously envelops them once more, seemed to provide me with the perfect vehicle for me to tell a Zorro story that I intend to mean something to those who read it, in the same way as all those other stories inspired and influenced me in my desire to do this at all.