Is There Such a Thing As Neutral Representation?
Warning: Spoilers for Game of Thrones and Supernatural
The question of representation has been around for as long as there have been identities that challenged the status quo. For a long time, the push was simply to get any representation, especially for non cis-het sexual and gender identities, in a world in which there was close to none. More recently, however, since we have the luxury of choice (in most cases) in seeing our identities represented on-screen, there has been a lot of discourse in marginalized communities in the value of bad representation versus no representation at all. If we see a member of our community represented in a film or television show, is it enough to see them on screen, or must they be well-written and executed? If a character or story falls into tired and even harmful clichés about a particular group of people, is it actually worse than if that character or story had never existed in the first place? Essentially, is there value in representation for representation’s sake? I know I won’t be able to answer that definitively, but let’s explore some pros and cons in a few specific examples, shall we?
Game of Thrones. Say the name, and a thousand angry nerds warm up their fingers to type out a completely unoriginal hot take about how the last season was either too feminist or not feminist enough (at least pretty much everyone can agree that no matter which it was, the last season was bad, so congrats Benioff & Weiss I guess). I’m going to take it as a given that anyone reading this is familiar with the show, because practically everyone is at this point, even people who haven’t seen it. Without assigning any value judgement (yet), let’s look at the facts: by the final season, practically all the major players left were women. Sansa Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, and Cersei Lannister were the main contenders left vying for power. Olenna Tyrell, Yara Greyjoy, Brienne of Tarth, and Arya Stark were all significant characters in the show’s culmination, although none were directly interested in becoming monarchs. As for the men, there were still major characters like Jon, Jaime, and Tyrion, but they had little to do except bicker about who was going to become queen while the women did all the heavy lifting (until, obviously, the end, goddamnit Jon). Bran was arguably the most important male character left, narratively speaking, although his whole storyline was just so deeply stupid, I’d honestly rather just ignore it.
So, the women. We have two women going for the same crown, and a third deciding she’d had enough of all this nonsense and wanted to secede from the union, er… the kingdom, and decides to support the woman her brother is porking so she can have her own crown on the side. In a vacuum, without any discussion of the portrayals of the characters themselves, this seems amazing. A major television show known for violence and sex, which was marketed as “fantasy for people who hate fantasy” (meaning that their target demographic was largely young guys, the frat bro crowd, if you will), ended with women in all major political positions! (until it didn’t, again, goddamnit Jon). However, even ignoring the horrifying and poorly written ending for its two most important female characters (which I’m not saying you should, when evaluating the series, but I’ll get to that later), the way the show wrote the women left a lot to be desired, to say the least.
Cersei, who had become one of the shrewdest political actors left on the show, who had orchestrated a mass killing of her opponents not two seasons prior, spent the entire last season standing on a balcony drinking wine, until she died, crying in her brother’s arms. Is this truly a woman having power and exercising agency in her kingdom, whose crown she has spent seven seasons clawing her way to? This is, in my opinion, an example of something that could be called neutral representation. It’s not good, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s also not inherently harmful to the idea of the representation of women in power. It’s bad, but not in a way that is directly tied to ugly stereotypes of femininity (save for, perhaps, her death, where she’s reduced to a scared little girl). It’s just bad characterization, but about on par with the rest of the final season’s butchering of practically every other character.
The two most insidious examples of bad representation in the final season are Daenerys and Sansa. Daenerys, who had literally made her name in Westeros by being the breaker of chains (aka caring about the plight of those less fortunate) suddenly turned into a bloodthirsty lunatic who raged out because of… symbolism, I guess, if Benioff & Weiss are to be believed. Not only did she murder a bunch of people for no good reason, but she also became stupid. It should be noted that this was a fate that seemed to befall many of the previously intelligent characters on the show in the final season (notably Varys and Tyrion, turning into just absolute dinguses). However, Dany’s heel turn is a sharp 180 that directly feeds into the stereotype that women are too volatile to hold positions of power. Note that this season was filmed in 2017, less than a year after the 2016 election, where a regular talking point on right-wind media outlets was that Hillary Clinton couldn’t possibly be in charge of the nuclear launch codes because what if she was on her period and started WW3? Dany’s steep descent to madness and loss of all common sense and political nous she had previously held plays directly into this stereotype, and could, in terms of net effect on the world, cancel out the possibly positive effect of seeing a woman in the top position on a show. In terms of her untimely death, at the hands of her lover/nephew, the scene is horrifying and disrespectful to the character, but much like the Cersei nonsense, is just bad writing without as much of a misogynistic slant. It’s gross, and problematic in terms of one character removing another character’s agency and plays into a more overarching trend in media of killing someone “for the greater good,” but it’s not necessarily specifically about her being a woman needing to be put down. Arguably. With the smallest of allowances.
Sansa and Daenerys are two sides of the same coin, the currency being bad representation of women in media. Where Dany plays into the stereotype of women being too emotional to hold political office, Sansa plays into the equally dangerous notion that for a woman to be “strong,” she must be emotionless. Better writers than I have talked at length about the plague of “strong female characters” in film and television of the past several decades (notably Carina Chocano in the New York Times in 2011), yet the trope continues to be used, seemingly because writers (mainly male ones) feel the need to justify their protagonists (or even side characters) being female. If a woman is to be the protagonist instead of a man, then she must lose all the parts of traditional femininity that men find off-putting in order to be marketable and believable as action hero, or scientist, or monarch. In Frozen, for example, Elsa is told explicitly that her emotions will be her downfall and she must practice stoicism to keep herself and others safe. In practically every adaptation of the Millennium series, Lisbeth Salander borders on robotic, and her emotions are more hinted than anything else. This trope is similar to the “not like other girls” trope, wherein a girl is only considered cool because she likes sports and doesn’t wear lipstick or something, which is a deeply sexist trope, and it is incredibly problematic that it’s primarily used in YA narratives.
Anyways, Sansa. Sansa is practically the only character who gets what she wants by the end of the series. The North has seceded, and she is crowned Queen of it with a cool direwolf coronet. However, I would argue that they did her character so dirty in the final season that it kind of overshadows any positive effect from having a woman “win.” Sansa became kind of stupid, like all the other characters, but she also seemingly lost all shred of humanity that had previously been a mainstay of who she was. More than this, the show tries to make it seem like a good thing, even having her go so far as to say her violent rape at the hands of Ramsey Bolton was actually a good thing, since it… taught her not to be meek? Naïve? Something along those lines. Ignoring the fact that that is a disgusting thing to make a victim of sexual assault say, and for millions of victims of sexual assault to hear, this is supposed to mark her transition into the “strong female character.” Where previously she was trusting and kind, she is now Strong. She distrusts Dany on sight for no particular reason (she’s later justified by the narrative, but you can’t retcon logic into an illogical decision), and she is cold and unkind to Dany (who, at that point, has saved the lives of Sansa’s brother and countrymen, lost a dragon, and offered her two other dragons and sizable army to help Jon and Sansa). This is another trope of the high-powered woman, something parodied in the recent Rebel Wilson movie Isn’t It Romantic (note: I didn’t actually like that movie, but it made certain valid points): whenever there are two women in a movie (often sharing a workplace or going to the same school) they instantly hate each other, for no reason. Women can’t be friends, I guess. Sansa and Dany both turn into spiteful, catty girls who can’t stand the other for no reason other than that they are the other woman in each of their stories. Sansa, in the final season, showcases the truly nefarious nature of the Strong Female Character trope: to be smart is to be unkind and distrustful, to be strong is to be emotionless.
In both Sansa’s and Daenerys’s cases, women are shown that our emotions are the enemy. If we choose to shove our emotions down and become stoic and utilitarian, we can succeed at the expense of our humanities. If we do not, our emotions will get the better of us and we will explode into rage monsters who do untold harm until we need to get put down like Old Yeller (credit to Lindsay Ellis for that joke). I watched Thrones from the first season, and I even read the books, before any luddite nerds come for my cred. For years, I listed Dany as one of my favorite female characters ever. I loved her and the show. I don’t think I would say that anymore. Do I think it’s fantastic that women represented all the major powers left in the last season? Sure. Do I think the way the show treated its female characters ultimately did more harm than good? Maybe. I think there’s power in raw representation, but the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes and tropes have a sincere negative effect on the world, and that’s important to talk about too.
Let’s move on from the ladies to the gays.
Supernatural. Never heard of it? Lucky you. Supernatural recently ended its fifteen-year run in November of this year with an ending that, much like Game of Thrones, divided the fandom and managed to piss off most of its viewership. The show never had the mainstream appeal Thrones had, but it had a significant viewership, with an average of four or so million viewers per episode, and an extremely loyal and dedicated fanbase. It was regularly in the top five most viewed shows on its networks (WB for the first season, The CW for the second through the last). For the uninitiated, the show is, in a nutshell, about two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, who hunt monsters of all sorts. Although the show started as polytheistic, with its paranormal monsters of the week drawn from all manner of pantheons and cultural traditions and mythologies, a subplot with Abrahamic angels and demons started to gain traction around season three, and by season five the show was firmly entrenched in Christian theology. It doesn’t really matter for the point I’m making, but I feel the need to state that this show is not, er… good. It’s not. The writing is ridiculous and borderline nonsensical at times, the editing is visibly slipshod, the acting is average at the best of times. The soundtrack is probably the one actually great thing about the entire show, composed almost entirely of classic rock, except when it’s funny to have something else.
One of the characters who popped up in the fourth season was Castiel, angel of the Lord. Although he was supposed to be a one-off character for a few episodes, the character quickly became a fan favorite, and would eventually become one of the three main stars of the show. As soon as he started appearing, fans noted that there seemed to be a lot of chemistry between Castiel and Dean. It should be noted, for those who have never seen an episode, that Supernatural, especially in the first few seasons, was almost aggressively heterosexual. All the main characters were hypermasculine with overly emphasized deep voices (these are not the actors’ real voices) who love beer and violence, and constantly lust after any and all women they come across. Aside from a very rare few, most of the female characters exist to be a man’s love interest and then die, or to be the sexy helpless victim and then die, or to be the sexy villain and then die. The show has an abysmal track record with women, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about right now. We are gathered here today to talk about gay stuff. Supernatural is far from the only example of bad gay rep, but it’s the freshest in my mind, and I think its historic run and the fact that a month after the show ended, the fandom keeps learning new things about the possible homophobic conspiracy of the show’s finale, make it interesting to talk about.
So, Dean and Castiel. Destiel, as they quickly became known. Destiel near-instantly became the most popular ship on the show, followed very far behind by the second most popular, Wincest (the incestuous pairing of Sam and Dean; the show basically didn’t have any female characters who lasted long enough to become popular love interests, so this was all most people had until season four). Destiel, or even the idea of feelings between Dean and Cas, was never explicit in the narrative. The two characters (and the two actors) had tremendous chemistry, and were best friends, and clearly cared deeply about each other, but the show made it very clear early on that these dudes were into chicks. Despite the fact that angels and demons can inhabit a body of any sex, and we saw many characters hop from male-presenting to female-presenting bodies and vice-versa, Cas, an angel in a male-presenting body, is only shown to have sex with human women and a demon in a female-presenting body. Dean is also only ever shown to have sexual and romantic relations with women (and one fallen angel in a female-presenting body), but a lot of small hints and running gags led a large number of fans to see Dean as a bisexual character from very early in the show. These include his obsession with a TV character called Dr. Sexy on an in-show spoof of Grey’s Anatomy, his reactions to male characters hitting on him (which could also be read as straight panic, but you take what you can find), and his intense emotional bonds with other male or male-presenting characters, such as Benny (a reformed vampire) and Cas. It’s also important to note that fandom spaces, such as Tumblr and fanfiction sites, tend to be largely populated by young queer people, starving for a character to latch onto to and relate to. That definitely contributed to the popularity of the ship, and the firm belief that so many fans had that it was canon, but as someone who has, unfortunately, watched the entire thing, let me just say: it’s there. It’s all there. There’s so very much there.
I digress. The point I was trying to make is that Destiel was incredibly popular from the get, and their relationship continued to be a core aspect of the show for twelve years. Twelve years of both of them constantly sacrificing themselves to save the other, changing the course of history itself to save the other, having practically any character who came in contact with them refer to them as a couple (whether joking or otherwise), breaking up and making up several times, and in general being intensely devoted to each other. That brings us now to season fifteen. The last hurrah. It’s practically impossible to explain the plot of the final season without spending several thousand words explaining a decade of development, but what’s important for this discussion is that Cas dies. Kind of. Briefly. In episode 18, the second-to-last episode of the show, Cas sacrifices himself and in doing so saves the world, but it’s very clear in the moment that he’s doing it specifically to save Dean. Without explaining a lot of the extremely convoluted nonsense, Cas had made a deal with a primordial entity in season fourteen that as soon as he experienced a moment of true happiness, the entity would come and take him away, meaning he would die. Cas achieves this by finally, after twelve years of buildup, confessing his love to Dean. He doesn’t pussyfoot around, either, he says “I love you” in no uncertain terms and has a whole dramatic monologue about how Dean is the most wonderful person to ever live, all while Dean stands there, not reacting, looking like the Real Housewives cat meme. Cas confesses his big gay love, and then immediately dies. That is the last we see of him on the show. Again, without getting into the whole backstory, this is one of the most controversial aspects of the finale. The show went on hiatus after filming episode 18 due to the pandemic, so the final two episodes were shot in Covid conditions. Supposedly, the ending was supposed to be different, Cas was meant to be in the finale (he’s mentioned to have been brought back to life offscreen), and a whole bunch of stuff was changed because of this. This hullabaloo is still ongoing, though, so I can’t say anything definitively. Googling “destiel conspiracy” right now will have you going down a rabbit hole that might end with a recent tweet from a VFX coordinator on the show saying he’s had two boyfriends but is still totally straight, so do so at your own peril. I would recommend just watching the Sarah Z video about it for a good primer (it’s an hour and a half long).
So, anyways. Castiel is queer. Unabashedly, explicitly, canonically queer. Does this even count as representation? If so, is it good rep? Did the show somehow manage to pull off a love confession scene that was both gay and homophobic? There are a few things to discuss here. First is the notion of fan service. This one is a bit murky for this ship for this show in particular, but I’m choosing my hill to die on here. The show spent twelve years having an intense emotional relationship between two guys who, by the last few seasons, had all but given up relationships with women. This isn’t something that was ever addressed, but by the end they were all mostly busy with killing God and raising their antichrist son together, so none of them had any romantic relationships the last few years of the show, except for Sam, briefly. Although I tend to agree with a lot of fans reading bisexual implications into Dean’s character, I genuinely don’t believe the showrunners intended this reading. I think that a lot of the hints were at best mildly lazy gay jokes that just hit different when you’re a queer viewer looking for queerness. Additionally, everyone involved with the show (except Misha Collins, the actor who plays Castiel) has been adamant that Destiel is not canon, and that Dean is strictly heterosexual. Spending twelve years insisting all the gay stuff is not there, and then dropping in a “oh yeah he was gay all along” at the very end, does not count as doing the work for gay representation. It should be noted that that episode was written by who I believe to be the only openly gay member of the writers’ room, Robert Berens, so I’m not necessarily saying that episode and that scene were done in bad faith. However, I’m not about to call this good representation, by any stretch. The fact that the showrunners decided to confirm a character as queer seemingly only to appease the fans, without doing any of the work for the prior twelve years, is not great, but it’s also not the worst part of this.
Let’s talk about burying your gays. For those who don’t know, “bury your gays” is a trope in film and television where queer characters inevitably end up dead in any given piece of content. This trope has a long history in cinema and can be traced all the way back to the days of the Hays Code (production code in the film industry from the 30’s to the 60’s) and censorship laws, which dictated that if you absolutely had to have a queer character on screen (because they would prefer if you just didn’t do that), they had to either die or be explicitly labeled villainous or criminal. This is also what led to villains being constantly gay coded (see any Disney villain, Ursula, Scar, Governor Radcliffe, Hades, etc). This trope, however, continues to plague the world of cinema and television to this day, with gay characters constantly dying in lieu of their straight counterparts. It’s not usually explicitly cosmic punishment for being queer, but it’s still a highly troubling trend. Doesthedogdie.com has a whole section for “does an LGBT person die,” if you wanted to see some examples.
So Castiel dies literally right after confessing his big gay love. Is that burying their gays? Yes. Kind of. From a certain point of view. An important caveat here is that one of the most prevalent elements of Supernatural is that everyone dies. A lot. The three main characters (Sam, Dean, and Castiel) have died hundreds of times, all combined. They’ve come back every other time. So, the fact that Cas died does not immediately translate to burying his gay self, since they’ve all died so many times before. However, what made this particular instance problematic to say the least is that he got sent to turbo-hell because of his big gay love. This was, quite literally, cosmic punishment for being queer. His confession of love was his “true moment of happiness,” which is what directly caused his death. This is where the problem lies. Castiel does very much die because he is queer. This is one of the most damaging possible forms of queer representation. On the other hand, I know that finally having canonical confirmation that Cas was queer all along was important for a lot of fans. This mattered to people. For many, this was the final payoff after twelve years of dedication to what they saw as the slowest burn of all time. Even this incredibly problematic and disingenuous representation, insofar as it can be called so, has value to people.
There are also other examples of bad queer representation, on much larger scales. One of the most prevalent myths around bisexuality, for example, (besides the notion that being bisexual just means you’re either gay and lying to yourself or straight and experimenting) is that bisexual people are sluts and will sleep with anything that moves. I want to make it clear that I personally am not casting any moral judgement on people who choose to have a lot of sex. I’m merely noting that media and society at large tend to view people who sleep around as morally dubious at best, and so the representation of bisexual people this way is explicitly meant to be derogatory. There are so many examples of this in film and television, like Rent where Maureen is portrayed as extremely promiscuous and drives all her partners to paranoia, or Blue is the Warmest Color and The Kids are Alright, where in both cases one of the leads cheats on her longtime partner with a man.
One recent example I’m personally familiar with is on Emmerdale, one of the five major ongoing British soaps. Now, everything that happens on a soap has to be taken with a grain of salt, because, well, they’re soaps. Everyone has an extremely high probability of dying or killing someone, and everyone has slept with everyone else except (usually) the people to whom they’re closely related. One of the most popular relationships from the recent era of that long running soap was Robert and Aaron, affectionately known as Robron. Aaron is gay and has been so, openly, for a long time, but Robert is bisexual, although he wasn’t explicitly confirmed so until several years into their relationship. Robert is also shown to have cheated on every single person he has been with, from his wife with Aaron, to his then-husband Aaron with his ex-wife’s sister, with whom it was revealed he also cheated on his ex-wife. Aaron does take him back, and Robert stays faithful to him until he leaves him because the actor wanted off the show. The portrayal of Robert as unable to commit to a person, however, is still quite notable, since it’s horrifyingly common in portrayals of bisexual characters. Another popular character on the show, Charity, also recently cheated on her wife with a man.
These are obviously not ideal forms of representation. However, I was online during the heyday of Robron’s relationship, and I know that for a huge number of viewers, it was incredibly meaningful and important when they finally heard Robert and Aaron use the word “bisexual.” It’s something that’s often skirted around or implied rather than outright stated, so characters verbally and proudly using it mattered to a large part of the community. Does that then outweigh the negative effects of Emmerdale’s slut-shaming its bisexual characters?
Obviously, I can’t speak for the entire queer woman community, and I’m not going to pretend to think I’m important or smart enough to come up with a conclusive answer here. I do think, though, that media representations of marginalized groups should be examined further than “good” or “bad” rep, and value can be found even in portrayals that play into possibly harmful stereotypes. By no means am I saying that we should be content with this if it’s all there is. We should continue every day to fight for and demand better and more representation for all non-cis-het-white-able-bodied people. However, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, is all I’m saying. If there’s joy, or empowerment, or the slightest amount of progress in a given piece of content, don’t let the problematic aspects completely negate the possible good. Think critically, yes, but don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, or however the saying goes.