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Who is Queer Media for?

by Anwesha Dutta

In the circuit of late capitalist consumption, the representational facade in media is often a matter of commodification. While dominant narratives become popularized, the visibility comes at a great cost, invariably depending on the labour of invisible others. If we are seeing one such big impact of rapid, large-scale exploitation of writers by streaming and production companies in the WGA writers' strike that has come in the wake of deplorable practices in the media industry, the very act of consuming culture in such a landscape is equally fraught with contradictions and unconscious biases.

Amidst the proliferation of contemporary discourses in the digital realm, the popularization of queer culture has been mercilessly capitalized on. Nowadays, it is difficult to find a pop star or celebrity with no previous investment in queer liberation or acknowledgment of queer culture to speak of, who doesn't want to specifically profit off of their queer fans, be it either by using lingo and vocabulary that are native of these spaces or by appearing on the Pride issues of magazines and being applauded for their genderless fashion, while refusing to avow a sincere dedication to queer politics so as to perhaps also remain ambiently appealing to the straight audience. Such behavior often goes uncriticized because queerness has increasingly come to be formed and articulated through multiple micro identities of attraction than by one's politics.

The fetishization of queerness has been increasingly noticeable in a very specific niche of media consumers, that of boys love (hereafter BL) media – a genre of homoerotic media popular primarily among heterosexual women. They range from shows, movies, fanfiction, manhwa, and glaringly, the phenomenon of an insistent romantic shipping of two celebrities or musicians who have either acted together as romantic leads or are in the same pop band. The reason for such a fanbase is as peculiar as it is predictable, as i-D magazine has reported: “According to Thai BL director Aam Anusorn…the fanbase for BL is typically straight women, who like the dramas because they see a “sensitive” side of men that is not present in their everyday lives.”

Since BLs had originated to appeal to teenage girls, they still form the most visible chunk of the target audience and the discourse they create is largely fetishistic of the sexualities they see on screen. I have heard from people who have confessed to skipping straight to the sex scenes that are usually portrayed by mirroring the gendered dynamics of heteropatriarchy. If this is what happens on one end of the spectrum, the other end is littered with people who want to revert to Hays Code era morality and condemn the very existence of sex scenes in any media, accusing them of polluting the purity and innocence that is queer love.

Red, White and Royal Blue Prime Cover. Two men on a couch, one representing the US and the other representing the UK. Photo used for the purpose of review under fair use.
Photo: Red, White & Royal Blue TV Adaptation by Prime

There is no gainsaying that both of these extremes lack nuance and an understanding of what queerness and its sincere articulation entails. The recent romcom Red, White and Royal Blue proved to be a refreshing exception in the sense that they were far more intentional as well as specific in their approach to the central sex scene of the film. Not only was it not rushed in a haze of implicated action that could point towards its existence without having to show it explicitly, it was also deeply loving and sexy! Given the preposterousness of the current “sex scene discourse”, the choice to portray the scene in this way is nothing if not commendable. The marvelous Paris scene is handled with a clear-eyed aim of not only “furthering the plot” as both of them are already smitten with each other before it ever happens; it is portrayed, instead, in close-ups of grasping fists, caressing skins and confessions of awkward firsts. There is no cheap imitation of heterosexual gendering or any glorification of unequal power dynamics and unenthusiastic consent. What we see is simply two people who are beginning to fall in love, express it through their bodies.

We have been seeing alarming rises in innumerable instances of violence against queer people in recent years. Policies and laws are being formulated that are actively criminalizing the self-actualization of trans people, even as the cast of movies and shows on our screens are as diverse as ever. What this is indicative of is the fact that amidst portraying a range of stories taken from the lived experiences of the marginalized, they hardly make a difference in the actual lives of people in the streets since the capital accrued is bought and sold by the people at the top.

Although mainstream queer media still has a long way to go in terms of a more sincere portrayal of queer life instead of aiming for mimesis, respectability, and assimilationist politics, films like Red, White and Royal Blue, or last year’s brilliant queer adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Fire Island, are just a few examples of a step forward in terms of broadening that horizon within the fold of the contemporary romantic comedy. In a collapsing media industry where hundreds of great shows on streaming platforms are getting slaughtered due to not garnering enough profit for greedy streaming corporations, the disproportionate popularity of BL-esque shows is also coming at the heels of lesbian-centered media being recklessly cancelled. We deserve the multifarious canon of auteurs like Gregg Araki, Céline Sciamma, Alice Wu, Cheryl Dunye, Andrew Haigh et all and not defanged, simplistic scraps in the name of representation. Our relentless consumption of culture that actively wants to keep us too busy watching to be able to question it is hardly the solution. It is crucial to formulate a critical lens of our media consumption because they have a direct impact on what does and doesn't get produced and circulated, and how they interpolate themselves into our lives. Actively engaging not only with the discourse we create online but also with the world around us is what we collectively owe to our living, breathing communities.


About the Writer:

Anwesha Dutta (@bimbopoetica) is a writer and researcher. She is interested in articulating the subtle gaps at the intersection of culture, literature, and interpersonal relationships to make the world a place of nuance, justice, and equity.


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