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Retrospective Queer Characters: a sign of the times or exploitation of the past?

Written by Arts, Culture

Jacqueline Wilson, novelist and former Children’s Laureate, made headlines earlier this month when she confirmed that the long-speculated-gay character Cam Lawson was, in fact, gay.

In an interview with The Independent, she declares “anybody reading between the lines in the early Tracy Beaker books [would see that] her foster mum Cam is […] clearly gay.” While there was certainly subtext to suggest that Cam wasn’t heterosexual – albeit based on stereotypical assumptions – this was never verbalised in the book or television series. The choice to retroactively queer characters is, of course, a divisive one – For some, it’s maybe an affirmation that LGBT+ people exist in all narratives and in all shapes and sizes without ever needing to confirm their queerness. For some, the choice to overlook exploring a character’s sexuality in the original canonical narrative, just to later confirm a queer identity in a time where it’s expedient to be inclusive, is actually a purposeful and insidious choice in itself. 

The choice to overlook exploring a character’s sexuality in the original canonical narrative, just to later confirm a queer identity in a time where it’s expedient to be inclusive, is actually a purposeful and insidious choice in itself. 

This bears the question – What representation is good representation? 

For me, there is a fine line and Wilson is not the first author to make a retroactive declaration about the queerness of one of the series characters. J.K. Rowling famously declared Albus Dumbledore was gay at a Q&A at Carnegie Hall in 2007. Despite this revelation, there has never been explicit mention and scarcely even allusion to Dumbledore’s sexuality in any subsequent instalments in the Harry Potter franchise.

In my opinion, this is an example of performative allyship – Having revised Dumbledore’s sexuality to include a formative romantic relationship with Gellert Grindelwald, it seems ludicrous that future prequel Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald would be vague about any details of their romantic relationship. But according to director David Yates, the sequel does “not explicitly” address that aspect of their relationship. Given Rowling’s track record with the LGBT community in recent times, the implications of queerbaiting do not bode well. 

Credit: Goodreads

The revelation about Cam is, to me, less about queerbaiting and more about an author clarifying their truth on a personal level. In April 2020, Wilson “came out” as gay, having been in a relationship for eighteen years – In doing so, she also clarified that she had never been in any kind of closet. Additionally, the clarification about Cam came as she was set to release Love Frankie, somewhat of a sapphic bildungsroman, when she clarified that Frankie may be her first LGBT+ protagonist, she is certainly not the first in her repertoire. Since Wilson has accepted her own identity without ever feeling a need to publicise that aspect of herself, it makes sense that she would’ve taken a similar approach to her characters.

The revelation about Cam is, to me, less about queerbaiting and more about an author clarifying their truth on a personal level.

Especially when the character in question maybe acts as a catharsis for the author – One thing is that there are striking similarities between Cam and Jacqueline Wilson. Growing up with the author and the character, I certainly made this connection: Both are short-haired writers with a predilection for baggy shirts and they just so happen to both be gay. Maybe Wilson saw Cam as an opportunity to discuss some of the parts of herself free from public scrutiny. 

Credit: YouTube

To put it bluntly: Queering characters outside of the canonical narrative as an afterthought is not the revolutionary act that some authors think it is. If you want your characters to be inclusive in an impactful way, explicitly identifying them as such is the way to go about that. But maybe it’s worth giving LGBT authors the space to carve their niche independently of having to address sexuality.

Featured Image: Chris Boland www.chrisboland.com

Last modified: 16th November 2020

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