The Gay Ship, Homophobia, and Queer Representation
Let’s talk about shipping, shall we?
Mostly, I’d like to talk about the recent drama that has arisen around comments that Anthony Mackie made about the shipping of his character, Sam, with the one played by Sebastian Stan, his co-lead in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Honestly, I understand why people found his comments hurtful; he was pretty clear in how he felt about the slice of the fandom that wants to see the two of them in a relationship in the show’s canon, and it wasn’t exactly complimentary. But at the same time, it’s got me thinking a lot about the way that male characters get shipped together so often in popular culture, and why I can understand the frustration that some people have towards it.
For one thing, let me just say this: I would love to see more shows that depict a genuinely emotionally intimate relationship between men, period. Whether that relationship is romantic or not, it’s something that’s pretty grossly under-represented. Part of the issue that drives that, I think, is that so many audiences and parts of popular fandoms especially view any kind of emotional intimacy between two unrelated men as inherently homoerotic, and that can obscure other parts of that story that don’t include homosexuality as a focus. Basically, in short: let men love each other without assuming that they’re boning, okay?
But I think what really stands out to me about the particular Anthony Mackie conversation is that…look, Disney, the company that owns the Marvel properties and dictates what is and isn’t appropriate for the franchise to do, is pretty fucking dreadful when it comes to representation of queer characters. From queer-coded villainy to the constant back-patting of the next, first, basically inconsequential gay character, it’s a business that’s shown itself again and again more interested (in its major franchises, especially) in providing palatably shitty representation of queer people for a still-broadly-homophobic world than it is in telling stories about us that really matter.
I totally get why people want to see their queerness reflected in the characters they love; I understand how important it is to have that representation, how grounding it is to know that other people have been through the things that you have, to see them presented as human instead of the inhuman that is so often applied to LGBTQ people. That representation is something that made a real difference for me growing up, and I understand that a lot of us are still stuck in that mindset of hunting around for the barest hint of queerness in the characters we love from years of watching TV and movies that basically cut them out entirely. I know why people are looking for these hints in shows like TFATWS. And I also think that Disney knows what it does when it sets up relationships like this, knows how they can be interpreted, and may even lean into that (in the most deniable way possible), and then wag their fingers and toe the party line of nothing gay in our two major male heroes when asked about it outright.
But I would also like to say this: there is great queer representation out there! We are living in an era which has seen a huge uptick of queer characters (often even created by queer writers and directors) in popular media. You don’t have to beg for crumbs from a company which functionally doesn’t care, invent elaborate headcanons to actually fit some queer representation into the universe you love! I say this with love and total understanding of why people want to see LGBTQ narratives in major productions like this, but there are queer creators (hi, hello!) creating stories about queer people that you don’t have to bend over backwards to make exist!
In general, I think that people in this community deserve better than to plead for pieces of representation from companies that have basically proved that they view most LGBTQ stories as a chance to virtue-signal rather than to create honest reflections of true, lived experience. Ship to your heart’s content – but while you’re at it, seeking out genuine, open depictions of explicitly LGBTQ characters is probably going to give you far more of what you’re looking for than trying to apply them to stories that don’t seem to want us queers too close to them in the first place.
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