Monday, October 14, 2013

Mulan and Aurora: Queer Representation or just Queerbaiting?

Since the ending to last night's episode aired, there has been a lot of speculation, interpretation, and misinformation swirling around. Upon first watch, I was giddy as a ten-year-old inhaling laughing gas at what I saw as a clear textual--as opposed to the more common subtextual--representation of a queer character on ABC's Once Upon A Time. But now that a few hours have passed and the internet has done what internets do best and blown the hell up, I think it's time to take a step back and really examine what went down last night, how it fits with what's gone on before, and whether or not the OUAT version of Mulan truly qualifies as a queer character.

A little background first


Mulan made her debut in season two's premiere, titled "Broken," as a no-nonsense warrior with little patience for princesses. She showed an immediate animosity towards Princess Aurora that was interpreted by many--including Princess Aurora herself--as jealousy over Prince Phillip. Before the episode was through, Aurora had accused Mulan of being in love with Phillip, something that Mulan denied firmly, not once, but twice. According to her, they were fellow soldiers and friends, nothing more...but Aurora (and admittedly, many of us watching) remained skeptical. It's important to note here that we remained skeptical not because of any textual admissions by Mulan to herself or another character, but because of subtextual cues--facial expressions and the like.

Before any more interactions between Mulan and Phillip could shed further light on this matter, he got his soul sucked out by a Wraith and united the two women in their grief over losing him. Again, textually Mulan was grieving for the loss of her friend and fellow warrior; subtextually, there may have been more going on there.

Having been tasked with Aurora's protection by Phillip, Mulan sets about the task with gusto, defending her even when the princess is a royal pain in the ass (which at first, she really was, at least to me). She immediately puts herself between Aurora and any danger they happen across, takes care of Aurora when she's too busy being noble and self-sacrificing to take care of herself, and eventually their animosity turns to mutual respect and friendship.

Although Mulan is nothing if not pragmatic, she goes out of her way and puts herself in danger to get Aurora's heart back from Cora after Aurora becomes a liability to their mission. Aurora trusts Mulan and believes in her, and is willing to sacrifice herself to keep Mulan safe.

During all this time, there are few further mentions made of Phillip, and no more discussion of whether or not Mulan has feelings for him. We're given the story of how they first met, but nothing of how they went from that first meeting to Aurora's rescue. By contrast, we are given tons of interaction and development between Mulan and Aurora.

Textually, Mulan does what Phillip asked because it was her dear friend's dying wish. But by this point, there are two possible subtexts. The first, wearing a bit thin with age and lack of textual support (Phillip is hardly mentioned for most of the season following his demise), is that Mulan is granting the dying wish of the man she loved. The second, with much stronger and more consistent textual support, is that Mulan has begun to feel something for Aurora as Aurora, not just as an extension of Phillip. This something ranges from close friendship to budding love, depending on who you ask.

And one. more. time. for. the people. in. the back: The interpretations of both of these theories ("Mulan is in love with Phillip" or "Mulan is in love with Aurora") are largely based on subtext that is supported by varying amounts of text. Therefore, Mulan/Phillip is technically no more canon than Mulan/Aurora at any point, and one could make a strong argument for Mulan/Aurora having more textual and subtextual support, assuming one doesn't have their "no homo" goggles on.

I say all this to clear up one incredibly common misconception I see being repeated over and over in message boards, on tumblr, in comments on articles, on facebook, etc: that Mulan was canonically in love with Phillip. I'm sorry, but she wasn't any more canonically in love with Phillip than she was canonically in love with Aurora (before last night's episode). If you're going to judge one based on what was said directly, you have to judge the other by the same criteria. It was heavily implied at the introduction of her character that Mulan may have had romantic feelings for Phillip, through subtext. Mulan never voiced her feelings for him; in fact, she outright denied having any beyond friendship.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's take a step-by-step walk through the events in the last episode that led up to that goodbye scene, shall we?

The Scene(s) That Made Subtext Into Text


Before he flies off to Neverland hanging off the end of Peter Pan's shadow, Neal confesses to Robin Hood and Mulan that he waited too long to tell Emma how he felt about her, and that he deeply regrets it because even if he finds her and Henry, he doesn't know where they stand or whether they can ever be together as a family again. Mulan is visibly affected by this story, and by the notion that if you're in love with someone, you shouldn't keep waiting to tell them just because you're afraid...because someday it could be too late.

Then there's some heart-wrenching drama and gasp-worthy action, after which Robin Hood invites Mulan to join his band of Merry Men. She thanks him for the offer, but explains that there is someone she has to talk to. "A loved one?" He asks, no doubt recalling the conversation with Neal (as I'm sure we all were). Mulan tells him she hopes so, and sets off to finally confess her love.

Cut to Mulan, standing slightly in the shadows, gazing at the lovely...Aurora? Yes, Aurora. Who, when she notices that Mulan is there, embraces her happily and asks what she's doing just standing there.

"Gathering my courage," Mulan says. So she's been standing there for a little while, gathering her courage to talk to Aurora? Why should she be freaked out about talking to Aurora? Is she actually confessing her love to Aurora?!

But then, there's a moment of disappointment, because Mulan asks where Phillip is. Aurora explains that he's not there at the moment, should she go and find him? No no, Mulan assures quickly, there's no need because it's Aurora she came to speak to. And I'm back to squealing because yes, she actually did come to speak to Aurora. She just said so!

In case anyone isn't following me (and a fairly straightforward scene) so far:
  1. Mulan was moved by Neal's story of missing his opportunity for love by being afraid to be honest about his feelings.
  2. Mulan told Robin Hood she was going to speak to someone about love.
  3. Mulan found Aurora and held back, gathering her courage before speaking to Aurora.
  4. Mulan asked where Phillip was, but then deterred Aurora from finding him because Aurora was the person she came to speak to.
Of course, then Aurora is just bursting with news, namely the news that she and Phillip are about to have a baby. Which...well, shit. Mulan is visibly crestfallen, and despite having previously rejected Robin's offer, suddenly tells Aurora that she's leaving to join him. Aurora is hurt and doesn't seem to understand, but Mulan simply says she's sorry and that she has to go, and then walks away with tears in her eyes.

I'm pretty sure this is the point where I started screaming "boxblocked by a fucking baby?!" at my television screen, but that's not important.

What's important is that Mulan was going to confess her love to Aurora. What's frustrating as hell is that even though this is perfectly clear to my straight, arguably heteronormative-minded, non-shipper friends, my fellow queer, subtext-searching, representation-wanting, ship-all-the-things friends are dubious about whether it "counts" in terms of queer representation because they're convinced we're meant to think that Mulan was going to confess her love to Phillip and the whole scene with Aurora was just queerbaiting.

But wait...how...what?


I'm honestly not even sure where to start with this.

So you think the writers of this show looked at the subtext they'd built in two distinct directions and said "hey, I know, the best way to resolve that Mulan is in love with Phillip is to have her go confess her love for Phillip to Aurora, only to be thwarted at the last moment by the news that Aurora is pregnant!"?

Well, being thwarted in her love for Phillip by the news that he's having a baby with his girlfriend/wife (are they married? I was never clear on that) does make sense. What doesn't makes sense is why Mulan would go to Aurora to confess her love for Phillip. Why would she say it was Aurora she came to talk to if her goal was to tell Phillip she was in love with him? Why would she ask Aurora not to find Phillip, if it was Phillip she wanted to confess to? What was she gathering her courage for?

Okay, so I hear someone in the back saying "because Aurora's her friend and she wanted to explain it to her first!" Okay, so Mulan has feelings for Phillip and she wants to pony up and confess this to Aurora before she tells Phillip because, yeah...awkward. That makes...wait, no. It doesn't. For three reasons:
  1. She didn't ask Aurora not to get Phillip yet. She didn't say she wanted to talk to Aurora first. She said Aurora was the one she came to speak to.
  2. She was gathering her courage beforehand, but then she looked really excited. I don't know many people who would look excited at the prospect of confessing to a friend that they're in love with that friend's One True Love. I think "terrified" is the more appropriate emotion for that scenario.
  3. Aurora already thinks Mulan is in love with Phillip. She once hurled that thought at Mulan like a condemnation and refused to believe her when she denied it. Why would she tell Aurora something that as far as she knows, Aurora already believes?
This isn't a game of find-the-gay that we're only half-winning, half the time, guys (Supernatural, I'm lookin' at you). This isn't a moment where we have to dig deep beneath the layers of no-homo "bromance" bullshit (good afternoon, BBC's Sherlock). For this moment, I have to ignore logic and the surface text of what happened in that scene in order to even approach convincing myself she was going to confess her love for Phillip.

And more importantly...WHY?!


So, why on earth would I want to do that? Why would any of us? Have we been burned so many times by false representations, flat representations, non-representations, and plain old-fashioned queerbaiting that we're reluctant to accept a queer character when it's handed to us the way straight characters are...with show,  rather than tell? With a sincere moment of feeling for another person that fits seamlessly into the rest of the story, rather than an after school special-style Gay Issues Episode For Gays (labeled GAY in rainbow letters just to avoid confusion, and probably slapped with a Parental Advisory just in case we offend all the non-gays with all the gay)? Oh, sorry Glee, were those your toes I just stepped on?

It seems as though queer viewers are in danger of making a huge mistake in the way we view and validate representations of ourselves in the media: we've already decided there is one "right" way to represent queer characters, and that anything else isn't "true" representation. Guys, this is how "badass woman" went from a refreshing departure to another tired stereotype after two decades of women being told that if we're not Buffy Summers then we're useless wastes of space who are hurting feminism. I don't want to be in my thirties someday, being told that I'm a Bad Queer because I don't remind anyone of Kurt Hummel and Blaine Anderson and their adopted lesbian daughter on Glee: The Next Generation.

Already we have this burgeoning myth of the neon-sign queer, the queer who walks up to you and says "I'm here, I'm queer, go fuck yourself." The queer who wears rainbow pins and marches at rallies and makes their entire life into a political statement for queer rights and queer visibility. A queer who hits all those important queer landmarks: self-doubt, tearful attempts at hiding, having a beard, epiphany moment, dumping the beard, self-acceptance, coming out, getting bashed, unrequited crush on a breeder, gay married very fashionably in a state where it's legal, adopt a kid who might otherwise never know loving parents, etc.

I don't want to invalidate those experiences. They're so identifiable for a reason, and for some people that's the way the story goes. But by making plots that revolve around our sexuality the only plot points, and by buying in ourselves to the idea that all characters are straight until proven queer, we're really just perpetuating that heteronormative mindset and doing ourselves more harm than good in the process. For one thing, that insures that anyone sincerely trying to represent LGBT people in the media is going to stick to the approved gay script in order to avoid being misunderstood, whether or not that script actually works for the characters or the world they've built in their canon. For another, it requires that someone comes up with a definition for what a Good Queer Character looks like...which implies coming up with a definition of a Good Queer. Which inevitably will make some of us Bad Queers.

What about those of us who don't walk up to people and announce our queerness? What about those of us who don't consider our sexuality to be a cause or a political statement? What about a bisexual woman who's only ever had relationships with men and who feels nervous about dating women even though she's attracted to them? What about transgender people, and how a transgender person's story might change in a 'verse that treated gender differently than ours does? What about all kinds of stories that don't fit a neat little checklist of criteria for how to present a Good Queer Character to your audience?

And while we're at it, when is the last time you saw a straight character have to announce to the audience that they're straight in order for their romantic overtures--even the aborted ones--to "make sense" or be considered "real?"

Wait, you've lost me. What does this have to do with Mulan, again?


Mulan doesn't turn to Robin or Neal or anyone and have a Willow-moment ("I think I'm kinda gay."). She doesn't get to tell Aurora her news before Aurora makes it clear that Mulan's feelings will go unrequited. Does that mean those feelings never existed, no matter how well written, acted, and set up the story was to tell us that they did? Is anything less than a coming-out storyline and a same-sex kiss automatically queerbaiting?

The only way that makes sense to me is if we really do buy into the idea that every character on television is straight until proven queer...and not only buy into it, but also place lower limits on what constitutes "proof" of a character's queerness.

And I'm not saying queer people are the reason for heteronormativity here; far from it. We didn't create this fucked up system, I doubt any of us want it, and we sure as hell don't deserve it. But you know what? We also wouldn't be the first group of oppressed people to perpetuate the underlying problematic social constructs that oppress us in an attempt to gain more visibility and recognition in the mainstream (remember the Badass Woman, remember her well...and if that doesn't work, remember how the early feminist movement divorced itself from Black women, queer women, and poor women in order to look more appealing to those on the outside).

My point is to question everything...including why we think that Mulan's adamant denial of any feelings for Phillip should be accepted as evidence of her secret love for him while the scene with Aurora should be treated as queerbaiting.

Which leads to another set of serious problems I have with fan reception of Mulan's feelings for Aurora.

Queerbaiting and Bisexual Erasure


Because there were hints at the start of Mulan's arc that she may have feelings for Phillip--hints, remember, that were never made into canon facts any more than her feelings for Aurora before last night's episode--some fans have decided to ignore those completely in favor of the "Sleeping Warrior" scene and yell "lesbian" at the top of their lungs. The other camp, meanwhile, is acting as though the existence of subtext implying feelings for Phillip somehow makes the scene with Aurora less valid. That camp is yelling "queerbait" just as loudly. Meanwhile I sit here in my corner, timidly whispering "but guys...bisexuality exists."

Bisexuality exists, therefore Mulan can have been in love with Phillip at one time and still fall in love with Aurora at another. Bisexuality exists, therefore we don't have to pretend a certain set of subtexts didn't happen in order to make Mulan valid as an instance of true queer representation. Bisexuality exists, goddammit, so we don't have to write off what Mulan felt for Aurora just because Mulan--who is usually reserved and very focused on what makes the people she cares about happiest and safest--didn't act completely out of character in order to exposit her queerness. Bisexuality. Fucking. Exists. Write it a hundred times, and you can be ungrounded when you've thought about what you've done.

Now for my brief soapbox on queerbaiting. That scene...was not queerbaiting. I'm honestly tired of someone yelling "queerbait!" at every instance of queer subtext. It annoys me almost as much as people who call mild fears "phobias" and being neat and organized "OCD." It trivializes and minimizes a very serious issue that does exist, and makes it easy to dismiss real instances of it by treating it dismissively.

Queerbaiting is a thing that definitely exists and that is extremely hurtful to queer people and problematic for queer representation. But subtext is not queerbaiting. Subtext that never becomes text is not even necessarily queerbaiting. Queerbaiting is an intentional attempt by writers to capitalize on the appeal of a plot or characters to queer viewers with no intentions of ever including any actual queer representation in that plot or those characters.

Queerbaiting is Sherlock and Watson in BBC's Sherlock and in the RDJ/Jude Law films. Queerbaiting is not that scene between Mulan and Aurora, at least not at this juncture. So please, don't scream "queerbait" just because your ship didn't suddenly become canon, because the next time actual queerbaiting happens and needs to be called out, nobody will take your shouting seriously. And now I'll climb down off that soapbox.

Conclusion


Mulan's character introduction and development over the course of season two included subtextual hints at a deeper relationship than friendship between herself and two characters: one male and one female. Although the subtext of the male was dropped fairly quickly and never really picked up again, while the subtext of the female was carried throughout the season, when faced with the choice to believe the textual culmination of the subtext towards the female or allow it to be deterred by the existence of old subtext with the male, many queer viewers--as well as, I'm sure, many more straight viewers who wouldn't admit to gay if it made out in front of them--came down in favor of queerbaiting instead of representation. I am not one of those viewers. 

After reading transcripts of season two, re-watching the scene, analyzing the overall message of the episode, comparing the subtexts and texts of each possible interpretation, looking at what was actually said in that scene and everything that led up to it...I have to come firmly down on the side of Mulan being a canon queer character who went to confess her love to Aurora and was deterred at the last moment. I hope they will continue to explore this side of Mulan's character, and I look forward to seeing where it leads.

5 comments:

  1. I would like to draw hearts all over your commentary! I really do agree with every you have said. I love that OUAT chose to go down this route. And you are absolutely right about bisexuality existing! If you don't mind, I would like to know more on your thoughts on TV shows that chose to "queerbait".

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    1. I honestly can't think of too many more examples from the shows I personally watch. I will say that a LOT of things that are frequently called queerbaiting are not, in fact, queerbaiting. These things include bromances that don't ever turn to romances, subtext that doesn't become text, and ships that don't go canon. Andy Blake, author of the Harry Potter fanfiction Daydverse (which I have yet to read) and writer of some truly incredible meta (which I spend way too much of my time reading but can't seem to stop), has a lot of great posts about queerbaiting that can be found here: http://andythanfiction.tumblr.com/tagged/queerbaiting.

      (Please note that I am not in any way affiliated with Andy, I just have kind of an epic crush on his brilliant mind and his way with words.)

      A lot of his writing on queerbaiting is specific to the Supernatural 'verse and the SPN fandom ship Destiel (Dean and Castiel for those of you who haven't entered that particular direction of madness yet), but he does a pretty amazing job of explaining what is and isn't queerbaiting, and why. His definition:

      "Queerbaiting is when a creative team knowingly creates and fosters the belief that a subtextual queer relationship or character is or could be canon with no intention of ever making it anything more than subtext or after-the-fact 'Word of Gay.'"

      The only way in which my definition differs substantially is that for me it's about overall queer representation within a show, not a specific pairing. For instance, there has been a lot of extra-canon fostering of the ship Sterek (Stiles Stilinski and Derek Hale) on the MTV show Teen Wolf even though there is no indication that they ever intend to make the pairing canon. I would argue, however, that this isn't necessarily queerbaiting, as the show is totally fine with representing queerness in other pairings and has even hinted that they intend to expand upon the subtext regarding one of those characters' sexuality, though they don't seem likely to ever make Sterek canon. So baiting the Sterek shippers, perhaps...but not queerbaiting, at least not from my perspective.

      Another excellent point that Andy makes is that just because something isn't queerbaiting doesn't mean that it isn't hurtful, or that queer viewers have no right to feel hurt because of it. For instance, I do not believe that Destiel is queerbaiting, but if it never becomes explicit canon I will be absolutely heartbroken because I identify so closely with the characters (Dean in particular) and their story, and there will always be people telling me that it was just wishful thinking and they would never show "that" (meaning: someone who is like me) on a good TV show like Supernatural.

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    2. So it just occurred to me that you might have meant what do I think about shows that choose to queerbait? If that's the case, ignore all that up there and read this instead:

      I think intentionally capitalizing on a group of people's deprivation while perpetuating that deprivation is cruel and cowardly. There is never an excuse for it.

      I know a lot of people want to think that entertainment is just entertainment and that pop culture doesn't matter, but those people are short-sighted at best and idiots at worst. What's entertainment to us now will likely be the most widely-known reflection of our current culture available to people a hundred years from now. Today's popular culture will shape the mindset of the future...just as the popular entertainers of the past have shaped ours. Artists and writers will be responsible for that whether they want to acknowledge that responsibility or not.

      So to knowingly betray your audience--often some of the most loyal and enthusiastic members of that audience, no less--is an outright abuse of talent and platform. I have no respect for writers who choose to queerbait, I don't care how good their writing generally is.

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  2. Interesting read. I can't wait to see where this character is going this season.

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