The night before the election, N & I watched another episode of that Lord of the Rings series. I was in a rotten mood, having been earlier at happy hour drinks with a friend, where the bar gave my card to another customer who’d left long before I did. The episode was about humans and elves gearing up for another big battle with orcs. Solemn faces. Oaths of solidarity. Heaps of longbows getting handed out. I hate this, I kept repeating in my head. Then: why do I hate this?
A bad habit of mine when I ask that question is to assume something heterosexual’s afoot, to ascribe badness or myopic thinking or rehashed triteness to the heterosexual. To be clear going forward: queerness has all kinds of this stuff too. One useful example might be Bros, which we’ll return to, delicately, as I haven’t even seen it.
Talk about myopic thinking.
As I’ve written before, what makes a story heterosexual might be its being a story. ‘Story chauvinism’ is what I call the belief that storytelling isn’t just another aesthetic pleasure, another way of thinking about the world, but rather something essential to humanity. Its cri de coeur is Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘The universe is made of stories, not of atoms,’ but you can find the myth repeated everywhere.[*]
In that post linked above, I had trouble making the argument story = heteronormativity. This post might be another attempt. To what end? Why am I trying to make this argument? I’m by profession someone who writes stories at times, and I’m feeling a hunger for stories that feel truer to me than those I, a queer person, am often told.
That’s the smartypants version. The rotten-mood version from the other night? ‘This Lord of the Rings show isn’t half as good as any episode of Golden Girls,’ I told myself. I still believe this with all of my heart. How is it true? And what does it mean?
Let’s get some definitions down. One thing I might mean by ‘heterosexual story’ is ‘important story’, as when I wrote, in the Commemorative Angela Lansbury issue of Shenny, ‘Gays aren’t the center of our culture’s Important Stories, and may never be.’
So what’s an ‘important story’? Here’s just as good a definition as any, coming as it does in the middle of one:
It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back. Only they didn’t, because they were holding on to something. That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.
This little speech has choked me up more than once at the end of The Two Towers, and half of that emotion is coming from Sean Astin’s big, thick, kissable face as he speaks it.
But we can extract a few key elements of ‘great stories’:
- They present something about the fixity of good and evil, shadow and light.
- Perseverance (i.e., ‘lots of chances of turning back’) takes the form of a fight/battle against evil.
- They point to or are set in times of yore, and see ‘us’ as a continuation of the people therein.
This last one is the thing I feel most frustrated by. (Though the others present problems I’ll get to in a bit.) When you grow up queer in a straight family, you learn early on that stories/histories/the past can’t tell you who you are, because the story of every consanguineous family is the story of heterosexual generation. When you’re in the closet, or in denial about yourself, this truth hits you very painfully—I don’t fit in the story everyone’s telling—but later you begin to see how the story is wrong, or at least incomplete.
A queer person’s queerness begins at the moment of intractable separation from the birth family, which is a separation from history. What makes a story queer is how it thus begins with the actuality of loss or isolation.
Loss isn’t a threat, as it often is in Important Stories. The loss (of self, family, tradition, safety, values, etc.) that’s feared by the coming of evil can’t be fought against. For the queer person, it’s always already happened.
The important story then becomes: how to move on?
Which brings us back to The Golden Girls, as great an epic as any on how to move on after tremendous loss: of husbands, of careers, of self-sufficiency, of one’s purportedly ‘fuckable years’. And what’s evil look like in the Golden Girls Universe? Who are the villains? It’s been a while since I’ve rewatched the series, but we can find an easy analogue in the Designing Women universe, where evil takes the form of people (straight men) who don’t even listen to, much less respect, the underrepresented:
If ‘evil’ in every story is shorthand for the forces that seek to destroy the lives and values of the protagonist(s), then ‘evil’ in a queer story involves a return to the pre-splintered family. Evil means retying the thread to the past. What characters embody that, or enforce it? What do they look like? How are they not-us or not-like-us?
Probably the biggest lie heterosexual stories tell is that evil will always stand out as different, making itself so clearly known that all the people who are not-different will band together to fight it.
Lone heroes have little place in queer stories, because it turns out that How To Move On From Great Loss involves coalition-building, chosen families. I’m inspired a lot here by Kevin Brazil’s thinking in Whatever Happened to Queer Happiness?, which posits a kind of Bechdel Test for queer stories: ‘Is there a scene where two queer friends appear without, and without discussing, their family trauma or their fucked-up lovers?’
Likely Bros passes this test, given the run time. And likely the elements of greatness in a romcom (so heterosexual genre) differ enough from those of the fantasy epic to warrant a separate post. But I count myself among the millions who didn’t go see Bros during its failed opening weekend. Representation matters, but from the $30 million advertising budget, it was clear that Bros had a very old story to tell. Letting gays avatar themselves inside hetero archetypes does not a queer movie make.
If, again, that’s what Bros does. Like I said, I haven’t seen it.
- Leave it to Will Self, one of my favorite thinkers, to write the only essay I’ve found on how humans may no longer need stories.↵