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Queer Stories for Queer People

A sky full of open multi-coloured umbrellas

I remember the first time I ever stumbled across the word queer, in one of the Enid Blytons that were a cornerstone of my childhood – so far removed from the context in which we know it today! I collected words, even then, like a mythical dragon would hoard its treasures, and I remember just how delicious I found the sound of this particular turn of phrase. It evoked a sense of the strange, the uncanny, perhaps even a little hint of the magical. Little did I realise how the same word, over the years, would come to resonate so personally with me. As someone who has always been slightly on the fringes of the crowd, who spent their childhood within that constant, unsettling feeling of being a fish out of water, I have taken refuge in stories and storytelling for as long as I can remember. It was only natural, then, that during the height of the pandemic when I was coming to terms with my own queer sexuality, my first recourse was to delve into all the queer stories that I could find.

I was lucky in that there was a fair explosion of compelling LGBTQ content in the visual media landscape from 2015 and onward – such a contrast to when I was growing up and didn’t even know that it was possible to be gay. I googled recommendations for queer books, films, TV series, and clicked through every link that came up – from those ubiquitous on must-watch lists like Call Me By Your Name (2017) and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), to the most niche ones that had accumulated cult followings on Tumblr (that internet hub of the weird and the queer) but were only sparingly mentioned elsewhere. Queerly enough, I found that it was indeed those of the latter category that carved out a lasting place in my own heart, that what was beloved to Tumblr-ites was beloved to me too, and I can’t help but wonder why certain kinds of stories seem to resonate more powerfully with queer individuals. These days the words gay and queer are taken as interchangeable and may have been reclaimed by the LGBTQIA+ community from their once-derogatory connotations, but does a narrative become fundamentally queer on the sole basis of it featuring LGBTQ characters?

We have come some way from the days where the most chance queer individuals had at seeing themselves represented on-screen was in subtext and any overt depictions of queerness were doomed to tragedy within the narrative. However, whether one identifies as part of the LGBTQIA+ community or not, we still seem to propagate biases borne of internalised homophobia such as the portrayal of queer existence being limited to the romanticisation of queer suffering or tragedy, or even the relatively innocuous assumption that queer stories can only ever be about latent sexuality and self-discovery. Sara Ahmed, influential scholar in queer theory, delineates the state of being queer as that of being out of alignment with the cis-heteronormative framework that larger society operates by. Thus Sara Ahmed characterises the word queer as not just an adjective, but also a verb — in queering we go against the grain, push against invisible boundaries and in their undoing, make them visible[1]. Just as I have always been queer in more ways than one – queer as in gay but also as in weird – what’s not to say that the queering of a story can’t have as many shades of meaning within it?

In this regard, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (2018-20) holds a place of honour as one of the first unabashedly queer TV series that I had come across. It is a reboot of the 1985 animated show She-Ra: Princess of Power, helmed by noted queer showrunner ND Stevenson – the creator not only behind She-Ra but also of the recently Oscar-nominated animated film Nimona (2023) which was adapted from Stevenson’s graphic novel of the same name. She-Ra tells the compelling story of Adora (the eponymous She-Ra) and her erstwhile best friend Catra (Adora’s foil and later love interest), both of whom were brought up from girlhood to be soldiers of the colonising Horde, but are torn apart by their seemingly conflicting destinies in the war they are fighting. Adora’s story is as much about the family she finds in her fellow rebels as it is about her heroic journey, in addition to being intertwined with the complicated trajectory of her relationship with Catra, fraught with history, misunderstanding, and a whole lot of sexual/romantic tension. Yet both are well-rounded characters in their own right, with complex character arcs that are never entirely dependent on each other, and are not merely written to fill in their various narrative roles. The show also excels in casual feminist and queer representation, featuring a female-dominant cast of supporting characters diverse in both appearance and personality, with several instances of queer attraction and as many established queer couples among the main cast as there are heterosexual ones.

When P.A. Thomas analyses She-Ra’s narrative in the context of the traditional hero’s journey (the monomyth), they suggest that by subverting heteronormative convention and the hero’s typically masculine characterization, She-Ra effectively queers the monomyth[2]. Love (whether platonic, familial, or romantic) is instrumental in setting the course of the story and the character arcs, more than for the average masculine-coded hero who often must “go it alone” at some point of his journey. It is Catra’s attachment to Adora that marks the start of her descent into villainy, but also the start of her redemption. Despite Adora herself possessing perceivably masculine attributes (her primary weapon is a sword, and by her own admission she is a “punch-your-feelings-out guy”), it is her compassion and empathy for the planet’s native citizens that leads her to later reject her powers when her prophesied heroic role is revealed to be perpetuating a legacy of colonial oppression. The narrative is woven around emotional connection and reconciliation, whether between Adora and Catra or the rebel princesses with their various differences, such that these efforts turn out vital to the triumphant conclusion of the story[3]. Therefore, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power not only centres queer existences and relationships, but also portrays other significant aspects of the queer lived experience such as friendship, found family and resistance against oppressive regimes. In this manner, it intertwines queerness with the narrative at multiple levels, thus making it inseparable from the story itself.

The relationships that are portrayed in queer media also often transcend all attempts at categorisation, but are still undeniably queer – as are the characters whose inescapable push-and-pull, to their audience, often becomes the plot itself. Nowhere is this more apparent than for Killing Eve (2018-22) and Good Omens (2019-). Good Omens is the series adaptation of the same-titled book co-authored by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, following the angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley as they join forces to stop the impending End of the World. Over their 6,000 years of knowing one another, Crowley and Aziraphale have discovered that they have more in common with each other than the vaunted agendas of their respective “sides” and as they try to save the world, they have to contend with how they don’t only fear losing the world, but also losing each other. Though they both present as queer-passing middle-aged men, they are not subject to (much) homophobia within the human world. However, their relationship is still carried out in secret, as they both risk destruction if found out by either of their factions. They cannot accept their deeper feelings for each other precisely because their connection has been fraught with danger for so long. Thus whether you perceive their relationship as homoerotic, romantic, or otherwise queer-platonic, Aziraphale and Crowley share an indisputably queer bond[4].

Killing Eve (based on the Villanelle novel series by Luke Jennings, with Phoebe Waller-Bridge as head writer of the first season) focuses on the cat-and-mouse game between whip-smart Eve Polastri, MI5 desk agent-turned-MI6 investigator and Villanelle, a ferocious international assassin at the top of her field – whose obsessive attraction to each other quickly escalates to being more than just professional. While Villanelle is already effervescent in her queerness, her psychopathy plays into a characterisation of the queer monster, wherein queerness is stigmatised by its equation to danger. However, Eve’s pursuit of Villanelle (and by extension, of queerness), is very much about this danger and thrill that it brings to a domestic life that Eve had started to find suffocating. It is also as much about rediscovering her sexuality as it is about finding her true intellectual and psychical equal; her shadow self, as it were[5]. Thus the narratives that are fundamentally queer, far from merely emulating cis-heterosexual dynamics, do not shy away from exploring all of the in-between spaces, the grey areas, all the parts of us that do not fit into boxes. We viewers, along with the characters, go on the journey of uncovering our queerness – the deepest, darkest parts of ourselves that we may have been scared, ashamed, or merely unaware of. Good Omens represents a trusting, nurturing relationship that transcends toxic masculinity, while the passionate women of Killing Eve enable each other to embrace their authenticity in a way that heterosexual relationships often do not, no matter how monstrous their true selves may turn out to be.

Despite all the examples that we have discussed being from the Western media landscape, this fundamental queering of narratives need not end here. The Indian landscape itself is ripe with a variety of such stories waiting to be explored, where each individual lives at the intersection of various conflicting identities, and even heterosexual relationships lose privilege when they stray across religious and caste boundaries. However, whether in the West or in India, queer media is not yet entirely safe from homophobic relics. Shows featuring sapphic relationships often face premature cancellation, and even otherwise excellent media such as Killing Eve can flounder horribly and succumb to the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope, wherein queer characters are killed off to punish their existence within the narrative. Thus we need to aspire beyond having queer media presence restricted to arguing for our right to exist, and reducing queer stories to morality lessons for cis-heterosexual folk, as has been the trend in the recent crop of LGBTQ-themed Indian films.

While it is important to tell stories that are about queer individuals overcoming oppressive societal and legal institutions, such as Malayalam-language film Kaathal: The Core (2023), it is just as important for us to tell more diverse kinds of stories such as the ones discussed, or even stories like Heartstopper (2022-) that spark queer joy, and celebrate queer community and romance alike – overwhelmingly, unapologetically queer stories for queer people.

[1] Ahmed, S. (2006). “Introduction: Find Your Way.” Queer phenomenology: Orientations, objects, others. Duke University Press.

[2] Thomas, P. A. (2021). “She-Ra and The Princesses of Power as Queer Monomyth.” The Journal of Popular Culture, 54(5), 1095-1115. A research article which profoundly inspired and influenced my own analytic queer reading of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

[3] Elderkin, B. (2020, May 18). “She-Ra’s Noelle Stevenson Tells Us How Difficult It Was to Bring Adora and Catra Home.” Gizmodo.

[4] Gaiman, N. (2023, June 7). [Tumblr]. Neil Gaiman.

[5] Berman, J. (2018, May 25). “Killing Eve: The Showrunner and Stars on the Love Story Behind the Sleeper Hit.” The New York Times.

Cover Image: Photo by Omid Haqsheno on Unsplash