If you’re white, straight and male you’ve probably never stopped to think about diversity in genre entertainment; but if you don’t fit into that very specific box it can be a very important subject indeed. Peter MacKenzie examines representation and depiction of alternative cultures in geek entertainment, highlighting when it goes right and explaining why it’s a problem when it goes wrong…
A headline caught my eye recently – the sort of clickbait headline that I always promise myself I’ll avoid, but in actuality draws me in like an Episode VII spoiler.
I haven’t watched The Walking Dead since its first season, but now, apparently, one of the main characters is gay. Or is not. Or may be.
Yes, in the sort of non-story that certain entertainment spy sites seem to specialise in, the big news was that the sexuality of a character hadn’t actually been specifically mentioned over the course of the series.
Daryl Dixon is one of the characters from the TV series that is not in the comics so is a completely fresh canvas when it comes to his backstory. Apparently there’s been what some consider to be hints about his sexuality, and even creator Robert Kirkman fuelled speculation by refusing to be drawn on the issue.
I’m not sure that “coming out” would be a priority following any apocalypse, never mind a zombie one, so I can’t imagine it really matters in the grand scheme of things.
However, it does raise the intriguing question of similar characters whose entire backstory isn’t completely known. Does Han Solo or Artie Neilson from Warehouse 13 have any family? Is Jamie McCrimmon gay? Where in Scotland did Indiana Jones’s family originate?
It’s almost the adult version of playing make-believe as a kid. Anytime a kid brandishes a stick in the playground while yelling “Expelliarmus!” or throws their Millennium Falcon down the stairs, cutting off a Bespin Security Guard’s right leg in the process, they’re adding to their own personal canon within those fictional universes.
Sometimes these things get answered or over-written by more canonical sources – Han Solo’s cousin was introduced in the Expanded Universe novels; Artie’s son is remembered in a flashback in the series’ finale.
Sometimes they don’t and people’s personal canons are free to evolve. As far as I’m concerned, Jamie did have a crush on the Doctor and Professor Henry Jones Sr. was born on Skye.
Forgive me for repeating myself if you are a regular reader, but probably the most successful of these blank canvas characters is Lt Sean Hawk, as portrayed by Neal McDonough in Star Trek: First Contact. A glorified redshirt, the character is, putting it kindly, a bit of a cardboard cutout. His interactions with the regular crew imply that he’s been there a while, but beyond that there’s very little opportunity to identify or feel empathy with him. His assimilation and presumed death at the hands of Worf was obviously intended to have been a bit of a gutpunch to the audience but was played out more for laughs.
Even before the film came out, there were the usual reports that “a new character would be gay” but, as with countless promises on the part of the producers of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise and, indeed, the reboot film series since, no explicitly gay character appeared.
Rumours that the character intended to be gay was Lt Hawk abounded, but the actor and producers both denied this, although he is depicted as being in a same-sex relationship in the spin-off novels and his husband becomes a regular character in the books set after the events of the film.
One of the more infamous examples is a pure case of clunky, awkward retcon. When JK Rowling announced that, in her head, Albus Dumbledore was gay, it just came across as an afterthought, shoehorning in something that was never meant to be, because of a level of guilt that her world wasn’t as inclusive as she imagined. (See also: Lando Calrissian…)
And, I hate to say it because I’m absolutely sick of certain inferences that the Daily Mail brigade seem to immediately associate with homosexuality, but, as Rita Skeeter herself opined, the notion does lend a certain inappropriateness to his relationship with Harry. (See also: Luke and Leia…)
Is it OK to project these sorts of characteristics onto fictional characters? I would argue it most certainly is. We’ve been inventing extra stories for our favourite heroes since childhood. From running around the playground pretending that you’re Doctor Who, to the dodgiest David Tennant slashfic these created worlds and characters provide us with vast scope for our own imaginations.
Inwardly adding someone’s sexuality – or any other trait – to our own interpretation of any given “universe” isn’t just impossible not to do, it’s practically compulsory.
Permit me, if you will, a little personal reminiscence. Growing up, as I did in the seventies and eighties, there were few gay role models in the public eye, save the Larry Graysons and John Inmans who were in light entertainment and not exactly relatable to me.
So, somewhere between admiration and crush, there were certain characters – of the, dare I say it, more masculine variety – who I imagined to be like me, even if I didn’t quite know what being like me was.
And, in no small way, it’s entirely possible that, as an example, Ray Winstone’s spouseless Will Scarlett helped me through what was almost certainly a very confusing time.
So why shouldn’t Daryl Dixon be gay? I have a hunch that this will be examined, as many predict, in the upcoming season, rendering my arguments moot, and I’m also not sure that impressionable youngsters looking for role models are best served by watching The Walking Dead, but for the moment it’s nice to speculate.
And it also opens up the way for similar characters in other shows, films and books to be treated in a similar fashion. It’s just nice to know that hetero is not necessarily always the default option.