It’s been over a year since She-Ra and the Princesses of Power wrapped up its fifth and “just about perfect” final season with a queer kiss that’s been lauded as one that would change TV forever. The show’s move to transform queer subtext to full-blown representation in Adora and Catra’s relationship — in a show that’s all about compassion, redemption, and chosen family — is one that is remarkable for several reasons.
For series developer Noelle Stevenson, this moment holds tremendous power for queer kids, showing them how there could be “a future for them as bright as anyone else’s.”
Just as overjoyed are the show’s older viewers, who’ve been queer-baited with similar stories with no pay-off plenty of times before. And if this joy comes with a little bit of relief, it’s not unwarranted.
In fact, Stevenson has pointed out that the finale almost didn’t happen this way, even though she had always thought it was integral to the story. She says, “It was sort of a push and pull for pretty much the entire length of the show about what we would be able to show, and what we would have to keep between the lines.”
This push and pull, especially when it comes to queer representation, is far from uncommon. For the vast majority of media history, LGBTQ+ themes and characters have long been minimized on-screen, with queerness hidden in varying degrees. This is a phenomenon that queer activists and film critics describe as “straightwashing.”
Here, but Not Queer
Straightwashing is defined as the interpretation of a queer character or relationship as heterosexual. In other words, it’s when films and TV shows portray gay, lesbian, bisexual, or asexual characters as decidedly straight. Similarly, the term ciswashing describes the practice of portraying trans or non-binary characters as cisgender.
Together, these phenomena highlight how the LGBTQ+ community is marginalized in media and history. Despite modest gains in representation in both film and TV, the problem of media obscuring queerness remains in different forms.
Many films and TV adaptations have changed queer characters into straight characters, as in the case of Thin Red Line (1998), which erased the male characters’ homosexual experiences as depicted in the novel. The writer-gigolo Paul from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) similarly had male and female clients in the original novella. In The CW’s Riverdale, Jughead Jones is depicted as a straight man, even though he’s canonically asexual in the comics.
Toning Down Queerness
Others, meanwhile, tone down queer characters and events to make them more palatable for heterosexual audiences. This form of straightwashing is clearest in the case of Stonewall (2015), which erased renowned activists and transgender women of color Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, even as it promised to share the story of “the untold heroes” of the Stonewall riots. Instead, director Roland Emmerich created a cis, white, masculine-presenting gay man named Danny Winters to lead the riots and throw the first brick.
This kind of erasure is wild given that Emmerich himself is an openly gay man, and that the film is about a crucial turning point for LGBTQ+ rights. Emmerich explains that he made the movie for both gay and straight people, the latter of which he thought would find Danny relatable and “a very easy in.” (Its 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is, for me at least, generous.)
Ignoring Queerness in Marketing Queer Media
Meanwhile, marketing materials are also a popular site of straightwashing. One frustrating example would be Pride (2015), a comedy-drama film about gay and lesbian activists of the ‘80s. Its DVD release referred to its protagonists as “London-based activists,” which you might think would be okay given that the film is literally entitled Pride, and maybe the distributors thought the distinction wouldn’t matter. But upon closer inspection, you’d see that the image printed along with the DVD was photoshopped to remove a banner that explicitly identified its holders as “lesbians and gays.”
The same erasure has been noted in the DVD cover for A Single Man (2009), where the protagonist George Falconer’s 16-year-long gay relationship is disregarded in place of an image of Julianne Moore resting her head on Colin Firth’s shoulder. The promotional posters for Brokeback Mountain (2005) similarly show the protagonists either with their respective wives or alone. Even more recently, a now-deleted tweet about Call Me By Your Name (2017) promoted the film as a romance but with Timothée Chalamet’s Elio next to his childhood friend Marzia, with whom he has a brief — but not the movie’s central — affair.
All this isn’t to say, of course, that queer media needs to come with rainbow flags on either side of its posters, or that directors can’t make creative decisions of their own. But the tendency towards erasure is nonetheless telling of what the industry deems important to show, and what isn’t.
Besides, presenting LGBTQ+ characters and narratives through a straight lens is not only demeaning to actual LGBTQ+ people, but it’s also a little insulting to straight audiences, who are assumed to be incapable of stepping into other people’s shoes.
Not a New Phenomenon
As some of the older films mentioned suggest, straightwashing is far from a recent phenomenon, and it’s mostly rooted in institutional homophobia.
Between 1934 and 1968, the Motion Picture Production Code of the US prohibited major studios from depicting homosexuals, which were de facto included under the code’s clauses banning sex perversion. This led, for example, to the erasure of Paul’s bisexuality in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). The code also prohibited interracial relationships, as well as showing sex outside of marriage in a way that made it seem okay.
(To be fair, parts of the code were within reason, as it also stipulated that detailed crime, gruesome violence, and sexual assault should not be normalized on screen.)
In response, screenwriters and directors tried their best to subtly squeeze in queer characters and themes. But because of the restrictions, many ended up resorting to stereotypes and visual clues to signal a character’s sexual orientation to an audience. Unfortunately, in an effort to avoid backlash, many of these queer-coded characters were also villainized.
Though the code certainly no longer applies to today’s media, there is still some institutional reluctance about showing LGBTQ+ characters and themes, as we can see in the cases below.
An Incomplete List of Would’ve-Been Queers
- Okoye and Ayo in Black Panther (2018). On screen, Captain Okoye is a combination of the comic-based Okoye and Aneka, the captain of the Dora Milaje. In the comic World of Wakanda, Aneka is romantically tied to fellow Dora Milaje warrior Ayo, who also appears in the movie, but not as Okoye’s love interest. In the film, Okoye is married to a man.
- Mystique in the X-Men movies (2000-2019). In the comics, Mystique is very clearly bisexual, and has a long-term relationship with a character called Destiny.
- Deadpool in the Deadpool movies (2016 and 2018). Deadpool is pansexual in the comics, and Marvel writer Gerry Duggan describes him as “ready and willing to do anything with a pulse.” The pulse part seems to be optional, though, as he has been romantically tied to Mistress Death.
- Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok (2017). A scene referencing her bisexuality was filmed but ultimately cut out of the final product. She may not be on this list for long, though, as she is set to have a romantic relationship with Jane Foster in next year’s Thor: Love and Thunder.
- Wonder Woman across various films. Diana Prince is canonically bisexual in the comics, but you wouldn’t know that from watching all the movies made about her.
- Hercules across various films. Movies portray him rightly as one of most iconic macho men in popular culture, but they’ve kept this demigod’s long history of bisexuality pretty quiet.
- Jughead in Riverdale. Cole Sprouse, the actor who plays Jughead in the show, has campaigned for the character to maintain his asexuality, as established in the comic books. However, the showrunners decided that he should try some heteronormative relationships first.
- Celie in The Color Purple (1985). In Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Celie is not attracted to men and finds personal freedom in the arms of a woman, Shug Avery. The film greatly tones this affair down.
- Paul in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Paul was meant to be a stand-in for author Truman Capote, who is gay.
- Corporal Fife in The Thin Red Line (1998). In the original novel, Jeffery Fife has a secret affair with Private Edward Bead, a story that is erased in the movie.
- Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone (2010). In the original novel penned by Daniel Woodrell, Ree’s best friend Gail plays a much bigger role. Their relationship has lesbian undertones that do not make it to the movie.
- Lestat and Louis in Interview With the Vampire (1994). While adapting her 1976 novel to a film, author Anne Rice almost made Louis’s character into a woman because of homophobia in Hollywood. She even nearly casted Cher for the part!
- The baseball players in A League of Their Own (1992). Josephine D’Angelo, a real-life player who played alongside Dorothy Schroeder, whom Geena Davis’s Dottie Hinson is modeled after, was kicked out of The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League after she got “a butchy haircut.” The league did its best to feminize their players as a lot of the girls were actually gay, and the film ended up playing to the league’s wishes and erasing their queerness. There is some good news, though: The Netflix documentary A Secret Love (2020) tells the story of two baseball players who met and fell in love in the league, while the upcoming Amazon TV series is set to explore themes of sexuality and racism more than its (still well-loved) film counterpart.
The Stories We Choose to Tell Matter
LGBTQ+ representation in the media has long been important in the fight for equality, but in the time of a pandemic, even more so. Making non-cishet people and themes more visible, rejecting harmful stereotypes, and centering inclusive storytelling — all of these matter.
In truth, getting to see Adora and Catra acknowledging their feelings for each other instead of leaving their love as something to be read between the lines, or possibly even ignored or rejected at will, is a powerful thing. It is this joyful declaration of love and identity, something that was made impossible for queer people for so long, that can defeat evil both on-screen and in real life.