One of the greatest jokes I’ve seen recently within the queer lady media circles is a gifset pulled from Planet Earth, showing flamingos on parade. It’s describing the migration of queer women in fandom moving from one show to another. Orphan Black to Carmilla to The 100 to Person of Interest to Wynonna Earp to that one episode of Black Mirror to Supergirl; and it got me thinking about the migration, and the why behind the migration.
The gist of that gifset is that so many queer fans are so starved for representation that they’ll flock from canon couple to canon couple. When I first saw it, I kept wondering why I’ve never done it. Then it hit me: I grew up in the subtext era, and this is a whole new generation of representation. The above shows have wonderful canon lesbian and bi/pan/otherwise identifying women to ship with their canon lesbian or bi/pan/otherwise identifying partner. It is not how I grew up interacting with fandom, it isn’t how I engage in fandom now, and I think a lot of older queer lady fan people can relate to that feeling due to the ways our access to and expectations about representation have changed.
A generational gap exists between kids who’ve grown up seeing queer women on their TVs come out, be in relationships, be happy and fulfilled; and those of us who got to see Willow kiss Tara like it was a revelation, got to watch the epic love story of Xena and Gabrielle without ever getting the confirmation we so desperately wanted. These days, many queer pairings still start out with the subtext that was perfected as an art form in the days of Xena, but the migrating fandom doesn’t to show up until two attractive ladies are making out on their screen, until there’s confirmation that the gay is happening
I get it. I really, really do. When I was younger I would have killed for TV like we have it now, even with all the death. I like being able to see myself on TV. I like seeing attractive ladies kiss. That’s a good reason to come and watch a show. I do it. Other people do it. And it’s okay. We should talk about positive representation and celebrate shows that actually do show the queerness as opposed to queerbaiting. Here, I would argue that queerbaiting is defined not by a show like Person of Interest or Warehouse 13, but rather a show like Rizzoli and Isles or Once Upon a Time, which clearly understands it’s queer fandom and does just enough to keep them engage, while still engaging in problematic and borderline homophobic behavior in its efforts to remind it’s cis, straight audience that it isn’t a queer show.
There is a conversation, though, that needs to be had about the fact that there is a group of people who only seem to show up once the attractive ladies are kissing onscreen. In showing up to a fandom only when the lesbian relationship is realized in a sexual nature, are the migrating fans not sexualizing and objectifying queer women in ways that we fight so hard against within society? And, in our only showing up at the moment of the kiss, is suggestion that really, the only thing that matters is that kiss, not the subtextual, oftentimes seasons-long build to that moment? Is that not as hurtful as network TV going for the gay kiss for the ever-cringeworthy ‘gay bump’?
“When queer fandom makes these migrations, they play out the same harmful engagement by focusing entirely on the visual sexualization of the relationships as the source of their legitimacy,” says @Jennnwho, in discussing the migratory tendencies of queer ladies in fandom with me. “We criticized networks for doing that because it’s objectifying and exploitative [of queer people], rather than allowing queer relationships to develop in the same ways as heterosexual ones in the narrative. When queer women migrate to a show that canonizes a lesbian relationship, it’s the fandom equivalent of a queer ‘sweeps kiss’.”
The migration following the visual sexualization and realization of canon lesbianism in particular illustrates a troubling generational divide in fandom. Older, more established fans, tend to look at this migration as at best an annoyance within fandom, and at worse a legitimate problem; whereas younger, more migratory fans, look at the shipping practices of older fans with derision.
In this day and age of ladies kissing on TV, the argument goes, why would anyone actively ship something that isn’t going to be realized? There’s a lot of negativity directed at people who are content with subtext, and want to watch it grow and see if maybe, in time, it will foster romantic maintext. I was reading comments on a Supergirl tag recently, when I found a post that talked at length about the self-delusion it takes to ship something that’s never going to be canon and how the poster considered it to be a form of self-loathing to never see their One True Pairing realized on screen. This is the generational divide in fandom, this idea that anything that isn’t fully realized on screen isn’t worth your investment of creative energy or fandom time.
In our discussion @Jennnwho brought up an interesting observation: “Something I’ve noticed over the years, and why I still mostly read in subtext fandoms, is that writers do a lot more research and really focus on getting the characterization right in a way that canon parings sometimes don’t because they’re leaning on canon.” In leaning on canon, you rely on a pre-developed a set of rules that dictate how the characters behave and act. In a lot of ways, this can be a gross simplification of the depth of characterization developed over time. Especially if the time is not taken to consume the whole of the canon that’s lead to the moment of the realization of the queer ladies canonly kissing.
The best example of this comes with the migration to the Person of Interest fandom. Person of Interest has always had a small following on social media, but it’s one of the most criminally underrated shows and fandoms out there, with a lot of mature discussion of the themes of morality, the depictions of mental illness and found family — not to mention Root and Shaw’s off screen and BTS-confirmed relationship. It wasn’t a happy show tonally, and it wasn’t one of those feel-good narratives that tend to attract a younger crowd.
The migration had somewhat begun a year before, when Root and Shaw kissed. But Sarah Shahi — who played one half of the queer pairing just realized — was pregnant and would be off the show for a while. Still, people came. And after the season 4 finale aired, many people joined the fandom, more people jumped on board right before season 5 started. From @TinyHammerLady’s perspective, they tended to skew younger, and tended to “ignore the BTS stuff about Root and Shaw being off screen canon and ignored the meta about it being mainly subtext and they ignored, in some cases, the context for the show itself and even the characters and the actual ship just for the sake of two women together.”
This migration, as it was put in my discussion with @GrumpyYetAmusin “[C]reated this weird scenario wherein queer women on TV must be sexualized in order to exist.” It diminishes the idea that a pairing like Root and Shaw, which rested on the laurels of strong subtext and BTS confirmation for two years before become realized as on-screen canon, is worthy of the same love and attention as something that is spelled out in plain text for anyone to see. It wasn’t a typical love story, and it was told mostly in subtext. But, as @TinyHammerLady put it, “neither of them are typical in anyway, and people expected that. Post-migration people were [pissed] at Shaw for not properly expressing her grief […] despite the fact that she had a PD and doesn’t emote typically. Pre-migration people seemed to tend to get that more and recognize her grief for what it was and accept it as it was.”
For Person of Interest fans who were active in the fandom before the canonization of Root and Shaw, there wasn’t much of an expectation of anything. They were euphoric when it was realized on screen, they’d been paying attention to the meta conversations, to the comments made by actors and writers alike. It was kept ambiguous, subtextual, right up until the point where it wasn’t and they were euphoric. But the people who showed up afterwards? They wanted “kissing and sex and love confessions.” @TinyHammerLady explained. “They expected a lot more and got pissed when they didn’t get it.” She went on to describe how the nature of Person of Interest didn’t really lend itself to the sort of relationship that would fit the mold of instant gratification. @GrumpyYetAmusin concurred, adding, “[T]hey seemed to simply want pretty ladies having sex and snuggling, which is the antithesis of [Person of Interest]. And then they yelled at us because we said, ‘Have you actually been watching?’”
Long-time fans of the show found this influx of people troubling, because very little effort was made to understand the nuance of the seasons-long subtextual build to the relationship. Fans of many shows with long, slow-burn lesbian romances can find this relatable. People show up, and they ask for things like so-called skip lists, or episodes to watch, or they’ll just watch all the relationship scenes on youtube without context before they, in the same breath as venerating their flawed version of the characters, demean or ignore the fandom that was there before for enjoying subtext. @Jennnwho explains, “It undermines the broader goal of normalizing queer relationships by sending the message that we, like the white cis-heterosexual before us, don’t value the characterization and narrative development and ultimately the humanization of these characters either.” In choosing to ignore and dismiss subtext-based pairings until they become canon (if they become canon at all) this fandom migration is ultimately no better than the TV Networks in thinking that two women kissing will bring them ratings, or straight men who find two women together in a sexual nature titillating.