This article was crossposted from my other blog, A Trivial Knot, under the title “Two theses on queer readings“.
As part of my usual youtube browsing, I was checking out a games criticism channel, Transparency, and I watched a video titled “Queering Animal Crossing | A Helpful Guide to Queer Readings” (29 minutes). I don’t think it says anything truly unusual, it’s just an entertaining and accessible introduction to the topic.
Videos like this are useful for me to reflect on my own views, and crystallize disagreements. So here I present two theses about queer readings. First, I assert that queer readings are not always political, but also form an ordinary part of how queer people consume media. Second, I argue that asexual readings are an essential concept that should be introduced as part of basic education about queer readings.
Queer readings as ordinary
The Transparency video does a good job of establishing the point that queer readings are not “alternative” interpretations of texts. Rather, they show how queerness–which exists all over the place in the real world–has also slipped into our fiction, as much as heteronormativity may try to stop it or ignore it. Queer readings do not require any “proof” of queerness, after all this is fiction and there is no underlying truth of the matter. Nor do queer readings require any knowledge or theorizing about the intentions of the creators. Queer readings are just about recognizing hints and potentialities that exist in our fiction. Straight audiences regularly interpret knowing glances between m/f pairs as a code for romance, we can very well do the same for queer pairings.
As part of this whole explanation, they talk about why we make queer readings, and here is where I have a bit of a disagreement.
By making readings like this, and pointing these elements out, and highlighting where they cross over or clash into the mainstream culture, we normalize and legitimize them. Most of all, we want to do this to let representation break free from the shackles of connotation, to not just be relegated to implication. To not be seen as alternative anymore. (23:15)
I feel this explanation, and the video as a whole, puts a lot of emphasis on the political motivations for making queer readings. I put forth that queer readings may be politically motivated as they describe, but are not typically so. I can believe that people tweeting about Animal Crossing sometimes have political motivations. And when academic queer theorists talk about queer readings, it’s explicitly political. But I regularly have queer interpretations of most works of fiction that I consume, and usually the only person who hears about it is my husband. These queer readings cannot do any political work if nobody else ever hears about them.
The thing to understand is, we’re in a same-sex relationship, like, literally every single day of our lives. This is an ordinary thing to us, and it’s ordinary to see it in fiction as well. Note that I do not “ship” characters, but one doesn’t need to ship characters to see moments of potential queerness between them. When I see it, it doesn’t feel political, it usually feels more like a private joke. “That sure was a queer thing that just happened, are you seeing this too?”
Not to say that all queer readings are obvious. I wasn’t aware of the queer coding of villains (e.g. Scar from The Lion King or Ursula from The Little Mermaid) until I learned more about the history of the archetype. Some kinds of queer readings will just never come naturally to me, such as spotting “found families”, since that’s an aspect of queer experience that I happen to not share. This is why education around queer readings is valuable. But one does not need to be educated about queer readings to find them.
Queer readings can certainly be political, especially when they get discussed in the public realm. But if you only look at those public discussions, you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
Asexual readings as essential
The Transparency video focuses on a particular pairing of characters in Animal Crossing: CJ and Flick. These characters are canonically roommates and business partners. This opens up the possibility that they might also be in a romantic and sexual relationship. At least, that is how the video and a bunch of folks on twitter interpreted it. As the video explains, this is just one of many valid interpetations.
Another interpretation really jumps out to me, that they are an asexual couple.
And I think this is important to highlight, because it demonstrates that when we say there are multiple valid interpretations, we really mean it. There is a tendency in queer readings, especially because of the political dimension, to emphasize the gay reading as the only valid interpretation and other interpretations as ridiculous. This is not, strictly speaking, an accurate understanding, and it often plays out as a sort of joke to make fun of the oblivious straights who can only see “roommates”. The joke feels acceptable because it’s “punching up”. But it isn’t always punching up, because in fact the straights are not the only people in the world who aren’t gay.
Here’s the issue: I regularly hear about fandom conflicts between people with ace readings and people with gay readings, and I don’t even follow fandoms (here are a couple examples). Because gay readings are sometimes a sort of political project, ace readings are interpreted as an attack on that political project, an attempt to negate, erase, or desexualize queer characters. This should clearly be a non-issue, as it is possible for multiple interpretations to coexist, even when they directly contradict each other (“they be fuckin'” vs not that), but people aren’t really taught that. Ace readings, aside from being valuable in their own right, are also pedagogically valuable.
So let’s talk a bit about asexual readings. One huge factor is that there is plenty of fiction in which the characters never have sex, and are never implied to have sex. (And, for what it’s worth, even if they were implied to have sex, that doesn’t necessarily contradict asexuality either.) So we live in this world where a significant fraction of fiction can be consistently interpreted as being about asexual characters. And indeed all sorts of characters get read as asexual, as suits the tastes of the individual reader. However, more popular ace readings tend to have some hook that resonates with people. For instance if a character is said to be “married to their work“, or to “have no deal“.
Over the past decade, we’ve seen more works of fiction where characters are no longer simply ace-coded, but are explicitly stated to be asexual. This has lead the ace community to put much less emphasis on ace readings, in favor of unambiguous representation. The idea being that we could be satisfied with hints and subtext, often produced by authors with latent anti-ace prejudice–or we could demand explicit references that all the world can see. Discourse about ace characters has been dominated by the need for visibility. But over time, a degree of visibility has already been achieved, and activists shift their priorities towards fighting for acceptance, among other things. Ace readings are due to become fashionable again.
So why might I read CJ and Flick as an asexual couple? They’re said to be roommates, there’s no reference to sex, it’s very well possible they’re in a romantic asexual relationship. And in this reading, they’re also gay in addition to being asexual–or they could be bi or pan or demi or whatever.
But there’s also another kind of reading, where they’re not in a romantic relationship at all. A common subject of discussion within ace spaces, is relationships that do not fit conventional categories. These relationships may defy expectations about friends, for example friends who are committed to cohabiting, and sticking together even if they have to move cities. People may seek these relationships to fulfill practical functions that society expects you to get from romantic partners, or just because they have a desire for it. You know, in the world of Animal Crossing, it is not typical for characters to be roommates with each other. Most characters are depicted as living on their own (although there are a few families that live somewhere offscreen, so who can say about those?) CJ and Flick definitely seem to have an unconventional cohabiting relationship, and that’s already super ace without assuming anything else about them.
Is this a winning interpretation that could become popular among ace audiences? Maybe not… I certainly didn’t think of it until prompted. But it didn’t take all that much prompting, that’s all I’m saying.
You might hear this example and think “But so many characters can be read as ace this way!” Well no, ace readings are usually inspired by story hooks that most people would have difficulty detecting. But also, yes! The potential for queerness is everywhere in fiction, and there’s no escape. Just like in the real world.