I have a problem with homoerotic subtext. It’s not that I totally hate it or anything. I just… have a teeny, tiny beef with it.
Analyzing homoerotic subtext can be exciting, particularly when it comes to canon character development and fan interpretation. I also think it’s a powerful social tool, used to subtly rebel against our culture’s suffocating blanket of heteronormativity.
On the other hand, historically it has revealed that same culture’s suppression of sexual expression and the media’s (un)conscious habit of alluding to homoerotic tension without ever planning to deliver on it. Even worse, creators use it so they can justify refusing to overtly acknowledge queer sexuality. It’s inclusive enough without offending anyone who both disapproves of LGBTQIA relationships and has a pocketbook.
That last one is where most of my issues with the device lie. Recently, there’s been a growing inclination within fan culture and media critique to label subtext as progress. Vulture’s “Deadpool and the Promising Rise of Heteroflexibility in Comedies” did exactly that earlier this week when it examined how the film promoted the character’s pansexuality. Stringing together evidence from several recent comedies, the piece argued we should see the character as a step forward in LGBTQIA representation. Deadpool is speckled with subtextual nods to his sexuality, very much like the comics. And you’d certainly be surprised about how much of the original source material made it over into the film’s interpretation of the character. That’s a large part of why the movie (proudly) earned its R-rating.
But see, subtext is exactly what it sounds like: beneath the text. The issue with character development that occurs underneath the surface is that you can’t totally confirm or deny that it’s happening or what it means. It’s sort of like that riddle about the tree in the forest. If no one is there to hear it fall, did it really fall at all?
If we define progress as “forward or onward movement,” we need to identify point A and point B, and then see the tree fall. So while I think Vulture’s position–which is shared by a good few–is a well-intentioned one, I question whether failing to show sexuality outside of opposite-gender attraction is good representation. Or rather, progressive representation. Even when the lead male character in a major motion picture is seen taking a strap-on from his girlfriend.
Homoerotic humor has certainly evolved from the days of Zoolander. Now more than ever we’re seeing people walk the line. Sometimes with a sleep deprived sloppy peck, or if a studio is really feeling edgy, a night of drunken stupor. After these characters realize what they’ve done, though, that experience isn’t framed as an exploration or expression of identity. It was just that one wild moment, when their guard was totally down and the question of whether they could make a sound judgment call (or worse, properly consent) comes up. Any erotic build up between that character and the character they were subtexting with is immediately snuffed. Their point B doesn’t exist.
In this instance, comedy is a coded way of acknowledging potential audience discomfort, a feeble attempt at using homophobia against itself. It usually goes down via two scenarios: the game of gay chicken, as Vulture pointed out, and the “progressive” appeal. The latter often has a character played as a “cool straight,” a heterosexual who is comfortable kissing someone of the same gender, but, unlike other identities on the spectrum, possesses no actual sexual or romantic desire for same sex or same gender intimacy.
The joke has essentially turned from being about two men kissing, to how much of two men kissing can we take, to the fact that some people might be uncomfortable with two men kissing but whatever, they live in the stone age. Jokes on them, but remember no actual homo.
This is why, when it comes to Deadpool’s handful of allusions, it’s hard for me to applaud its audacity, as much as I really, really want to. When Deadpool’s director announced that the movie planned to keep the character’s sexuality the same as it is in the comics, I nearly cried. If any Marvel character was going to break down the genre’s hyper-masculine and heteronormative walls, it was gonna be this envelope-pushing anti-hero. The confirmation was a small victory in a big battle, particularly in the superhero universe where straight-maleness reigns supreme.
Ultimately, the off-screen endorsement may have ended up being the best part of the entire thing. Even now, fans are debating how the comics represent pansexuality. Deadpool is also first and foremost a dark action comedy, where most of everything is going to be played for violence and laughs. Then there’s the well-trodden path of homoerotic subtext, which the writers’ ultimately took. This way they only allude to Deadpool’s pansexuality rather than calling it by its name. Or better yet, showing it.
Painfully, the movie has fallen into this trap. Sure, Deadpool takes it from his girlfriend and likes Wham and Rent, but none of those are trademarks of the non-hetero club, despite our cultural stereotyping.
The fact is, all any of the film’s homoerotic subtext does is keep Deadpool’s interest in anyone outside of a cis-woman questionable. At worst some will label it queerbaiting; at best they’ll call it progress. As the Vulture article argued, Deadpool attempts to use humor to flip the punchline, bringing people typically used as the butt of the joke in on the laughs. But most of the time it just reads as an edgy spattering of off-color one-liners. Cause, I mean, a guy who looks like that has to take what he can get, am I right?
While I believe there will be more Deadpool movies to come and possibly an even clearer representation of his pansexuality, right now the film has mostly just changed the way we expect our superheroes to hero. Otherwise, I’m not even sure there were enough blatant sexuality jokes to argue against him being perceived as heterosexual in the film.
That’s the rotten thing about homoerotic subtext in a heteronormative culture. You are never fully committing to queer representation. Unfortunately for us, big-screen Deadpool has just found a more clever way to say something without actually saying it.
Abbey White (a.k.a. con by day, binge by night) is currently in the weird in-between of a post-bacc journalism program and grad school. She has only two requirements to meet her definition of “decent tv”: characters with high drift compatibility and a massive amount of monster metaphors. Abbey has written regularly for ScreenSpy, and contributed to Popwrapped and TV Overmind. You can find her on twitter at @tearsandteeth.
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