The queer struggle still belongs to straight people
About halfway through the 2010 film Scott Pilgrim, Ramona Flowers’ fourth ex shows up at a bar to battle Scott for Ramona’s heart. Ramona has seven evil ex’s that Scott must duel to win Ramona — and she makes sure to reference them as the gender-neutral ex’s whenever prompted, as opposed to Scott’s assumption that they are all ex-boyfriends. The reference is made so many times during the first half of the film that we know a woman is coming, and the fourth ex delivers with Roxy, a belt-whipping blonde who can disappear and reappear at will.
But for all the posturing Ramona does to ensure the gender-neutral terms in reference to her previous partners, she isn’t, by her own admission, actually queer. “It was just a phase,” she tells Scott quickly, moments before he battles the fourth ex. “It meant nothing.”
Despite this upfront walk-back, Ramona is punished for the sexual deviance anyway, suffering the usual wounds bisexual women grit their teeth and bear every day: Scott sexualizes her (“You had a sexy phase?”) before accusing her of sluttery and hiding her true self (“Is there anyone at this party you haven’t slept with?”). Even Roxy gets in on the action, calling her a “slag” and a “hasbian.” Ramona is shrouded in mystery through most of the film, but it’s at the revelation of a female ex — not, notably, any of the male ex’s, including the twins — that she is blamed for her dishonesty and her history of partners is reframed as a symptom of nymphomania.
Narratively, Scott’s problematic response to Ramona’s sexuality can be excused. For one, we feel for Ramona in the scene: She touches her hair (now blue, once pink; how could anyone make it through this movie thinking she was anything other than queer?), looks visibly hurt at Scott’s remarks, and breaks up with him after the battle with Roxy, paying Scott back for his cruelty in kind. For another, it’s the mid-way point of the movie, where a mini-catastrophe like this is bound to show up. That Scott’s bewilderment and exhaustion at the added complexity is catastrophic enough to warrant being placed at the mid-point doesn’t bother me.
What bothers me is that Ramona suffers for being queer, but isn’t canonically queer.
Three years before this movie came out, JK Rowling announced that Albus Dumbledore, her most iconic character, had actually been gay the whole time. “I would have told you earlier if I knew it would make you so happy,” she told the crowd to whom she’d announced this to after they erupted in cheers. Her hesitance to “tell us sooner” resulted in the books completely omitting this fact about Dumbledore, despite Rowling’s apparent intentions. Can something as groundbreaking as a major character’s sexuality be canonical if it isn’t actually found in canon?
And yet, like Ramona Flowers, Dumbledore suffers tragedy, judgement, and condemnation that gay men suffer every day in the narrative. Throughout the series, his flamboyance is marked by his enemies, particularly in book seven, when the famously gossip-happy journalist Rita Skeeter publishes The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, writing of a “turbulent and disturbing phase of his youth” that happened to coincide with an anti-Muggle political agenda he developed alongside Gellert Grindelwald, with whom he was besotted (confirmed, again, only by Rowling’s post-series commentary). At the hands of Skeeter, the “Potter-Dumbledore” relationship is also thrown into question, when, in a Daily Prophet article titled “Dumbledore: The Truth at Last?” she reveals:
“I devote an entire chapter to the whole Potter-Dumbledore relationship. It’s been called unhealthy, even sinister. […] there is no question that Dumbledore took an unnatural interest in Potter from the word go. Whether that was really in the boy’s best interests – well, we’ll see. It’s certainly an open secret that Potter has had a most troubled adolescence.”
Accusing gay men of pedophilia has been a part of western culture for decades and certainly continues today. The clergy sex abuse crisis was still fresh in the cultural memory as this book came out not five years after the reporting by the Boston Globe; Rowling’s use of the Skeeter’s reporting to call out Dumbledore’s “sinister,” “unnatural interest” in Harry draws to mind what western culture already fears about gay men due to the press perpetuating this stereotype.
Despite the gigantic leap in queer representation Rowling made by announcing Dumbledore’s sexuality in 2007, she does a disservice to her queer fans by not including Dumbledore’s sexuality in canon, as plenty queer people today would agree with. Not all readers will consume an author’s subsidiary content; the canon is the canon, and in canon, Dumbledore is straight until proven guilty, even as his character’s reputation is ruined by scandals that uniquely plague gay men (see also: Rowling’s use of Remus Lupin as an AIDS allegory).
Queer suffering can be depicted in narrative so long as the character is not literally queer in canon. In the 2017 live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s post-release announcement that LeFou is, spoiler alert, gay (!) ends up being rather unwarranted, as LeFou’s storyline mostly comprises moments of comedic sadness as he lets himself be mistreated by Gaston over and over again, much like the assumedly straight LeFou did in the animated original.
What depth could the live action have added to the story if, instead of wasting time on subpar new songs that sound out of sync with the Oscar-winning original score, we spent a real moment of revelation in the battle at the Beast’s castle when LeFou realizes, as Mrs. Potts tells him, that he is too good for Gaston? A quick verse there about realizing one’s worth could have added to the narrative, in which a major theme is the reckoning of the Beast’s and Gaston’s cruelty and selfishness. It could have added queerness to canon. It could have given the suffering of the fictional character its real-life texture.
Similarly, Rowling is allowing the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them 5-movie franchise continue on without acknowledging Dumbledore’s queerness at all. Director David Yates told Entertainment Weekly that Dumbledore’s sexuality wouldn’t be “explicit” because “fans are aware” of it already — meaning young Dumbledore will fall in love and fall out of love with Grindelwald in the place queer fans are used to seeing themselves in major franchises: hidden deep between the lines and in post-movie press releases.
This external commentary on characters sexuality by authors like Disney and Rowling, and the continual assignment of Ramona Flowers as a bisexual icon despite her own self-determination as straight, can be seen as a kind of queer baiting to rope in queer fanbases for their money and eyeballs. But this is different than sweet teases in an otherwise straight environment; these characters absorb the suffering of queer people while being denied canonical queerness, which allows the straight viewer to appreciate the arc of a character without really being able to appreciate who that arc belongs to in real life. Queer narratives super-imposed on straight-passing characters can only challenge the norms so far.
It’s telling that the only other queer character in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is unbothered by his sexuality. Wallace, Scott’s deadpan gay roommate, shouts salty one-liners, beds boy after boy, and helps Scott navigate through the weird world of being a lonely person who just wants to get laid. Wallace is a good character, but he’s static; he doesn’t evolve. The queer sidekick, even when not executed problematically, doesn’t always offer the opportunity for queer viewers to see their real, three-dimensional selves acting out on screen. When the discrimination you know is intimate and hurtful, a narrative in which you see yourself — exactly as you are, sexuality and all — winning the happy ending can be everything.