I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, so imagine my disgust when I learned that the creator of the Potter-verse is an unrepentant TERF and all-around transphobe. Fortunately, the work is not the author and the author is not the work. Even more important, it’s perfectly OK to take existing stories as raw material to be interpreted and shaped in whatever direction your imagination should lead. Turns out I’m a little late to the party in discovering this line of thinking, since shipping dates back at least to the original Star Trek, and fans have probably been reinterpreting their favorite characters and fictional worlds for a whole lot longer than that.
Gabrielle Zilkha’s documentary Queering the Script is a celebration of the creativity and influence of LGBTQ fandom, with a particular emphasis on female fans. It’s no secret that queer women have been under-represented in mainstream popular culture for years. It’s also no secret that representation matters, and if you think it doesn’t, you’re probably part of a group that gets more than its share of representation already. Given this context, it’s unsurprising that 1) strong fan communities formed around certain fictional characters, and 2) fans created new story lines for their favorite characters that went where Hollywood and television, until recently, simply would not go.
These fan communities also let show creators know when they were unhappy with the direction a show was taking—when promised representation turned out to be queerbaiting, for instance, or when the writers fell back on boring clichés like the predatory lesbian, the bisexual converted by a man, or everyone’s favorite, Dead Lesbian Syndrome, when screenwriters kill off lesbian characters for no good reason. The Hays Code hasn’t been in force for years, so today killing off queer characters at a rate disproportionate to their numbers is just lazy screenwriting that allows a show to claim diversity without actually integrating diverse characters into the show. Diversity within queer female representation (with regard to race, ethnicity, body type, and so on) is even more problematic—while The L Word has been rightly criticized for the narrow range of women cast in important roles, the problem neither began nor ended with that show.
The good news is that things have gotten a lot better in the past few years. Some of this is due to fans having more ways to communicate with each other and to make their opinions known, and some is due to the creation of new outlets that aren’t dependent on big budgets or advertising revenue. Web series and streaming subscription television come immediately to mind, and both allow creators to take more risks and cater to niche audiences in ways not feasible on broadcast TV or in big-budget films.
Queering the Script proceeds in several complementary directions at once. The first is to present information about queer characters and story lines, often supported with statistical analysis, to demonstrate that problems with representation are real and can be documented. A second direction is provided through numerous interviews with the movers and shakers of the industry, who spill the tea on how things happen and why. The third direction is a celebration of fan communities, who are by and large a delightful bunch of people. But why shouldn’t they be? They’re doing something that is meaningful to them, and that makes them happy, and they get to share the experience with other like-minded people, so you’d have to be a real Grinch to be unhappy for long in that context. True confession: I haven’t watched that much Xena: Warrior Princess, but the Xenite Retreat (basically, summer camp for Xena fans) looked like so much fun that I had to remind myself that we’re in the midst of a pandemic and I shouldn’t even think about trying to sign up for it. | Sarah Boslaugh
Queering the Script is available for streaming as part of QFest St. Louis 2020, which runs from June 19 through June 28. Individual film tickets are $10 ($8 for Cinema St. Louis members and students), and all-access festival passes are $75 ($60 for Cinema St. Louis members). Further information is available from the festival web site.