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Why we need a new queer canon

“If we know we need a different future, then what are the texts that help us get there?”

Scene from The Matrix.
Could The Matrix series be part of a new queer canon? We discuss what a reimagined canon could look like.
The Matrix
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

What makes something part of “the canon”? How do we determine which media and cultural products are considered authoritative, definitional, teachable? It’s a question critics and media fans love to debate, but when the canon is queer, things get a lot more complicated.

The Vox Culture team recently got together to create a list of suggestions for a “new” queer canon. Our list consciously moves away from the idea of “the canon” as a list of towering works of art and toward works that offer diversity of human experiences, works that break down binaries, works that dare to imagine queerness as an art form unto itself. In light of a resurgence in political and cultural queerphobia, it’s more important than ever to elevate stories that point us toward a better future.

“What the canon shouldn’t be is a shibboleth — a test of whether you’re a ‘real’ queer,” Cáel Keegan tells me. He’s an associate professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at Grand Valley State University and author of Lana and Lilly Wachowski: Sensing Transgender. “That taste metric and elitism that can come along with canonicity should ideally never be a thing.” Instead, he suggests the canon should be less about curation and more about function — a queer canon that acts upon culture in real time, rather than one that simply sits there being venerated.

That’s a big change in perspective. I asked Keegan to walk me through it.

The fundamental question of, “What even is the queer canon?” isn’t as easy to answer as I thought it would be. One complication I ran into as I was trying to explore this subject is that not everyone believes a queer canon even exists to begin with.

I think whether you want to admit there’s a canon or not, there just is. Either we’re gonna deal directly with the fact that certain groups have really driven our sense of what counts as useful or valuable media — or we’re not going to admit it and just have the canon exist as a sort of unspoken reality that directly reflects power. I think [in] having these kinds of conversations, it’s important to admit that not everyone in the LGBTQ community has been in the position to make those kinds of determinations.

The queer canon has historically been pretty white, pretty cis, and arguably pretty male.

Even when we do have texts that have diverse representations in them, they’re often texts that are elevated by white cultural producers for white audiences. Something like Paris Is Burning, for example, has been debated and debated [in terms of] who that film is actually for. So I think it’s better to lean into those questions. Whether you believe in it or not, the culture produces [a canon].

I think, too, so much of the queer canon is subtextual — Rebel Without a Cause, The Children’s Hour — the stuff of The Celluloid Closet. That obviously has such an impact as we process the stories that we are allowed to relate to.

Mmm-hhmm. And I have a certain love for films that weren’t representationally queer, but were made queer through different kinds of reading. Also, I think there’s a sense of dissatisfaction with directly representational media, where I do see people kind of wanting that older, more arcane way of finding things to be queer, even when they are not stated.

Absolutely. There’s a delight in subverting things that are textually heterosexual.

I mean, that’s kind of how queer media began, with the audience developing reading practices that were applied to the text, versus the text just being like, “I am a gay movie.”

Right. All of the textually queer movies I watched growing up in the ’90s were very cis white male-centered, in a post-AIDS culture that was very much about processing trauma. They were for a very specific community that I didn’t necessarily see myself in but was obviously drawn to.

There was a queer mainstream, if you can call something queer mainstream, canon that developed around teaching straight people how to incorporate gay men — and to some lesser extent lesbians — into the community of normative relationality. Like, this terrible thing happened, all these people died, and now we need these stories — not only for the community ourselves, to process the trauma through whatever mainstream genre codes were available in cinema at that time, but also to teach straight people how to incorporate or assimilate queerness into liberal democracy, through the mechanisms of family, acceptance, tolerance, things like that.

So I think that categorization was working in two directions simultaneously. Lesbians were much more the focus of television movies, particularly in the mid-to-late ’90s. There were a lot of soap opera plots around lesbianism because a lot of those were directed at more of a stay-at-home-moms audience on daytime TV. So those were less canonized. They were treated as more disposable.

I think the question now is, where did the functionality of the canon get us? Because here we are, right? Like, if you wanna say, “Oh, it was useful for getting us gay marriage” — sure. But it’s almost like the canon rewrote the purview of the political framework in which we could imagine a future.

And you might argue that the canon reified a lot of straight cis tropes about queer people at the same time that it was trying to assimilate gay people into that world.

Well, yeah, I mean, I saw a tweet recently that said that gay movies were better when people thought being gay was bad. That really stuck with me because I’m working on a book about bad trans media, and why good representation hasn’t gotten us anywhere culturally.

So much of queerness is about learning to define yourself through opposition and define yourself through deviance, embracing your villainy.

And recognizing that in the villainy there is value, and that villainy is required to alter the system in any kind of meaningful way.

Be gay, do crimes, essentially.

Traditionally the canon was driven by the decisions of a very limited number of people in elite institutions. It’s what was taught as, here is what you need to know in order to be a master of this art form or cultural form, right? I would argue for a redefinition of canon as being works that are popularly valuable — I think that’s a wider and more democratic framework for what is meaningful in any given moment. My idea of canon would make room for something like what you’re talking about.

You’ll always get people saying, “but what do we lose if we allow in this new stuff, and how do you know this stuff will be meaningful in five years?” But I find that those claims usually reflect the interests of white people with money. So, “What is the canon doing?” is the question for me. Canon isn’t a container as much as a function. If we know the present is pretty awful and we know we need to go in a different direction in order to get a different future, then what are the texts that help us get there? And those are the things we should be paying attention to.

The old canon has delivered us to this moment, which is not a great moment! So we should be asking some questions about why that happened and how it happened. Processing trauma, making arguments for inclusion and tolerance — that’s the old popular function of that post-Hays Code canon. What are the new demands? What are the new needs?

I think one new demand would be to really reflect the mentality of modern queer people. The people around me are all really diverse, really global. My friends are on many different continents, many different ethnicities and backgrounds, and they all bring so many different perspectives and there’s just such a breakdown of binary norms in general. I feel like very little mainstream media reflects that, which is perhaps why I personally, and many queer people, tend to go outside of the mainstream for the content that we consume. I think part of that is because we’re looking for things that are wild and outside of the box when it comes to thinking about gender and thinking about sexuality and thinking about a lot of things that are innately part of queer identity.

I like that you raised the idea of binarization because binarization was one of the ways in which that older canon made arguments for the inclusion of white cis gays and lesbians. Like, yes, we are gay and lesbian, but we can largely privatize our sexualities and we fit right into the male/female sex binary. We really do need cultural production that helps us question and see beyond this retrenchment of the sex binary that we’re dealing with. Ideally a new canon would help us deal with that.

I like to argue that we should be thinking outside of just film, TV, theater, and literature, and considering other forms of media. I’m wondering how feasible you think that is.

The old canon was really driven by content. It was about masterworks. “These are works produced by the great minds.” My argument would be that we should ideally move away from that because whatever we think is the masterwork in this moment reflects our own sense of what’s good and bad, rather than what actually is useful.

I would argue for a use-based canon. That means asking, “What is the media that is touching people the most? What are people referring to? What’s the thing people are using in their everyday lives to imagine politically, to organize, to communicate, to develop new forms of identification?”

I also think we’re pretty far from having an established canon that really fully includes genderqueer and nonconforming and nonbinary stories. In terms of what gets elevated and what gets talked about, we just don’t really have that many, and obviously that’s especially true for people of color. Could a new canon help boost those stories?

What’s interesting is that a number of texts that used to be thought of as genderqueer or nonbinary texts have been retroactively rewritten as being trans, but things that are very in the canon, like Stone Butch Blues for example, were understood to be genderqueer texts. There are things in the more recent canon that don’t show up the way they used to because of how “transgender” has risen as the new identity catch-all for non-cisgender things. So there’s a lot of potential transness that’s getting forced into this binary framework by a media culture that really needs trans people to show up as a legible gender to be marketable.

So there’s a lot of pressure on creators. The stuff that gets through presents trans people as similar to cisnormative standards of beauty and gender comportment — and really only trans women. There’s very little out there in the popular mainstream frame that represents trans men at all, in any kind of diverse way.

What we have is a culture obsessed with trans women for various problematic reasons. And that near-fetishization of trans women as either goddesses or sex workers really blots out everything else and makes everything else really hard to market. Which is the other big problem. None of this stuff exists outside the issue of it needing to generate money for somebody.

The ways you’re allowed to be visibly queer and visibly genderqueer in public are incredibly specific. I don’t really see any stories at all that reflect a non-binary experience for someone who doesn’t look like an androgynous model, ever. And I don’t think I would, because it would mean confronting people with very visibly jarring images of non-binary people and what we actually look like. Coming back to the idea that a new canon might be able to change some of this — is that too aspirational? Are there stories right now that you think are doing that work of changing the conversation?

I keep thinking about where people are making stuff that’s touching a lot of people, that’s driving conversation and rocking the boat a bit. It’s almost impossible as a trans creator to do that without getting a whole bunch of people really angry at you. I’ve been thinking a lot about this — what is the equivalent of a text now that’s gonna be as big as something like The Matrix was for 1999?

I would put Natalie Wynn in there, definitely. I understand that not everyone is a fan of hers, but I do think her impact on the culture and some areas of her videography have been really asking deep questions about representation and beauty standards. She’s not perfect, no one is, but I would argue that her work on YouTube actually has the level of circulation and impact that is arguably canonicity. I would just put her up there as somebody in the YouTube space who’s extremely culturally influential, even if we don’t think of her as making representational or narrative work.

Then I think about stuff like the video game Celeste, made by a non-binary creator who then, after the game came out, was like, “Actually, the protagonist of this game is trans and I created the whole game from an unknowing trans perspective.” Celeste is something I would teach in a class about queer and trans game design and what it’s like to make something that’s gonna touch a lot of people — that’s going to give them a queer experience of the world without saying upfront, this is what this is.

Obvious things like Moonlight are gonna be in the new canon no matter what. It’s the stuff that people aren’t quite aware of, on the edges of the cultural critical conversation.

That’s one reason why I wanted to include the Chinese danmei novel I recommended because it’s done so much to globalize conversations and really bring people together. It’s actively transforming publishing to a degree — this is a work that is actually changing the culture in real time. Maybe it’s not canonical in terms of what would have traditionally been considered a looming, towering work of great artistic genius, but it’s functioning within culture in a way that is very meaningful, and I think that’s important.

And then maybe this means that we just completely redefine what we mean when we say canon — like maybe we just throw out the traditional definition of canon altogether.

Well, to produce a queer canon would probably be to change the function of it, because to queer something literally means to change its direction — to twist it. So, yeah, I like thinking about it less as just a container of recommended content and much more like a tool.

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