Subtext (in media a with a mention of fiction) part 1

The word ‘subtext’ can convey a multitude of things, wordweb defines it thus’

The underlying meaning or message of a piece of writing or speech

For my purposes I’m talking about one specific type of subtext; femslash (lesbian/bisexual or generally queer overtones), a subject I have mentioned in a previous post, and undoubtedly will in future posts. However, this is a more specific look at the basis behind the fiction, which in this instance I am not overly concerned with.

The Celluloid Closet (1995) documentary based upon the late Vito Russo’s book (1987 Revised edition) of the same title, was one of the first instances where I realised that other people were putting into words something that, until I saw The Celluloid Closet, I thought only I did. Seeing that something extra, or hidden within what I was viewing or reading (though initially it was only in films or TV), basically; subtext.

I don’t recall what age I was when I first started applying this to what I was watching and I was fairly discerning at first, choosing to infer a potential relationship only to people who, after some consideration, I though might actually be feasible. (At least to my far more innocent mind, which seriously limited the scope of my options, especially since I was a slave to; Sesame Street, Mork and Mindy, MASH and Red Dwarf, not the most conducive TV shows to this sort of viewing).

I suppose my first foray may well have been Xena: Warrior Princess, though I remain somewhat uncertain as to the actual veracity of that suggestion, since it might be retrospective opinions coming into play. I missed most of season 1, like all my television viewing I started out behind the times, so jumped right into to the second season. After barely a handful of episodes I was fairly convinced; Xena and Gabrielle were definitely together, “Perdicus, smerdicus – what marriage?” and the Xena/Ares shennaigans always freaked me out somewhat.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (1991) was certainly the first film I truly viewed in this way, where I really thought about the possibilities. To me it was pretty obvious that Idgie and Ruth loved each other and lived together. I truly couldn’t understand how it was possible that nobody else could see that.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I finally managed to locate a copy of Fannie Flagg’s novel, having finally cottoned on to the realisation that there was one and that was what the film was based upon.

(I didn’t have internet access, at least not regularly until about 1998/9 so I had never come across IMDB.com or anything else like that; I was entirely reliant on the Timeout film guides etc, which I trawled for potential films, then scoured my Radio Times trying to find times and VCR recording time codes. Me and my VHS tapes were old friends and through them and my obsessive tapings at random hours I watched a lot of films, A LOT.)

Having obtained my copy, via WH Smith when they were, if not a good bookshop, at least a very reliable ordering service with helpful staff (which now looks a smidge battered as I have read it so many times) I soon came to realise that what I had seen in the film between Idgie and Ruth was in fact the truth in the novel… well, for a non-explicit definition of ‘truth’. Of course then I felt somewhat gypped by the film, but no matter, ultimately I loved the film and the book and still do some 14 or so years later… some loves truly are everlasting, indeed it is one of my ‘classics’ (See: ‘My Classics’ post for further details).

For me subtext is something I started doing because I gradually came to the conclusion that there was very little out there that was even vaguely reflective of my life or how I felt. The stories I felt might be, or were, pertinent to myself were not being told, at least not that I’d found by that point, so it was essentially ‘up to me’ to find what I was looking for within the media provided or available to me.

I’d look for characters not only that I liked, but also for those who worked well with another character on screen, this included people playing siblings. Let me make it abundantly clear, for me this was not about sexual or literal relations between characters, so I never even considered the idea that it would be incest, it was simply seeing a closeness between two women that was what I was after.

In fact it was never about anything sexual, (yes this has changed over the years, and yes it did become so, to a lesser or greater degree and by that time the siblings were quite firmly ruled out) but to be honest it’s still not all that I am looking for; it’s just not what turns my crank in this scenario, at least as a general rule, it’s the potential relationship that they may have, not the sex that matters(ed).

So, back to Xena: Warrior Princess (Xena/Gabrielle) and then; Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Buffy/Willow) were the next things that struck my interest… partly because they were the only things I watched by this time that had any sort of potential, barring the X-Files and quite frankly I never saw the Scully/Mulder thing, which is a good example of a different type of subtext, one that more mainstream audiences look for, but not what I am talking about here… besides for me X-Files came to fruition during the end of season 8 with the arrival of Agent Monica Reyes, now that was some great subtext viewing.

Now it is something so ingrained within me that it’s just something I spot… which can be a little weird and not something I generally talk to friends about as it’s not something that they do, in fact I don’t believe I have ever had conversations with my friends about this.

I have had several favourite ‘pairings’ over the years, where I can see the potential. I am ignoring any where it actually comes to fruition, at least I am for the purpose of this rambling.

  • Veronica/Mac  – Veronica Mars
  • Emma/Shalimar – Mutant X
  • Jill/Cindy – Women’s Murder Club
  • Barbara/Helena – Birds of Prey
  • Buffy/Willow – Buffy the Vampire Slayer (at least I did for awhile, then I gave them up for a truly lost cause, besides Willow ended up with Tara, and later Kennedy, so the need for subtext died a quiet little (happy) death)
  • Inara/Kaylee – Firefly/Serenity
  • Lorelai/Sookie – Gilmore Girls (These two took me a couple of episodes before I realised that they weren’t actually together and raising Rory, I’m not sure whether or not to be embarrassed by that fact or just disappointed)
  • Emily/JJ –Criminal Minds
  • Ash/Scribbs – Murder in Suburbia
  • Scully/Reyes – X-Files
  • Susan/Talia – Babylon 5
  • Sam/Janet – SG-1
  • Kris/Tiffany – Charlie’s Angels
  • Sabrina/Kelly – Charlie’s Angels

I understand that for many they just don’t see the above pairings, that’s all fine and dandy, I’m not claiming anything definitive here and I’m not asking or requiring that you see what I see. Afterall that’s the whole fun and point of subtext, it’s subtextual you can choose to see something or not and folk see different things depending on how you’re… wired I guess. This is merely how I approach my viewing pleasure.

Believe it or not there is a vast difference between what I can see and what I will read in terms of fanfiction. Many of the pairings I read I either don’t especially see, but I’m not going to turn down decent fanfiction or I don’t especially care either way. Especially since I don’t watch TV anymore and therefore some of them are completely new to me. Always a joy!

For example, those that I read, but either don’t see or haven’t because they are after my TV days (which ended around 2004 ish),  I now wait until they are available on DVD, for the few things I like to watch such as Criminal Minds and Grey’s Anatomy; so sometimes I can be waiting for a while after the fact. Where once I was driven by the VHS tape, now it’s by Blockbuster, such is life.

Now books are a whole different animal, as a reader you only have a textual interaction, you have nothing more or less to go on than the text printed in front of you. So viewing fiction with subtext glasses is a more thought out thing, as in you have to think more about it to see it.

I saw/see these characters, and I am quite sure there are more but considering that three of the pairings (the first three) are those I saw when I was fairly young and can continue to see, actually more clearly, as experience and reading breadth expands.

  • Clover/Rose Red – What Katy did at school – Susan Coolidge
  • Sally Hope/Darrell Rivers – Malory TowersEnid Blyton
  • Kathie Ferrars/Nancy Wilmot – Chalet school series Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
  • Elphaba Thropp/Glinda Arduenna – Wicked – Gregory Maguire
  • Lindsay Boxer/Jill – Women’s Murder Club – James Patterson

(See, the eventually written, part 2 for more on books and subtext)

So why femslash? What do I get from viewing things in this way?

Put it this way, in the whole multitude of television programming at the moment (well, as of initial post publishing) there is one (yup count her, one) lesbian on television, the wonderful; awesome and adorable; Dr Arizona Robbins (her girlfriend, Dr Callie Torres is technically Bisexual). This is not exactly representational of society, so you see it where you see it and that’s that in my opinion.

Now it’s just something that I do, it’s kind of hard to switch off, it requires very little effort on my part, it rarely distracts me from what I’m watching, it’s just how it is. In truth it’s more often not a conscious thing on my part, more like I come to the realisation as I watch/read that my head has been busy doing it’s thing.

For actual lesbians that have been on TV in the last year or so, many of which are international, you have the following pairings;

  • Skins – Naomi/Emily UK (which I recently saw on DVD and didn’t think a great deal to… I think I’m just too old to enjoy watching teenagers get ‘high’ on mushrooms and drink a lot)
  • Terapia d’Urgenza Marina/Esther (Italian) (Loved it)
  • Hospital Central – Maca/Esther (Spanish) (Only seen bits of)
  • Los Hombres de Paco – Siliva/Pepa (Spanish) (Fantastic)
  • All my Children – Bianca/Reece USA (Not one I have watched, but Afterellen.com mentioned them a lot)
  • Guiding Light – Olivia/Natalia USA (Until they messed royally with the storyline over their final summer, damn CBS)
  • Grey’s Anatomy – Callie/Arizona USA.
  • Additional
  • Kerstin/Juliette – Marienhof (Deu)
  • Jenny/Emma – Hand aufs Herz (Deu)

(Again, a couple of these pairings will be discussed in further posts)

There was also the L Word; though that is not a show I thought a great deal of to be quite honest. I loved the Dana/Lara storyline, they were probably the least neurotic and the most realistic of the whole bunch, I certainly didn’t watch right through to the (bitter) end and I’ve only watched Season 1, bits of season 2 and 3. Mostly, I was emphatically unimpressed… and Jenny Schechter hacked me off… a lot.

As for lesbians in novels, unless they are a specifically written ‘Gay’ book, often by LGBTQ authors, there are very few in mainstream literature/fiction. Those that are there are often single, the foil, the comic relief or the hacked off and mentally deranged murderous type… none of which reflect LBGTQ life as I know it… well, currently, maybe the single aspect, but I don’t especially want to read about other people being single, just as I don’t want to continuously read hetero-normative fiction with invisible or marginalized LGBTQ characters… but I guess that is a subject for another time.

(Edited due to obscenely rambly sentences)

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About Nerdsbian

I am a nerd for ALL seasons. I am a genderqueer Librarian who unsurprisingly likes reading...a lot But I love being outside too...sometimes even reading at the same time. Also animals, any and all of them. Never yet met one that didn't get on with me and vice versa. I do a couple of different voluntary jobs (animal charity related) and have recently completed my MA.
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