I wanted to talk a bit about something that happened at San Diego Comic-Con the weekend of July 20. That’s the giant-ass international comic-con/media event that has a rep as probably THE comic-con to attend. The SDCC draws around 150,000 people, so you know there’s all kinds of cray going on. Hit the link to go see the amazing-ness of the con, and all the people who were there and all the things that were happening, including the announcement that SyFy’s Wynonna Earp was renewed for a Season 3 (another fan campaign, friends! The power of fandoms!).
Anyway, con gatherings are giant, exciting, crayfests for fandoms. There’s amazing cosplay, panels, workshops, screenings of movies, big reveals of trailers for movies and upcoming seasons of TV shows, photo ops and autograph sessions with casts of various shows…they’re off the chain, friends!
And they serve as showcases and PR for shows and movies, so cast members of various shows are giving tons of interviews to various media outlets and they’re doing panels and taking questions — basically, they’re in the spotlight throughout the event. And for the most part, people have tons of fun and meet other fans and they get to see and maybe even talk to the actors who play their fave characters.
And among those fandoms are “ships” — that is, “relationships,” often romantic, that fans either follow between characters or that they create between two characters. So when you hear someone say that they “ship” particular characters, it means they’re fans of that relationship. For example, I ship “Clexa” — that’s the relationship between the character Clarke Griffin and Commander Lexa of the Grounders from the TV show The 100. I also ship “WayHaught,” the relationship between Waverly Earp and Nicole Haught in Wynonna Earp. I’m sure there are people reading right now who shipped Xena and Gabrielle and others who shipped Rizzoli and Isles.
Which brings us to another element of fandom shipping. Some ships are “canon” — meaning that the original show material did have the two characters together, as with Clexa in The 100 and WayHaught in Wynonna Earp. Others are not canon, but fandoms ship them anyway, and create all kinds of fanfic and fanart around those relationships. Fanon ships are Xena and Gabrielle and Rizzoli and Isles. And more recently, Swan Queen from Once Upon a Time. They never really went canon on-screen (though there was a lot of wink-wink nudge-nudge), but were picked up in fandoms regardless.
I’ll come back to that in a bit.
So with that in mind, what happened at SDCC was that the cast of the CW show Supergirl was asked to improvise a song in which they summed up Season 2. An exercise that surely should’ve been amusing, and indeed, some of it was until one of the cast members then sang that a certain relationship between certain characters was never going to go beyond friendship, and he laughed and the rest of the cast laughed as well, continuing to ridicule a certain segment of the fandom that shipped these two characters. The cast member who originally sang the diss later said that he just debunked Supercorp and another cast member said it was brave of him to do that.
Supercorp (or SuperCorp; a mashup of Supergirl and Luthor Corp), for those not in the know, is the ship between Kara Danvers/Supergirl and Lena Luthor. It’s not canon, but it had a large following in the Supergirl fandom. There is lots of Supercorp fanfic, fanart, and creativity around Supercorp.
So as soon as the video of the “song” started circulating across social media last Saturday, reaction from LGBTQ fans and allies was immediate.
The fandoms were very upset and hurt that the ship was ridiculed in the way that it was (and you can be damn sure a M/F ship wouldn’t garner that from a cast), and it was made worse by the fact that the show has a rep for being queer-friendly, in that there is a F/F canon relationship between Alex Danvers and Maggie Sawyer (Sanvers). Plus, the actor who did the initial ridiculing in the “song” has at least one LGBTQ family member and has generally been known as an ally (helpful tip again — even allies screw up, so listen to us when we need you to listen about why what you did and said was hurtful).
The actor released an initial “apology” that was a litany of basically claiming it was a joke and he pulled the ally card, so he gets a pass, I guess, and sort of lashed out at fans who had apparently been contacting him and telling him how displeased they were (helpful tip: even allies screw up. Instead of knee-jerking, how about actually listening to what we’re saying?)
In other words, he told these fans that their concerns were not valid and that basically, they couldn’t take a joke. Which of course made it worse. So he released a second apology that was better (see both here), but the fandom is still hurt and still angry. Especially since reactions from other cast members with the exception of one have been to lash out at the fandom or to remain silent.
For those of you who remember the aftermath of the Lexa character’s death last year in stereotypical fulfillment of the “bury your gays” trope, the aftermath and generally slow response from the showrunner and the way he handled it provides a perfect example of what not to do in a situation like that. Lessons that it seems the other members of the Supergirl cast could have taken note of.
So that’s what happened over this past weekend, which meant I spent time checking in on the fandoms and checking in with young LGBTQ fans who were really hurt by what happened because they’d been let down again, ridiculed again, and told they were “less-than” again by a cast that they had trusted because of the sensitivity with which the show had handled the Sanvers canon ship. But I will say I’m so very proud of all of them for speaking up and for reaching out and offering support to each other after what happened.
Unlike shows like Rizzoli and Isles, which seemed to deliberately play up the F/F subtext between the two characters, Supergirl seemed to prefer that fans stick with the Sanvers ship and the so-called Karamel ship (Kara Danvers/Supergirl and the male Mon-el character). There are any number of reasons for that — queer couples basically only get one slot per show, if a queer couple appears on a show. And Sanvers already held the queer quota card; whatever the reasons are, fine. It doesn’t require a ridiculing of a fandom that has been supportive of the show.
Rumblings in the fandoms noted that the Kara character and the Lena character had a lot of on-screen chemistry and sizzle. Some of that I personally attribute to actress Katie McGrath, who plays Lena Luthor and seems able to draw all kinds of chemistry out of the people she’s playing opposite. McGrath is also extremely supportive of her LGBTQ fandoms and has herself played characters that engaged in physical relationships with other women characters. McGrath was also one of the SG cast members who seemed to try to mitigate the damage of the SDCC incident, and voiced support for fans.
Example of some Supercorp on-screen moments:
And this is where something really important comes into play here with regard to queer fandoms and shipping.
Queer people don’t have much rep in media. It’s hella better now than it was when I was a young fan, but as we’ve seen, the bury your gays trope is alive and well (see what I did there?), and queer characters are still getting killed off in TV at higher rates than straight. We saw a perfect example of the damage that does last year, not only with the Lexa death, but also with the number of queer women who died last year in TV shows.
So when an LGBTQ fan sees a glimmer of subtext between, say, women characters, that’s a glimmer of hope. That’s a lifeline, especially for young closeted LGBTQ people who maybe don’t have a safe home or school life, who may be isolated from other LGBTQ people and allies. They can watch an episode of their fave show, see that subtext, and it gives them maybe the strength to go on another day. Even knowing that the ship will probably never go canon, it’s HOPE. It’s representation, even in subtext.
And queer fans aren’t dumbasses. We know the score. Most of our fanon ships will never sail in the canon. We get that. Shit, we’ve been shipping for decades, now. But just knowing that there’s a possibility, however small, gives us a sense of representation, of belonging for a little bit, to see that tiny bit of possible representation that we can take even farther, and use to build fanfic communities. Or maybe we might even get a little bit of flirtatiousness between the characters in the canon. And we share those subtexts, too, with each other, and we create incredible stories that we post in our fandoms that spin off that subtext, in which our ship sails, and those words resonate with other fans, and they provide support. They provide respite. They grant some hope.
That is something that people who are not LGBTQ don’t understand, because they’ve never had to worry that their parents would abuse them for being LGBTQ or consign them to some horrible conversion therapy crap or throw them out into the street if they found out their kid was queer. And estimates are that almost half — 40 percent — of homeless youth in this country identify as LGBTQ.
Non-LGBTQ people have never had to worry that someone at school might beat the shit out of them for being queer. They’ve never had to hide who they are from a culture-at-large that still tells them they’re less-than, they’re not worthy, they’re stupid for having hope that they’ll ever be welcome somewhere.
And it doesn’t fucking matter that people of the same sex can get married in this country because they can still be fired in 28 states for being LGBTQ. They can and do get denied services, as hardline religious fundamentalist groups are working locally and nationally to install “religious liberty” laws that allow Christians, especially, to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
People who are not LGBTQ will never experience what it feels like to have your relationships, your sense of self, your very existence constantly questioned, constantly belittled, constantly marginalized, and often brutalized. Those among us who are LGBTQ and not white experience that in addition to the ramifications of the systemic racism and misogyny that defines American culture and society.
And right now, there’s a political administration systematically dismantling the precarious and tenuous patchwork of equality that we thought we had. And there’s a poisonous political climate that is no doubt leading to more violence against LGBTQ people.
So yes, it’s easy to laugh off a joke about LGBTQ people when you’re not LGBTQ. And it’s easy to dismiss the concerns of LGBTQ fans if you’re not LGBTQ. And it’s easy to claim you’re not homophobic because you consider yourself an “ally.”
But that 15-year-old who looked up to you? Who shipped Supercorp because it was two strong women subtexting the hell out of each other? Who looked forward to the show every week and then posted stories online under a pseudonym so her parents and peers at school wouldn’t find out she likes girls?
That’s who bears the brunt of “jokes” like that.
And those of us who are older now, rife with the cynicism that often comes with survival as part of a marginalized group? That “joke” both tore at those wounds we still carry AND it pissed us off. We hurt for the young people who had to deal with being let down AGAIN, by a show we thought was a haven — especially for young LGBTQ people.
It wasn’t, as it turned out. So we’re still cleaning up your mess, Supergirl cast, because we all know what it’s like to be that 15-year-old fangirl hiding who she is from friends and family, maybe just a secret away from being on the streets. We remember finding a little bit of support and safety in a fandom ship, and even if the ship was never talked about in the show, never mentioned by the cast, we still had our fandom ship, where we could go to dream and hope.
Representation MATTERS. Mocking fans? That does, too.
I’ll leave you with some great words from Chloe Smith over at Little White Lies, who did one of the more insightful pieces I’ve seen on this incident:
It’s still rare to find LGBT representation in the mainstream media – so much so that LGBT audiences are often forced to look for interpretations wherever they find subtext. Actors, writers, and producers involved in these shows, and any media, should not invalidate what is seen and interpreted within their art, particularly if it’s not harming anyone, and especially if those interpreting their creations are just a dedicated and passionate portion of their audience. Nothing more than a group of marginalised people, so badly wanting to see themselves and their experiences represented on screen.
She finishes with the following:
If this episode has revealed anything, it’s that LGBT representation is still incredibly important to talk about, and there’s still a long way to go in terms of making lasting improvements. It’s clear from how the Supergirl cast has acted that far more needs to be done to improve LGBT representation in the media – but also attitudes towards both LGBT representation and particularly LGBT fans who exist within fandoms. Because no fan should fear being so brazenly invalidated by casts and people that they respect, especially when they have been so supportive of something they identify with.
And that, my friends, sums it up.
I’ll be talking about this in a couple of weeks with fellow author and fangirl Lise MacTague on our podcast Lez Geek Out!, so keep yer eyes peeled for that. Lise has some excellent thoughts, as well.
Happy Friday and y’know what? Ship ’em if you got ’em.