Implied and Rarely Said: Queer Sexualities and Genders in Media

Kung Jin is the name of Mortal Kombat’s first gay character. After numerous games, adaptions, and so forth, Mortal Kombat has its first gay character. However, you have to be pretty observant to catch the reference. During a flashback he is talking about the gods accepting him.

“I can’t… They won’t accept…” He says, only to have Raiden respond with They care about only what is in your heart; not whom your heart desires.” And that’s it. That sole line. It’s subtle. It’s nice. But it is far from perfect.

I am reminded of the ending of the Legend of Korra where Korra and Asami hold hands and stare into each other’s eyes. I am reminded of the words written by Konietzko in regards to Korrasmi and what the relationship meant to representation.

“Was it a slam-dunk victory for queer representation? I think it falls short of that, but hopefully it is a somewhat significant inching forward”. So we have another step, at least in the world of gaming, towards more diverse casts. Characters who represent a wide berth of humanity in its many variations, however it is far from perfect and far from in the words of Konietzko “a slam-dunk”.

The Mortal Kombat X roster is currently 29 characters. While the 10% of the human population being lesbian or gay, is a very rough and relatively incorrect estimate, 1 out of 29 is still a relatively low number. If you add in the number of bisexual, transgender, asexual, and various other types of gender and sexual orientations, there only being one queer character in a game is relatively unrealistic. Then again, talking about realistic in a game where fighters can rip out spines with their bare hands and shoot lightening and acid is a little strange, it is still a relatively valid point. These are more likely than having more than one queer character to game designers. This is also an issue I see with people of color and gender as well, there usually being the token Black character or the token woman in the group just to say “LOOK! DIVERSITY!”

There is a tendency, in all forms of media, just not gaming, to have a one and done approach. In a sea of white cis male faces, developers tend to stop at one woman, one Black person, one queer character. While this is not always true, as Bioware had every character be bisexual in Dragon Age 2 (which gamers proclaimed was unrealisitic), it is the usual approach. On a side note, in games that are sci-fi and fantasy, the idea that everyone being bisexual is too unrealistic yet dragons and elves, are not, makes me laugh.

The usual more queer-coded characters are treated as villains, usually coding them as obnoxiously feminine because feminine men are seen as negative. In fact, there is an entire TVTropes article about this phenomenon, known as the Sissy Villain. So, we have all these heavily queercoded villains to demonize feminine queer folk, but actually saying someone is queer is still never done. We can hint, we can demonize, but actually say? Never. In media, we demonize flamboyant and openly queer people and only allow ‘acceptable’ people to be queer. Those who are usually open and in your face, unashamed, are still never named to be queer despite it being coded and forced as such. Those who are allowed to be queer in media are those who hint at it for the most part. They never name it, but it is hinted through subtle words and phrases.

We NEVER name characters as a gay, bi, lesbian, etc. We dance around the word, but we openly demonize those who exhibit being queer. While there are exceptions to the rule, such as Janey from Borderlands the Pre-Sequel, she still never openly says she is a lesbian. It’s still danced around as a word, an identity. I asked Anthony Burch about why Janey never says she is a lesbian, even when Torge hits on her.

“Regarding Janey outright stating she’s a lesbian, I just couldn’t find a way to make that sentence come out naturally. In my own (incredibly limited) experience, I’ve almost never met someone who referred to themselves as gay or a lesbian using those exact words. I wanted to make it overt that she IS gay, though, so I made one of her first lines ‘I’m not into guys.’” I was told after asking if there was any particular reason Janey never says she is a lesbian.

(MINOR BORDERLANDS PRE-SEQUEL SPOILERS) There is also a section where Janey mentions her deceased girlfriend, but she does not say she is her girlfriend. However, by the emotion and tone, you can tell this is someone who was very close to Janey. “She’s basically telling you the story of her girlfriend’s death in the form of a children’s book because she can’t fully deal with it on her own, so to verbally acknowledge their connection would have rubbed against what we were trying to accomplish with her in that scene (basically playing a long game where Janey is kind of broken when she meets Athena, and eventually they heal one another). We were also just hoping for a stronger moment where Janey talks about someone, and you’re not sure who she’s even talking about or who this person was to her, and then it sort of clicks and the moment hits a little harder because you had to make a tiny leap to get to the ultimate conclusion.”

However, Anthony mentions that he “may be subconsciously scared of using the L-word or somethin’,” but that ultimately thinks “all of the decisions about Janey were made with legitimate narrative concerns in mind”. Which I agree with as Janey is one of the best examples of queer representation in modern media, especially in gaming, that comes to mind. She does not fall into the trope where her sexuality is only hinted at nor is her sexuality a joke. Janey’s sexuality is there. It’s always there. It’s part of her and if you play as Athena, part of your gameplay experience as well. Janey is unapologetically a lesbian. Janey’s sexuality impacts her life, her story line, her everything. It’s as much part of her as real life queer people.

However, as Anthony stated, it is extremely hard to bring up sexual and gender identity in media that seems normal and not forced. However, I think this is partially due to the fact that media, unless written for the purpose of addressing cisheternormativity, queerphobia, and so forth, often exists without these issues. These worlds, while they may be torn and fighting with war, dragons, aliens, or whatever other foe to be named, often are explicitly without the real world factors that impact queer people’s lives. Due to this lack of explicit querphobia, cisheteronormativity (though it is definitely implicit as media is affected by the society it is created in) may create difficulty in dialogue surrounding queer characters. For example, Torge understood what Janey meant when she said she wasn’t into men and left it at that. In reality, many lesbian women have to deal with continued unwanted advances until they explicitly state that they are lesbian and not interested, which still may not lead to these men leaving them alone.

Thus, I cannot help but feel part of the reason that queer representation in video games is so lacking is that those who create it assume that their world is a perfect, or close to perfect one, filled with equality. A world where sexuality and gender do indeed not impact their characters as it does in society at large outside of these universes. This leads to characters who are only hinted at being queer, characters whose identities, because they are not a big deal in their world, leave them lacking in our world. This yearning for a world where people are people and differences are something that are just part of being human and accepted for this diversity creates a conflict and a chasm between that world and our reality. It creates this void where the creators are the change they want to see in the world, but fail to bridge the gap between their world and the reality we exist in.

We are making steps forward. Representation is growing despite the strain against it, despite the attempts to constrict and deny it. Progress is being made, but progress does not start out perfect. Progress cannot continue to be progress without looking at the failings and constantly asking “what can we do better?”. We are making strides in some areas and baby steps in another. Hopefully we will see more characters like Janey, those in charge of their sexuality and existing in full view while being treated as full characters and personalities. Hopefully, in my lifetime, there will be casts full of diverse characters, and they won’t be limited to just one per medium.

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