The internet age may have made queer reads of canonically non-queer media more widespread, but they’re nothing new — and neither is the reactionary resistance against them. Even in 2021, in spite of a growing acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community and a steady increase in queer representation across certain sections of media, queer reads of characters and narratives are still receiving backlash. Often, that backlash is coming from the writers, directors, and actors behind a given piece, who seem eager to stomp out any potential perception of their work as a queer narrative. For some reason, those creators never seem to consider the inherent value these reads provide to the community — even though they’re drawing on tropes derived from that community’s personal experiences.
This came up recently with Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan’s portrayal of Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. Many fans read the close physical and emotional bond that Sam and Bucky develop throughout the show as a possible romantic stirring. While the series said nothing definitive on the matter, Mackie quickly tried to squash the idea, bemoaning that two men cannot just be friends these days without being perceived as queer. While it’s important for media to depict non-toxic male friendships, his response disheartened many fans who had enjoyed their speculation on the topic, and their ability to relate to the characters in their own preferred way.
The squashing of a clear queer read was even more blatant with Pixar’s 2021 animated film Luca. Disney’s tendency to tease its audiences with queer bait, only to yank those readings away (or have them be blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments between background characters) is well-documented. But with Luca, the attempt to shut down audiences’ imaginations went a step too far. In response to viewers who reacted to trailers by hoping the film might be a childhood gay romance, Luca director Enrico Casarosa rapidly shut the notion down, saying “I was really keen to talk about a friendship before girlfriends and boyfriends come in to complicate things.”
After the movie’s release, it became clear what a reductive stance this was. While Casarosa believes his story can’t be a queer romance because no characters become romantically involved, the story hits too many significant and familiar common aspects of the LGBTQ+ experience for it to be ignored as a queer narrative. It’s particularly important that these notes include several darker and oft-ignored aspects of the queer experience in today’s world, and denying that this reading has any validity risks doing serious harm to the queer community who already live these darker experiences.
[Ed. note: Significant spoilers for Luca ahead.]
Ostensibly about a society of fish-people (known throughout as “sea monsters”) who live under the sea, concealed from humanity, Luca wastes little time in hitting beats that will be sadly familiar to so many people who have lived in the closet and/or had to come to terms with their own identities. From the beginning, Luca’s family warns him against approaching humans, telling him that people will see his differences, and won’t accept him for who he really is. Luca has a vision of trying to leave the ocean, an image which comes back time and again as a metaphor for embracing both sides of his identity, but he’s held back by an unseen force, as if he cannot bring himself to leave the stifling safety of the water.
As Luca is finally “coming out” of the water for the first time, he immediately assumes human form. At that point, Luca moves into documenting his struggles to come to terms with his identity, finding a community, and feeling betrayed or abandoned by his family. Luca panics about his emergence, and is terrified of the physical changes he goes through outside of the water. It’s a compelling image of a boy seeing himself for who he truly is for the first time. His panic then turns into denial, but with the support of another member of his community, he’s able to come to accept both parts of himself as part of his complete identity.
Having found kinship in Alberto, another fish-person who lives out of the water, Luca develops a love of life on land: a passion for being out, rather than living his life hidden away. When his family learns of his new life, they try to have him move to the “the Deep,” away from the temptations of the surface. The Deep is portrayed as horrible place of self-denial, but they’re willing to make him suffer to keep him away from what they see as immoral, in a clear parallel to the conversion therapy or wilderness therapy that so many young LGBTQ+ people are subjected to by homophobic communities.
Once Luca and Alberto arrive in the human town, the story moves away from Luca’s journey of self-acceptance and his attempts to find kinship and community, and instead focuses on his struggle to find his way as an outsider in a biased, unfriendly wider world. Endless glimpses of media in the town, from movie posters to statues, help drive fear over the existence of “monsters,” and glorifies violence against them. In the same way, plenty of media in our own world still portrays LGBTQ+ identities as other, and makes them the subject of violence or ridicule. When Alberto unmasks himself as a sea monster, Luca uses his passing privilege to avoid being targeted by the aggressive mob from the town, instead joining in the abuse and persecution of Alberto. This is a common trope of the queer experience in LGBTQ+ life and media that plays out as a story beat in narratives ranging from an episode of the fantasy series The Magicians to the holiday movie Happiest Season.
The film closes with a direct narrative about Luca becoming accepted within the community for his identity, in a way that borders on the heavy-handed. Massimo, a fisherman the boys get to know, is renowned for hating and hunting sea monsters, but when he comes to know Alberto and Luca while they’re both closeted, he’s able to see them as people first, and look past his prejudice. Once he learns their secret, he accepts them for who they are, and he champions their right to exist, over the objections of others who still challenge their place in society. One of the final poignant scenes shows Luca’s mother worrying over how her son will be able to exist openly in the human world, with his grandmother answering, “some people, they’ll never accept him. But some will. And he seems to know how to find the good ones.”
It seems strange that Casarosa could unintentionally lay out such a direct blow-by-blow metaphor for so many common queer experiences. It seems stranger still that he would then deny that reading of the film, telling viewers who see the parallels that they are wrong. While he has suggested that Luca is a story about the type of friendship that can “push you into change, push you into finding yourself,” the movie clearly contains enough direct parallels to specifically LGBTQ+ experiences that a queer reading of the film is just as viable.
And ultimately, whether viewers decide Luca parallels their own stories isn’t for a director, writer, actor, or marketing department to dictate. Creators don’t get to decide what message viewers should take from a narrative. Viewers’ relationships with film (or any media!) is subjective, built from their own interpretations as they bring elements from their own lives to their reading. That can open the door for unintended queer readings of any work, but once a story reaches its audience, it’s out of the creators’ hands.
Crucially, creators aren’t always fully aware of the layers of experience they’re mining, or what their work may be representing to any given audience. Players read a trans narrative into the game Celeste, and some became frustrated that the creators would not confirm or deny the protagonist’s gender identity. However, after completing a post-game addition, creator Maddy Thorson acknowledged in their blog that they hadn’t previously realized they were trans, and that the character was as well. While Thorson was drawing on personal experiences, they didn’t yet understand what those experiences signified, or what they could mean both for Thorson and for others.
Openly queer narratives are still in short supply in the mainstream media, whereas anti-LGBTQ+ narratives from pundits and legislatures are as pervasive as ever. Finding additional queer narratives within popular media plays an important role in enabling the LGBTQ+ community to feel more welcome and accepted within the world. Disney is currently opening up the MCU up to include out queer characters: Loki and Sylvie in Loki, Phastos and his husband in the upcoming Eternals, and Valkyrie in Thor: Love and Thunder, where she will supposedly get an openly queer storyline at last. But more than 20 MCU movies were released before there was even a hint of any queer characters, and Loki’s creative team has confirmed that the series won’t be providing any “deeper exploration” of the character’s bisexuality. For many fans, the late and minimal addition of queer characters to MCU stories feels more like token representation than emboldening queer storylines.
And these explicit narratives are not a direct substitute for queer readings of other pieces. Cisgender, heterosexual people grow up being able to project themselves onto everyman characters in almost all media. Seeing themselves represented in this way is a part of the development and learning about their place in the world: on some level, it tells them that they are accepted. For LGBTQ+ folk to be able to do the same, it can be necessary to find space for queer reads of popular characters. This is true when those characters weren’t intended to be read as queer, but becomes even more important when those characters seem to parallel queer experiences so directly. The ability to take space for these queer reads will continue to be necessary at the very least until queer characters become a ubiquitous possibility across all roles in media.
And queer readings of a text don’t hurt anyone — except people who find the concept of being LGBTQ+ intrinsically negative, and believe it somehow lessens the media they want to hold strictly for their own interpretations and identification. Letting people have these readings without trying to shut them down only allows more people to enjoy the work positively. In a stellar example, Mark Hamill responded in 2016 to a queer reading of his Star Wars character Luke Skywalker that had existed since the 1970s. His response was simple: “I’d say it is meant to be interpreted by the viewer […] If you think Luke is gay, of course he is. You should not be ashamed of it. Judge Luke by his character, not by who he loves.” Hamill recognized that some people benefitted from reading the character as gay, and acknowledged that there isn’t a single correct interpretation of Luke.
For Casarosa and anyone else who watches Luca and sees their own experiences reflected in a simple story of two childhood friends, that reading will always be there, and no one can take it away. Queer kids and adults alike have watched this film and seen it as a caring narrative that not only acknowledges the joy of their own experiences, but also, crucially, explores how they can be painful and alienating. Denying such a reading doesn’t just hurt viewers who already see themselves in its story. It also shuts down the external community that might not otherwise engage with explicitly queer media, and can use Luca’s sensitive coming-out story as a learning experience. The queer reading of Luca should be as safeguarded as Casarosa’s own interpretation. It does the media no harm to let these queer readings stand, and it benefits no one to squash them.