Fantasy genre is a queer genre. It stages a made-up world where everything is possible. Fantasy unsettles and refashions our understanding of what is and what could be by juxtaposing this world of make believe with the social realities of the world we know. And, with its stories of body jumping and possession, it queers gender like no other genre. But fantasy shows are also connected to another genre: the epic, the oldest human storytelling mode. Epics are foundational myths; they explain how human civilization came about. Epics structure our understanding of what is human. The slaying of monsters, to be accomplished by heroes, is central to this genre, and is after all the necessary condition for civilization. With the “courtly love” movement coming to the west from the near east in the early middle ages, “love” was added to the epic genre. Love itself became epic.
Love: fight for it, fight against it, die in its name.
Lost Girl, is a Canadian television supernatural fantasy genre show featuring as its main character a “succubus,” who rights wrongs and fights for the underdog. In the world of Lost Girl, there are humans and “fae.” The latter are long-lived supernatural creatures who appear human but have special powers. Their relationship to humans is, more often than not, one of predator to prey. Lost Girl sees itself as the heir to another groundbreaking fantasy show with powerful and strong women who could be good and heroic, and still capable of emotional connection; who were humans but had superhuman powers. I am referring of course to Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Much like Lost Girl, Buffy approached its story through humor and friendship. It took a very simple trope, that of the blonde cheerleader who always gets gruesomely murdered in horror films (which, in the late 1990s, was already ironic and cliched), and simply turned it on its head. This blonde cheerleader does not need you to save her, and indeed, it is you who need saving by her. The figure of the blonde cheerleader belongs in high school, of course, and Whedon’s conceit worked marvelously by skirting the line between a tender irony that attended to the real difficulties of adolescence, and a truly feminist discourse. Buffy was a postmodern genre and social commentary show.
But it also had a fundamental and epic love relationship. In Angel and Buffy’s story it had true, impossible, and thwarted love. It had tragedy. “Epic love” is also at the heart of Lost Girl. When the woman, hero, defender of all that is good and holy, the savior of the world and protector of humanity, is in love with another woman, then a television show can become revolutionary. This is the moment where a modest genre series begins to subvert the deeply embedded notion that Love – capital L – is fundamentally heterosexual, that within “Love” “heterosexuality” is silent, implicit. When the great love epic is between two women, something has shifted; Lost Girl came on the scene.
Lost Girl ups Buffy ’s ante by placing sexuality at the very center of the heroic female problematic. With the succubus who feeds on human sexual energy to survive, it becomes impossible to disentangle sex and sexuality from female leadership, and from a politics of empowerment. It’s very clever really. In so doing, Lost Girl subverts one of western culture’s more enduring beliefs: the idea that women, because they are ruled by their bodies and emotions, cannot be trusted, cannot be leaders, and cannot be taken seriously. While this kind of essentializing anti-female discourse is more relevant to the 1860s than to 2013, it is nonetheless tenacious and endures, diffused through culture and its artifacts. Many fans have responded to this clearly feminist and subversive premise. Many of those who see this politicization of sex and sexuality are also fans, for the most part, of the ongoing love story of the “doctor and the succubus.” And with this love story, another important social and political issue was brought into the mix.
Anna Silk and Zoie Palmer, it was immediately clear, had what I’d never seen before between two female protagonists on television: overwhelming chemistry. For their characters, Bo, the succubus and Lauren, the human doctor, it was a sparkling cocktail of sexual emotional intimacy. This was different. It was worth watching, and the show’s creative team were not shying away from the implications of this chemistry. Or were they? Overall, my answer is no, but I was certainly not the only one who wondered. Drama has been unfolding now on both sides of the looking-glass: onscreen, at home, and online, for months and months as it gains momentum across the globe.
But Bo, the heroine of Lost Girl , is not only involved with Lauren the human doctor. She has an off and on relationship with another fae, a man named Dyson. Through their relationship, the show problematizes and explores heterosexuality, which can no longer be taken for granted, as well as gender roles and relations. But more specifically, the show is also able to critique patriarchy, heteronormativity, and “straight privilege.”
These days pop culture tends increasingly to take a “post-gay” stand by treating its characters and storylines with little sense of responsibility toward “representation.” “Real” and “gritty” portrayals and characterizations are now often favored over careful and deliberately positive depictions of society’s marginalized minorities. Tropes, representations: all this seems a bit old hat when we have real, three-dimensional characters with conflicting desires, difficult pasts, and at times complicated agendas. While the analytic of “representation” is by no means new, it still feels important to many viewers. The legions of lesbian, bi, queer, gay, straight, feminist, women, and some men, who turned up and gave their hearts to this show, watch closely. Our skins are thin; we’ve been here before, and we are easily bruised.
And yet, no. We have not been here before. This is new.
So while many television shows now eschew representation often in favor of turning queer characters and stories into just characters and stories, they obviously still pander specifically to a traumatized and starved, hopeful but battered, queer viewing public. The website AfterEllen.com is the corporate outlet par excellence for promoting “girl on girl action,” which sells, whether actually and literally or as subtext to be purposely embedded in otherwise ostensibly “straight” characters and story lines. Who knew that subtext, which, outside of film theory classrooms, we’d gladly kissed goodbye, would become another object, a goal to be pursued without any real intent other than … profit?
In the meantime, about 9 months ago, I became a fan, something I’d never been before although I love television drama. At the end of season 3, I found myself experiencing a great deal of anxiety. What happened to Lauren? Did she and Bo just really break-up? I sought out internet boards. At first I just wanted to talk about Bo and Lauren with other people. I wanted to write about this relationship and have others respond to me, and I to them. Then it became all at once a fascinating and fulfilling experience. For about 9 months we fretted. I learned about ships. Our ship fought theirs. Ours always seemed to win. There is a widely held assumption that Doccubus – doctor and succubus – is the largest of these ships. The other two concern, Bo with another female character on the show who was introduced in season 3, and the classic, traditional, heterosexual pairing of Dyson and Bo. There was bitterness and complaint. Lost Girl could never be good enough. In part this is because the marginalized and unrepresented, now having been invited to sit at the table, have stacks and reams of more than legitimate demands and grievances. And yet, we really only have Lost Girl on TV. Which really means that no matter what Lost Girl will fall short in the minds of many. Try as it might, it will never fulfill all of our representational needs and satisfy the corporate “bottom line,” which seems to depend on a traditional division of labor, between what is perceived as socially accepted masculinity and femininity. Lost Girl has to walk that line the way Buffy did. But Lost Girl gives itself a bigger challenge, I would argue. For one thing, Buffy did not really subvert the patriarchal order as Lost Girl does. I would also argue that one important way in which it does this is by writing the main character as “bisexual” and therefore not dependent on her relationship with the traditional male counterpart. The character of Dyson is highly problematic as well. Often he is placed into stories containing metaphors that are used to directly critique society and especially gender issues, and to make larger points about the contemporary world. The blog http://mehlsbells.wordpress.com/ has analyzed many episodes along these lines.
In Doccubus, the writers and producers know that they have a unique onscreen relationship that sets apart their little show from all others of similar ilk on television. Or at least if they didn’t before, they do now. The reorganization of the writing and producing team for season 4 attests to this.
Doccubus has been phenomenally important to fans around the world because of its epic character and because the relationship feels so “real” and relevant to our lives. But also because Lauren represents more than just the human lover of the succubus in the midst of a fae world that is harsh and unforgiving and treats the human horribly. Lauren is the ultimate outsider both because she’s a lesbian and because she is human. On the show it is only because she’s human. But for audiences in this world, it is also because she’s a lesbian. In purposely refusing to speak of sexual orientation per se, Lost Girl confronts it head-on. By not bringing it up on the show, it brings up its absence. Recently one of the actors tweeted that if it weren’t controversial it wouldn’t be Lost Girl. Leaving it at “controversial” is something of a copout because it doesn’t address the question of why it’s been so controversial. It is “controversial” precisely because it “pushes the envelope;” it provokes and brings out the homophobia and heterosexism that lurk beneath the surface in contemporary society. Lost Girl is so important, so groundbreaking and revelatory, and this is why lesbians and bisexual women the world over have latched onto it and are holding on, as though for dear life. But more than that, the Doccubus relationship has been a “cross-over” dream, as it has resonated globally for many many people regardless of gender or sexual orientation.