I found out the other day, while perusing internet speculation as to why Doctor Who and Sherlock showrunner Steven Moffat deleted his Twitter account on Saturday, that River Song is bisexual.
You know, I’ve been watching Doctor Who for almost two years now, and have seen the entire series at least twice all the way through, and I don’t think River’s ever been seen to be in a romantic relationship with a woman, nor has she ever shown more than platonic interest in a woman, nor has she really ever been given screen-time with women besides her mother except in her debut.
I am not trying to erase her sexuality. I don’t take kindly to people who say “Oh, she says she’s bi but she’s never actually dated a girl so she’s probably just saying that for attention/to get guys/stupid other excuse.”
But for a fictional character, this Word-of-God declaration is totally empty.
River is bisexual, Moffat says, and now he can claim that his show features a complex and interesting queer character. But there’s no worth for the viewers, because River does not display queer behavior. I don’t look at River and think, wow, how great it is to see someone like me on TV, because I am never shown the ways River is like me. River’s entire being, literally from when she was born till the day she died, revolved around the Doctor, and she is never given screen-time in which she can explore any other endeavors, romantic or otherwise.
Canton Delaware III is another example of this. Canton is badass. Canton helps the Doctor and Co. defeat the Silence and save the world at the beginning of Series 6. Canton is apparently gay, but his coming out comes from, not a nuanced consideration of what being an FBI agent who has just been dishonorably discharged for the crime of being in a committed gay interracial relationship in 1969, which, hello? Characterization central! But instead from a throwaway, joking line at the end of the two-parter he stars in.
Remember when Harry Potter was done, and JKR decided she could finally safely say that Dumbledore was gay the whole time?! That’s what this is. It’s saying “Oh, by the way, the stuff I write is totally diverse, look at this gay character! Never mind that there is basically no evidence of his being sexual, let alone homosexual, in the entire seven books he was featured in.”
The point of choosing to queer positively portrayed characters is that they become role models and rallying points. Captain Jack Harkness is a well-developed character, a huge fan favorite, and happens to be pansexual. Felicia Day’s Charlie in Supernatural Season 7 was a breath of fresh air, because she broke with the sort of lesbian stereotype you’d (sadly) expect from that show, and was an engaging, multi-talented, and complex individual who happened to be a lesbian.
It’s only by showcasing a complete and nuanced individual and also engaging their non-normative sexuality in canon (rather than yelling “Hey, that character from that show I write? They’re gay!” on Twitter) that the character can act as proof that queer people are people too.