Cheers, love! The cavalry’s queer!
If you haven’t already heard, Blizzard Entertainment revealed to the world last month in their holiday comic Reflections that Lena “Tracer” Oxton, the mascot character for its acclaimed multiplayer game Overwatch, was a lesbian. Given how omnipresent she is in the game’s marketing, it was awesome to see this first step for queer representation within the game’s universe.
Within the statement that followed the comic’s release, in which they clarified that Tracer’s particular flavor of LGBTQ-ness was the L, Blizzard also confirmed that Tracer would not be the only character in Overwatch who identified somewhere within the alphabet soup of non-hetero sexualities. This, of course, led to immediate speculation about who else in Overwatch was queer.
In these discussions, Aleksandra “Zarya” Zaryanova is a frequently heard name. Indeed, Zarya’s bulky build, pink hair, and overall aesthetic seem to fit the common idea of what a butch lesbian looks like. That, however, is exactly where the discussion becomes tricky.
A common tactic lately in play against queer representation is the use of its own language against itself: assuming someone’s sexuality based on how they look is stereotyping, right? Just because a character fits a certain demographic’s common aesthetic, does that necessarily mean that they’re part of that demographic?
However, as we’ve mentioned before, some queer people do resemble the stereotype of their queerness. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with creating queer characters who fit those stereotypes, as long as they are still three dimensional characters empowered by the narrative.
So would it be wrong to, in the next round of queer Overwatch reveals, show us that Zarya is also a lesbian? I argue no.
The fact of the matter is, butch lesbians do exist in real life. They’re no less valid than any other kind of lesbian just because they fit the societal stereotype of a lesbian, and they’re no less deserving of representation. And more to the point, they don’t really have any representation right now. Off the top of my head, the only character I can think of in any geeky media who is canonically a butch lesbian is the lady in the Sense8 Christmas special who runs the shelter where Nomi and Amanita are hiding out. While she is a good person, she’s not exactly front and center in the story. And while less nerdy media like Orange is the New Black may feature butch women more prominently, they’re incredibly scarce in genre fiction.
Revealing Zarya as a lesbian would be great both in and out of Overwatch for that reason. Outside the inner workings of Overwatch, it would mean that there was finally a butch lesbian hero with a complex character and backstory that butch women could look up to. Within Overwatch, it would be even more groundbreaking, as it would mean that the game had two different playable lesbian characters with very different looks, backgrounds, body types, and fighting styles, and who exist as lesbians without being in a relationship with each other. Rather than contributing to the idea that lesbians fit a certain stereotype, it would instead send the message that there’s not a wrong way to look like a lesbian. (Also, as Zarya is Russian and the real country of Russia actually blocked the Reflections comic within their borders for its gayness, it would be a great middle finger to those democracy-hating bigots.)
What it comes down to is this: we’re so busy getting into arguments over whether a character would be stereotypical if they were queer that we’re ignoring the fact that there are no existing examples to point to that fill those stereotypes. It’s hard to argue that shitty stereotypical representation is better than no representation at all. But that’s different from nuanced representation of an oft-stereotyped group. In a way, this is just another example of people buying into the trend of throwing certain parts of the queer community under the bus to appeal to a broader straight audience. It’s the queer representation version of saying “yes, I’m a feminist, but don’t worry, I’m not one of those hairy man-hating lesbian feminists”.
Arguments like these very much seem like we’re cutting off our collective nose to spite our collective face by accepting the idea that we should reject a valid part of the queer community because someone might find it stereotypical. As long as their queerness is a valid part of their character and not just a tacked-on addition or running joke, there’s no reason to reject this kind of representation. Accepting it will only lead to a richer and more diverse community of queer characters in our popular fiction, and I for one look forward to that future.
Hear more from Lady Saika on Character Reveal, the podcast she cohosts with BrothaDom!