Chemistry and Catalysts

Chances are, if you know me, you know that I’m a person who isn’t particularly fond of the idea of reading characters as queer as if that makes a text queer. This comes out of a stubbornness, perhaps misplaced, that I grew up in a period where a lot of the ‘queer’ media I was seeing being touted was often just extremely standard heterosexual media where two characters of the same gender were friends. This kinda rubbed me the wrong way, at first because I wasn’t comfortable with queerness in media, and then later on because I and people I knew were making queer media with queer characters in them and they weren’t getting attention that I felt was being unduly given to, y’know, something like How I Met Your Mother for some goddamn reason.

I’ve been watching a lot of anime lately and part of that has been learning more about how anime gets made, the material conditions of it, and how the image I had of Japan in my mind growing up was always just that, an image. It means that I’ve come to terms with how and why these really queer-seeming series that aren’t queer keep getting made, often where in the middle of a series about boys’ friendships, the story jerks to a halt, looks out of the screen and says ‘this is where a romantic couple would kiss, and we are obviously not kissing, because that is what we are not.’ It’s stuff I’ve mentioned in the context of the idea of the unbeard, too.

And that brings with it a feeling of caution, and a little sting of hypocrisy, too. I mean, I’m shipping characters, and I used to talk about shipping as if people doing that were being an exploitable resource for the people who wouldn’t put actual queerness in their media. Look at me, the terrible fan, the terrible queer. Part of how I got over this was by being a bit less of a stick in the mud in general, but another part, and the more important part, was considering that I was looking at texts expecting declarations when what was interesting to me was the chemistry.

Chemistry, also known as ‘vibes’ is a term used to refer to the way characters react to one another, or, often, the way that it’s easy to imagine them reacting to one another. Shows where chemistry are important to me tend to be ones where the characters have distinct voices, and clear opinions, and queer readings are made easier by (for example) minimal opportunities for a character to be a blatant homophobe (though that’s not always a dealbreaker, as a bi boy who used to be a blatant homophobe).

I like it when I can see two or more characters where – regardless of aesthetics – it’s easy to imagine the types of people they are in romantic or intimate moments. Not necessarily even in ways that the media depicts. After all, a lot of media tends to treat romantic chemistry as if it’s a given or token presentation, like how a lot of girls in anime are there to be background elements until the boys are done shouting. In My Hero Academia, which I’ve been watching lately, Momo and Kendo are both characters who seem pretty obviously in the declared text to just be characters who are friends. There’s even room for a little bit of resentment between them, with each having a reason for the other to represent their insecurities.

Despite this, I think it’s really easy to imagine scenarios in which the pair of them wind up in a smoochy relationship: they’re perceived by others to be similar, which means both of them see each other instead by how they differ. That difference gives them tension, but that tension can grow into intrigue and then curiosity about whether or not they’re imagining the thing they’re both considering, and – look, they’re both high femme secondary characters who know each other better than anyone else, it’s not hard for me to imagine ways that scenario can play out.

In real chemistry, the thing with like, chemicals and why you get heartburn, there’s this idea that there are things that you can use to make a reaction happen that are neither consumed by that reaction nor part of it. These are known as catalysts. In this case, I do not think anyone out there is going to perceive these characters in precisely the same way as me: I am providing the framework for the reaction to happen. In a very real way, it is the task of telling you about it, of explaining my ideas, that can be seen as enabling a very particular kind of chemical reaction.

And this is the form of queer media participation, in a paratextual way, that I was always so dismissive of because I misunderstood it. There is nothing taken away from queer media (made for purpose) by taking these ideas and bringing them to bear on other media. In fact, queer readings and queer interpretations of other stuff is a great way to bring it in, to include it, and to present ways that the media and culture of the world around us is part of the conversation, that we aren’t fundamentally alienating when we start trying to build out to one another in ways that don’t have to involve reading extremely obscure media that has been forced to the edges of experience.

What I get to do, when I talk about this, is to present to you my own form of these chemical reactions, where I can say ‘hey, if you include this bit of invisible information, how does this relationship look, to you?’ It’s a sequence of giving out tiny secrets, ways to share hidden information about big ideas in small spaces, and showing people places that we can exist and share, making these ideas in part, ours.

It is also, fundamentally, just basically going ‘oh, dey fuckin’ and feeling someone near you go ‘oh hey, you’re right, dey fuckin’.”