Ins and Outs

So about the last thing I expected in my in-box this morning was a response to yesterday’s post from Zoya at The Border House, and I have the feeling that Todd (who had inspired the original post from me) probably had a similar reaction. Now I think that Zoya’s point is actually a good one – How do we know for sure that Taric is gay? Isn’t it just as problematic to assume someone’s sexuality from markers and clues that may or may not have anything to do with sexuality? Absolutely, agree 100%. And this is an important conversation that needs to be had.

The only real issue I have with it is that Taric is not a real person, he’s an iconographic representation of something, and the motivations that we’re looking at should not be ascribed to him, but to the developers who designed and implemented him. We aren’t trying to “out” Taric (if he even happens to be in the closet), we’re trying to convince Riot to come out of the doorway in between “maybe he is… maybe he isn’t… we’re not telling,” because, as Todd argued on his twitter account, “In this wink-and-a-nod mode where everything is illicit and rumored and strange. That rhetoric is the same rhetoric that forced me and many…others into the closet in our lifetime, just as much as the expectation that we conform to stereotypes would. I don’t want that.”

At The Border House, Zoya says that “I’m not against coming out, but I am against the assumption that everybody will or should manage their social lives and personal identities in the same way. And even though I don’t play LoL, this call for an apparently feminine male character to come out as gay is deeply troubling to me as a genderqueer person.” She makes the very valid point that assuming that Taric is gay based solely on gender cues is fallacious, and it is, but when we’re dealing with media and (especially, unfortunately) games, those cues are important. Now I think it would be a really interesting move for Riot to have intentionally created Taric with his pink legwarmers and love for sparkles as a straight man, or an asexual man, or an identified-female.

So, first of all, maybe Taric is not gay. Maybe he loves women almost as much as he loves gems. Maybe he doesn’t identify as a guy. Maybe he just doesn’t know yet. Maybe he doesn’t need to explain his gender expression in terms that fit your worldview.

Or maybe he is gay, and he doesn’t feel the need to navigate the complex network of social connections between the League and the LGBT community through the rather culturally-specific rite of passage of coming out. Maybe Taric belongs to a culture where coming out isn’t the best option for him or for his family. Perhaps his privacy is very important to maintaining his connection with the community he grew up in. It doesn’t necessarily mean he isn’t doing his bit to break down homophobia in that community, but the challenges might not be navigable by the same means that they are in your culture.

Maybe Zoya’s right. Maybe Riot is really much more complex and thoughtful about gender and sexuality than we’re giving them credit for. Maybe they just didn’t think about it and have a designer who likes sparkles and pink legwarmers. Maybe they want to make the point that we shouldn’t ask questions about sexuality because it is fundamentally unimportant to Taric’s role in the game. Honestly, though, I don’t think Riot thought about any of that, and I’m pretty sure that that’s the point Todd was getting at.

For the sake of full disclosure, I don’t play League of Legends, and I don’t really have a founded opinion on whether Taric is gay, straight, bi, asexual, questioning, or not even human at all (hence my use of “so if he is” in the original post, because I really don’t know). That said, I’m inclined to think that Todd is probably right, and that Riot created a character they “decided” was gay, but left his sexuality ambiguous (his description reads, “Taric is tight-lipped about his life outside the League and prefers his privacy”) to avoid fan backlash. And if that is the pattern we’re seeing here, then it is a problem, and should be talked about.

For instance, Todd’s response makes the equally valid point that while there’s no particular need for Taric, as a fictional individual, to be gay, it is important for media producers like Riot to include characters who – if they are, in fact, gay – are not reticent to own their sexuality. Not because people should feel obligated to do the same, but because of another point that Zoya made: “If there was someone like me on British TV, I would have a much easier time explaining my identity to my mother.” It’s important for people of all types to appear in our media as open, accepted, and equally competent as everyone else.

The assumption that Taric is gay – which, as I understand it, is held by much of the LoL community – may be problematic because of what it says about the way we read gender and sexuality codes, but that’s exactly why Riot should be open about Taric’s sexuality, whatever it is.The problem isn’t that Taric isn’t openly gay, nor that he likes sparkles, but because they’re pointedly refusing to talk about it while nevertheless including elements that our society automatically codes as homosexual:

Valoran’s media, for some reason, has taken a great interest in his personal life. While open about his life as a champion and gracious in all things, Taric is tight-lipped about his life outside the League and prefers his privacy.

The inclusion of a sly comment that hints at something nefarious, illicit, or otherwise “hush-hush” is dangerous because it allows for certain assumptions to be made based on the established pattern of closteting and bigotry that exists in our society. If that’s not what’s happening, Riot has the responsibility to make that clear so that no one – gay, straight, asexual, genderqueer – feels as though they need to remain silent. Can they? Sure. But they don’t need to because their sexuality or gender identity isn’t condemnable. If Taric is okay being whatever he is – and liking gems and pink legwarmers – then they can feel okay about being whatever they are.

3 thoughts on “Ins and Outs

  1. Thanks for continuing the discussion! I originally had a long rant here but I’ve decided to reign it in.

    I think that if Taric “prefers his privacy” then that in itself implies that he has agency in his decision to keep his love life hidden from the public eye. I don’t see any evidence that he is closeted out of shame.

    I don’t think this discussion is about Riot Games’s actual depiction of Taric so much as about the cultural context that we feel shadows their depiction. You and Todd associate his depiction with cultural codes that connote homosexuality. I associate his depiction with flamboyant male femininity in a culture that is rapidly shifting to accommodate a greater fluidity of identities. You and Todd associate his ‘light-lipped’ stance to repression. I associate it with having personal boundaries.

    • I don’t think that Taric prefers anything – he’s not real, he has no feelings, and he is only a construct invented by developers. I also think that it is far more likely that “prefers his privacy” translates to “we don’t want to start an argument about sexuality” than it means “we shouldn’t evaluate people based on sexuality,” given the plethora of “flags” that we read as homosexual. Now that could be incorrect, but in that case, I think that they handled the creation of the character carelessly, because the point that they could have made about leaving sexuality out of things isn’t the point they ended up making.

      I don’t associate Taric with much of anything. I don’t play the game, and I have only the exposure I’ve found in reading about him over the last couple of days. It seems to me that – the increasing prominence of metrosexuality aside – the cues Riot has given Taric are those that most of Western society associates with male homosexuality. That doesn’t mean he is meant to be gay, necessarily, but if that wasn’t the message Riot meant to send, then they misjudged their audience. As I understand it, most players of the game read those cues the same way Todd and I do – again, that doesn’t make it true, but it does mean that’s the way most players read them. And I think it’s important for developers to be cognizant of the way their designs are being read in light of what they wish to say with those creations.

      Ultimately, what all this boils down to is that I’m attempting to read the character in light of social expectations, not absolute truths. And while social expectations are often wrong, they are what they are, and a media development team has the responsibility as mature artists to recognize and respond to the paradigms of that audience. Should we expect our games to begin to reflect the myriad of diverse sexualities and identities that we find in culture? Yes, we should. But they’re not there yet, and pushing at the boundaries of developers’ comfort zones to force them to include more diversity – which is what Todd is trying to do – is the only way that it’s going to happen.

    • While I suppose it’s possible that the developers at Riot were interested in constructing a complex portrayal of gender queerness through Taric, I tend to doubt it. I think it’s more likely they’re playing with stereotypes of male homosexuality while avoiding a political confrontation with the conservative members of their fanbase.

      Setting aside the motivations of the developers, though, by insisting that the character has the right to maintain his personal boundaries (as if he were a real person), I think you’re unfortunately participating in the erasure of actual homosexuality from public discourse. I think it’s important to read the character in light of broader media trends, and in particular, the increasing mainstream visibility of slash culture. Media creators have become increasingly aware that homoerotic overtones can sell product, even while they avoid political confrontation by creating homoerotic overtones between ostensibly straight men. Off the top of my head, I can think of House, Supernatural, Sherlock, Teen Wolf, where the creators wink at the fans by creating homoerotic subtext about the straight characters. And if you look at the recent After Elton slash tournament,(http://www.afterelton.com/people/2012/09/ultimate-slash-madness-winner-sterek) which went very public and mainstream (the actors and producers involved in many of the shows were tweeting support), the top couples were almost exclusively straight men.

      I say all this as a way to suggest that our media has reached a point where we’re fetishizing homosexuality among “straight” men while maintaining the ability to say “no homo.” Taric is participating in that culture. This isn’t about gender queerness; it’s about the continued erasure of actual gay men from the public media sphere.

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