Big-name creators too often think they can bait gay people into believing they’re represented in a work without actually representing them. We see this with J.K. Rowling suggesting that Dumbledore is gay even though no evidence of this exists in the work itself, and more recently with Avengers: Endgame’s creators the Russo brothers exclaiming that having an extra comment about his husband is groundbreaking representation. Both cases are nothing but gay baiting, trying to win the accolades that come with representation without putting in the work of representing us. But it’s not like they need to explicitly label someone as gay for it to be a success in representation. In fact, in the right hands, leaving it in subtext can be a powerful method all its own.
This piece is about Tony. He’s kind of meek, and he doesn’t get much time to shine, but he’s an incredibly loyal friend to Jeff, one of the main characters in EarthBound. He gets only a handful of moments in the game, and most of them barely registers as a blip in the grand scheme of the story: He helps Jeff break out of boarding school, he twice calls the party later on to ask for the player’s name and to make sure Jeff is okay and he writes Jeff a letter saying Tony misses him and wishes he could have gone with him. And yet it’s these seemingly insignificant moments, paired with the brief interactions that he has with Jeff, that shape a character that’s entirely relatable to many gay men’s formative experiences.
EarthBound creator Shigesato Itoi stated in an interview that he wrote one of the characters of Mother 2 as being a gay kid because he knew a lot of gay people and thought it would be nice to have a gay kid in the story. On the surface, this is no different than the Russos claiming representation by throwing a gay extra into their movie. At no point in EarthBound does the game explicitly say that Tony is gay. He’s just one of Jeff’s friends if you stick to a surface reading of their relationship. But the subtext at work tells a different story.
Gay people don’t need to have a character waving the Pride flag to be represented, but neither are we served by declaring characters queer that isn’t supported by either the text or subtext.
The truth is that Tony is clingy. You never see him hanging out with the other kids at the boarding school in Winters and he acts devoted to Jeff in a way that seems to go beyond just being friends. Because of this, he’s afraid that he’s being annoying when he vies for Jeff’s attention. He truly cares about Jeff, but has trouble expressing it in a coherent way. This dovetails with the Letter from Tony that the party gets at the end of the game. In it, Tony expresses that he’s sad he couldn’t go with Jeff on his adventures and that he misses him and hopes he comes back to Winters soon. He even offers to clean Jeff’s glasses, doting on the person he cares about most.
Tony represents the awkward adolescence of gay guys perfectly, especially mine. I remember my relationship with male classmates mirrored that of Tony’s in that I found a male friend that I liked and clung to him throughout our history together. This pattern started in high school and continued through college. I couldn’t acknowledge that I had feelings for a guy, so I settled into the best friend mold, doing everything in my power for the guys that I clung to. I don’t know if Itoi intended for Tony to be aware and accepting that he is gay or not, but regardless, I see myself in Tony, or at least, a past version of myself. Literal representation, albeit more specific than we’re used to.
So no, gay people don’t need to have a character waving the Pride flag to be represented, but neither are we served by declaring characters queer that isn’t supported by either the text or subtext. The key is to write characters so believably queer that they can’t help but represent some aspect of the queer experience. Tony embodies gay adolescence without having to invoke explicit labels, and rings true with me and many other gay men who were still grappling with what being gay meant for your relationships with people growing up.