The Vox culture team thinks a lot about what stories matter to us and why: in other words, makes something part of “the canon.” Lately, because it’s Pride, but also because of the times we’re in — with anti-LGBTQ bills popping up all over the country, celebrity outings back in the news, and the ominous threat of a repeal of protected same-sex rights — we’ve been thinking a lot about the queer canon and its power.
“The queer canon has always drawn attention to works that counter prevailing images and narratives known to marginalize and stigmatize queerness, in favor of ones that are affirmative and/or offer alternative perspectives,” says Maria San Filippo, an associate professor at Emerson College’s Department of Visual & Media Arts. “That body of work often provides those who are queer and questioning with their earliest instances of self-recognition and community belonging.”
Storytelling has been fundamental to the progress of queer and transgender rights in America, but lately, despite an abundance of queer storytellers in the landscape of contemporary media, much of that progress has once again turned into a struggle for civil rights.
What kinds of stories helped get us out of this mess the first time around, and can they do it again? Or should those stories — what we might consider the essential “queer canon” — give way to something new? Could they pave the way for a rethinking of what queer and genderqueer storytelling looks like in the 21st century, and what its role in society should be?
This is a big subject. Trying to define what makes a piece of media feel essential is almost impossibly subjective. Even the idea of “the canon” seems especially fraught when we consider how much of the literary, cinematic, and artistic “canon,” even within a queer context, has been shaped and defined primarily by a hierarchy of white creators and critics. “Even the queer canon tends to favor works by and from more privileged creators and production contexts,” says San Filippo.
But the modern internet serves as a potential foil for this tiered system, bringing us a whole new virtual world of hybrid art forms, evolving subcultures, and expanding ideas of queer and genderqueer identity. Social media has given rise to interconnected international communities; queer creators and audiences are constantly breaking down boundaries, blurring art forms, uplifting traditionally shamed genres, and embracing creative anarchy. In other words, if there ever was a queer canon, it ain’t what it used to be.
Still, it feels especially urgent to ask: What are the great new stories that reflect contemporary queerness? What is this generation’s Angels in America — and what impact could that story have on a society rushing to criminalize and re-criminalize queer and transgender identity? What are the modern works future generations will look to to understand queer and genderqueer identity?
What if the new queer canon is something lighter and more fluid, less defined by towering importance or traditional literary and cinematic parameters for excellence? Might the new queer canon borrow the qualities of evolving queerness itself — less defined by binary dichotomies (exuberance in the face of suffering, survival in the face of ostracism) and more defined by fluidity and community? Could the new queer canon make space for more experimental art? Could it include international media? Would it emphasize heady romantic joy, or might it highlight anger and desperation? Can a comic-book arc or an innovative sci-fi or fantasy novel usurp a position of reverence once reserved for higher literary forms?
What do we do with Ryan Murphy?
We’ve chosen to focus on works that matter to us individually that we think might also resonate collectively. Obviously no one’s “must-sees” and “must-reads” will be the same; our method of selection is necessarily a little ragtag, and in a limited list, we couldn’t include everything we wanted nor capture the breadth of creative works that rightfully belong here. But that feels fitting. Queerness is too often defined by what it is not, when I suspect that perhaps queerness is a little of everything. Perhaps the new queer canon, rather than serving as a gate-kept list of exemplars, should be messy, inclusive, and a little of everything, everywhere, all at once. Hey — maybe that should be on the list, too. —Aja Romano
The Archive of Our Own
In fandom circles, the stereotype about queer fanfiction is that it’s, shhh, mostly written by straight, cis women. But the Archive of Our Own — formed out of the late stages of slash (i.e., queer male) fic fandom on LiveJournal — is a garden of sexual and gender diversity. AO3 was created by and for fans who needed a platform to write and read fanfic that was as weird, geeky, queer, kinky, and subversive as the fans themselves.
In the 15 years since its beginnings, AO3 has become a haven for queer and genderqueer fiction and themes of all sorts — though it must be noted, a space that’s still prohibitive for many writers and fans of color. Despite its flaws, there’s no space more messily welcoming, joyful, and flagrantly, abundantly queer. Even the platform’s growing pains are queer and kinky. And AO3’s cultural impact is no joke: At a recent Japan Foundation panel on the global rise of queer Boys’ Love media, every single panelist mentioned AO3 as a factor in the medium’s growing popularity.
In 2019, in an unprecedented move, the whole site won the Hugo for Best Related Work — an honor bestowed upon 9.4 million works and counting, a giant roiling body of queer-friendly writing. So why not just make AO3 itself, and all of its freakish deviant joy, part of the new queer canon? —AR
Hannibal, which ran for three seasons from 2013 to 2015, wants viewers to ask one question: When is queerbaiting not queerbaiting? One possible answer it offers is: when it’s part of a deliberate attempt by queer people to take characters you might already be familiar with and expose their super-gay core.
Creator Bryan Fuller takes the characters of Will Graham (tortured FBI criminal profiler with an extreme — and fictional — empathy disorder) and Hannibal Lecter (genius, psychologist, cannibal) from Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon and subverts them. Hannibal goes back to before the book, when Graham and Lecter were respectful friends and work colleagues, then shows how Graham finally figured out Lecter was the greatest murderer of them all.
Fuller’s great conceit is that Graham and Lecter’s cat-and-mouse game has a romantic, erotic tension at its core. Across three seasons, the show steps right up to the edge of pushing an explicitly erotic connection between the two into the text, always backing down at the last second. When the two finally take the plunge, it almost feels like a sigh of relief, despite them being killer and cop.
The show’s queerness goes beyond its central pairing, however. Queer characters exist throughout the show’s ensemble, and as critic Loa Beckenstein has argued, the show’s portrayal of murderers who literally rearrange the human body to express their innermost selves resonates with trans experiences too. Hannibal is a huge, queer soup — and incredibly compelling horror TV on top of that. —Emily St. James
In the Dream House
In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir-slash-literary criticism, is self-consciously an addition to the queer canon, a story whose form Machado had to invent herself because she could not find it elsewhere. “Our culture does not have an investment in helping queer folks understand what their experiences mean,” she observes. Finding a way to help other queer folks understand their own experiences is part of the project of this luminous, harrowing account of same-sex domestic abuse.
In the Dream House is a memoir in fragments. As Machado walks us through the story of how she met, fell in love with, and came under the thumb of her abusive ex-girlfriend, each brief chapter plays with a different narrative trope: noir, erotica, folklore taxonomy, choose your own adventure. It is experimenting because it has no clear precedents, borrowing from other story formats because how else can you find a way to tell a story so unthinkable?
“I enter into the archive,” Machado writes, “that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this. I speak into the silence. I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound.” The stone of Machado’s story casts strong echoes. —Constance Grady
Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian)
The last five years have seen a boom in terrific literature written by trans women, from Torrey Peters’s bestselling Detransition, Baby to Jeanne Thornton’s Summer Fun and the assorted works of Casey Plett. Yet my favorite novel in this movement is Hazel Jane Plante’s experimental 2019 novel Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian), which emerged from a tiny press in Canada and captured certain things about the trans feminine experience I had never seen articulated quite as well.
The novel’s narrator — unnamed for almost the entire novel — attempts to process her deep, paralyzing grief at the loss of Vivian, her best friend, who died in an unspecified fashion before the novel begins. To do so, she begins cataloging in alphabetical order elements from the fictional TV series Little Blue, which sounds like a cross between Twin Peaks, Gilmore Girls, and the old Nickelodeon show The Adventures of Pete & Pete. Little Blue served to bring the narrator and Vivian closer together, and the book explores their friendship both in the past tense and in the present, as the narrator rewatches her friend’s favorite show (for Vivian always loved it more than the narrator did).
Little Blue Encyclopedia aches, in the best way possible. As the narrator moves through her grief, we also get a beautiful portrayal of the ways trans people care for each other and the bonds that can form between trans feminine people who often have to create their own family structures outside the societal norm. This book is sad, yes, but death is never its focus. Instead, it is interested in all of the ways we find pieces of the dead to make our lives slightly more bearable without them. —ESJ
The Locked Tomb series
The tagline on Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series is that it tells the epic saga of lesbian necromancers in space, but I assure you that the necromancers are far from the only queer characters in this space opera. There are also nonbinary angels, pansexual Lyctors, and — arguably most important of all — Muir’s first title character, sweet dumb lesbian Gideon, a deadly swordswoman with a weakness for bad puns and a sizable collection of dirty magazines.
The Locked Tomb series, which begins with Gideon the Ninth and is planned to extend to four books total, is a study in nightmarish gothic maximalism. It’s a universe of ossuaries and skeleton monsters and appealingly gross flesh magic, and everything that could possibly emit a sepulchered groan and leak blood absolutely does. But at its core, the Locked Tomb series is a study of the power dynamics between two very close people, which is to say that it is a study of love.
It takes place within an interplanetary empire ruled over by the universe’s most powerful necromancer, where necromancers and their sword-wielding cavaliers are told to pair off in a quest for ultimate power. Over the course of the series, Muir makes an increasingly pitiless examination of what it means to offer one’s self, body and soul, to another person. What she finds will break your heart every single time. —CG
Mo Dao Zu Shi (The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation)
In December, the first published English translations of three novels by the pseudonymous erotica author Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (affectionately abbreviated as MXTX) all hit the New York Times bestseller list at once. This feat made headlines primarily because of the sheer novelty of it: a Chinese author of kinky queer historical fantasies finding mainstream success overseas, mainly due to the organically grown fandom for her works.
That fandom centers around MXTX’s “cultivation” epic Mo Dao Zu Shi, an intricate, politically charged novel about a brilliant historical cultivator who begins practicing a dangerous school of dark magic, low-key wrecking society in the process. The story quickly became beloved for its complex world-building and for the soulmate love between its two main characters. MDZS was adapted into the globally popular Netflix hit The Untamed, which alone had a tremendous impact on queer storytelling in East and Southeast Asia; now MXTX’s body of work has begun disrupting US publishing. The international bridges this story has built and the deep love it culls from its audience qualify it for entry into the new queer canon. After all, what is the canon but works that transform us? MDZS is transforming the culture in real time. —AR
“Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”
Music videos are a lost art. It’s not artists’ fault that the industry has changed; that MTV now just plays hours and hours of a show called Ridiculousness. What’s the point in pouring effort and money into a video, when so few are watching? Lil Nas X is one of the exceptional exceptions; his videos are must-see.
His clip for “Montero” features, among other things, Lil Nas X being seduced and licked down by a humanoid snake in a Garden of Eden, wearing a pink wig while being chained and judged in heaven, and ultimately sliding down a pole into hell, to give the devil a lap dance.
The visuals are explicitly queer, but also a blunt rebuke to the Satanic Panic launched against the singer by right-wing figures and politicians. Instead of shying away from the controversy, he doubles down, quite literally, with Satan.
Lil Nas X’s skill with both the spotlight and visual artistry brings to mind artists like Madonna and Janet Jackson, whose music videos are seared into pop music history. Same goes for his irreverent attitude about his biggest haters.
Love him or hate him, you can’t stop talking about him. —Alex Abad-Santos
One of the more unexpected Best Picture wins in the Oscars’ 94 years is also one of the most dazzling and sensitive films of the new millennium. Based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight sensitively weaves together several threads as it tells the story of Chiron, a young boy growing up in Liberty City, Miami. The film is structured like a triptych, with Chiron played by three extraordinary actors — Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes — as he matures into adulthood. The film wasn’t widely seen before its Oscar win, and no wonder; it’s a small, arty film made on a shoestring budget about a poor, gay Black boy from the projects, with a mother who is an addict and a surrogate father who deals drugs, as he deals with bullies and discovers his homosexuality.
What Moonlight does best and most brilliantly is evoke the quiet ways that Chiron, who is bullied and lost for much of his youth, slowly and often silently grows into understanding his own identity. Through encounters with a childhood friend, Chiron struggles to accept that who he is will always be at odds with where he came from — and to live the emotions that realization raises. It’s a tale of yearning and pain, grounded in Chiron’s desire to escape himself. But Moonlight understands that need for escape doesn’t come from himself; it’s born out of the influences around him. Love, a place to belong and be safe, is what he longs for most of all. —Alissa Wilkinson
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, queer French director Céline Sciamma’s story of two women falling in love amid a too-temporary matriarchy, is one of the most romantic movies ever made.
The connection between painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and aristocrat Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), whose portrait Marianne has been hired to paint, builds inexorably across the film. The two are left to their own devices on a remote island off the coast of Brittany in the late 1700s, yet even as they fall in love, their connection carries within it the promise of melancholy. Héloïse’s portrait is meant for the man she will marry.
Stories of two women falling in love usually end in sadness, which irritates many. (Not me! I love when people are sad!) Yet Portrait transcends whatever annoyance you may preemptively feel about its sad lesbians by creating a truly ravishing and revolutionary glimpse at what the world might look like when filtered through the female gaze. Above all, Sciamma understands that the best romances are about the proximity between two people who can’t help falling for each other, and the best love stories are about the separation of soulmates. Portrait somehow manages to pull off both in the same film. —ESJ
“Never Knew Love Like This Before,” Pose
Pose wasn’t a perfect television show (Ryan Murphy’s rarely are) but when it was at its best it was one that, as my colleague Emily St. James said, you couldn’t stop thinking about. And I can’t think of an episode harder to forget than “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” which aired in 2019.
Pose explores ballroom culture and the lives of trans and gay people in the ’80s and ’90s. But it also uses that story to reflect the violence against trans women happening in the present. “Never Knew” depicts the murder of Candy, a friend to the show’s main cast of characters. Candy is a ballroom hopeful, but struggles financially.
In order to support herself, Candy performs sex work — and ultimately is killed by one of her clients. The episode is moving and awkward, powerful and maybe too sentimental — sometimes all at once. It’s not successful at everything it tries. But what stuck out to me was how the show honors Candy’s life.
The show deliberately veers away from depicting violence and how she was killed. Instead, Candy’s ghost appears in the episode and interacts with the characters — a way to show her legacy, the life she led, and the dreams she had.
After her death and funeral, Candy is depicted in a fantasy sequence in which she has a ballroom performance of a lifetime. She looks beautiful. She’s smiling. She’s admired. But the sequence isn’t just about what Candy hoped would have happened in her life, it’s about how her friends will remember her. It’s about the brightness she brought to their lives. Pose itself is a reminder that joy is a crucial part of queer survival. —AAS
Stephen Cone’s 2017 coming-of-age drama flew under many people’s radars, but to those who saw Princess Cyd, it was an instant classic. Jessie Pinnick plays Cyd, who’s come to stay with her aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence, playing a character modeled on the author Marilynne Robinson) for the summer. Like many a teenager, Cyd is trying to find herself. She finds herself attracted to Katie (Malic White), a barista, while also unwinding some of the ways Miranda’s life has gotten too safe. They provoke one another while forming a bond. Together, they’re prodded toward a bigger understanding of the world in the safety of a loving, carefully chosen community.
Cone is a master of small, carefully realized filmmaking; his earlier movies such as The Wise Kids and Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party combine an unusual level of empathy for his characters with a combination of interests that aren’t always mixed in authentic ways in queer film: love, desire, sexual awakenings, and religion. Princess Cyd is his most accomplished film to date, graceful and honest, but all of his work ought to be required viewing for young people navigating the tricky waters that often accompany queer identities in religious communities. —AW
A Strange Loop
Even before it won the Tony for Best Musical, A Strange Loop seemed obviously destined for greatness. You can’t escape its vortex. Michael R. Jackson’s dazzling metafictional show inverts and plays upon so many Broadway tropes that your head is spinning before the first number is over. The tale centers on Usher, a queer Black man who works as, well, an usher for the Broadway production of The Lion King and in his spare time is trying to write a musical about a queer Black usher who is trying to write a musical about … you get the idea. On stage, he’s accompanied by a chorus of his Thoughts, six of them, who at times evoke his family members, his emotions, or a bevy of other detractors. In the course of trying to write the show, Usher finds himself sucked into his own vortex. But his family members’ refusal to accept his identity, along with an unspoken part of family history, throw a key wrench into his mental works.
It’s a spectacular hoot of a show, and made even more poignant by the seething authenticity underneath it. Like a number of other recent Broadway productions from Black artists (including Slave Play), A Strange Loop isn’t out to just make fun of the overwhelming white preciousness of the entire Broadway apparatus. It’s ready to burn it all down, frustrated and radical and saying all kinds of things you can’t say on stage. (In one of the late numbers, Usher’s Thoughts, as his family members, sing a song with the chorus “AIDS is God’s punishment.” It’s a lot.) Polite, it’s not — but as Tony voters recognized, it’s a giant leap forward for the Great White Way. —AW
Veneno is an HBO Max miniseries about the power of imagination and storytelling.
Veneno is the Spanish word for “venom,” but it’s also the nickname of the legendary Cristina Ortiz Rodríguez or “La Veneno,” a transgender singer and celebrity who rose to prominence on Spanish TV in the mid-’90s.
Cristina created a life for herself that defied reality. She dared to dream of something better for herself, and in her own way, turned her success and fame into resistance against transphobia and prejudice.
The series, based on Cristina’s biography, doesn’t shy away from the tougher parts of Cristina’s life — the friends she lost, the dreams she gave up on, the bad men she fell in love with, the failures she endured — and in doing so, gives us a portrait of how a queer person’s desire to be seen in the world is a constant, difficult negotiation.
Even with these obstacles, La Veneno was an architect of her own life. The show celebrates her for it. —AAS
Yuri on Ice
The 2010s saw a boom in what we might call queer comfort media: storytelling that prioritizes, first and foremost, creating a happy, loving, progressive environment for its characters and its audience that defied trauma porn stereotypes. Most of these stories — think hockey webcomic Check, Please! or cult webseries Carmilla — found niche audiences and left a relatively small cultural footprint. But Yuri on Ice, the 2016 skating anime that simply presents ice skating as the utopian queer fantasy space it was always meant to be, influenced so much media in its wake that the list is hard to enumerate. Among the mix is arguably the popular romance Red, White & Royal Blue and Netflix’s current hit Heartstopper — but Yuri on Ice tops them both for its charm, grace, and beauty.
For most of 2016 and 2017, this anime was everywhere, and it still resurfaces every winter as fans compare the intricate details of the show to the styles and bios of their favorite real-life figure skaters. Yuri on Ice makes a compelling, visually stunning argument for simply rewriting the world to make room for passionate, ebullient, happy queer love stories. No wonder the fandom is still huge, breathlessly awaiting the series’ perpetually delayed second season. We need that kind of hope now more than ever. —AR