Today’s guest blogger is Erin White. Her book published today, Given Up for You: A Memoir of Love, Belonging, and Belief, is a candid and revelatory memoir of her hunger for both romantic and divine love. Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks, comments, “Reckoning with the rival claims of queer desire and Catholic faith, Erin O. White has written that rare and wonderful thing: an intimately personal page-turner that raises complex questions about the wider world and our future in it.” In this post, she writes about the representations of queer love in popular media.
Recently my wife and I watched “San Junipero,” an episode of Netflix’s dystopian anthology series, Black Mirror. “San Junipero” first aired in 2016, and is beloved enough to have a Spotify playlist with 50,000 followers. I hope that I’m not spoiling anything by mentioning that the episode is about queer love in the time of virtual reality.
When the show opens, it’s 1987 in San Junipero, a European seaside town where young people with big hair dance to T’Pau and play Top Speed, then drive around in jeeps on dark, sandy roads. San Junipero is perfect and beautiful, but it doesn’t exist. Or, more precisely, it exists only in people’s minds. It’s a simulated, virtual reality. Elderly people are allowed to spend five hours a week there, and before dying, can make the decision to go to San Junipero permanently, to spend eternity dancing to Robert Palmer.
“San Junipero” is essentially a love story, and what’s remarkable about it—what is still, in 2018, remarkable—is that it’s about two women. I recently read that the series creator, Charlie Brooker, originally wrote the episode for a heterosexual couple, but then decided to rewrite it for two women.
Brooker’s rewrite interests me. Why did he decide to tinker with the protagonists’ sexual orientation? Part of me doesn’t want to overthink it, to just enjoy the women’s chemistry and banter and sex, and be grateful for the revision. Part of me wants to think that Brooker thought—as I do—that introducing complex queer characters into any narrative makes that narrative better (Brooker is quoted as saying it was “more fun” to write for two women.) But I can’t help but want to take a closer look. After all, how, exactly, is “San Junipero” different than all the other movies and tv shows that employ the “bury your gays” trope?
As is so often the case when queer people are represented in the media, it’s complicated. Here’s a story about two funny, beautiful, clever women in love. Marvelous! But here’s what’s not so marvelous: their love exists entirely outside of time, outside the women’s actual bodies, and only in their minds. To add injury to insult, one of the women has been in a coma for forty years, ever since she crashed her car after, you guessed it, coming out to her restrictive and homophobic parents.
In order for these two women to live freely and be in love, they have to leave their bodies behind and enter a virtual reality. The Belinda Carlyle song “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” plays over and over in San Junipero. But the problem is, for these women, heaven isn’t a place on earth. It’s just to the side of earth, a parallel universe on another plane of time and space. The women of “San Junipero” are wildy in love, and that’s a treat to watch. But they’re not actually alive; they’re not engaged in the grand experiment of embodied, earthly love. Don’t get me wrong—it was an absolute pleasure to watch their love affair on my television screen. It left me wanting more. I’m just hoping that the queer TV and movie narratives that “San Junipero” is bound to inspire will tell queer love stories that unfold right here, on earth.
Given Up for You is published in the UWP series Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiographies.