Often when I get into fights with people over Dean’s sexuality here’s roughly how the conversation will (infuriatingly) go:
Me: I think Dean is bi because of textual evidence X, Y, Z, A, B & C.
Them: Well X can’t be evidence because he wasn’t sexually attracted to Dr. Sexy. He was just starstruck, and excited to be meeting a fictional character he likes.
Me: But there are a lot of things about that moment that imply Dean feels attraction to him - his expression when he first see him, his bashfulness when talking to him, the fact that he’s not ‘starstruck’ in the same way by any of the female “TV” characters, the fact that he was ashamed when Sam caught him watching the show earlier, etc.
Them: Well that’s just your ~biased~ interpretation of that moment.
And I just want to bang my head against a wall emphatically and go wailing into the night due to the stunning lack of self-awareness that this line of logic requires. This farce of an argument essentially amounts to, “My way of reading is ‘objective’/neutral, your way of reading is ‘biased’ because…REASONS!!1!!”
No. That’s not how this works.
All fictional texts can potentially be interpreted in more than one way. (It’s the reason being a literature scholar is still a viable profession) And its always up to the viewer/reader to make individual interpretive choices about how to see it. As readers, we make these choices based on any number of different criteria:
- how much we identify (or disidentify) with a character or storyline
- what we think is “in character” (based on our preexisting perceptions of a character)
- what we think makes sense relative to what’s already occurred in the story
- what we think makes sense relative to the wider world and our particular perception of what is ‘realistic’ or plausible
- broadly shared cultural biases related to institutional sexism, heterosexism, white supremacy, ableism, etc.
- generic conventions
- stated authorial intent (or our inference of authorial intent)
- what we think is the most common way to interpret amongst other readers/audience members
- our simple desires for story-lines to progress a certain way because its what we want
- facts we may know about the real world that we bring to bear on the writing
- the interpretations of others we talk to about it
- weighing the amount of evidence that exists for one interpretation versus another (again according to our perception)
- flipping a coin
- because X interpretation just makes us happier than Y interpretation
There are an infinite number of reasons why any individual looks at a textual moment and says, I see it this way, versus that way. We all choose to privilege different means and modes of interpretation based on any number of contributing factors. And there is no ‘objectivity’ in any of it.
For example, some people still consider authorial intent to be the best/most ‘accurate’ way in which to read texts. Other people think you are ridiculous if you even try to bring authorial intent into the conversation. Some people think jokes made in a text always ought to be taken at face value AS jokes; other people take the more Freudian tact of saying jokes are a way of admitting something is true while trying to disavow it.
Whether you choose to take authorial intent as gospel, whether you consider it marginally relevant, but not totally deterministic, or whether you think it is utterly irrelevant, you are being biased. No matter what. All of those ways of interpreting are biased. Doesn’t mean you can’t still take a side, but there is no such thing as being “objective” about the side you take. It’s all just a matter of personal choice and perspective.
Whether you choose to privilege the hyper-heteronormative tactic of defaulting all characters to a straight interpretation until they are exhaustively proven otherwise (based on your own arbitrary standards of proof) or whether you will accept minimal/subtextual evidence as ‘enough’ for a character to be queer, or whether you default all characters to being queer and require extensive proof to interpret any of them as straight, you are being biased. ALL POSITIONS ARE BIASED.All of them.
There is no being neutral. There is no being objective. There is no reading position that is the uncontested, default, standard, irrefutable norm. But then, how do we know what the truth of the text is?!?!?! You don’t and you never will. Texts don’t have truths. They are sets of signs that can be interpreted and reinterpreted into infinity and there is no ‘TRUTH’ at the bottom of it all. Because semiotics and postmodernism.
But aren’t some readings at least more valid/supported/textually grounded than others? Arguably, yes, but only ever temporarily and conditionally. Let me return to authorial intent: Historically, literature scholars thought authorial intent was the absolute gold-standard of interpretation. And during that historical moment, if you could prove your interpretation was highly consonant with the authors intent, your reading was “more valid.” But as that manner of reading/interpretation fell out of fashion, due to critiques by scholars such as Barthes, authorial intent became less and less ‘valid’ as a way to do textual analysis (within the academy at least). Suddenly interpretations that had once been held as highly supported were now considered weak and facile because they depended on authorial intent, and that was no longer considered de rigueur as a mode of interpretation. The validness of a reading is always deeply tied to its contextual historical moment and it is always largely dependent on the norms of reading that happen to exist within that context.
Also, even within the same historical moment, sub-communities of readers can create their own ‘norms of interpretation’ that operate as valid within those communities. Fandoms are one such example of this, for instance. Also, as many feminists, queer folks, POC, non-Christians, etc have argued, reading norms have also often historically been disproportionately defined by those social groups in power - men, white people, straight people, and so on.
(This is why Lord of the Flies is often taught in US schools as an allegory for “human nature,” even though all the characters are white boys raised in England and they are not actually remotely representative of “humanity” as a whole)
How we are taught to read, and the locally ‘conventional’ ways of reading are typically reflections of societal power dynamics to a degree, a fact which makes them PROFOUNDLY biased in any given circumstance.
There has never been a ‘neutral’ practice of reading and there never will be either, because how we even understand and define the concept of “neutrality” is a function of our particular historical and social circumstance. There are only ever contingent reading norms that may reach a certain level of temporary hegemony based on dynamics of history and context that are always subject to critique and change. But no reading practice, however presently ‘normal’ or ‘wacky’, is ever “neutral” or “objective”
So yes, my queer reading of Dean is ‘biased.’ But so is your hetero reading of him. You make choices to privilege certain reading strategies, norms and lens that result in your hetero interpretation. I make choices to privilege certain reading strategies, norms and lens that result in a profoundly queer interpretation. Your reading norms are biased, and the reasons you employ those reading norms are biased, and same goes for me. It’s turtles all the way down on every single side. Calling an interpretation “biased” as a way of refuting it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the ways in which reading is always inherently an exercise in being “biased.”
Biased interpretations are the only kinds that exist. So please stop using that word like its an invalidating force. It’s not.