reading between the lines

A few years ago, a friend and I were talking to a third friend, who was watching the animated TV series Steven Universe for the first time. The one mentioned to the other a backstory detail about one of the central characters, and I reacted with dismay– that’s a spoiler! It’s supposed to be a reveal! They were both surprised by my response: the friend who had seen the show didn’t think of this detail as a reveal, and the friend who was still watching had sort of guessed the information already, and didn’t feel like anything had been ruined by having it confirmed.

So let this somewhat convoluted paragraph serve as two things: a warning that I’ll be giving what I consider spoilers both for Steven Universe and the animated Netflix series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, and that you might not consider the information spoilers at all. But for me, the feeling of surprise– I’ll go so far as to say of shock– at what both of these series revealed about their central characters was an essential part of my enjoyment of both shows.

I want to start with Pearl.

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve likely seen Pearl: she’s the one in my profile banner. When I started watching Steven Universe the summer after I tentatively and awkwardly kind of came out (on Facebook, kill me) because two friends insisted I had to, as a sort of baby-gay rite of passage. “There are two women* who love each other so much, they have merged into one person,” one of them said.

(*The question of the gender identity of the show’s sci-fi/fantasy race of not-human sentient space rocks is not worth going into, but suffice it to say the space characters all use she/her pronouns and present as female.)

These characters eventually get married, a much-discussed and groundbreaking gesture that the show’s creator Rebecca Sugar reportedly had to fight for tooth and nail. They are the headline examples of the show’s deservedly lauded queer representation. Neither of them is Pearl.

Pearl seems, at first glance, like a character type we have seen before: the neurotic sidekick, who is just a little too obsessed with the memory of her group’s deceased leader, Rose Quartz. The hints mount gradually that Pearl cares about Rose’s legacy in a slightly different way from the others: in an episode where they return to a fountain that Rose built, she is driven into a frenzy by the sight of the garden overgrown with weeds, and at other characters’ smashing through the remnants of the structures to find their way. That episode was when the radar first really pinged for me.

I was attuned to these kinds of hints long before I came out. I remember joking to a friend in college that I had no gaydar in real life, but my intuitions when it came to literature were flawless. Perhaps because my own questions about my identity were something I kept so private, I enjoyed– and continue to enjoy– reading between the lines, seeking out encoded hints about who characters really were and feeling, when I found them, like I’d uncovered a secret truth. I liked that it was something not everyone could see, and yet was starkly obvious to me. I mean, I am a literary scholar, it’s probably not a surprise that close-reading is more fun for me than being told outright what something means.

So I enjoyed picking up these hints about Pearl. She’s a little too insistent that Rose had secrets only Pearl knew. She’s too worshipful when projecting a holographic memory of their lost leader. She’s too suspicious in a flashback to first meeting Greg, the human man Rose falls in love with. We’d been here before. I understand why people get frustrated with this kind of hinting, these stereotypical ways of encoding queer desire. But as I said, I enjoyed it.

What I enjoyed even more, though, was the dawning realization that this wasn’t an accident or a coy secret. As the seasons progressed and the hints at the specific nature of Pearl’s feelings for Rose grew more and more overt, I found myself watching with a growing sense of anticipation and shock. Surely not– surely not— surely, at any minute, they’d swerve away as television shows and movies always do, stop just short of saying whether they mean what the seem to mean. But they didn’t. Pearl sang a song ostensibly about Steven’s relationship with his friend Connie, but blushingly kept mixing up pronouns until it became obvious that she was really talking about herself and Rose. And then, a season later, she sang another song.

With that song, Pearl dancing alone on a balcony in a tuxedo, explicitly describing herself and Rose’s human lover Greg as in competition over Rose, it became impossible to read the relationship any other way. I had always found pleasure in reading the secret identity between the lines, but even more exciting was having that guess confirmed, having that implication made explicit. Not a cliche coming-out storyline, but a logically delayed revelation of what the character herself has always known, and therefore never needed to say. It’s a character we’ve seen before– but this time, the subtext is text. You’re not seeing things, it says. Pearl’s a little too obsessed with Rose because Rose was the love of her life.

And now, with the final season of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power released on Netflix, it’s happened again. Again, it’s a dynamic we’ve seen before: Adora, who is also the titular She-Ra, and head villain Catra are former best friends turned antagonists and rivals who care a little too much. It is the seed from which a thousand fanfictions have sprung. In watching this final season, where She-Ra and Catra finally find themselves on the same team to face down a galactic villain, I found myself reliving the same pattern. Yes, we see those sparky looks. Yes, we see the thoughtful glances and the blushing. But surely not– surely… 

Even when the dam seemed to break, I couldn’t quite believe it. Catra has run away from the group, certain she’ll never be truly valued, especially by Adora.

“Adora doesn’t want me,” she says. “Not like I want her.”

But surely not. 

It’s partly, of course, a lifetime of what I hesitate to call queerbaiting because, as I’ve said, I don’t necessarily mind it. But the reality for most of my life was that the explicit revelation is always avoided. Creators did what the could, and what the could do was drop hints, clues to a mystery that could only be solved outside of the show’s actual text. It happened just six years ago with another animated show, when the creators of The Legend of Korra were happy to confirm that their two female leads were in love in interviews, but still had to frame it within the series in a way that, as the existence of these confirmations suggests, left some doubt.

But in the show’s climactic moment, the gesture that gives Adora the strength to defeat the big bad and save the world, is that Catra says ‘I love you.’ And Adora says it back. And even then part of me was thinking but they won’t let them mean it like that– and then they kiss. They kiss and their kiss saves the universe.

Forgive me for reveling in the details. Forgive me for summarizing what you may have already seen. This is how I got used to reading. Piecing together a secret, private journey and enjoying the secrecy, enjoying that only certain other people could see it, or cared enough to see it, and feeling a connection that surely, if we’re going to get Freudian about it, had probably everything to do with my own deep inclination towards privacy, my alienation from the constant repetition of coming out narratives, my wish to just be seen and known in a way that doesn’t need to be explained.

But both Steven Universe and She-Ra revealed a different kind of pleasure, a best of both worlds: the enjoyment of reading between the lines, and the surprise and satisfaction of having the puzzle revealed. Yes, you were right about what you thought you were seeing. Yes, I know what you were going to guess. Yes, you’ve seen it– and I see you.