Why Queer Retellings of Classic Stories Are So Necessary
Queer retellings of stories are a reminder that the classics don't just belong to straight white guys—they belong to the LGBTQ community, too.
Illustration by Heather Benjamin
If it's true that, as Christopher Booker wrote, there are only seven plots reiterated throughout fiction, it should come as no surprise that every year's literary crop brings a fresh spate of retold myths, folktales, and classics. From Wide Sargasso Sea to West Side Story to Clueless, great retellings have become beloved in their own right, filtering timeless themes through contemporary sensibilities. (There are, of course, occasional missteps on this path—the less said about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the better.) Revisiting a story gives us an opportunity to explore universal experiences from the perspective of those who weren't represented in the original, and nowhere is this more apparent than in today's generation of young writers and artists bringing overt queerness into the literary canon.
I've always loved anything that puts an original twist on a well-known story. As an adolescent, I devoured the feminist, sometimes queer, fairy tales of Emma Donoghue's Kissing the Witch and wished there were more books like it. In the last few years, interest in queering the classics seems to be gathering momentum with books like Malinda Lo's Ash, in which a Cinderella-esque character chooses a huntress over a prince; former VICE contributor Sara Benincasa's Great, an updated version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, where both Gatsby and the object of her affection are girls; and Sassafras Lowrey's Lost Boi, a Peter Pan story about queer and trans street kids.
Queer retellings aren't limited to the written word, either. In June, Lifetime remade its own original movie Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?, this time featuring lesbian vampires. Even more recently, the band It Was Romance debuted the video for "Hooking Up with Girls," which visually echoes every shot in Fiona Apple's iconic "Criminal" video. At this point, it's safe to say that queer retellings are mainstream, and more will certainly be forthcoming. (Next month, Manifold Press will release A Certain Persuasion: Modern LGBTQ+ Fiction Inspired by Jane Austen's Novels.) Any story about forbidden love is especially easy to queer, but just about any plot can be reworked to suit LGBTQ characters and audiences.
Of course, queer retellings are only a small facet of a larger movement toward LGBTQ representation and visibility in every corner of art and culture, but they're a crucial one. We'll never stop telling new stories and exploring underrepresented aspects of the human experience, but retelling old stories from a queer point of view adds something unique: the recognition that the stories that connect us across cultures and generations belong to all of us, LGBTQ people included. Lane Moore, the singer/songwriter behind It Was Romance and director of their video paying homage to "Criminal," says her goal was to "normalize queer culture because to me, it's all the same. I just love the idea of people all starting to see that we're more alike than we think, because that helps people become more compassionate with each other, and oftentimes feel less alone." By elaborating on the canon in this way, LGBTQ writers carve out a space for themselves—and for queer readers.
We'll never stop telling new stories and exploring underrepresented aspects of the human experience, but retelling old stories from a queer point of view adds something unique.
Robin Talley's novel As I Descended, released in September, tells an all-too-familiar story of potential outmatched by destructive ambition. It's recognizable as Macbeth, but the antihero this time is a bisexual teenager named Maria, nudged along the path toward success and then disaster by her closeted girlfriend Lily. Just as her Scottish predecessor struggles to navigate between his goals and his morals, Maria is torn between her desperation for a coveted scholarship and what she knows is right. Lily has her own agenda, which is intimately connected to her fear of the consequences should anyone find out that she's gay.
The plot of As I Descended both hinges on the characters' queerness and transcends it—there's nothing about the book that would be inaccessible to a straight reader, but same-sex romance is an inextricable part of its plot. In a literary environment where LGBTQ representation is still catching up from centuries of erasure, it's refreshing to see a queer protagonist like Maria, not a stereotype nor a trope but a deeply flawed, complicated person battling conflicting desires. When Maria gives in to her worst impulses, it's not a validation of homophobic stereotypes but an illustration of what could happen to any desperate person in a moment of weakness. Worth noting, too, is the fact that the Macduff stand-in who threatens to foil Maria's plans is also gay; no single character in As I Descended must bear the burden of representing all LGBTQ people.
Talley says that writing classics from a queer perspective shows readers "that there's nothing inherently 'straight' (and for that matter, nothing inherently male, white, or Christian, etc.) about the stories that we think of as defining our culture." While straight, white, and male is overwhelmingly the profile of literary characters typically deemed "universal," As I Descended proves that a bisexual Latina student makes an equally compelling and relatable lead.
For Sara Benincasa, author of Great, turning Jay Gatsby into a teenage girl with a borderline obsessive crush on her childhood best friend was not just a question of offering a relatable character to queer readers, but of making the story more real. She says, "For stories to be authentic, they must include LGBTQ folks, because we're everywhere. We're in every town, every school, every gym, every grocery store, every club... So why shouldn't we be in stories?"
As a queer writer and reader, and as someone endlessly fascinated by the ways stories evolve across time and distance, the growing popularity of queer retellings inspires and delights me. Writers and artists like Talley, Moore, and Benincasa help readers to understand that not only are LGBTQ people part of the story now, but that in fact, we always have been.
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