Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Basic Elements of Subtext

Basic Elements of Subtext
- Or Lesbian Subtextual Archetypical Behaviour

Disclaimer: This following post concerns lesbian subtext. The clips included are taken out of context to highlight how easy and at times rewarding it is to pump heteronormative culture full of subtle references to queer characters and life-style. I in no way mean to proclaim this interpretation as an absolute truth, it is simply an alternative way of enjoying a culture which has very little regard to what you as an individual would find relatable. It’s like that old saying; if Mohammed won’t come to the mountain, the lesbian will turn to subtext.

In order to help facilitate this little crash-course in subtext, I have taken liberties with these two characters.
Sabrina Duncan

& Kelly Garrett

They can be found on a campy show from the 70s called "Charlie's Angels", which truly is a Mecca for anyone interested in either subtext and/or the evolution of gender roles.

1.) Read the text.
2.) Watch the clip.
3.) Go out into the world and apply on other shows.


• The Difference - ”I’m not like other girls.”
The character expresses a concern or simply states their difference from the surrounding (heterosexual) norm. This can take on two different forms. Either the character is aware of the reason behind their difference, in which case bitterness or a sense of hopelessness often can be found in their statement (either through facial expression, body language or tone). The other option is the oblivious nature, where the character hasn’t quite gotten to grips with their feelings and emotions, yet they do know there’s something not quite “right” about them.

This following clip would be of the second oblivious nature. She is uncertain as to why something that should be so right, feels so lacking.

• Jealousy.
This is one of the most rudimentary aspects of subtext, and it is also one of the most commonly used and found. One of the characters up for subtextual interpretation openly display an illogical or over-emphasized amount of jealousy in regards to the other character in the subtextual pairing. As soon as a third party enters the picture and hovers about as a potential love interest the jealous party will quite simply act—jealous.

Note how jealousy is displayed through disbelief followed by anger and warning. Up until the moment all is reveled to be a ploy. This clip however is somewhat atypical in the nature that it appears to present an actual couple rather than simple subtextual tension and potential.

• Flirting.
This one is very straightforward in a subtle way. Queer life is not open, it’s always hidden and subtlety has actually been a must for physical survival. Therefore you won’t be seeing the explicit pick-up lines. Instead you will have to look for a tone, a slight teasing with a touch of something not quite identifiable. Also there will be knowing smiles and a lot of eye-contact (read eye-shagging; see below for definition). You have to find a way of flirting without making anyone, other than the person you are flirting with, aware.

• Lack of Private Sphere & Unnecessary Touching.
This is one of my personal favourites (probably because I’ve got issues with gratuitous body contact). Some characters appears to lack a sense of physical propriety, they are simply too close physically. When they stand, they stand a little too close, often touching. They are more often than not up in each other’s faces, and there will be a lot of unnecessary and pointless touching. Touching for no other reason than a need to feel the other character. It is difficult to fully explain, but when you watch the subtextual couple and you see them next to each other, they are not two people standing , they interact; on screen and in each other’s presence, they somehow become one entity.

Also note the play on language in the second section of this clip.

• Ambiguous Lines and/or Sexual Innuendos.
Each community has their own lingo and way of using language. A sentence that to one person has one meaning, most likely will take on an entirely different meaning by someone from an outside community. Furthermore sexual innuendos are strangely easy to find in most any dialogue, though they in themselves might not have been intended as such. In some cases the sexual innuendos and ambiguous lines are intended, Xena: Warrior Princess is an excellent example of that. Other times the fun only appears when you apply your own language rules and lingo on the characters and interpret their dialogue from your own perspective. This is also a case of context collapse, where the words and wordings spark associations unrelated to the actual context of the scene and/or lines. It is a matter of cutting & pasting and does require a lot of effort from you. But if you put in that element of extra thinking, it is most rewarding.

In this first scene take note of the actual words used, and for those familiar with queer life the associations will most likely cause an unintentional hilarious alternative interpretation.

This second clip is of the more ambiguous nature, where the dialogue and the way in which it is presented would fit quite well into a subtextual reading. The characters share a joke/secret which they do not share with the casual viewer, but only those willing to use their own frame of reference to create meaning out of it.

• Hurt/Comfort.
It’s a simple concept really. Whenever we are hurt we need comfort. Whenever someone we love is hurt we want to comfort them. Fear and pain often blurs the lines of otherwise accepted behaviour and we more often than not forget to censor our emotions and feelings. That makes hurt/comfort ideal to use when dissecting relationships of a subtextual nature. The blurring of the lines breeds emotion and is very potent source of fanfic inspiration. It will not only result in a lot of intense emotion, but will also often lead to a lot of reassuring (both themselves and the other character) through a lot of touching.

• Eye-shags.
Some people might call it eye-contact, in the subber world it’s eye-shagging. Moments of lingering and a little too intense eye-contact. In cases of severe subtext dearth even simple glances and exchanges of eye-contact will be referred to as shagging, but in theory it does refer to something a little more substantial (time wise).

• References to Joint Identity and/or Life.
Not as common and a lot more difficult to spot. However there are cases when the pairing, or one of its members takes it upon themselves to speak for the other part. The lesbian urge to merge in very subtle and throw away lines, yet it means a lot if you are devoted to the pairing and actively read subtext. The more subtle version of this is the clothes swapping, one moment we see one of them wearing something that the next scene (or episode) ends up on the other character.

Variable and personal preference;

• Chemistry.
This builds on all of the above. There is a sense of familiarity between the two characters, something that goes above and beyond the rest of the cast. Either by a relaxed and seemingly comfortable repertoire, or it could also manifest through unexplained tension. However my personal preference is the familiarity. Most of the time it is a result of off-screen friendships. Because no matter how good an actor you are, true affection will always feel fresher and sharper than acted. And so if two actors share a personal bond, that will almost always trump all the faked ones on-screen and the real-life chemistry will shine through and come across most clearly. It doesn’t matter if the bond is a simple friendship one, because on-screen that will feel more real than all acted relationships. Chemistry is chemistry. Granted many people do slash female pairings without this feeling of familiarity or tension, but personally I need this element to be able to truly enjoy.


And now that you're aware of all the steps on the LS ladder. See how many of them you find in this clip;

Are there any vital elements of subtext I have forgotten? If so please leave a comment and lets discuss.


  1. Great, informative post on subtext! Love the Sabrina + Kelly pairing. Also, great job with the videos clip examples!

  2. I think you should check out Disney's Princess Protection Program. Silly suggestion, I know, but reading this, it was easy to to see the connection and how everything in that movie fits into these categories. You should make a post!

  3. Genius. Seriously. The fact that I remember an awful lot of these scenes and remember thinking that Sabrina was a role model of mine, makes it that much better. :-)



    Hungry for Yuri? Have some Okazu!

  4. They are so very obvious. They are incredibly cute together, and Sabrina is so hot :) I love them and the show. This was great-I've been looking for awhile for something that would give video clips as examples. It really helps to illustrate

  5. I also think you could add unnecessary Sabrina often seems to fnd a way to mention how pretty she thinks Kelly is. This happens a lot with subtext, where two "friends" express how pretty/attractive they find each other, supposedly in a "friendly" way...but we know what it really means, eh? ;) I also think there were some other clips about S/K you could have added, especially ones where they express jealousy. But i understand you were just giving examples and not showing every single slashy moment between the two :) I love these two, they are so adorable, and this post and your entire blog is very enjoyable and completely genius. Thank you!!!! P.S., has anyone EVER seen someone as attractive as Sabrina Duncan? No

  6. Great! You really help show exactly what subtext is, and how to spot it. This is so smart.

  7. What about teasing/making fun of/joking around with the other character? This is a little different than flirting, but has the same light hearted (and sexually fueled :) ) energy. A good example of this for Kelly/Sabrina would be when Bri gets arrested for stealing a fruit truck, and Kelly proceeds to give her a herd time about it. Sabrina then threatens to wack her with a pillow. It's all very adorable :)

  8. Brilliant post! Thank you for sharing this, it makes re-watching the series much more enjoyable!