As the title suggests, today we’re going to talk about Briar. We’re not really going to spend much time dwelling on her dominant position in the meta or her mechanical designs. No, today we’re going to talk about how gay she is. We’re going to do that through an examination of her art and narrative. This is probably going to be one of those “political” articles some people don’t like. I will say that I’m attempting to thread the needle of making this educational and interesting for a straight audience while not being overly preachy and also making it engaging for my queer audience (love you). But, if you’re in that first group and you don’t want to read about queer representation, then you can probably skip this one. I have no interest in arguing about whether LGBTQ representation in media is important because it is, and if you disagree, you can go be wrong somewhere else.
Anyway, Briar. I remain excited about Briar for a variety of reasons. Some of those are actually gameplay related –Viserai was the first hero I really spent a bunch of time playing, and I’m partial to the Runeblade class in general even if I didn’t have much opportunity to play during Chane’s reign of terror. That said, my local shop finally hosted a FAB intro event last weekend, though I was sadly unable to attend because I was asleep after driving to Brooklyn and back the previous night for one of Khemmis’ two live shows of 2021 (it was awesome). So, a future where I get to actually play in person Flesh and Blood with some regularity is looking more plausible. But really, most of the reasons I’m enthusiastic about Briar have to do with her aesthetic and narrative rather than her gameplay.
Not Everything Is For You
When Briar’s art was spoiled, there were an inordinate amount of negative posts about her appearance. To be sure, there were plenty of excited people too, but the negative response was both disproportional to what I’ve seen in other hero art reveals and also of a different tone than other critiques. I will pause to note that I am decidedly not critiquing people who were disappointed to see a third Runeblade in as many non-supplemental set releases. While I personally have made my case for it from a design perspective, I absolutely appreciate that people who had been waiting over a year for a new Ninja, Wizard, or Mechanologist were bummed out that they wouldn’t get one until 2022, at the earliest. That’s a reasonable complaint. My issue was and is with all the people who were mad about her look. We immedaitly saw a bunch of posts calling Briar “ugly,” “not cute,” or other similar negative takes on her appearance and even explicit claims that her aesthetic was a failure of design or that her card was bad art. To be clear, there is a difference between this situation and calling a hero like Rhinar or Levia “ugly” where that’s kind of the whole point of their design. Those hero designs are targeted at a notable subset of people who like non-human characters that lean towards monstrous in their fantasy settings; some people like to play an orcs in D&D because they aren’t traditionally heroic looking, for instance.
In reading the critiques there was a decidedly misogynistic through line to them. Simply put, the community, as a whole, does not make these sorts of critiques about male characters. People weren’t up in arms that Oldhim was a craggy-faced, beady-eyed grandpa instead of a chiseled himbo. People didn’t complain that Chane looked more like an aging metalhead with a substance abuse problem than a soft emo boy. In fact, when the mostly straight male community does talk about male heroes’ appearances, it’s usually about Bravo, and it’s usually got a positive feel to it, albeit a somewhat performative one. However, while male characters’ attractiveness generally goes unremarked on, the clear expectation for female characters is that they be conventionally hot. Briar doesn’t fit neatly into this box. And, instead of just moving on from the only female hero who isn’t conventionally attractive outside of the literal eldritch tentacle horror, people chose to whine about not getting yet another character who fell in the same narrow range of appearances as the rest of the female cast. Essentially, people saw one woman who wasn’t to their tastes and got up in arms about it instead of just inherently accepting that not every character would cater to their preferences.
This is somewhat enmeshed with the misogynistic elements I just discussed, but the Briar critiques also read as kind of homophobic. I’m sure that some of the people who were tentatively letting me have the last couple paragraphs paused at that. “How is it homophobic?” you might ask. After all, it’s not like we have any lore that says anything concrete about Briar’s sexuality. If we don’t know that she’s gay, how is the response to her homophobic? If you find yourself asking that or something similar, then it’s time to talk about queer coding. Queer coding is the use of subtext in a piece of media to mark a character as queer without ever overtly remarking on their sexuality in the text. It often accomplishes this with the use of stereotypes –effeminate men, butch women, etc. Queer coding isn’t inherently negative, it can be used subversively to get queer representation into media when studios, executives, or censors wouldn’t allow it. Queer coding isn’t even always intentional. In fact, it’s often subconscious, such as assigning queer characteristics to villains as a way to mark them as other. I’ll get into this as it applies to Briar more thoroughly in the next section.
That should be enough of a basic overview of queer coding to facilitate the rest of this article, but if you want to know more about on queer coding, queer theory, and/or queer baiting from some queer YouTubers I give money to, you can check out the videos below. These totally aren’t necessary for understanding the rest of this article, they’re more optional “readings” if you want to know more about these subjects.
Lindsay Ellis gives an intro to queer theory and queer coding via the filmography of Michael Bay in 15 minutes
Rowan Ellis (no relation to Lindsay) has a video that talks about the history of Queerbaiting but also includes discussions of queer coding’s history, particularly it’s emergence under the Hays Code (which, as a former teacher of film, is a topic I love to talk about).
As an aside, people who don’t watch much old cinema tend to assume old films were way straighter than they actually were. And umm…
I mean, we’re talking about an era that gave us bisexual queen and queer icon Marlene Dietrich. Swoon ❤
Briar Is Very Queer
Yeah, getting back to the heart of the matter, I cannot state that enough. Briar is an incredibly queer coded character. At the most obvious level, we have her appearance, the thing that kicked off the complaints and prompted me to write this in the first place. Briar’s look includes a lot of elements that are stereotypically associated with queer women. Before I start cataloging these, yes every trait I’m about to describe can be trait that straight women also have, but they are both historically and stereotypically associated with queer women, hence queer coding. Immediately obvious is her short haircut, this has often been a shorthand visual indication that a younger woman is queer (older women are “allowed” to have short hair without being stereotyped as queer because they’ve aged out of being regarded as sex objects, but that’s a different topic). Similarly, Briar is rather muscular as opposed being merely toned or fit. Outside for Briar, the female heroes represented in FAB tend to fall on body type scale that ranges from Charlize Theron in an action role to straight up runway model. As of now, Briar is the sole true exception, even Levia, if you can look past the tentacles, has a silhouette that is conventionally attractive.
Briar’s also got some other visual characteristics that are a little more subtle like the eyebrow slit –which I suppose could be a scar, but, in either case, it gives the impression of an eyebrow slit which has, in the past couple years, become a signifier for queer women. And then there’s her tattoos (I assume the vine motifs on her arm and leg are tattoos. I suppose they could be some magic thing, but again, the impression is of a tattoo). Tattoos used to be a marker of queerness for women, but they have since become so mainstream, particularly among millennials and zoomers, that they’ve lost a lot of their utility as queer signifiers. However, being heavily tattooed still often reads as queer (a short article with links to other sources on the history of lesbians and tattoos can be found here Note: that article is SFW, but Autostraddle as a site has a mix of SFW and NSFW content).
But, it’s not just Briar’s appearance that screams “queer” to anyone who knows how to listen. Queer coding is also pervasive in her hero page and the first part of her story. Briar is characterized as “different than” the other Rosetta. And the story notes that, “Briar was unlike her brothers and sisters. She was tough and hardy like the brambles that blotted out the skies of her youth. And though they were kind to her and welcomed her as one of their own, she felt most at ease amongst the thorns and brambles of her grove.” So, we’ve got a Rosetta who isn’t quite like the others, and even though they’re welcoming to her (always nice to see a family supporting its queer members as opposed to ostracizing them), she feels different from them, like she doesn’t quite belong because she doesn’t fit in with expected norms. This is all very classic queer coding.
That’s was a bunch of borderline academic speech to say get to the point where I can say that Briar is in fact not “ugly” but rather, as the first queer woman I showed her art to described her, “extremely sexy.” If you don’t find Briar’s appearance attractive, that’s probably because she’s not for you, not because someone screwed up on her design. She’s isn’t playing to the tastes of straight man looking for conventionally attractive women, but she definitely is conventionally attractive by Sapphic standards (though of course her look isn’t going to be every queer woman’s cup of tea either). And, I think that the idea that her appearance is conventionally appealing to queer women is worth dwelling on for a moment. When we talk about beauty standards it’s important to acknowledge that Briar’s design isn’t a transgressive representation of beauty for the people she’s targeted at. The part that makes her inclusion notable is that the product she appears in has an audience that slants hard towards straight men, so getting a character that appeals to queer women is novel.
I feel compelled to add that the expectation that these characters should be attractive in the first place is a murky area. While it’s important to have diverse representations, fantasy is also about escapism and idealization, which usually means that the characters we’re engaging with are smarter, hotter, and generally more competent than the average person. Of course, never seeing anyone who looks like you being depicted as appealing or worthy of love is also mentally damaging for people. For instance, regardless of being straight or queer, our predominate representations of beautiful women pretty much all have narrow waists. I’m not getting into that particular topic more here because it’s sort of beyond the scope of the article, but I didn’t want to move on without at least a brief acknowledgement that beauty as a whole is a thorny issue. For now, let us return to the queer coding of Briar.
Don’t Get Lost In The Weeds
(I am unreasonably pleased with all of these plant puns). I know that there are invariably some straight men in the audience who also think Briar is attractive. That’s totally fine, and if you’re just looking for an acknowledgement that men who like women don’t all have the exact same taste in appearances, consider this me giving you a big ol’ thumbs up. However, if you’re trying to mobilize that fact as a way to refute the initial premise (Briar is queer coded), that starts to look more like a bad faith argument. We as individuals all have our own unique tastes and things that appeal to us (and that’s fine as long as no one is being hurt), but when we talk about the broader media landscape, the repeated use of particular traits in specific contexts build a language of conventions that help communicate information so that we don’t always need to articulate everything in painfully obvious exposition.
When we’re considering queer coding, it should be understood that characters who are textually queer and have these traits are not themselves queer coded. So, if we give a woman a lot of the same physical characteristics we discussed with Briar, like short hair, tattoos, a muscular build, and an eyebrow slit and we have her doing something like this:
And then a little later she sees the women she was addressing looking at another woman like so:
And reacts thusly:
That’s not queer coding, that’s just an obviously queer women being excited that the girl she likes is into girls. Even though at no point in the show does Vi look at the camera and go “hey, just FYI, I’m a lesbian,” the text makes it abundantly clear that she and Caitlyn have a burgeoning Sapphic romance. That’s not subtext, that’s just text. (Please, can I have Arcane Season 2, like now? I thought this show was going to be a dumb video game thing, but it’s so fucking good, and not just because of the Caitlyn/Vi romance subplot.) But uh, what was I saying? Oh yeah, that’s right, queer coding in Flesh and Blood!
Is FAB’s Use of Queer Coding a Problem?
The use of queer coding is a messy issue, and there isn’t a simple answer as to whether it is or isn’t a problem, it depends a lot on context. In the abstract, it can create a subconscious association with negative traits and being queer. So, under the Hays Code where gay characters could only be presented in film negatively, there was a close correlation with queer coded traits and villains. Essentially, anyone who looked gay was probably a bad person, which can imply to the audience that being gay is itself inherently bad. This gets complicated because reappropriation is a thing (the process where a group that is being maligned takes the terms and structures that are directed negatively at them and repurpose them for their own positive use). This is why Disney villains are now gay culture.
There are also situations that feel more neutral or even have a somewhat positive valence. In the case of Flesh and Blood, to my knowledge, we have no clue about pretty much any of the characters’ romantic and sexual lives. To date, it just doesn’t factor into any of the stories that LSS is telling. I’ll admit that that’s a little weird to me, as I think that if you look at most grand (in scope) fantasy narratives, there tends to be some sort of romance subplot even when romance isn’t the main point of the story. The presence of these elements ranges from the fairly straightforward “Aragorn and Arwen are in love, and Elrond doesn’t approve” to the thoroughly convoluted, like all the various romantic and sexual relationships going on in Game of Thrones. But in both cases, you’d generally still slot those series under Fantasy and not Romance. Anyway, for now, it feels like Rathe is a place where no one “on camera” has romantic relationships, so Briar being queer coded instead of being overtly identified as queer feels OK. Given the context, I’m generally happy with Briar as a character. I, like most people, like to consume media where I can identify with some of the characters in some way, and, while I can enjoy but not really relate to life or death combat, I totally get “Briar was unlike her brothers and sisters.” It makes her relatable to me, and makes me want to know more about her. Now, if two years in the future there are a half dozen romantic relationships going on among heroes in the narrative and they’re all straight, I’ll be signing a different tune. In that context, Briar’s queer coding would be a thoroughly unsatisfying representation of a queer woman.
On that topic, I’d love to see FAB generate a bit more narrative content in general, but as it’s a game first and resources are finite, it may be a thing that either isn’t in the cards (couldn’t help myself) or just hasn’t happened yet. As I’ve said in the past, LSS does seem like they care about their setting beyond the surface details, so I sort of assume that there is a design document somewhere that outlines a richer story than what’s available to us right now. We’ve only got a very tenuous idea of what the game’s active narrative is – Solana and the Demonastery are in conflict, but I have no idea what if anything came out of that post-Monarch. We know that the protections that kept Aria isolated are breaking down, but that’s sort of a framing device for a narrative rather than the narrative itself. Hopefully LSS finds time to step up and expand their story telling in 2022. As longtime readers know, I’d like to see that happen via more narrative content on the LSS homepage and on the cards themselves via more flavor text and art representing the heroes we’re supposed to care about and important narrative events of character information. Fingers crossed.
Briar is hot, she reads as queer, and that’s rad.
*Header Image – Briar, Warden of Thorns by Othon Nikolaidis