Queer resonance and critiquing heteronormativity in SPY x FAMILY

By: Alex Henderson June 15, 20220 Comments
Anya, Loid, and Yor from Spy x Family standing in a row. Anya is in the foreground pointing at something behind the camera

There’s something a little bit queer about Spy x Family. It’s not what we would normally shelve as LGBTQIA+ media by any means—none of the characters, for example, seem canonically queer, or even coded as such. But a story can have queer themes even if it doesn’t have queer representation, and can be open to queer readings even if it doesn’t directly acknowledge any queer issues within its narrative or any of its narrative framings. 

There’s something about SpyFam’s tale of traumatized outcasts navigating a strict and normative world, where their fates depend on them adequately performing the roles of a nuclear family… something about that resonates with queer theory and queer experience, and it makes the series a great example of how we can apply these theories to narratives that might not be at all queer on the surface. The concept of “queer resonance” is useful for getting to the heart of these kinds of literary discussion. Bonnie Ruberg defines this nicely in their 2019 book Video Games Have Always Been Queer, and uses it to underline their analysis throughout the essays:

These moments of resonance are points of relationality, moments where the structures and messages of video games echo and are echoed by the structures of queer thinking. To resonate does not simply mean to replicate; resonances still allow for differences and even contradiction. At the places where video games and queerness meet one another, they reverberate, calling to one another and calling to us to make new meanings by reading them in tandem.

Ruberg, 2019, p.20

In the book, Ruberg conducts queer readings of games through this lens: the games they’re writing about don’t necessarily have concrete, canonical queer representation in them, but they have queer vibes that are still worth discussing: elements that take on new meanings when “[read] in tandem” with queer theories or aspects of queer life, new meanings that add rewarding and interesting new layers to the text.

For example, in Chapter 3, “Loving Father, Caring Husband, Secret Octopus”, Ruberg reads Octodad as a metaphor for the dizzying process of trying to “pass”. This essay is not reading the character of Octodad as queer and/or transgender, per se, but examining how his quest to complete ordinary, human, dad-like activities whilst very much being an octopus contains echoes of the queer and/or trans experience of trying to fit into normative society whilst very much being that society’s “other”.

Anya in the corner of the frame looking alarmed at Loid's worried face

The queer readings they conduct get even broader, more thematic, and more theoretical: in Chapter 7, they suggest that speedrunning is queer, because it disrupts and playfully rejects the path set out for the player in a way that maps nicely onto Jack Halberstam’s concept of queer time. They’re not saying every speedrunner is a member of the queer community because they undertake this practice, but they are arguing that a piece of creative or transformative work can have a queer resonance in the structural qualities of it.

Conducting queer readings of fictional characters is a tried and true tradition, from decoding queer-coded villains in Hays Code Hollywood movies to making LGBTQIA+ headcanons of contemporary Netflix shows. But audiences can find queer resonance in a broader, more thematic sense too: for instance, though there are no textually trans characters in the series, many trans readers felt echoes of their own childhood in the Animorphs books about shapeshifting teenagers unable to trust adult authority figures. Gay Marvel fans in the late 20th century latched onto Scarlet Witch because they recognized a version of their own experience in her traumatic background, unconventional marriage, and desire for the kind of peaceful, ordinary life denied to her because of her “mutant” status.

Likewise, any series featuring outlaws, pirates, and other rag-tag gangs of misfits operating on the fringes of society—often moving in tight-knit groups you might call found families based on their mutual displacement from normative life—is bound to draw an affectionate audience of queer people who, again, feel those resonances even if the characters themselves are all ostensibly straight and cis, and even if the narrative makes no comment on queer liberation.

Anya points at a TV with an image that says "Spy Wars." Anya says "I like this show."

Intention from the creators is also not required for these kinds of queer readings to take place; we can read Death Note through the lens of camp, even if the author probably wouldn’t have wanted that. It’s also important to remember that a work does not transform into canonical queer representation just because it’s open to queer readings. For example, many viewers felt the movie Luca resonated as a gay allegory, but this does not mean we should dish out undue credit to Disney for releasing a film with gay main characters. 

It’s also important to acknowledge that multiple readings of a text can, and should, co-exist, without erasing one another. When discussing the structural queer resonance that comes from a story about power dynamics and social otherness, I don’t intend to talk over the conversation about how those structures might also resonate with other marginalized groups. This is a shared discourse intended to explore potential new layers to existing stories, not necessarily to argue that any one reading is “correct” (and, by extension, that anyone else’s is “incorrect”). We’re not talking about canon status but about reader response, and about the way these stories might resonate: how they can speak to us and what new angles on the story that can reveal. 

This is the framework through which I’m conducting my queer reading of Spy x Family: following from Ruberg and looking to the themes and moments that resonate with queerness even if the series does not contain any examples of what we’d consider canonical (or even coded) queer identity. How does it speak to queer themes, and what does it say?

Loid, Anya, and Yor in the stylized, cartoony art of Spy x Family's opening theme. The three of them are in the kitchen, Anya dancing in the middle, Yor wearing an apron

As Hannah Collins explores, Spy x Family is rooted in the mid-twentieth-century ideal of the nuclear family. The story kicks off when a master spy, codenamed Twilight, is tasked with infiltrating a prestigious private school to get intel on a politician. Twilight is used to disguises—as the first episode demonstrates, he’s even gone into deep cover and entered into long-term romantic relationships in the name of getting close to his targets. Operation Strix requires him to slip into the role of father and husband, maintaining the façade of a happy, established family while keeping his own secret hidden. “A father is just another role to play,” Twilight declares. “I will play it to perfection.”

Because Spy x Family is primarily a comedy, this is the setup for hijinks. Twilight’s—now alias “Loid Forger”—plan to appear normal quickly goes off the rails. Unbeknownst to him, his adopted daughter, Anya, is telepathic, the result of Bond-villain-like experiments. His fake wife, Yor, is an assassin. Anya, the mind-reader, is the only one who knows both of their secrets… but luckily, Anya is about four years old and thinks it’s super cool.

As a tiny child who’s thus far grown up outside of society’s normative ideal of what a family looks like, she simply celebrates her new parents’ abnormalities at face value. She has basically no framework through which to critique or police their identities, though it’s clear she has some burgeoning concept of what’s “normal” and what’s not—and, like her adoptive daddy, a sense of what needs to be kept secret.

Loid, Anya, and Yor sitting at a dinner table. Just out of sight, under their feet, are piles of bodies and weapons. Subtitle text reads: That is how the world maintains its appearance of temporary peace.

All three of the Forgers are hiding something, and all three of them are thus in a constant state of performing. Loid has his top-secret mission and can’t risk blowing cover. Anya, having been rejected by foster families in the past, understands that she must keep her psychic powers a secret or risk facing rejection. In what feels like pretty accurate little-kid characterization, she’s not 100% sure why, but she connects the dots with her developing logic, and shows how even young people can quickly internalize that it’s wrong to be “other”.

Meanwhile, Yor is running her own farce and getting her own benefits out of her fake marriage to Loid: not only does she have to keep her work as a hired killer under wraps, but she needs a romantic partner to convince her co-workers not to report her as a spy. While, again, there’s little to suggest Loid and Yor as gay, their platonic marriage of convenience has some interesting parallels to a lavender marriage, in which both parties are protected from social stigma by fitting themselves neatly into dominant sexual expectations (at least, on paper).

In Yor’s introductory episode, her co-workers are gossiping about how a woman was arrested on suspicion of treason because she was unmarried in her late twenties, and was thus surely a foreign spy sent to disrupt and decrease the country’s birth rate. In this setting, conspiracy literally surrounds adult women who do not fit the role of wife and mother. Loid accompanying Yor to a dinner party shuts down her co-workers’ nasty gossip, but it also saves her from government suspicion.

Yor and Loid leaning together, making their hands into the shape of a heart. Subtitle text reads: Wh-what do you mean? We're totally in love!

Never mind Yor’s gig as a contract killer: it’s her status as an unmarried, independent woman that initially threatens her with ostracization. Those who don’t fit the prescribed gender roles of the nuclear family formula are hit with the full force of this fictionalized Cold War’s paranoia. Loid and Yor are—ironically—keeping each other safe, their pantomime of domestic bliss making the authorities around them relax. Nothing to see here, folks! Just a man, his wife, and their sweet baby!

The Forgers are quite literally performing heteronormativity. And, most of the time, their elaborate charade works. Loid, Yor, and Anya successfully prepare and rehearse for the school admission interviews so well that they confound the teachers with their perfection. They figure out what society wants, and follow the script accordingly.

This aspect of the series is where we can glean new meanings by, as Ruberg says, reading SpyFam’s themes in tandem with queer themes and narratives. The Forger family’s situation is hyperbolic, turned up to eleven for comedy and drama, and something about its satire of the traditional family unit resonates. Like in Ruberg’s reading of Octodad, a grounded metaphor about “passing” and desperately, calculatingly hiding your status as “other” presents itself from this larger-than-life genre work, even if the characters aren’t obviously queer in the identity sense.

Loid, Yor, and Anya walking through the brick archways of a fancy school. Subtitle text reads: Don't let your guard down. We're still being observed.

Throughout history, queer people have had to hide their identities and conform to normative family structures in order to avoid suspicion, ostracization, and violence. We’ve been performing under elaborate aliases and disguises—in deep cover—on missions as high-stakes as any spy caper just trying to survive. If you’ve ever been in the closet, downplayed or hidden your sexuality or gender identity for your own safety, or stood in the middle of a paranoid conversation about some social “other” ruining society and felt like you were undercover somewhere dangerous, parts of Spy x Family might feel a little familiar.

The mid-century aesthetic of Spy x Family and its imagery of legacy schools and nuclear families creates a setting that’s not only reminiscent of a xenophobic time in history, it’s downright claustrophobic: one step outside the tiny square of what’s acceptable, and you’re in very real danger. But, as Collins writes, the fact that the Forgers’ forgery of a nuclear family does convince people, unveils the whole social structure as a farce. The comical way Spy x Family pulls this imagery apart gives it a delicious sense of rebellious, queer spirit. Through Loid, Yor, and Anya’s successful mimicry of the normative nuclear family, the series says “It’s all fake! There’s nothing intrinsic about it!”

On a more heartfelt track, the series also explores how love and support can be found even if you don’t fit into society’s strict norms. All three Forgers are, again, oddballs: social outliers from traumatic backgrounds who have been displaced from any chance at a “normal” upbringing in a “normal” family. Nothing about Yor and Loid’s lives, in theory, should equip them for being parents. Yet in their own oddball ways, they’re both really good with Anya: protecting and supporting her, recognizing her emotional needs, and teaching her to value herself.

Yor, Anya, and Loid looking out into a city view with a blue sky behind them. Loid and Yor are standing, leaning on a fence. Anya is sitting on the fence in between them.

Is it conventional? Not always, no way. But there’s no mistaking that Anya feels loved and nurtured. This unconventional kid (you could even say she’s “growing up sideways”) has finally found her home among unconventional parents. The Forgers are a “fake” family when it comes to their pristine performance of elite heteronormativity, but at their heart they’re real. A found family—that narrative device always full of queer resonance!—that defies the social expectations where biology and lineage is paramount, and instead presents a group of misfits who chose each other and who treat each other with sincerity. They’ve failed the usual milestones of putting a traditional family unit together, but they’ve made it an art form.

If Loid and Yor do end up falling in love, well, even that will be a little bit structurally queer—at least in the sense of Halberstam’s theory of queer time, in which the usual, normative life narrative gets skewed. Usually (in our modern context, at least), you fall for each other and then get married. But the Forgers, as we’ve seen, aren’t the best at following the usual patterns. It sets them apart from the rigid expectations of their setting, but it does make them fit neatly within the parameters of queer literary theory.

Spy x Family is a great example of how a story might have queer resonances and queer themes even if it cannot be classed as queer fiction. The way its story reckons with ideas of social performance and performativity—the literal danger of prescribed gender roles, and the concept of found family—give it new layers of meaning when considered through a structural, thematic queer lens. The series is also underpinned by a comedic critique of the heteronormative, nuclear family ideal, something that resonates with a sense of rebellious queer energy even if this was not necessarily the author’s intention. I think queer analysts like Ruberg and Halberstam would have a whale of a time with this series, and I think the new layers that unfold when it’s “[read] in tandem” with these ideas lend new layers of appeal to an already fascinating narrative. 

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