The Queer Take: Viewing TikTok and Instagram as spaces of love and desire, where queer expression is realised
Why did TikTok feel like a queer space? Because it is.
The Queer Take is a fortnightly column by poet-writer Joshua Muyiwa. Read more from the series here.
TikTok wasn’t my thing or maybe it wasn’t around for long enough for me to play – I’m not sure. I’m also terrified of having too many apps on my phone as it can be overwhelming, so I didn’t bother to download it since I wasn’t going to participate. However, is it possible to live under a rock in these refresh-page-every-second times? While I had got tired of friends sending me those ironic “Good Morning” messages, I’ve begun hankering after the TikTok gems they cull especially for me. (Okay, fine! I was on a forward chain). Initially, I could understand neither the production value nor the aesthetic of these short clips. Listen, I’d been trained from my Doordarshan days to find meaning in the long shot of a whirring ceiling fan – a signature in early Indian art-house cinema.
The more TikTok videos I watched, the more of its language made sense to me. I began to notice the subject of these videos, traditional tropes faked and fumbled with, emotions being mercilessly exploited, skills that were being showcased, strategic shifts in content consumption dynamics and the way they were being marked. And then, I read Gee Imaan Semmalar’s piece on the precise ways it undoes all of these middle-class, liberal lenses that I had been viewing it with. Gee showed me the stealth with which TikTok content creators have managed to capitalise on the open fields of love and desire. He urged me – someone who has been complaining that discourses around sexuality and gender aren’t fun anymore – to turn to TikTok. In these short videos, there was play, possibility and punch. And there seemed to be a fearlessness, not the kind that gets fondly felicitated and feted by every straight person. But the kind that didn’t care for consequences.
I was drawn in by the masquerade and world-building power of these short videos and kept going back to them. At some point, I even asked for curated videos of certain creators to be forwarded to me because they were doing it better. But I had to constantly grapple with a question that kept coming up on watching these videos: Are these people queer? It was Gee’s essay which freed me to think they didn't have to be. And I could still count them as people like me. While John Waters – the high priest of trash – is right, the trouble with the generations of the post-internet world is that they don’t have a well-defined look. Perhaps, in the erasure of physical proof, these generations have had to learn other grainy, glitchy gestures for us to read its (our?) ways. And maybe TikTok is our first universal thesaurus?
Honestly, I hope it is. I mean you’ve just gotta look at our country’s widely-opposed Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. One of its many ugly requirements: a district magistrate must physically ascertain the gender identity of a trans person. Self-determination, while good for our nation’s freedom movement, isn’t good enough for her citizens. And if you’ve smugly decided that you aren't prone to such oversight, or you are open-minded enough to let people tell you who they are before you jump to conclusions, I’ve got news for you. Just a couple of weekends ago, transfixed as the rest of you, I watched Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking. (Someone, anyone, please make a t-shirt sequinned with the words: 'Hi, I’m Sima Taparia from Mumbai.' I only want a say in the font). It seemed everyone and their uncle was saying that the Mumbai fellow was gay. The hip, hep and happening ones were decidedly throwing out bisexual into the mix. I mean, I’ll be upfront with all of yougais, I did too. I have been trained by the same social standards as the rest of you. Therefore, I'm not impervious to the aftermath of observing even the slightest deviation from our consensually agreed upon tenets of masculinity. Though I’ll have to recuse myself from your mob and head-over to over to the gurl gang gossiping over there, in the far corner. See: it is different when we do it.
I’m not just marking out this difference only because I tripped up, but because it is an important one to remember. See, that Mumbai fellow was gloriously campy but it is the kind that emerged from being the apple of his mother’s eye with the backing of old money. (I mean, which out Indian queer person can afford a walk-in closet and still have access to their family and generational wealth? Maybe they can, but will there be room for other things besides them in that closet?) And yes, queer people do have a specific sense of self-obsession but ours isn’t aimed at being awesome, it is in the service of being archived. After all, we’re all magpies with memories for only the singular, the shiny, and the silvery. And the trouble isn’t that I saw hints of myself in the way that the Mumbai fellow moved around in the world. It wasn’t just his opulence and ostentatiousness that I – and so many other queer people – aspire to have. It is also in the way that he was an outsider to the people around him – nobody gets him at all. It is that feeling that we in the Indian queer community know and have been drowning in.
Herein, perhaps, lies the genius of virtual realms like TikTok, Instagram, Second Life (hi, Nadika Nadja!) or any other mediums that need you to produce an avatar of yourself. It reminds us that these open fields of love and desire are for all to play in – you and us. It forces you to experience the “community guidelines” that we – queer people – constantly have to juggle in the real world. Why did TikTok feel like a queer space? Because it is. In breaking out of these binding straps of societal standards to express themselves, these content creators were imitating our daily existence. Or in most cases transmitting their wonderful lives from across towns all over our country. Is that Mumbai fellow from Indian Matchmaking queer? No. You know why? Because he told us so.
Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer
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