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Robert Sheehan in The Umbrella Academy. Image: © Netflix.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that queer people can’t sit properly.

Universally acknowledged, at least, by queer people on the internet. Improper sitting is one of many seemingly arbitrary traits (like walking fast and being unable to drive) that the online queer community has claimed as part of queer culture. At first glance, it’s a simple meme—observational humour based on a generalisation. But if we examine queer sitting in film and television, new and exciting meanings emerge.

For a whole host of reasons, the body has long been a primary site of queer expression. This is particularly true on-screen where, as the Production Code worked to silence queer voices, filmmakers developed sophisticated ways of coding queerness through body language. Though the Code is officially gone, viewers have by now learned to read queerness in the body where it may not be spoken verbally.

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A woman in a 1940s instructional video tells a group of girls, ‘There are so many wrong ways of sitting down that I couldn’t begin to show you all of them.’ She lists a few: ‘The girl who throws herself at the chair as though she were playing living statues’; ‘The shoulder-blade sprawler’; ‘The knees-apart, pigeon-toed thinker’. She echoes the limiting doctrine of heteronormativity: there is only one way for your body to be right and countless ways for it to be ‘wrong’.

There is a politics to posture, and it can be an act of gender rebellion for a woman to sit improperly.

When sitting etiquette is enforced upon women, it often employs the term ‘ladylike’, revealing the conservatism at the heart of so much conversation about posture (in the 1300s, women were ‘coached to keep their knees pressed together to signal virginity’). There is a politics to posture, and it can be an act of gender rebellion for a woman to sit improperly. You only need to Google ‘Katharine Hepburn sitting’ to encounter a bevy of such rebellions. A symbol of queer sexuality and defiant genderfuckery, Hepburn is the perfect poster boy for the resistant power of queer sitting.

Howard Hawks, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn on the set of Bringing Up Baby (1938).

But even when the sitters aren’t explicitly queer themselves, they’re queered by their disruptive, unorthodox relationships to space—by the suggestion that this world wasn’t designed to accommodate their bodies.

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Succession’s Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) enters his first scene disruptively, interrupting a meeting by exclaiming ‘Hey hey, motherfuckers!’ and sitting on a cabinet (later moving to a windowsill). The next time we see him, he’s surrounded by his family (all standing) while he sits upside-down, feet where his head should be, on a chaise longue. These are our first glimpses of a pattern that continues throughout the series—in a waiting room full of chairs, Roman sits on the floor; he sits cross-legged on an ottoman; he perches on the back of a chair with his feet on the seat; he plops himself backwards over the side of a couch so his legs are thrown over the arm. In other words: he sits queer.

Kieran Culkin in Succession. Image: © HBO.

Of course, Roman’s love life also codes him as queer. The two women we’ve seen him date both complain of a total absence of sex in the relationship. He seems to dread the idea, bemoaning having to ‘grow up and become a real little boy’ and ‘do phone sex with my girlfriend like a normo’. But Roman’s disinterest in conventional heterosexuality is complemented by his unconventional sitting—both suggest a ‘wrong’ and deviant body that resists assimilation into normality.

Other Succession characters occasionally sit queer—most notably Shiv (Sarah Snook), who welcomes a queer reading anyway—but Roman is the biggest repeat offender, seemingly incapable of ever sitting properly. It happens so often that Vulture published an article on Roman’s ‘quirky sits’, while MEL Magazine writer Joseph Longo references Roman’s ‘problem with chairs’ to support a queer reading of his character.

But how, and why, do we get from ‘quirky’ to ‘queer’? If posture is an expression of personality, it’s instructive to look at what kinds of screen characters sit unconventionally. Though by no means a universal rule, it’s common for them to be failures, outcasts, criminals or deviants. Take Twin Peaks’ rebellious teenager Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook). There’s little to suggest that Bobby is queer, but when seated, he slouches, slumps and splays in ways that resemble queer sitting. The most extreme examples occur around his military father, Major Garland Briggs (Don Davis). While the Major’s uniform connotes authority and discipline, Bobby’s slouching postures communicate a rejection of such bodily control.

Don Davis, Dana Ashbrook and Charlotte Stewart in Twin Peaks. Image: ©ABC/Showtime.

The image of the military man evokes the kinds of bodily regimentation that queer theorist Michel Foucault describes in Discipline and Punish. Foucault describes discipline as a series of ‘coercions that act upon the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behavior’. The military exemplifies discipline, severely punishing difference to produce uniformity, and at home, the Major restricts Bobby’s deviance in a similar way. Slapping a cigarette out of Bobby’s mouth, he says, ‘I’m obliged to contain that fire of contrariness within the bounds established by society and within our own family structure.’

Let’s zero in on that ‘family structure’ comment. In The Queer Art of Failure, J. Jack Halberstam describes the family as a ‘[form] of social control’ used to discipline the queer child who ‘steps out of the assembly line’. Though Bobby may be straight, there is a queer affinity to be felt not only in his unruly, delinquent postures, but in his repressive home life.

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Family and social control figure significantly in The Umbrella Academy, which features the queer-sitting character Klaus Hargreeves (Robert Sheehan). Unlike the previous examples, he’s explicitly queer and, despite a childhood filled with discipline and punishment, still dresses like an androgynous peacock and sits however he likes. Klaus is a frivolous, cheeky character—the trickster of the bunch—something that aligns him with wise-cracking queer sitters like Roman Roy.

Aidan Gallagher, Ellen Page, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, Tom Hopper and David Castañeda in The Umbrella Academy. Image: © Netflix.

The silliness, indeed childishness, of these characters is significant. Sitting etiquette is learned, not innate, and therefore the realm of adults and masters—making queer sitting the posture of the untrained child. Kathryn Bond Stockton that ‘the child is always already queer and must therefore quickly be converted to a proto-heterosexual by being pushed through a series of maturational models of growth’—in other words, the child must grow up, become a real little boy and do phone sex with his girlfriend like a normo. In refusing to appear grown-up, queer sitting resists this process of assimilation.

In refusing to appear grown-up, queer sitting resists this process of assimilation.

Theorist Karen Saunders uses the term ‘queer sheep’ to describe ‘the deviant/different child’ who ‘disturbs the sense of unity through which the family reproduces sameness’. Roman, Bobby and Klaus are all queer sheep, troubled by difficult relationships—from mildly strained to overtly antagonistic—with authoritative patriarchs. Logan Roy teems with disapproval; Reginald Hargreeves is distant and manipulative; the benevolent Garland Briggs is nonetheless a stern figure who slaps his son at the dinner table. All three sons fail to live up to their fathers’ standards, and their posture echoes their position as deviant, failed children.

The queer sheep ‘fails to follow the family lines…the preconceived milestones that mark progression through life’ For a heterosexual family ‘rooted in a logic of achievement, fulfillment, and success(ion)’, as Halberstam puts it, these milestones often relate to professional success. In the workplace, improper posture can seem disrespectful—a failure or refusal to conform to corporate stuffiness. Again, our queer-sitting case studies tick these boxes, their lack of professionalism further positioning them as failed adults. Roman is a highly unqualified businessman (his biggest professional disaster, a botched rocket launch, adds Freudian insult to injury, linking his professional ineptitude to his troubled sexuality). Bobby is something of a burnout, and even when he secures a job, he still looks like a boy in a suit. Klaus isn’t even trying to enter professional life. These characters reflect Guy Hocquenghem’s assertion that ‘capitalism turns homosexuals into failed “normal people”’—and if their posture is anything to go by, none of them plan on making any effort towards successful normality.

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But, as My Own Private Idaho (1991) recognises, normativity has its allures. Through the politics of the body, Idaho demonstrates how one might renounce their visible queerness in favour of the comfort and stability of capitalist success. While gay hustler Mike (River Phoenix) seems content with street life, his friend Scott (Keanu Reeves) is less immune to the siren song of affluence. Posing for the cover of a gay magazine, Scott says, ‘I’m trying to make a living. I like to have a professional attitude.’ He’s only a gay sex worker for now, for purely pragmatic reasons, while he awaits an inheritance on his birthday. ‘When I turn 21,’ he says, ‘I don’t want any more of this life.’

The precariousness of ‘this life’ is underscored by Mike’s narcolepsy, which leaves his body perpetually prone, limp and vulnerable. But even when he’s conscious, Mike’s body seems to have a loose and uncontrolled relationship to the space and objects around him. A close-up of a shoe pulls back to reveal Mike, one leg planted casually on a table. Later, he’s slumped so low in a diner booth he’s almost lying down. He sits in a chair watching The Simpsons with his knees pulled up and feet on the seat. These slouchy, fluid postures recur throughout the film, and create a stunning contrast with the straight body language Scott adopts near the end.

 Queer sitting instead says: do what feels right. Do with your body what you would like, not what you are told is proper.

When Scott comes into money, he abandons his queer lifestyle and community for a life of upward mobility, financial security and heterosexual normalcy. The last time Mike sees Scott, they’re attending two very different funerals, in which bodies relate very differently to space. Scott’s funeral is traditional and formal—he sits rigidly among a uniform group of mourners, all wearing black clothes and stoic expressions. Mike’s is feral and festive—a ragtag group singing and dancing for their lost friend. Mike slouches on a rickety wooden chair; some people sit backwards on metal ones. All the furniture looks salvaged and motley. After locking eyes with the stony-faced Scott, Mike grins and slumps further in his seat. A chair is thrown, Mike falls to the ground with his, and suddenly they’re all throwing chairs and screaming. They dance on the casket, throw their bodies onto its supposedly untouchable surface, kissing and collapsing on top of one another, uncontrollable, undisciplined, queer. To paraphrase Bobby Briggs, they turn the funeral upside-down.

River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho (1991). Image: © New Line Cinema.

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We all want to see ourselves reflected in the things we watch. For queer people, it happens almost instinctively—Terminator-style, we scan the screen for data, gathering clues that we can synthesise into queer readings. We may not know why it feels queer to see Roman Roy sit upside-down on a chaise lounge. But on some level, we recognise our own deviation, failure, disruptiveness, theatricality, creativity and rebellion coded in these postures.

With its online origins, queer sitting is generally discussed in light-hearted terms, but it engages with a real and lengthy history of bodily regulation and expression. Queer sitting challenges the dominant culture’s compartmentalised, strictly defined rules about how bodies must relate to and in space (chairs are for sitting; floors are for standing; tables are for objects; men are for women). Queer sitting instead says: do what feels right. Do with your body what you would like, not what you are told is proper. It rejects the idea that there is only one natural, normal way for a body to exist. It says: There are so many queer ways of sitting down, I couldn’t begin to show you all of them.