I Want My Queer Representation To Be Messy — Even When it Comes to Real People

Against my own wishes, I woke up still thinking about Sufi Malik and Anjali Chakra, the influencer couple who recently called off their wedding in the wake of Sufi’s cheating allegations, which Sufi confessed to in a candid Instagram grid post and which Anjali also acknowledged, asking followers not to treat Sufi negatively. Anjali’s wishes went very unheeded. Hate and judgement have filled the comments sections for both women, most of the ire directed at Sufi: How could she do this?

Of course, that sentiment isn’t really directed at the intimate betrayal of hurting the person you love but rather at an imagined collective infliction of hurt. How could she do this to us? Many fans and loyal followers of Sufi and Anjali are reacting as if they’re the ones who have been hurt, citing the infidelity as an affront to their belief in love. And by condemning Sufi, they’re also indirectly implicating Anjali. How could they both do this to us? How could they make us believe in love and then take that away?

It would be a bit of an embarrassing exercise for me to investigate exactly how many times I’ve praised a television series or a film or a book on Autostraddle.com for featuring messy queers and, more broadly, the mess of life. But I wouldn’t be embarrassed by the inclination so much as my repetitive language — the inclination, I very much stand behind. I like mess. I like messy. This is an easy enough thing to get people on board with when it comes to fictional characters, though I’m always shocked to learn it doesn’t apply to everyone. Some people really do want their queer characters to be likable or good, whatever that means. And what about when it comes to real people?

Now, I’m a little mixed on how I even feel about the ability of real people to provide “representation.” Representation in general is often treated like this flat thing, a quota to be satisfied. I do not give a shit that Kamala Harris shares a first name with my grandmother, a middle name with my sibling. So long as she continues to support and manufacture consent for genocide, she does not even begin to “represent” me or anything I stand for. When it comes to influencers or content creators, I’m similarly dubious on the power of representation. The role of the influencer is, at its core, to sell you things — if not actual products then a lifestyle or way of being. Couples who influence together, in a way, are selling you the idea of love, the idea of what a relationship can look like. (They’re also, often, selling you trips to beautiful destinations.)

When Anjali and Sufi went viral twice for their photoshoot showing two queer and interfaith South Asian women in big, huge, movie-style love, it was for technically pure reasons of representation. They took up space where many felt a lack. Images of two women in lehengas kissing and embracing were rare in mainstream spaces. They perhaps showed some brown girls they could be in a thriving, picture-perfect relationship with another brown girl, and I’m not trying to diminish the value of that. Had I seen the photos earlier in my life — especially earlier in my queer coming-of-age process — perhaps they would have made me cry. Perhaps I would have posted them with words expressing something along the lines of this makes me believe in love, because there was indeed a time when I did not.

But to believe in love means to believe in its failures and missteps, too. I understand the desire to resist negative portrayals of relationships that have been historically and systemically marginalized. But this isn’t a portrayal; it’s real life. And hell, even in “portrayals” or fictionalized narratives about queer love or queer love between women of color, perfection shouldn’t be all we desire. In fact, perfection can set us up for failure. If we want representation of realistic romance from people we share identities with, we should want representation of romantic failure, too. Because that doesn’t mean our love is doomed or tragic; it’s just real. Relationships don’t always work out. To pretend queer relationships are immune to problems does us all a disservice. It keeps us in relationships we shouldn’t be in. It gives us unrealistic expectations. It also flattens love and romance. When a relationship fails, it doesn’t always erase or overwrite everything that came before it. Queer divorce representation can mean just as much as queer long-term companionship representation.

Anjali and Sufi could have announced they were calling off their wedding without noting the infidelity. Perhaps they’re wishing they had, given the extreme backlash to Sufi and the reduction of their big personal life decision to group chat fodder. But I’m almost glad they put the mess of it on display — not because I necessarily think influencers owe us the ugly alongside the impeccably curated but because messy representation can mean just as much as joyful, beautiful representation. Seeing someone familiar fail gives us permission to fail, too. Or, at least, to be softer with ourselves when we do fail. I’ve done things in life I regret, things that are perhaps explicable even if they aren’t excusable. I know very little about the interior lives of Anjali and Sufi, and I write this piece not to defend or explain anything about what either of them did or did not do but rather to defend the desire for visibility and representation that is complicated, that is messy.

This extends beyond romance. In my creative life, of course I want to see South Asian authors and queer authors and queer South Asian authors winning. It fills me up. But there’s something about seeing people like me losing, too, that is oddly helpful, not because it makes me feel better about myself but because it reminds me we’re all fallible. Often, those failures are rooted in real, structural reasons. But sometimes they’re just rooted in real, human flaws. I would never root for anyone’s demise, but when I do see other writers like me struggling or even fucking up, it means something just like seeing the successes does.

I want queer representation that is varied and dynamic and expansive. That’s what queerness is all about.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 810 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. “But to believe in love means to believe in its failures and missteps, too.”

    Yes. This. There’s like a dozen sentences I could highlight but I’m going to keep it to this one.

    Love isn’t a lie, but it’s messy and it takes work and it doesn’t always work out.

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