We have received a LOT of comments on our old post “kevin levin is gay”. A lot of them are negative. Granted, the post was a joke, but it was also a device to test the waters vis-a-vis queer theory in the Ben 10 community. We (two lesbian teenagers who made this page as a joke to kill time before a party) love to watch Ben 10 together, and picked up on a lot of queer subtext pretty immediately. But it seems most people who read and responded to our post aren’t seeing it. We have been asked to share our reasoning, and so we shall.
This discussion isn’t complete without a working knowledge of queer theory, specifically in regards to media created by straight people. Because of the complete lack of gay media available to us, gay people have historically read into and projected their own identities onto characters that were ostensibly written to be straight. So, when we say “Kevin Levin is gay”, we aren’t saying “Kevin Levin was written to be a gay character”. What we ARE saying is that Kevin Levin exhibits many signifiers seen in gay teenagers, which we picked up on because we ARE gay teenagers. This is called “coding”. Queer coding refers to when a character isn’t said to be canonically queer by the authors, but through subtext is made to appear queer.
It’s very easy for a non-gay audience to not pick up on this subtext. And it’s not your fault, you just have a different set of experiences that cause you to view media in a different way. You haven’t participated in the gay experience, and so you don’t recognize it. That’s fine. There is a certain degree of phenomenology (a school of critical thought that uses personal experience to interpret media) to this sort of thing, so it’s important to understand many people’s perspectives. A lot of the comments we got were just saying “Kevin had a girlfriend, therefore he can’t be gay”. This is a pretty Thermian (a logical fallacy where the fiction is treated as absolute, and unable to be critiqued or questioned because of the fiction’s own defenses) way to go about looking at it. It can really limit your interpretations if all you go off of is what is explicitly shown in the text. Almost all media is made for and about straight people, so you haven’t really had to read between the lines. Unfortunately for gay people, we have to learn to do this to find really any media that we can connect to. We encourage you to look at this from a subtextual point of view, and be willing to look beyond exclusively what’s shown on screen.
The easiest to understand of these relationships is probably Kevin and Ben, and they have the most screen time together with Kevin being added to the main cast in Alien Force, Ultimate Alien, and the third season of the 2016 show. So this essay will primarily focus on them as the lens to view queer theory.
In the original series, Kevin is introduced as a homeless 11 year old living on the streets. He later explains that his family kicked him out of their house for being a “freak". In a literal sense, Kevin is talking about his alien powers. But to queer youth, this situation is painfully familiar. 10% of American teens are gay, but 40% of homeless American teens are gay (Source: The Trevor Project). The reason for this disproportion is that gay kids are very often kicked out, with the word “freak” specifically being used against gay people. Even gay kids who aren’t kicked out of their homes feel isolated from their families, no matter how accepting. Seeing Kevin, a homeless “freak”, living on his own, completely isolated from straight society is very relatable to queer youth. It makes us feel less alone. That’s why we initially see queerness in him, because his experience is a very clear allegory for what happens to many, many queer youth. It may not be explicitly stated, but by reading between the lines, we see a pretty strong parallel to gay people and their experiences in Kevin’s origins.
This initial appearance of Kevin also gives us some really intense insight into Ben. Even before meeting Kevin, we have some subtle signifiers, but Kevin’s introduction really solidifies things. Ben is a child who’s been bullied by his former friends Cash and JT, and often isolates himself from his family. He is desperate to fit in with mainstream society and be seen as a hero, even though he is more often misunderstood by the general public. But this is all kind of normal ten year old stuff, right? Yeah, but when his interactions with Kevin come into the mix in the 7th episode, the gay undertones becomes harder to disregard. Ben is initially in awe of Kevin, his independence and autonomy. Kevin doesn’t answer to society, he has no obligations to anyone. Ben wants to be close to him immediately, he wants to be a part of Kevin’s life away from everything. However, as he learns more about Kevin, and he begins to see his baggage, that awe turns to disgust. Ben feels so strongly about him, in a way that boys do not often feel about other boys, that he doesn’t see what his feelings could be besides hatred. This is hugely common among gay youth, where one’s feelings are misdiagnosed. It comes from a combination of confusing love for anger, as well as hating that you yourself are gay, so you turn that anger towards other gay people. This is called “internalized homophobia”, where gay people begin to believe, consciously or subconsciously, all of the homophobic things said about gay people by straight society. Kevin, upon being rejected by yet another person, turns violent in response. He thought he had finally found someone who understood him, but yet again there is no real connection for Kevin.
I’m sure there are some of you thinking, “Well, the reason Ben hates Kevin is because Kevin is a criminal, and Ben hates criminals!”. And I don’t think that’s necessarily accurate. At this point in the original series, Ben doesn’t really care about the law. His whole problem is that he’s reckless, impulsive, and doesn’t think about the consequences of his actions. I would say that the conflict between them arises because of the aforementioned confusion and rejection. This also feels like a much more emotionally compelling conflict, just from an objective point of view.
This overwhelming repression and internalized homophobia leads to a hatred of the queer people around them, especially the more open ones. This is why Ben seems to hate Kevin so much, why Gwen seems to hate Charmcaster so much, why Cash and JT seem to hate Ben so much. It all leads back to a hatred of the self. The hate they have for these other characters isn’t truly hate, it’s envy and confusion. They’re so repressed that they don’t even know how to articulate their feelings about these same-gender “rivals” because they don’t have the vocabulary, knowledge, or willingness to admit to themselves and others that they are gay.
Since y’all won’t stop saying that Ben 10 is a kids show, let’s talk about what is probably the youngest-oriented show in the series: Ben 10 (2016). First off, really quick, there is a canonical gay couple in this show. In the episode “Xingo Nation”, a boy and a werewolf (both men) are about to kiss before being interrupted by Xingo. Seeing this, it is very frustrating to argue with your idea that gayness is entirely “mature” or sexual. The idea that is somehow more explicit to have a romantic relationship between two men than a man and a woman is completely backwards. It reeks of homophobia, and has no real basis in objective, logical thought. There are gay children. We, the authors of this essay, were both gay children. It isn’t a purely sexual experience. It is beneficial for children to see gay characters on TV. Both because it helps gay children accept themselves and feel less alienated, and because it helps straight children feel comfortable and accepting of gay people from a young age. In a survey by Southwestern University, gay respondents talked about how they were influenced and helped by gay representation they saw on television. So, talking about gay people in children’s media is actually very constructive and important. Unless we are explicitly talking about sex acts, homosexuality is not inherently sexual.
The way Ben and Kevin interact in the 2016 show hits really close to home. Kevin doesn’t appear until the third season, but his inclusion totally elevates the show. Kevin introduces a new conflict for Ben, as essentially his bully. Schoolyard teasing is common behavior from children who don’t know how to express their true feelings about someone. Especially for boys, who often don’t have another way to deal with strong feelings for other boys besides fighting. Their confusion is especially interesting because of their obsession with being near each other. The two often have no real reason to interact, but they always go out of their way to see one another. This can be seen when Kevin will go hang out somewhere he specifically knows Ben will be, and follows him around, hoping to start a fight. In many episodes, however, Ben and Kevin end up working together and showing that they care about the other. Xingo Nation, Adrenaland Jr., and Four by Four are good examples of this.
We can see a lot of tender moments between Ben and Kevin in every iteration of the show, even in the original series where Kevin rarely makes an appearance. There are plenty of scenes in just the 2016 reboot alone showing Kevin and Ben being vulnerable around each other, helping each other out during fights, playing alongside one another despite claiming to be enemies, holding one another, just all around acting like a couple of little kids with a crush. And although these interactions couldn’t more obviously be telling us the story of two young kids struggling with their feelings, the way Ben and Kevin act in Alien Force is even more clear about the relationship between these two characters. The gentle moments and subtle displays of affection shared between Ben and Kevin in Alien Force are extremely telling of the way that these two truly feel about one another. In the episode Save The Last Dance, when Kevin is preparing to take Gwen to the prom, the way Ben helps him is almost impossible to interpret as heterosexual. Ben lends Kevin his father’s old suit and helps him look presentable, even helping Kevin with his bow tie, brushing some dust off his shoulder, and telling him he looks nice. Scenes like these can easily be construed as depicting two men who have to hide their wants from the world and from each other in order to feel safe in a homophobic world.
The car scene from about halfway through episode 2 of Ultimate Alien (Duped) has such a strong gay undertone that I hesitate to even call it an undertone, it would be more accurate to say that the writers only narrowly avoided writing a scene where Ben comes out as gay. Ben literally says the words, “I don’t think we’ve ever honestly talked about our feelings… about how we’re friends now, but we were enemies…” Ben talking about his “relationship” with Kevin can very easily be interpreted as Ben trying to admit that he wants their relationship to be something a bit more, yet Ben just can’t seem to get the words out. And Kevin, the straightforward and blunt guy that he is, can’t see the subtext in what Ben is saying, because he can’t see the subtext in anything. The scene isn’t as obviously as tender in writing as it is in the episode itself, I recommend watching it yourself if you want to better see what I’m talking about, all of these words are set on the shots of Ben and Kevin sitting together in Kevin’s car and staring directly into each others eyes, with Kevin even remarking at the beginning at the scene that Ben was staring at him really intensely. This might not seem like compelling evidence, but when you consider the way that gay people express interest and affection in a society that often punishes gay people for being upfront about their feelings, it suddenly becomes much more obvious that these two can easily be interpreted as gay. And I aware that this could all be explained away due to the fact that it was the “emotional” version of Ben (earlier in the episode Ben turned into echo-echo in order to attend multiple different important events) but these alternate Bens didn’t come from nowhere, they were facets of Ben’s identity that all suddenly became fully realized. This more open and honest Ben was a part of him that just didn’t previously have the chance to talk due to Ben’s fear of intimacy.
As we’ve said earlier, it’s no fault of your own if you don’t see a character who was written to be straight as otherwise. Gay and straight people have an entirely different set of life experiences, we’ve been conditioned to act differently than straight people, and we are able to recognize when other people seem to have been conditioned the same. And you simply won’t have the same set of skills when it comes to recognizing queer coding in literature without listening to members of the LGBT community when we tell you that we view a character as gay/trans/etc. You don’t have to agree with our interpretation by any means, you are free to go on interpreting Ben 10 and all other media exactly as presented, but we shouldn’t be barred from expressing our opinions in public spaces purely because they don’t line up with anything stated specifically in canon. Our interpretations of these characters is not inherently mature, and to say so is perpetuating a very homophobic idea that gay people corrupt children by simply being ourselves and existing in the world. Thanks for reading.