There has been a small but certain surge in LGBTQ-targeted series on American television lately as more and more show-makers move to fill the representation gap by creating diverse and inclusive storylines. Among others, Netflix may have realized the power of this market, and has been incorporating narratives that shake off common queer stereotypes in its portrayal of LGBTQ experiences. One such show — launched by Netflix in 2015 — was Sense8.
Sense8 is written by the Wachowskis, the creators of popular movies such as The Matrix and Cloud Atlas. The show revolves around eight individuals from around the world who are connected to each other mentally. This unique connection allows them to step into each other’s minds as they battle an evil corporation attempting to capture them to use their ability. The series is shot in Chicago, California, Kenya, India, South Korea, Iceland, Germany and Mexico. Apart from its casting and storyline, what sets this series truly apart is the true and honest treatment of its LGBTQ characters. Jamie Clayton plays Nomi Marks, a transwoman ‘hacktivist’. Clayton is a real-life transwoman. She and her partner Amanita are crucial to the entire discourse on race, gender and sexuality where, as an inter-racial couple, they illustrate how queer relationships can be and are racially diverse. Amanita’s character doesn’t question Nomi’s identity as a woman, and neither does Nomi question Amanita’s as a lesbian falling for a transwoman.
Miguel Ángel Silvestre plays Lito Rodriguez, a Mexican movie star who is most celebrated for his hyper-masculine roles. In a scene, he and his partner are invited to the Queer Pride Parade in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Experiencing such open love for the first time as an out public figure, Lito makes a moving speech and declares that he is proud to be gay. He steps down and triumphantly kisses his partner Hernando in an evocative display of pride, love and community. The scene affirms that the LGBTQ community is also a family to many of its members, something one rarely witnesses in most mainstream television shows.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is a reality TV show recently added to Netflix’s rapidly growing list – though presently, the platform only features season 7 and 8 of the show. The series has garnered numerous accolades and critical reviews for its brilliant display of the campy queer format. Every season, 12 drag queens compete to be crowned America’s ultimate drag queen. This show has everything: drama, comedy, a diverse set of participants, campy competitive themes, and most importantly, its host RuPaul, who serves looks every week! The show doesn’t shy away from addressing themes such as coming out, trans-rights (two contestants have spoken up about struggling with their gender identity within the drag community), being HIV-positive and having polyamorous relationships. The show stresses on the portrayal of drag as an art form and shows how all transformations take creativity and work. The contestants have to design and stich their own runway costumes, do their own hair and makeup, and then walk the runway. Contestants up for eliminations have to go through a lip-sync battle that decides whether or not they may stay or ‘sashay away’.
LGBTQ shows usually tend to focus a lot on the journey towards self-acceptance and the struggles of being queer in our very heterosexual society — which is not to say that those portrayals aren’t important! But there is more to the community than just that. RuPaul’s Drag Race focuses on the joy and revelry of being queer, and celebrating the culture that brings this community together.
Gypsy is a show that was released on Netflix earlier this year and is headlined by the very talented Naomi Watts. The shows follows Watts as a 40-something therapist, Jean Holloway, who is over-involved in her patients’ personal lives so much so that she becomes intimate with one of her patient’s ex-girlfriend, Sidney. But the show never quite clarifies what Jean is after. Is her sub-urban life as a mother and wife provoking her to find adventure in her patients’ lives? We may never know. It is, however, very transparent that Jean manipulates people around her to maintain a double life. Again, it is not very clear why she needs to have a double life in the first place.
It could appear that the series attempts to place Jean’s sexuality in a grey area. It tries to address the conflict caused by her attraction to Sidney while juxtaposing it with her daughter’s continuing gender dysphoria. The show wants to be sensitive to these issues, but unfortunately fails. Though it is unfair to ask a show to slot itself into a genre, Gypsy hasn’t quite understood what it wants to be yet and that makes it impossible to identify with it in the manner one does with Sense8. Due to the low ratings and unfavourable reviews, Gypsy was cancelled after one season earlier this August.
When Netflix cancelled Sense8 earlier this year, fans erupted in protest and signed a petition to bring back the show – thus proving the effect a diverse storyline can have on its audience. The Telegraph called the cancellation of the show ‘baffling’. In more recent news, a porn website xHamster said it wants to bring back the show and not as a parody. Sense8 is now scheduled to make a return next year in the form of a two-hour special on Netflix.
People eagerly wait for RuPaul’s Drag Race every season. Season 7 winner, Violet Chachki even performed in Delhi on August 19 to a large crowd of fans. Fans of the show have said that Rupaul’s Drag Race gives hope to queer kids. And this is true, not just because the show offers a sense of community but also because it embodies the fact that queer people here to make their mark on this world, and not just stand on the bylines to watch. And therefore, these shows matter. Representation is not merely about putting a couple of queer people together, it is about how their narratives unfold, and whether these writers and actors are given the agency to be able to tell their own stories. And perhaps, for now, this is enough to fill the queer representation gap in our media and culture.