Sense8 has been hailed since its first episode, and especially after its cancellation for third season, as a show that celebrates both racial and cultural diversity. The show is about a cluster of eight individuals from across the globe who are born on the same day and are connected to each other in a way that they can experience what their fellow cluster member is feeling and can help each other by sharing their skills and experiences within the cluster. Their species is termed “homo sensorium”, a mutation from homo sapiens. Like every sci-fi movie, there’s a huge government-aided organisation, headed by the chief villain named Whispers, who is hell-bent on destroying this species from the face of the earth.
The eight protagonists are: Nomi, a trans lesbian hacktivist from the USA; Will, a good cop from the USA; Riley, an Icelandic DJ who lives in London; Wolfgang, a Russian high-profile thief from Berlin; Sun Bak, an underground kickboxer and a business executive based in Seoul; Capheus, an honest van driver from Nairobi; Kala, a pharmacist and bride-to-be from India; and Lito, a successful Mexican actor who is a closeted gay man.
The appreciation for the apparent celebration of cultural diversity in the show soon turns to a grim realisation that the diversity was an essential requirement for credibility. Despite that, the show’s truthful representation remains questionable as out of the eight protagonists, five are white and two hail from the USA. A cursory glance at the World’s population division will indicate the obviousness of having more people of colour in the main cast. With Islam being the major religion in the world, it is rather surprising to find the lack of a Muslim character in a show that wears diversity as a badge of pride.
The show also features numerous instances of racism that are glossed over by the claim to inclusivity by white queer representation. The show highlights the age-old dichotomy of black and white, good and evil, Orient and the occident, developed and developing, etc.
In the first episode itself, Will, the quintessential good white cop is shown as rescuing a wounded black teenager from a shootout while he’s discouraged by his partner, Diego and a nurse at the hospital who are both black. Both the nurse and Diego state how this kid might actually grow up to become a person who instead shoots Will, and the fact that a person of colour states this is supposed to make it acceptable to the audience. The dichotomy between black and white, evil and good, unforgiving and kind couldn’t have been clearer. Moreover, the show completely glosses over police brutality, deifies the police and demonizes instead the brutally repressed black community. Will, the white cop is depicted as the spokesman for “all lives matter” at the expense of showing his coloured partner as an unkind, ruthless cop.
The show also remains blatantly American and white-centric with Will and Nomi hogging the most important roles and remaining closest to the action, and the other white characters taking up most of the screen time. At the time when the stories and personalities of the other characters are barely explored, Will and Nomi are already the established leads and have established individual equations with all the other sensates.
The show also has been criticised for the dialogues spoken by characters from different countries in accented English, rather than their native tongues to give it more credibility and espouse inclusiveness. Critics have also pointed out the white-washed character of Lito and having a white-looking supporting cast for him. The show also reinforces American superiority and liberalism in Lito’s exposure as a gay man. The homophobia faced by Lito in Mexico is incomprehensible to the white lesbian trans woman of the first world who has received acceptance from everyone around her, except for her estranged orthodox family. Lito getting thrown out of a posh apartment after being revealed as gay is also too harsh a critique for Mexico, which has recently legalized gay marriage.
Not only does the show afford the least development and screentime to its African and Asian characters, they are also made victim to some of the worst stereotypes. Capheus, Sun, and Kala are depicted as desexualized characters in the first season of a show that aired minutes long orgy between the other white characters in the first few episodes of the show. While Capheus is infantilised by lending him childlike pep talks, Kala is comically depicted as someone who fears sex. Sun, though thankfully not sexualised as a kinky fighter is instead accorded the other extreme of the spectrum: someone who suppresses all emotions and uses her fists instead to deal with them.
However, being an Indian, I was most immediately affected by the character and development of Kala, a Mumbai based pharmacist. While other characters deal with a complex past, violence, prison and its threat, homophobia, gang wars and poverty, the main conflict in Kala’s life is marriage to her boss’s son. Kala’s story lacks complexity in her past or present, complete with cringy bollywood songs and a damsel in distress at the centre of it all who cannot rescue her individuality from the traps of marriage. Kala’s story can be summed up as marriage, lust for Wolfgang, and Ganesha, in that order. The stereotyping has crossed amusement to become almost offensive. The show also features Asian men in the worst possible light with Jonas Maliki shown as a traitor, Kala’s husband and father-in-law involved in unlawful activities, Sun’s father being a patriarchal figure who favoured and spoiled her brother, and Sun’s brother who embezzles money and emotionally manipulates Sun into accepting the brunt for his mishaps.
The story of Capheus similarly revolves around stereotypes of poverty, violence, and diseases. All of this delivered with an ensuing dichotomy of Nairobi as part of the dark continent, contrasted against the education, light and beauty of the developed world. It is also problematic how Capheus’s hero is the white male chauvinistic character of Van Damme. When questioned about this white hero-centric idea that glorifies violence by a journalist, Capheus justifies it by the label of courage that is supposed to transcend racial colours. This television interview is paralleled with Lito’s interview with a homophobic journalist. A legitimate issue of white glorification and chauvinism is trivialised by comparing it to homophobia.
Kala’s love life too is problematised by contrasting her masculine, well-endowed, telepathic lover, Wolfgang with Rajan, sex scenes with whom are comically depicted. There’s a deliberate play of emasculation of the East versus masculinity and virility of the West. Kala’s character can also be read as a symbol to reinforce the western world’s superiority in everything, including sexual prowess. Due to the lack of character development of Kala, one may argue that she is merely used to add another romantic pair to the story while simultaneously exoticising her as an Indian.
The show has earned further criticism for unproblematically fetishisizing gay pair (Lito and his partner), endorsing throughout the white male hero, anti-semitism, over sexualisation of gay characters, and playing on stereotypes while swooping all of it under the carpet by terming it inclusive under the banner of white feminism and queer representation (the queer characters too are noticeably white).
Thus, it is important to appreciate the queer representation in Sense8, but it would be regressive and wrong to excuse the racism and problematic parts associated with the show.