Sense8: how queer is this queer show?

Controversial. Edgy. “Pushing LGBT.” Full of the “gay agenda.” So says the over 4000 Netflix user reviews about Sense8.

I’m sure this show is floating around your queue alongside Master of None and Jessica Jones. Like Master and Jessica, Sense8 is a Netflix Original that received a lot of buzz, a lot of views, and a lot of debate about whether the show was worthy of buzz and views. Judging from the tone of the reviews section, it seems Sense8 is perceived as having an “agenda” of LGBT visibility, content, and politics. In other words, Sense8 is a gay show.

Sense8 is intriguing and a bit overstyled. I’m not really interested in debating the merits of the show in-and-of-itself here; I enjoyed it as much as many other Netflix Originals. I am interested in debating the merits of its label as a LGBT-focused show with graphic representations of gay sex. I disagree on both points.

Netflix User Reviews:
“The only reason I can imagine why some decide to love (and then passionately defend) this show is because it uses LGBTQ and minority characters.”
“heavy push for the Gay agenda. I don’t mind gay characters. I just wish I could watch a good show without being constantly reminded of the writers political agenda.”

From these reviews, one would guess that the entire cast of characters identifies as LGBT and that the show only revolves around their “gay issues” (whatever that is). Spoiler here: two out of the eight main characters identify within the LGBT spectrum. Two. 25%. Or, to put it another way, 75% of the main characters are heterosexual or their sexuality never comes up (in our compulsory heteronormative society, not identifying as homosexual means presumed heterosexuality. I don’t make the rules kids, I just point out the hypocrisy).

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Yes! No. No. No. No. No. No. Yes!

But back to my point: two of eight. I understand that two is way more than zero, and probably twice as much as you find in other “progressive” shows. But it’s not a lot. In fact, it’s a really small percentage. I suspect the user reviews that focus on this “overwhelming” LGBT presence do not pay attention to how our usual media fare is constructed to be almost exclusively (and inaccurately) heterosexual. 25% is more than 0%, I’ll give you that. But it’s far below a failing grade.

Netflix User Reviews:
“It shows rampant gay couplings and includes two lesbians rolling around on the bed using a toy”
“Super graphic gay sx scenes (and, being straight, not very comfortable to watch)”

One of the best/worst things about series produced off mainstream TV is that they show a lot of naked bodies and sex scenes. This is HBO’s bread and butter, y’all. Sense8 is no different: we see breasts and bodies and group sex and a used dildo. Honestly though, if you’re a Game of Thrones watcher, this is like the kid’s table.

As the reviews point out, the two LGBT-spectrum characters do have sex and we do see their bodies and that of their same-gender partners. But let’s do a wee analysis on these scenes, shall we? Couple #1, main character Nomi and her girlfriend Amanita, are very beautiful and very thin and have long hair and wear makeup and have toned, relatively hairless bodies. They are very feminine. We see them having sex with each other so, yes, this is queer sex but also it’s not really that queer. In fact, it looks an awful lot like the type of girl-on-girl porn created for heterosexual male audiences.

Sense8_06_00053_R1.jpg

I heart Jamie Clayton’s eyebrows forever

Couple #2, main character Lito and his boyfriend Hernando, are very handsome and have short hair and rugged beards and perfect, hugely muscled bodies and are very masculine. We see them having sex with each other so, yes, this is queer sex also but it’s not really that queer. When they have sex, their female friend actually watches them and masturbates to it, which leads me to believe this is intended to replicate a pornographic scene that would appeal to heterosexual female audiences.

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working out is important for health

Lets also analyze why these particular characters, as opposed to the other six mains, are so often portrayed having sex. New flash: these are the only two characters in long-term, stable, fairly monogamous love relationships. We see them having sex more because their couple-sex is a more socially acceptable and accepted type of sex. So there’s this thing called homonormativity. Super scholar Lisa Duggan (2003) uses this term to name LGBTQ+ identities, desires, and lifestyles that are “normafied,” or patterned to fit into mainstream hegemonic society. So yes a person is gay but they also support marriage, capitalism, consumption, military, likely they love kids, and are white and thin and cisgender (also probably wealthy). Think Ellen and Portia. In every way except for their sexual orientation, they glide into mainstream society. Homonormativity is what one of my very clever students calls: “P.S., I’m gay.”

I get wanting to have a homonormative lifestyle. Society constantly tells all of us we should want to be normative, to fit in, to value what the hegemony values, and to be valued by the hegemony. Also, I adore Ellen and Portia. But here’s the key: homonormativity is not queer. I’m drawing on the core definition of queer, not as a noun for sexual or gender orientation but as an adjective and a verb. Queer (adjective) is those identities, desires, and lifestyles that are askew from or out of sync with mainstream society. Queer (verb) is those identities, desires, and lifestyles that actively confront to break down mainstream society. A person who identifies as LGBT and is also homonormative might identify themselves as queer (noun) but are not really queer (adjective and verb).

Saucy scholars: lets put all this together. Sense8 is apparently heavy-handed with the ol’ “gay agenda” (whatever that is). Except the percentage of main LGBT characters is extremely marginal. And the sex they have replicates heterosexual pornography. And it’s within the context of their homonormative relationships. Guillermo Avila-Saavedra (2009) argues that just because gay and lesbian people have more visibility on TV doesn’t mean our media is more progressive. In fact, he argues that if gay and lesbian characters are always homonormative then what society accepts is the “we’re just like you” part and not the queer part.

Bottom line: it’s nice to see 25% of the main characters in Sense8 identify within the LGBT spectrum. And is it nice to see them with their partners, being affectionate and creating their own sexual connections. But don’t let this fool you, Sense8 is not really that queer. So stop writing about it like that, Netflix review section. Focus more on the overstylization. Including this logo:
p11677721_b_v8_abIs that a fucking baby head or something? I just don’t know.

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About Meredith Heller

The Saucy Scholar is Faculty Lecturer of Queer Studies in Women's and Gender Studies at Northern Arizona University. She holds a Ph.D. in Theater Studies and a doctoral emphasis in Feminist Studies from UC Santa Barbara, and specializes in performance and entertainment, gender studies, and queer theory.
This entry was posted in gender, queer, television and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Sense8: how queer is this queer show?

  1. Ben says:

    I thouroghly enjoyed this. Excellent points. Interestingly, my “why is sense8 so gay” search led me here. My search was more amusing than reflective of my experience of the show. Calling it a gay show compresses all its features and attributes into a single, rather unrelated dimension. Seems more like its a disturbing Sci-Fi drama about what it would be like to be mentally linked and tethered to a small group of people around the world. Disturbing because what seems unique and curious (clusters) is instead hunted, condemned, and manipulated by a shadow conspiracy. Disturbing because the character’s minds aren’t entirely their own. And disturbing because they’re often engaging in criminal, violent, or anti-society actions and getting away with it (with smiles and hugs). And, oh, that warm feeling I get after they successfully hack into that security system using cluster knowledge. Priceless. I suppose calling it a “gay agenda” series can be understood as the viewer becoming uncomfortable with being confronted with unavoidable “gayness.” Seems like the viewer has failed to realize that this may be exactly what the show is driving at. The witness transports themselves into this speculative story and experiences what it might be like to not be able to filter out the experiences of people unlike themselves.

  2. Brecker says:

    Only 25%… So, would you say in parity with reality? Not even close as the actual percent of a people that identify as LGBT is less than 4%. So, statistically, the show is disproportionate when compared to reality. Frankly, I like the concept of the show, but feel like others in that it is trying too hard to incorporate LGBT into the show.

  3. Sarah says:

    I just skip through the sex, gay or straight, when i feel its gratuitous or unnecessary, and get back to the story. I watch enough to know who’s having it, in case the who or why becomes relevant later, but like Weeds, when the Andy and Silas scenes started to detract from main story, i just buzzed through those scenes back to Nancy and the gangsters, which is what i was watching Weeds for. However, with all the choices we have nowadays, whenever a show becomes too Millennially PC for me, (I’m a “get to the point, dont wallow or whine” GenXer) I move on to something else.

  4. Bat says:

    Okay, SENSE8 is a fairly good show but, the biggest problem is that it is so over drawn out. There aren’t enough episodes to have so much sex, gay or not. The problem is not that the writers are trying too hard to make it an LBGT statement, nor is the problem that they are trying too hard to make a political statement. Part of the problem is that the scenes are sooooo drawn out that it is almost painful to watch. Stop placing useless scenes just to try and make a statement because a great show doesn’t make a statement, it is one. It could definitely be a great show, no doubt about it but please, please either lengthen the season or shorten these over indulgent scenes of ridiculousness. There are way to many lose ends and too much ignorance of the writers to fully grasp the true identity of the show. It is an LBGT show, we freaking get it, now, lets move on and get some of the silliness tightened up. It’s becoming too predictable in too many ways to make it much further than just a “fling”. Make this show what it can be instead of just another Lost. Start using your heads and realize things just don’t work when you take the common sense out of it. Too much lack of common sense will drive people with intellects away, stop thinking that the magic of a true LBGT show is going to blind fans of the lack of common sense. I hope next season is either long enough to help it stand up or there are some real writing changes. People aren’t stupid, people see the facts of the lacking in loose ends, fix the broken parts then write all about the LBGTness of the show or you’re going to ruin it and it will not be “the show we all need” but another show that is trying to make a statement but is so poorly written that it fails due to the writers counting on ignorance.

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