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).
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.
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.
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:
Is that a fucking baby head or something? I just don’t know.