Friday, March 12, 2010

Gay Panic

Rumors persist that Torchwood, the BBC's "for adults" Doctor Who spinoff starring the omnisexually fabulous Captain Jack Harkness may be making the trip across the pond, like so many successful British shows, to a series in the United States. And like so many UK/US remixes, including the DOA travesty that was 1996's FOX 'Doctor Who' TV movie, this fact is troubling. Take a look at this comparison between Steven Moffat's wonderful early-aught's sitcom 'Coupling' and its US version.

It's called acting. Google it. And while you're there, check out the televisual abortion that was the US version of 'Red Dwarf.' Worst. Adaptation. Ever.

It's not that Torchwood is a phenomenal show, either, and occasionally the sun shines and the wind is in the right direction and we get something like 'The Office' (hell, 'All in the Family' is a remake of a British show). What concerns me more is Captain Jack.

Captain Jack Harkness sauntered on to the scene in 2005, and by the time he got his own show a year later, had emerged as really the gayest action hero ever. Tell me, America, because I'm dying to learn. Is there anyone else? With the exception of Ianto Jones, Jack's lover in the second and abbreviated third seasons of Torchwood, alternative sexualities don't fare very well in actioners. Sure, you can be a butch lesbian Vasquez-esque action hero if you're a gal, but if you're a guy and you enjoy anything other than the love of a good woman (not that there's anything wrong with that) you're reduced to mincing ineffectuality. The only exception I can possibly think of is from 2008's 'Death Race,' in which it's slyly hinted that Tyrese Gibson's Machine Gun Joe is, possibly, gay as hell.

Would a US version of the show smooth Jack out for NASCAR Dads? Is America ready for a bisexual male action character? Adam Lambert, openly gay American Idol contestant raised the collective hackles of America when he smooched his dancing partner in the finale for 'So You Think You Can Dance.' Angry letters were written. Call-in shows were called in to. "My kids watch this crap," they say, though we've been getting girl-on-girl love at prime time hours for at least a decade. It's totally fine if Olivia Wilde makes out with some lady (or ladies) in a given episode of 'House,' but if Omar Epps were to do it? (Admittedly, it might finally make Foreman interesting.)

My money is on "you betcha." Should Torchwood emerge in the United States with the same male lead it had in Britain, my presumption is that Harnkess' proclivities won't, to say nothing of a relationship between two men that doesn't paint itself in a super-broad, 'Will & Grace' sized brush.

If you ask me (and you haven't) at root of all this is the fact that female sexuality is not taken seriously by the media at large. Perhaps not by the culture. Olivia Wilde's makeout scene in House is harmless because lady-to-lady sexuality is harmless, unthreatening, and, let's face it, kind of awesome. But male sexuality, now that is serious business; and male homosexuality, if it's used in an action-TV show context at all is likely to be employed as threatening, prison-set Soap of Damocles. This is a shame.

Here's hoping they prove me wrong.


  1. Let me take that a step further and say that _women_ are taken to be fundamentally harmless in this culture. Just ask Jack's hindbrain.

    But yes, particularly with the sex. You speak truth.

  2. I hear you. The closest I can think of in terms of a gay action hero is Omar from "The Wire" -- hard to deny that the dude was a badass, but he was apologetically gay. It's always couched in terms of "what about the children", but this is code for "it might make my kids ask me questions I'm uncomfortable answering" or, worse, "it would probably make my kids okay with gays before I have a chance to make sure they hate them as much as I do". As we can see in the video going around these days, kids understand love, even if it's between people of the same sex.

    I will disagree slightly with you on our culture viewing female homosexuality as harmless and unthreatening. It can be, but only if it's done so to appease the male gaze. It has to be two "attractive" women who are together in a sort of winking fashion that tells male viewers that it's actually about them -- and wouldn't they like to join in for a threesome? When it's women with women for themselves -- especially if either or both are not attractive by society's standards (when was the last time you saw two butch lesbians making out on TV the way Wilde did on House? Part of this is simply the fact that women on TV have to cater to the male gaze, which means that they have to femme it up (even Rachel Maddow had to do it for her news show), but it's also because lesbians who actually do things for their own desires rather than those of men around them are threatening.

    But I totally am with you on wanted to be proved wrong about Torchwood.

  3. Good point on butch girls. I could expand my point into an entire post (and may eventually) but let me add that feminine sexuality is largely taken unseriously, gay and straight. There's a wonderfully hilarious 'South Park' episode, speaking of TV, that plays with this convention, having Kyle's brother Ike involved in a sexual relationship with a female teacher. All anybody can think to say is "nice." 'Flight of the Conchords,' another show I adore, ran with this idea in its second season, casting a woman in the role of sexual aggressor in the episode "Girlfriends." It's hilarious, but squirm-worthy because if the roles were reversed this would not, not, not be funny.

    Which means either through my aforementioned hindbrain or through cultural programming, I too have bought in to this pervasive image of women in our culture. But then who knows?

    Somehow I got to talking about gays and ended up talking about ladies. Odd. Can we say Gandalf is a gay action hero? His actor is gay and we never see him with any lady friends. Maybe him and Radagast get a bungalo on Valinor or something.

  4. That's a good point about women as female aggressors. Such instances are usually glossed over with comments of "awesome!" or "lucky guy!" -- totally ignoring that it's just as bad as when men are the aggressors. It's definitely something to think about. I know there are many things I laughed at or thought were cool that I'm now skeeved out by.

    I think it's not that surprising that a conversation about gays in the media morphed into a discussion about women; both are feminized in our culture which is used to dismiss them. Feminine things are unserious by default.

    And I think that Gandalf is totally a gay action hero. And I don't know if they have a bungalow in Valinor, as I'm not sure Radagast ever went back to Valinor (like the Blue Wizards, I think he lost his purpose and just wandered Middle Earth).

    I wonder if T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia can be considered a gay action hero. Wikipedia says there's no proof he was gay, but he's largely considered to be gay. And he's pretty action-y in the movie.

    While not in movies, there is a growing tradition of gay superheroes ( starting with Northstar (officially, anyways, Batman is still in the closet).