Sunday, July 11, 2004

Queer As Folk Guilt

I like the television series Queer As Folk, and I am a bit ashamed to admit it. No, not because of any hesitation with respect to its focus, nor because of the copious and graphic depiction of young gay men having sex. I'm ashamed to admit it because in a lot of ways the show is not really that good but I like it anyway.

To clarify: I am talking about the U.S.-based remake of the British show of the same name. I have seen all of seasons two and three, and parts of season one.

Let me start by naming some of my criticisms of the show. The principal one is the writing. Material that is directly related to the central focuses of the show (young, urban, gay men, and the sex they have) generally feels like it is competently done, and sometimes manages to be quite engaging. It focuses on only a subset of the gay community and I have heard it criticized for being somewhat stereotypical in its depiction of that subset, but generally the writers do well enough.

All other facets of the writing, however, tend to be hit-and-miss.

The token lesbian couple on the show tends to be written very poorly. The characterization of Mel and Lyndsay often does not feel particularly realistic. I sometimes get the sense that the writers are not sure how exactly to signal their "lesbianness" in a sophisticated way, i.e. that their identities are likely grounded in communities/cultures that are distinct both from the mainstream and from the gay male culture at the centre of the series. As well, much of the time their baby is written more as a prop than an integral feature of their lives. Mel's Jewishness will be ignored for episodes at a time, and then awkwardly invoked by the charcter herself having to point out in dialogue that a given action or tendency is "Jewish" in some way.

A municipal election which serves as a story arc in the third season does not feel at all realistic. For example, the party operatives running the campaign of the Republican in this major U.S. city's mayoral election seem dubious about the idea of a slick, modern advertising campaign. Also, the responses of the electorate to interventions of various sorts through the season just aren't plausible.

More generally, the show tends to indulge in that ubiquitous television failing: trite, simplistic resolutions to serious problems just in time for the final credits. For example, one character is going through a tough period in season one and joins a homophobic "recovery" group. It is that old stand-by, the heartfelt declaration of friendship speech, that finally convinces him that he can't fool himself into straightness.

As well, no major recurring characters are people of colour. This falls into and reinforces two standard, oppressive patterns in our culture. First of all, it perpetuates the tendency for the label "gay" to automatically include assumptions of "whiteness." As well, by showing them pretty much only as part of the mancandy background landscape at dance clubs and in sex scenes, it simultaneously sexualizes and silences men of colour, both longstanding racist patterns in the dominant culture.

So why do I like this show?

There are a number of reasons. For one, I like the fact that it focuses on queer people. There are not exactly a lot of opportunities in the mass media to see queer people at the centre of dramatic television or even film. There are increasing instances of individual characters in shows grounded in the mainstream being allowed to come out as lesbian or gay, but that is fairly minimal. Mainstream shows with queer characters also tend to show queer individuals but not queer communities to which they might be attached, and to be able to show only a fairly narrow (often quite "mainstreamed") range of what it can mean to be queer.

One particularly important aspect of the focus of this show is not only that it shows homosexual relationships, but that it shows homosocial connections. How many locations in the media are there to see men giving emotional support and comfort on a regular basis to other men? It is almost completely absent, and I think any long-term efforts to overcome the elements of masculine socialization to which this lack is connected will require us getting used to seeing it even as we get better at doing it.

I also quite like some of the characters, and the writing connected to them. Deb, the mother of one of the main characters, is great. I think Michael, Uncle Vic, and Emmett are generally interesting, and though I have been dubious at times at the way Justin was written, he has really grown on me.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to watch the show is Brian Kinney. He is an insufferable, hyper-masculine, arrogant, selfish jerk, but he says and does interesting things, and is cohesive and engaging as a character. He is in some ways the most defiantly gay of the main characters, and espouses and practices his "gayness" in a way that is assertively anti-assimilationist as well as extremely individualistic. At the same time, he also exhibits some very traditionally masculine traits more strongly than many of the other characters -- inability to express emotion, obsessive and objectified way of relating to sex, a certain kind of strength, and a resolute hardness, both sexually and in his character. He is not someone that would be easy to know or easy to like as a person, but I find him very (and I'm sorry to use this word yet again) compelling as a story element.

At heart, I think my affection for the show comes down to the fact that it tells stories about non-mainstream ways of being. These stories rarely have obviously politicized content, at least politicized in any sophisticated way, but they show a range of ways to live deliberately contrary to our inherited narratives about relationships and community. These kinds of stories are sufficiently rare in the broadcast media that I'm going to enjoy them where I can, however flawed and limited they might be.


Scott said...

I also meant to mention one other interesting feature of the show: the friendship between Brian and Lyndsay. These two characters display characteristics that are quite stereotypical of their respective genders and they share an emotional attachment that seems to be quite significant for both of them; it is perhaps the most significant cross-gender emotional attachment in the series that isn't based in blood kinship. Just the portrayal of an important friendship between a man and a woman that not only isn't sexual but cannot be sexual is rare and interesting. But you can tell that if they were straight, or if they were forced to be closeted, they would probably be married, and they would probably have a relationship that embodied most of the worst things you might imagine when you hear the phrase "bad marraige." But they have not been forced into a cookie-cutter model for relating to one another by the closet and inherited relationship narratives, and have found a way to be in each other's lives that fits who each of them is and that preserves and values the love that they have for one another. In a way, their relationship symbolizes hope that straight men and women can find new models of relating that express love but don't force its expression into a single pattern that may or may not suit the needs of the individuals in question.

Ez said...

When you're appreciating something beyond your territory, I can say that... that's the coolest review of the show. Me? Me likey QAF, in its every dazzle and flaw. ^-^