Our curator, Karen Pollock, questions the decision to cancel Sense8 on the first day of Pride month.
I seem to have written a lot recently on the themes of visibility and representation. The need to see oneself reflected in the world around you is not limited to LGBTQ+ people, of course. From birth, we look out at the world around us and ask “Is this who I am?” The history of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy is, in many ways, a history of how we were assumed, or supposed, to answer that question. As we grow, so our knowledge of the myriad of potential “I’s” expands, from primary school friendship groups to middle-aged 3am phone calls, and a list of who we know will answer.
The urge to belong is so strong, we invent new ways of belonging; this group wears team colours, that group latex and fetish wear, another unites around a politician who claims to represent them. When you are already excluded from so many spaces, marked by your gender/sexuality as not one of us, finding somewhere you belong matters even more. This probably explains why so many people are reacting with anger, sorrow and incomprehension to the cancellation of Sense8 by Netflix.
Sense8 is a show about belonging, following the lives of eight people all born at the same moment who are psychically linked and able to “visit” each other, inhabit each other’s bodies and share skills, emotions, even orgasms. It has always been described as a science fiction show, perhaps because it defied normal conventions and neat categories. The category it fits into perfectly is queer; gloriously, unabashedly queer. It is not just that it has LGBTQ+ characters, beautifully, delicately drawn, but that queerness is the blood which flows through the veins of the show.
So many people have seen themselves in the characters – in Nomi, a lesbian fighting against her transphobic parents, with the love of her partner bringing her strength in every scene. Nomi is, in many ways, the wisdom of the cluster as Riley is the heart. No show has ever invited us in with such empathy and compassion into the life of a trans character. Usually, just one amazing queer character would be considered a win, but it is not just Nomi. It is Lito having to balance love and career (and incidentally a depiction of a poly family that again blasts away any other attempt in popular culture). We followed him from closet to opening San Paolo Pride, with every step a shared moment of fear, excitement and genuine concerns about never being accepted again. Both Nomi and Lito explored those ideas of belonging and rejection, and took us with them. Then, there are the sex scenes, which blur boundaries of gender and sexuality in a way which has never even been dreamt of before. Two straight men have sex, and it is understood that their identity is no more challenged by that than it is by becoming a Tai kwan do champion or East German safe cracker. Each character explores those queer themes, in their own way, regardless of the label applied to them.
When you are already excluded from so many spaces, marked by your gender/sexuality as not one of us, finding somewhere you belong matters even more
This is the queerness that 1000 Queer Studies seminars groped their way towards, a queerness where labels matter as much as we do or don’t want them to. Characters are not straight, or gay, or bi, they simply are, and as the bisexual girlfriend of Capheus says “I am attracted to people, not genitals” Part of the reason Sense8 matters so much is it manages to balance the importance of claiming our own labels, and rejecting the ones the world tries to impose upon us.
Sense8 is not just a scifi show, any more than Buffy was just a show about small town America. It is a show that matters to millions, that linked its fans as the Sense8s were linked. It showed that queerness did not have to mean niche, low budget or that most dire of things “worthy”. It is no surprise that fans tonight are cancelling Netflix subscriptions. This is Pride month and Netflix will be flying the corporate rainbow flag and declaring itself to be LGBTQ+ friendly. Many will doubt any claims to being LGBTQ+ friendly from a company who cancels its greatest queer show on the first day of Pride month.
Follow Karen on Twitter (@CounsellingKaz)