On The Performance of Diversity in Queer Shows and My Horror Binge, Ranked
Notes from an extended period on the couch
I spent three days lying down this week in an attempt to recharge my batteries and avoid a really terrible crash with extended burn(out). I can’t “relax” so I have to stuff my head full of films like it’s my job to trick my body into resting, and oddly, the thing that works best for me is horror movies. (The fake anxiety is the only thing that can distract me from my real anxiety.) I watched some queer TV as palette cleansers between courses of fear, and, of course, I have some thoughts!
But first! I would like to promote my friends, who are putting out some really cool work right now on surveillance capitalism:
Sprank also just started a ‘stack (can we make that a thing?) and posted a great essay on the “Terminally Online Creator-Influencer-Culture-Critic” which I am honored to be mentioned in:
Show, Don’t Tell Diversity
Following in the footsteps of The L Word: Generation Q, fellow spicy gay soap Queer as Folk recently got its own modern reboot. These shows originally were very white, very cis, and very abled, so the reboots attempt to atone for the originals’ exclusionary sins.
I have very similar feelings about both these reboots, actually: they’re trying way too hard and it’s pretty cringe, but I’m probably gonna watch every episode anyway. (It might be hot gay trash, but it’s MY hot gay trash, okay!)
This review by Erik Piepenburg hit the nail on the head for me by diagnosing what irked me as “the performance of diversity.” Quoting media studies scholar Julia Himberg:
“Representation matters,” she said. “But when it’s disconnected from a deeper story line or a deeper investment in the characters or the quality of the writing isn’t good, that has an impact on audiences’ ability to connect to the show.”
There are a lot of things about the new Queer as Folk that are groundbreaking on their own: there’s more than one disabled main character and they have very active sex lives, they depict a relationship between a transwoman and a non-binary Black person who are raising twins together thanks to the sperm of their gay best friend, there’s a full-frontal nude sex scene of a transwoman on a major network TV show (which the actress Jesse James Keitel told Piepenburg felt “empowering and sexy” for her!), and they fully subvert the HIV trauma trope by showing that a diagnosis is no longer a death sentence.
But despite all this, they still found it necessary to throw in all kinds of extremely obvious, awkward lines about how diverse and progressive the show is. In the first episode, Keitel’s character Ruthie jokes:
“You can be trans and toxic, that’s intersectionality, baby!”
Which sounds like a line they got off someone’s Instagram merch? I agree that trans characters should get to be complex and terrible, too, but I don’t understand why this kind of line is necessary when the trans characters do toxic things in the show.
Isn’t “show don’t tell” like, creative writing 101?
These awkward and clunky announcements of diversity are extremely groan-worthy and often fall flat. Another example: in episode 4, they throw a sex party for disabled people and make loud pronouncements about how accessible it’s going to be.