Pop Culture

Sense8 and the importance of happy queer characters

It’s the first week of pride month and Sense8 has been cancelled. If that’s not ironic then I owe Alanis Morissette a beer.

In the days following the announcement, there’s been a lot of sorrow, a lot of outrage, and a spate of well-rounded articles detailing the immense loss to representation that’s fuelled most of it. But still, I see a lot of people—straight ones mostly—wondering at the voracity of the queer community’s backlash at the news. And I guess I can understand their confusion. Representation is representation, right? While Sense8 certainly had a lot of it, it’s not the only show out there with openly queer characters.

But that’s just it. All representation isn’t created equal.

In an industry that queer-codes its villains, fetishises its lesbians, overwhelmingly depicts its gay men slowly dying of AIDs, and flat out forgets people of colour exist most of the time, finding representation that doesn’t make me want to put my head through a wall is like finding a needle in a pile of other needles. Finding representation that makes me cry literal tears of joy…well, lets just say I’m usually notoriously dry eyed.

Until Sense8. Beautiful, diverse, found-family, feel-good, sci-fi mecca Sense8.

When I say I’m devastated at the news of its cancellation, I’m not just upset that we’re losing a show with so many queer characters. I’m upset we’re losing a show that depicted queer characters being happy. And I know, right – it’s 2017, this shouldn’t be fucking groundbreaking, but here we are. In an industry that kills so many LGBT+ characters it has its own trope, a show like Sense8 was a balm for my poor battered queer soul.

I got to watch Lito, a gay Mexican action movie star, stand up and joyously declare his love for his partner in front of a Pride parade. I got to see a successful Kenyan reporter self-identify as bisexual, and immediately be accepted by her male love interest. I got to cry those actual tears of joy when Nomi—a lesbian transgender woman—and Amanita proposed to each other, the culmination of a bond I’d watched stay strong through two seasons of sci-fi turmoil.

But as well as those beautiful examples of healthy, happy romantic relationships, I got to actually see examples of platonic and familial queer solidarity, the likes of which made me feel like I was breathing actual air for the first time. Nomi and Lito frequently leaned on each other during their separate queer-specific struggles. Nomi and Amanita were sheltered and aided by the San Francisco queer community more than once. I got to watch a lesbian couple sit down to a family dinner with a polyamorous mother and her three male partners. I GOT TO WATCH THAT WITH MY OWN TWO EYEBALLS.

Sense8 - Amanita's family

What’s more, I got to do all of this without the inherent fear of watching one of those characters needlessly die. Which happens. All. The. Fucking. Time. It’s got to the point where when a queer character is introduced on screen I feel a shot of fight-or-flight adrenalin. A mix of, “Fuck yeah!” and, “Fuck, I hope they don’t die.” Because that’s a queer person’s reality. A reality that’s remained unchanged since the Hays Code era, where the only way you could represent queer characters was by ensuring they were punished for their “perversions”.

Lexa from The 100

Sense8 is a sci-fi thriller—its characters often running or fighting for their lives—but it expertly balanced that suspense with a sense of viewer trust I’ve found to be increasingly scarce lately. In an age where writers are clamoring all over themselves to be George R. R. Martin, watching a show that values trust over shock value is an immense relief. Watching a show that knew how to handle its queer viewers’ trust was nothing short of euphoric.

Because that’s what Sense8 was: trust. Trust that I could see characters I identified with in fulfilling, loving relationships. Trust that those characters’ queer experiences would be treated with care and nuance. Trust that I could have all that and also enjoy found-family, sci-fi romp shenanigans.

In a world that’s electing officials who advocate for conversion therapy, a world where queer men are being rounded up into camps and tortured, a world that sees trans women murdered in overwhelming numbers – in that world, representation like Sense8 is needed. Because people need to know that being queer isn’t synonymous with unhappiness, torture, and death. They need to know that being queer is about being loved, being accepted, and getting to kick some bad-guy ass at the same time.

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