It's possible that Sense8, the new Netflix series from the Wachowskis, is the worst thing ever to happen to humanity. I don't know, because from the second episode it put its hooks into me so deeply that my critical, skeptical mind could not keep up. Certain elements of this show appealed to me so deeply that I was overwhelmed and had no ability to keep critical distance. Those elements were all related to a kind of queer ethic and queer vision, an approach to life that I've been a sucker for for decades, but have hardly ever seen expressed in a mainstream pop culture item.
First, I should note that even in my soggy, sappy, besotted love affair with this show, I couldn't miss some of its more obvious weaknesses. The major one for me is its globalized Americanism, well critiqued by Claire Light at The Nerds of Color in a post I pretty much entirely agree with, especially regarding the lost opportunity of a truly global production — imagine if, instead of writing it all themselves with J. Michael Straczynski, the Wachowskis had worked more as showrunners and farmed out the writing and maybe even directing to people from the actual places they depicted. I appreciate, for instance, that they reportedly liked Nairobi Half Life (I did, too!) and so had one of its producers, Tom Tykwer, direct the Nairobi scenes. But what if they'd brought in the actual Kenyan residents who wrote and directed Nairobi Half Life instead of just the German director who supported it but didn't really have a lot to do with its production? (For that matter, why not at least help Nairobi Half Life get broader distribution? I was lucky enough to see it when it played for one night in a nearby theatre, but as far as I know it's not available for home viewing in any way in the U.S.) But no. Though Sense8 is remarkable in many ways, it's still a product of big money, big egos, and a traditional production process. An anti-hegemonic pose is a whole lot easier to achieve than actually doing something to undermine hegemony.
Despite all this, I still fell hard for Sense8, and a lot of that has to do with a thought I had during the first episode: "I'm watching a sci-fi action soap opera kind of thing with queer people in it," and then later, "I'm watching a sci-fi action soap opera kind of thing that actually has more than a whiff of queer ethos to it."
That got me thinking about representation. I'm so used to seeing major media depict the world not as I know it, but as it is supposed to be known by a narrow norm, that when something like a pop cultured representation of something like what I know does make it into the mainstream, the gob smacks. It's not just about what I know of the world, however, because pop culture isn't really about the realistic representation of anything. It's more like a realistic representation of what we dream and hope for, a representation of yearnings and desires that are familiar and fitted into the whizzbang and weep of melodrama.
Halfway through my viewing of Sense8, I took a break and watched the documentary Vito, about Vito Russo, author of The Celluloid Closet and an important gay rights activist. The documentary is effective, though hagiographic — The Celluloid Closet may be historically important in having reached a large audience, but it's awful as film criticism, and the material in the movie about the gay liberation and AIDS struggles gets terribly simplified (a perhaps inevitable consequence of a focus on one person). Nonetheless, Vito was interesting to watch while in the midst of Sense8 because it's a powerful story and because it does a good job of showing the importance of chosen families and chosen communities for queer people, even ones who have, as Russo did, a supportive biological family.
That's one of the great attractions of Sense8: it is very interested in communities, especially chosen ones. The sensates themselves have no choice about being part of their group (and I wonder what they'll do if they ever get tired of each other!), but the show does an excellent job of presenting good and bad families, chosen families, biological families, and communities of support. This stands in fierce opposition to mainstream family values, where biological family ties are sacred and uplifting. That's a story many queer people have no ability to participate in, and an important emphasis in a lot of queer culture is on the creation of intentional families and chosen communities.
In Sense8, for instance, Nomi's mother is horrible: she misgenders her, and she is complicit in torture of her. It might be nice and affirming and optimistic if they could reconcile, as they would in a mainstream show. Her mother would then learn to see Nomi as she wants to be seen and blah blah blah. But no. There's no redemption for her, nor should there be. She's no better than Wolfgang's abusive father was. We don't necessarily want Nomi's mother to be killed, but there's no need for Nomi to put effort into keeping this dreadful woman in her life. Call it a queer commandment: Thou shalt not put effort into maintaining a relationship with a family member who doesn't recognize you as you, or who doesn't respect your humanity.
I've never seen a mainstream movie or show that so well embraces the differences of queerness within a general ethic of common humanity. The mainstream liberal impulse these days is to take the queer out of queerness and extend the umbrella of normality. (Even your racist, sexist, bullying old uncle is welcome to the gay tent if he's willing to stop calling us faggots! Hooray for progress!) It's a message that appeals to Gay, Inc., allowing the mainstream to celebrate gayness alongside white supremacy, militarism, neoliberalism, etc. And certainly there's some of that in Sense8, but there's also an attention to details of sexual difference and oppression that Richard Dyer was writing about way back in the late '70s in a piece that's a bit dated (obviously) but still useful:
Now it may be true that we are still at the stage where we need to assert, to others and to ourselves, that we are part of the human race. But such assumptions assume that there is no real difference between being gay and being straight. Yet, from a materialist standpoint, gayness is different physically, emotionally, and socially from heterosexuality. It is physically different not in the sense of involving different genetic factors (the equivalent sexist argument for the fascist arguments of behavioral psychology) but in the sense of being a different physical activity—two women in bed together is not the same as a man and a woman together or two men. It is different emotionally because it involves two people who have received broadly the same socialization (being both the same gender) and have thus formed their personalities in relation to the same pressures and experiences. It is socially different because it is oppressed. ...
What this boils down to in terms of films is that if you are representing sexual and emotional relationships on screen, it does make a difference whether they are gay or straight. One will not do as a metaphor for the other. Neither will either do as general metaphors for human sexuality and relationships.The various relationships in Sense8 — gay, straight, trans, poly — are represented as the same in the sense of filled with love and capable of love and defined by love. (The Wachowskis are, in terms of their sensibilities, hippies.) But these relationships are not materially the same either to each other or to heterosexual relationships, and there's some good attention paid to exactly what Dyer pointed to: the physical, emotional, and social differences.
This is announced with a wonderful shot early on in the show where, after sex with Nomi (Jamie Clayton), Amanita (Freema Agyeman) drops a wet strap-on to the floor — a gauntlet plopped right into the center of the viewer's field of vision.
Sense 8 is definitely explicit (including full frontal Max Riemelt, which I would never complain about), and so it attends to the basic material, physical reality of queer sex in ways that movies and shows that don't have any explicit scenes do not. If anything, I wish Sense8 was more explicit, particularly in the Lito scenes (but the filmmakers probably pushed the actors as far as they were comfortable, and some viewers are already saying the show is porn, so...). Emotionally, Sense8 keeps the queer in queerness primarily through the affinity and comfort the sensates feel with each other, which seemed to me like the experience of first being in a space with other people whose emotions and desires are similar to yours — the first experience not only of a liberatory queer space, but also of, say, a particular fan community or any other place where your marginalized pleasures and enthusiasms are shared. This experience is sexualized in the sensate orgy scene, which wonderfully shows the erotic currents within that feeling of being around people who get you as you. (There's a certain Stranger in a Stranger Land element to it, too.) That the orgy is centered around Will (Brian J. Smith), the working class cop who's pretty darn hetero, is a great touch — instead of the queer being welcomed by and into the norm, the norm is brought into the queer. Late in the season, when Will and Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) first encounter each other, Will says something like, "Have we met?" and Lito responds, "Yes, we had sex," and the look on Will's face is perfect: right there, we see him come to grips with the queer within himself.
It's socially that Sense8 really fits into Dyer's rubric, particularly through the experiences of Nomi and Lito. The Wachowskis and Straczynski found a pulpy but effective way to make clear the emotional stakes in Lito's life as a closeted movie heartthrob — if you can sit through some of the later episodes without screaming out at him, "Come out! It'll be okay! Come out, Lito!" then you are stronger than I.
One of the reasons I typically prefer melodrama to verité drama is that I'm not especially interested in "rounded" characters — "roundedness" is a construction that depends on particular conventions and ideologies that I generally find boring and/or exhausted. Dyer gets at how this relates to queer subject matter:
Inscribed in the concept of the well-rounded character is the ideology of individualism, the belief that an individual is above all important in and for himself, rather than a belief in the importance of the individual for her or his class, community, or sisters and brothers. This cardinal precept of bourgeois ideology as against feudal or socialist ideology is built right into the notion of the "rounded character," who may well feel some pulls of allegiance to groups with whom she or he identifies, but who is ultimately seen as distinct and separate from the group, and in many cases, antagonistic to it. Rounded characterization is then far from ideal when you need (as we do) expressions of solidarity, common cause, class consciousness, fraternity and sorority.Sense8 doesn't give us well-rounded characters, at least not in the way Dyer means, though the characterizations have some depth. They're still types, sometimes even clichés. This is melodrama, after all. The ways the actors and writers work with the expectations and possibilities offered by the types and clichés is what's interesting, and the ultimate effect of the show is indeed toward "expressions of solidarity, common cause, class consciousness, fraternity and sorority".
In some obvious ways, Sense8 draws on superhero stories, but the superhero stories it draws on are ones like The X-Men and Fantastic Four rather than Superman or Batman, and the kinds of superheroes it gives us are not ones with extraordinary, alien superpowers (beyond the psychic powers), but rather people with specific, relatively human skills who are able to benefit from each other. It is, then, a story of mutual aid.
The premise of people with special psychic powers and particular connections to each other pre-dates superhero stories, and the familiarity of that premise is, I think, actually a virtue of the series. What's innovative is not the basic idea, but the way that idea is developed. The entire first season of twelve episodes (each roughly an hour each) is, in traditional terms, basically set-up. What almost any other series would dispense with in an episode or two, Sense8 spends the season on: the characters discovering their abilities and each other, learning a bit about the malevolent forces that seemingly want to destroy them (but by the end of the season we learn hardly anything about this malevolent force), wandering around. It's a triumph of subplots with the main plot only becoming clearer by the end when the sensates realize they need to band together to protect each other. This allows us to spend a lot of time seeing their circumstances — meeting not just each major character, but developing an understanding of the various minor characters who are the people of their lives. It's a wonderfully humane structure, even if it denies some viewers the sort of plot-driven arc they'd prefer.
I could go on and on about various details I appreciated, including the exquisite use of the divine Jean-Claude van Damme and the sometimes goofy but amazingly powerful use of such familiar songs as "Mad World" and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" (in the haunting Antony & the Johnsons version; very well chosen for all sorts of reasons) and, especially, "What's Goin' On" ... but I won't go on. You can make up your own mind. For all the ways Sense8 falls short, for all its faults and even failures, its virtues overwhelmed me, and I'm grateful this show exists, grateful it was made, grateful to have watched it.