[Warning: this diary contains spoilers on the miniseries Torchwood: Children of the Earth]
So I know we are in the middle of some very important issues, the crucial health care debate, the faux-Obama/Gates controversy, Afghanistan etc. But it is Friday so I thought I would share my thoughts on the series Torchwood, why it is relevant to the advancement of LGBT rights and why it has struck such a chord with me personally. Two of my previous diaries on gay-themed movies, Brokeback Mountain and Milk were well received by the community and I greatly appreciated the feedback:
Join me below for a discussion of how Torchwood is crossing over the boundaries of the science fiction genre, redefining the perceived concepts of gender and sexuality and is creating new understanding for same sex relationships by breaking stereotypes.
I have watched Torchwood sporadically over the past year or so. I find it kind of intriguing in terms of its sci-fi plots but even more intriguing in the way it portrays sexuality (the fact that John Barrowman is incredibly sexy also does not hurt). I find that shows like Torchwood do much to changing perceptions of gender and sexuality in a way that dry political speeches cannot. Many will not sympathize with a gay couple when their plight is reported on a biased news cast but make them protagonists, win over the audience and make it root for them and feel sympathy – a la Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) and Scott, a la Ennis and Jack (Brokeback Mountain), a la Jack and Ianto (Torchwood)
It goes without saying we are at a watershed moment in terms of LGBT rights. It is taking the law and our elected officials longer to follow what is a general development in our culture. LGBT individuals and their relationships are more open than ever yet it appears we are not progressing fast enough. As has been the subject of many discussions here and commentaries by Rachel Maddow and others, Barack Obama has not yet delivered on the promises he has made to the LGBT community beyond reassuring speeches. We have all heard the "it's only been 5 months" argument, that we have to wait for the healthcare issue to be resolved before we can tackle such issues as DADT, DOMA, ENDA etc. One bit of positive news, and one which would prompt me to finally change my sig, is that President Barack Obama is poised to sign the Matthew Shepard Act, which includes violent acts against LGBT people under the category of a hate crime. It is something that cannot come fast enough, as hate crimes against LGBT people appear to be on the rise. Meanwhile, the President, the Pentagon and Harry Reid continue to pass the buck on the repeal of DADT, even the amendment proposed by New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand to put a moratorium on the dismissals of gay military personnel has been stopped. Meanwhile in my native state of California, many wonder when they will be able to exercise their right to marry while a certain group of people in same-sax marriages enjoy rights which other same sex characters do not.
And yet, watching television, one would often have the impression that there is no problem with same-sex couples and homosexuality. Most soap operas are rushing to have gay storylines. Openly gay people appear on reality TV. Many out celebrities like Ellen, Neil Patrick Harris and others have higher profiles than ever before. And in Europe, the environment for gay and lesbian characters and media personalities is even more hospitable. The British game show The Weakest Leak has contestants talking unabashedly about their same sex partners. Other series feature gay characters in everyday situations, i.e. their sexuality is secondary to the main plot of the series, a far cry from such stereotypical, Amos-n-Andy shows like "Will and Grace" where gay people are kept nice and stereotypical, safe as long as they don't have actual relationships on screen and maintain the convenient roles imposed on them. Shows like The State Within are a great example of this:
More and more, even American network executives have realized that there is a niche market for GLBT storylines, even if middle America may not have quite caught up yet.
An important role has also been played here by the series Torchwood because of the boundaries it breaks in terms of gender, sexuality and the genre of science fiction. The protagonist of the series is Jack Harkness, an immortal bisexual action hero who is several centuries old. John Barrowman, who is openly gay, once tried out for the part of the clichéd Will in Will and Grace. How fortunate he instead found a role much more suited to his talents. Jack Harkness does not obscure his sexuality, he embraces it, yet it is not the main focus of the series. It is about fighting aliens. It is about a super-studly action hero – who happens to also have love affairs with men. It is about a character so confident in himself that he demands respect as he saves the world, never caring if his sexuality should be approved by others. In fact, in the universe of Torchwood, sexuality is not much of an issue. We see this in one of the most erotic same-sex scenes ever:
The scene is remarkable for several reasons. In context, Captain Jack has traveled to the past in a sort of time portal, to the 1940's. One would expect the conventional fare, any feelings to men would feel for each other are covered up, because society would not approve, particularly not a group of military officers and their spouses. And yet the desire is so strong, these two men from different times openly defy the approved convention and dance. This open defiance of the expected is coupled by the science fiction element of the scene, the time portal opens and Captain Jack must pull away from the object of his desire. The scene turns convention on its head. The gaping crowd has little recourse but to accept the reality crashing in on it; the transcendent forces shatter the expected.
One would expect that science fiction would be the perfect medium to address issues of sexuality and gender as there are so many encounters with other beings and species, the "human" concepts of heterosexuality or homosexuality would seem to be blurred. In fact, this is one of the basic concepts behind the series Torchwood:
Unlike the family friendly 'Doctor Who', 'Torchwood' aims for a more adult audience, with episodes that deal with messy issues like death and loss betrayal and relationships and sex, all framed in the confines of a semi-campy/semi-serious SciFi show. Part of what sets 'Torchwood' apart from 'Doctor Who' is the fluid sexuality of each of the characters, and the matter-of-fact same-sex relationship that Gareth's character, Ianto, enjoys with John Barrowman's Captain Jack Harkness.
Yet this idea of fluid sexuality has long been missing in the canon of Sci-Fi shows. The legendary Twilight Zone dealt with issues such as racism, sexism, ageism, xenophobia but never addressed the issue of homosexuality. Star Trek, the model for modern sci-fi, has long been critisized for failing to have a same-sex relationship or deal with the issue of homosexuality. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry:
My attitude toward homosexuality has changed. I came to the conclusion that I was wrong. I was never someone who hunted down 'fags' as we used to call them on the street. I would, sometimes, say something anti-homosexual off the top of my head because it was thought, in those days, to be funny. I never really deeply believed those comments, but I gave the impression of being thoughtless in these areas. I have, over many years, changed my attitude about gay men and women
Despite promises to the contrary, no LGBT characters have ever appeared in canonical Star Trek TV shows or films.
Tell me why there are no gay characters in Star Trek. This is one of those uncomfortable questions I hate getting when I was working on the show, because there is no good answer for it. There is no answer for it other than people in charge don’t want gay characters in Star Trek, period... That’s one of the great things about Paramount. Paramount left us alone. They always left us alone. They let Next Gen do whatever it wanted. God knows it let Deep Space Nine do whatever we wanted. It lets Voyager do whatever it wants. The studio is not the problem here. The studio is going to let you go wherever you want to go, as long as they believe that this is quality, as long as they believe it’s good work. You’ve just got to come up with something good.
Despite the fact that sci-fi is about breaking through borders, crossing new frontiers, the canonical portrayal has been the white-male male dominated, heterosexual, human-centric perspective. Some attempts to break down this "glass ceiling" have been in Star Trek Deep Space Nine and Voyager, with African American and a woman captain respectively. While other species and worlds were explored, it was always clear that the reigns of power remained with the predominately white, predominately male, predominately human and 100% heterosexual leaders. Yet in real life, people like George Takei challenged this notion. Yes, an original Star Trek cast member is out and proud. Ethnicity and sexuality have poured out of the accepted realm of the possible in science fiction.
Torchwood further breaks these boundaries and addresses the issues which Star Trek and the vast majority of other sci-fi series: one need not necessarily fear that which is different and that which is different is actually more universal than many would believe. Now the head of the unit that saves the world from aliens just happens to be bisexual, it is incidental to the main plot. Yet it is unapologetic about its same-sex relationships. Permission is not solicited from society at large. It is simply there, the protagonist fights aliens and is in love with another man, and in fact saves the world. It is reinforced again and again that human relationships, be they same-sex or opposite-sex are unique and special, that life is a unique gift to be savored while there is still time.
The mini-series Torchwood: The Children of Earth further develops the theme of the universality of the human experience. Aliens return to earth after their appearance in 1964, now demanding 10% of all of the children on earth. Captain Jack is wracked with guilt, as he was part of the original demand of the aliens to sacrifice 12 children. The power brokers sit at their table and decide which children are expendable, selecting to sacrifice the disabled, the underachievers in society, in essence deciding who is expendable and who is not, who is worthy of survival and who is not. Yet at the center of it all is Captain Jack who argues that he, as part of the world community, will rise up against this alien force and fight them. His romance with the character of Ianto occurs against this backdrop. The alien force senses his profound feeling for Ianto and uses it as a means of extracting its revenge.
In many ways, Torchwood not only expands the boundaries of sexuality and gender, but also becomes a fusion of sci-fi and the gothic horror (gothic romance) genre. Here are some classic characteristics of the gothic horror genre:
The stock characters of Gothic fiction include tyrants, villains, bandits, maniacs, Byronic heroes, persecuted maidens, femmes fatales, madwomen, magicians, vampires, werewolves, monsters, demons, angel, fallen angel, the beauty and the beast, revenants, ghosts, perambulating skeletons, the Wandering Jew, and the Devil himself.
So the elements of the supernatural are blended with the classic elements of the gothic romance:
In a way similar to the gothic revivalists' rejection of the clarity and rationalism of the neoclassical style of the Enlightened Establishment, the literary Gothic embodies an appreciation of the joys of extreme emotion, the thrills of fearfulness and awe inherent in the sublime, and a quest for atmosphere. The ruins of gothic buildings gave rise to multiple linked emotions by representing the inevitable decay and collapse of human creations
Captain Jack Harkness can certainly be characterized as a Byronic hero, a tragic figure with a streak of melancholy, heroic yet misunderstood, bold yet rash. Most importantly, his sexuality is one single aspect of a much more complex, flawed character. The theme of Torchwood is also consistent with the gothic horror genre, an emphasis on the ephemeral and transitory nature of human life, that relationships must be held onto. This theme is played out in the relationship between Jack and Ianto - the world is on the verge of ending, yet they yearn to sexualize their relationship. The human passions of the moment are intertwined with the grandiose movements of human history. The urgency of worldly developments comes head to head with the longings of the human heart.
Thus, the culmination of episode four of The Children of Earth is a fusion of all of these elements. Ianto, as the object of Jack's passion, is sacrificed and it is this terrible loss that will motivate Captain Jack to fight the alien menace. While the trappings are a tank containing a beastly alien in modern day Britain, the emotions, the loss and the longing can come directly from Wuthering Heights, in one of the most touching scenes in the history of the series:
Torchwood has done more than break down the traditional barriers of sci-fi and the stereotypes of gender and sexuality. It presents gay people as front and center in the human community. It brings forth the sense of loss and longing of many a classic romance, yet emphasizing just how profound a same-sex relationship can be. It makes its protagonists complex figures whose sexuality is incidental to the main story yet makes the audience sympathize with the protagonists and root for their love to succeed. Perhaps shows like Torchwood, in their own little way, help the gay community to inch forward to greater acceptance and equality in society. You never know, one of us may just save the world.