Queer QuaranTV

I live in my TV. Over the past year, I have shifted more and more of my daily social, psychological and affective life into the long running television shows that I substitute for a vital somatic, interpersonal, and interactive existence. I’m pretty indiscriminate. I will enter into almost any televisual world, in varying ways. Law and Order is always on and can provide undemanding (if politically problematic) company while I work at a computer, look at an iPhone, or play with my cat. The various iterations of this show all have the additional virtue of mostly avoiding or erasing domestic life—a big plus, in that I have never had happy associations with “family dramas,” real or imagined. But there are a few shows that I sit still for and project myself into with pathological intensity. There are two in particular that resonate with my own lifetime preoccupations and into which I float like a sentient astral projection–Queer as Folk (QAF: Showtime/Showcase 2000-2005) and I May Destroy You (IMDY: HBO/BBC One 2020). I interact with the characters, I try to alter the plots, I rage and grieve and celebrate, I have trouble separating at the end.

The US/Canadian version of QAF was based on the UK version, broadcast in 1999. Written by Russell T. Davies (Dr. Who, Years and Years, It’s a Sin) and based in working class Manchester, the British QAF was gritty and edgy with a definite sense of place. The casting was realistic in that the actors and their styling reflected the chosen local demographic of white gay men (and a few lesbians)—they were not glamourized visually. But the plotting embraced archetypes of gay life and associated fantasies of pleasure, power, and danger—the lead character of Stuart Jones (Aiden Gillen) morphs from irresistible strutting sex god of the Manchester clubs to cowboy with a gun aimed at a cowering homophobe in the American West. He is the fantasy figure everyone falls in love with but can never have. The writing also probes into the darkness surrounding this pursuit of youth, beauty and power, portraying drug overdoses, suicide attempts, and the devastating struggle against familial, religious, economic, and state homophobia.

The UK version of QAF had only two seasons, ten episodes in total. And despite the expansive title, its political frame was resolutely gay only–white, male, and politically circumscribed around gay lives and issues. Issues of race, gender, class (beyond the setting in working class environs) were positioned resolutely at the political margins, marked with many instances of disturbing representation (some probably intended to expose racism and sexism, but others clearly reproducing exclusions and distortions). But as the first sexually explicit, in your face portrayal of gay urban life on TV, it had an enormous impact. When Showtime/Showcase picked it up for US/Canadian adaptation, the writing team of Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman (An Early Frost, Sisters) did both more and less than the British team.

The US/Canadian QAF picked up the core characters and some establishing storylines from the UK version and also reproduced the white gay male political frame largely isolated from surrounding context. But the new series was prettier, shinier. glossier. The US writers pushed the envelope of sexually graphic representation further, while switching genre in some significant ways. They located the show in a generic urban gay neighborhood rather than a specific place (the action supposedly takes place in Pittsburgh, but the show was filmed in Toronto). Then they simultaneously glamourized the characters and moved the tale from the realm of mythic archetypes to the basic structure of a Harlequin romance—minus the neat resolution.

The primary character, twenty-nine-year-old Brian Kinney (Gale Harold), is impossibly beautiful, breathtakingly sexy, hugely successful, forcefully masculine and domineering, but also damaged, tortured, and in need of the healing true love of a softer (but spunky!) relatively feminized character—the seventeen-year-old Justin Taylor (Randy Harrison). The writers sidestep the Harlequin plot in the end by overlaying it with a generational father-son reconciliation/separation plot. The Brian/Justin relationship is mirrored throughout the series by the damaging relationship between Brian and his alcoholic father, and by Brian’s distant connection with his newborn son Gus (fathered with a lesbian friend). All the fathers call the sons “sonny boy,” and there is a direct scene repetition of Gus toddling toward Brian and Justin relearning to walk with confidence toward him after a terrible injury sustained during a gay bashing. The marriage between Brian and Justin that gobs of fans yearned for over the five years of the series was proffered and then cancelled in the last episode, as Brian and Justin learn to let each other go with love. Brian’s withholding had held Justin in a yearning posture, but the final declaration of eternal love (“it’s only time”) allows Justin to leave Pittsburgh for New York to become an artist. The series thus tapped into widespread fantasy-wishes among many gay men—for a hot lover desired by all but who falls for them despite himself and for a loving attachment to/separation from a father.

I am a sucker for the Harlequin plot meshed with the story of parent/child struggle. I just rewrite the hot, damaged man as a butch and rewrite the father as my withholding mother—easy peasy!  Sex (not gender) changes for all–and I’m all in! But QAF grabs me on another level too—the political issues written into the show closely reflect my own political history as a queer dyke activist in NYC in the 1980s and 90s. The sexual liberationist politics (“promiscuity” as gleeful celebration without judgment), the account of the HIV/AIDS epidemic over three generations, the sharp critique of respectability politics (there is a hilarious lampoon of a character named Howard Bellweather, who is transparently Andrew Sullivan), and the confrontation with familial, religious, and state bigotry and violence—all of these trigger memories, arguments, feelings.  This participation happens even as I also clearly see the limits of the political and cultural frame—a default white American/Canadian world, identity issues presented without political economy, the nation-state invoked without the context of empire, and really, really boring portrayals of lesbian life and sex. As I live in that series, I argue a lot with everyone—while I also fall in love; feel heartache, yearning, and loss; grieve; and experience the pleasures of a vital social life in the midst of the current pandemic.

Fast forward from 2000-2005, to the debut of I May Destroy You during summer 2020. Oh. My. God. The difference that twenty years can make on TV! Busting through the boundaries of “the industry,” the astonishing Michaela Coel (creator of the series Chewing Gum, Channel 4/Netflix) really brings it with a series marked by the most expansively queer, intersectionally political and just plain brilliant writing on English language television. IMDY is marketed as a “consent drama,” but that description radically understates what this series presents—a working through of a wide range of experiences of violation and betrayal, embedded within the joyful pursuit of sexual pleasure and social connection. Central character Arabella (played by Coel, who also wrote, directed, and executive produced) is drugged and raped during an outing to a bar with friends. She remembers scenes from this attack only in hazy flashbacks—the primary plot is organized around her quest to find out what exactly happened and to figure out how to process the trauma. But this is not a straightforward quest. Throughout the twelve episodes of the series, Arabella struggles for empathy and self-awareness as she comes to perceive the very wide range of ways consent is compromised, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes only to be perceived well after the fact, by her friends and herself as well as by clearly violent attackers and harassers. She and her best friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) are deceived, tricked, and betrayed by others, even as they thoughtlessly deceive and hurt others themselves.

The genius of IMDY is in the way the narrative keeps setting you up to expect a familiar story, only to flip that story around on you and demand you register the resulting disorientation. One example: Arabella has sex with another writer who is helping with her book in progress, Zain (Karan Gill). Zain (a South Asian man) removes his condom during sex without her consent. At first Arabella accepts Zain’s deceptive excuse, only to discover later that this was a willful violation. At a writers’ conference, she denounces Zain as a rapist, in terms and tones we are all meant to cheer on as a triumphant moment. But later in the series, Arabella becomes an enormous fan of a Black woman writer, who turns out to be Zain publishing pseudonymously after having been “canceled” for his violation of her. Zain then aids Arabella in the successful reworking of her stalled book into a viable manuscript.

Turnabouts like this are legion throughout the series.  Just when you think Terry is being a heroic nurturant friend, we discover she betrayed Arabella by abandoning her on the night of the rape.  Arabella becomes an important empowering voice on social media, only to be gradually revealed as an increasingly fanatical and obsessive moralist, focused on the transgressions of others rather than her own social world and ethics.

Living inside IMDY, I couldn’t help but experience it alongside QAF as a queer televisual universe. There are some strong similarities—the non-judgmental focus on a small group of friends who play and party together in a joyful world of sex, drugs, and boozy nightlife, the representation of social “misfits” who were previously largely excluded from representation on television. (Coel’s 2018 McTaggart Lecture describes her rocky road to success in TV, including a breathtaking moment of walking away from a $1 million deal with Netflix because of their restrictions on her control of her writing.) Both series eschew moral melodrama—all characters are morally complex. And both aspire to provoke, not simply indulge an audience. Within that wide frame of similarity, the differences resonate historically and politically, affectively and aesthetically.

Like the UK version of QAF, IMDY is grounded in a specific place and social group—young Black friends in working class East London. But unlike that earlier series, IMDY expands its frame of reference in multiple directions, encompassing a wide range of race, class, gender and sexual “misfits” leading precarious lives. The series makes class and race inequality the very foundation of its storytelling, and its characters constitute a camaraderie of LGBTQ, and heterosexually active but queerly identified folks. Terry has a threesome with two straight cis men, then later connects with a transman who becomes her steady boyfriend. This is not the kind of queerness that marked either version of QAF—a term then meant to designate an in-your-face kind of gayness, and not the range of forms of non-normative sexual and gender dissent that characterize IMDY. Dissenting identities and practices are not isolated from the surrounding world of political and economic inequality; they are embedded within it. The Black world at the center of the series is not a limit or wall as gay identity can be in QAF, but rather a grounding for an expansive kind of intersectionality.

The queer social worlds of both QAF and IMDY decisively transcend earlier friendship-focused series like Seinfeld and Friends. Those series, though welcome departures from the ubiquitous family drama, were temporally limited as (white, “middle” class) moments after and before The Family. They offered no alternative models for life. The US/Canadian QAF is mired in ambivalence—some of the denizens of the world of friends are headed to the reproductive couple form, and just struggling for the legal and cultural acceptance of that aspiration. But not all the characters share the developmental narrative—Brian and Justin in particular choose another way of connecting over time outside the romantic couple. But their choice is framed as culturally gay, as anti-assimilationist, and not as a broadly desirable or available alternative mode of social being in the world. IMDY, on the other hand, goes on without the normative couple form in view at all. The world of friends is not a temporary way station but a location for ongoing flourishing.

For me, living in IMDY is like occupying what José Muñoz, following Ernst Bloch, called a “concrete utopia”—a place that you can find within the present or the past, in a search for alternatives for a joyous future. But IMDY gets you there by provocation—living the series, I was continually challenged and prodded to reconsider every knee jerk response in the conventional narrative playbook. This is a different kind of joy than living in the familiar but limited narrative and political frames of QAF.

The experience of IMDY is condensed in the final episode. It does not offer a resolution for Arabella’s quest, but a way of thinking about what might constitute resolution. In three sequential scenes Arabella finds and kills her rapist, then turns him into the police—both these scenes are presented as energized and deeply tempting, but profoundly unsatisfying. The murder just ends in horror; the police only subject the perpetrator to the conditions that created his violence in the first place. The final scene is an imagined encounter that might have gone otherwise. This is not a “resolution” in the usual sense, but an insistence on living in a world of impossible possibility.

Neither QAF nor IMDY have received industry recognition—Coel was just snubbed by the Golden Globes, despite a raft of insanely glowing reviews. But even further to the margins in terms of public and official recognition is another astonishing, engrossing, and brilliant series that aired on STARZ last summer—P-Valley. Created, written, and produced by Katori Hall, and based on her play Pussy Valley, with a directing showcase of talented women, P-Valley brings a predominantly Black strip club in Mississippi to life. When you first tune in, you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve hit on a television revival of blaxploitation, reflecting stereotypes about poor Black women and queeny men in the South—in the vernacular, whores and fags. But this series owns and remakes those stereotypes from the point of view of strippers viewed as very hard workers, athletes, and artists. The series is filmed from the women’s point of view, and from the standpoint of the trashy-glam non-binary Pynk club owner/manager, Uncle Clifford, who is working out a relationship with a deeply closeted trap rap artist, Lil Murda. Most impressively, the neon-noir gothic melodrama begins within the boundaries of those genres but expands to provide a political/economic analysis of the social dynamics in the dying fictional Mississippi Delta town of Chucalissa. The episodes never abandon those generic markers, they just stretch them really, really far into a kind of quality-trash aesthetic. The queer kinship within and around the Pynk exists, as in IMDY, as if the normative family is just a mirage.

There are, no doubt, some weeks and maybe months left for all of us in semi-lockdown. I’m happy knowing there are places for me to live virtually, queerly, thinking and feeling and imagining queer collective life–until I can try it all out with actual people again.

Lisa Duggan

Lisa Duggan is a historian, journalist, activist, and professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. She is the author of The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy and Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed.