I submitted my thesis on Friday 29th May and I’m slowly trying to figure out what it is to live in a world where I am not constantly guilty about not writing my thesis. It’s been a strange and emotional week. I have been looking for jobs and sleeping and playing Dragon Age II. And mostly not watching as many shows as I’d like because so many of them are over and the only currently airing ones I’m watching are Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (great) and Game of Thrones (problematic). I was badly in need of some new fodder and despairing of finding any. Sense8 came out of nowhere and… and it’s fantastic, to be honest.
Sense8 is the new Netflix Original released on 5th June. Having originally been blown away by Netflix Original output, I’ve since been pretty disappointed. The difference between Hemlock Grove seasons one and two was astounding. House of Cards was so patriarchal I’ve given up in frustration. And as for Daredevil, there’s so much sexist disappointment I wouldn’t even know where to begin. So I’ve come to look at Netflix Orignals rather warily. And then I saw a post on Tumblr giving trigger warnings for it (but saying it was great), and my interest was piqued. Tumblr has a not unjustified reputation for liberal criticism, and when the Tumblrites I follow say something is painful but good, I pay attention. Particularly when they say it’s painful but good in its depiction of trans folk, and the programme in question was also created by a trans woman.
So, with nothing to lose and not yet ready to go to bed at midnight last night, I decided to give it a go. At 4am, I forcibly tore myself away.
What is Sense8, then?
Sense8 is a twelve episode show about a bunch of people who discover that they are telepathically and empathically connected – they are ‘sensates’. They find themselves feeling what each other are feeling, seeing what each other are seeing, and being able to act on each other’s behalf. Find yourself in a fight? Wouldn’t it be hella convenient for your body to be taken over by a Korean martial arts expert? It would certainly help!
The eight sensates we follow were ‘created’ when a woman being pursued by an Evil Scientist shoots herself in the head. They each witness her death and then start seeing images of her as they go about their daily business, and then they start seeing and feeling what each other are seeing and feeling.
These people are refreshingly diverse: a Korean business woman who participates in underground fighting in her spare time, a white cop in Chicago, a lesbian trans woman former hacktavist, a gay Latino film actor, a coach driver in Nairobi trying to get together the money for his mum’s AIDs medication, an Icelandic DJ in London, a Hindu woman in Mumbai who is about to marry a man she doesn’t love, and a German safe cracker. Different backgrounds, different levels of wealth, different sexualities, and a blessedly even number of women and men.
How is it?
It’s good. I mean, it’s stay-up-to-4am good. And maybe it’s the emotional week I’ve had, but I was weeping from complex feelings at the end of the last episode I watched, and for me that’s always a good sign. The characters all have complex plot arcs and relationships, the episodes are well paced and gripping, and it’s shot in a visually engaging manner.
That said, the trigger warnings on the Tumblr post mentioned above are well given. The trans woman’s plot, in particular, is painful and may cut awfully close to the bone for some viewers. Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) is a woman in a healthy, loving relationship with a cis woman named Amanita (Freema Agyeman (!<3)), but her family are not so awesome. When she faints in the middle of a Pride march she wakes up in a hospital with her family, who misgender her, prevent her partner from seeing her, tell her she needs brain surgery, and sign papers that (somehow) mean she is unable to leave the hospital – her door is locked.
As a non-binary person I don’t feel equipped to speak with authority as to whether this is well handled, but it seemed so to me. It’s certainly wonderful to see a trans character who was both created by a trans woman (Lana Wachowski) and played by a trans actor. I have no sense that the character herself is portrayed with anything but sympathy. Nevertheless, of the few trans characters that exist in TV and film, they are so often shown only through their pain – its a trope familiar across LGBT protrayals in film, what has been described as ‘dead gays for the straight gaze’ or ‘queers die for the straight eye‘ (although I hasten to add that we are not talking about literal death in this case, although identity death certainly looms as a possibility). I know some of my trans friends have lamented the fact that there are so few portrayals of trans people that are not difficult and painful to watch.
Whilst we’re here, I’d just like to add that it’s a pleasure to see the awesome
Martha Jones Freema Agyeman on screen again, and whilst her American accent is somewhat wobbly, her portrayal of Amanita as Nomi’s compassionate, vibrant, sex positive partner is wonderful. Her presence on screen is a balm in difficult scenes.
I’m a little less comfortable about some of the scenes given to Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) who winds up in an awkward three-way relationship with his boyfriend and Daniela Velasquez (Eréndira Ibarra) the actress who discovers Lito’s secret relationship and imposes herself as an unasked for live-in ‘beard‘. Miguel Ángel Silvestre and Alfonso Herrera are accomplished and subtle actors who play the motions of a couple living in a difficult, closeted situation well, but the comic relief offered by Daniela sits uneasily with their more serious portrayal. Overall, it just doesn’t work for me.
I also wonder about racial and national stereotyping. Sun Bak (Bae Doona) is engaging and convincing as the secretly badass Korean woman who can fuck you up but bows meekly to sexist treatment in the day. I recall all too well the questions raised by my Asian friends about the protrayal of Mako Mori in Pacific Rim. Ami Angelwings was particularly articulate on the issue of white women saying how wonderful Mako was whilst East Asian women had issues with the portrayal that were overlooked. There’s a culture of white feminists drowning out voices whenever there’s a meek feminine woman who is also shows strength, on the basis that there are so few of such characters, despite the fact that there are (to my eyes) more portrayals of this than any other type of female character. And I find it worrying that Mako Mori springs immediately to mind when I see Sun Bak. I wonder how much the charactisation of the extreme sexism against which Sun Bak must work reflects racist assumptions about South Korea. The truth is, as a white British woman, I simply don’t know, but if I’m noting a pattern in how East Asian women are being represented in American shows, there is a chance we are being presented with a type, and not a character.
Similarly, the poverty stricken black people beset by crime and AIDs in Capheus’s (Al Ameen) plotline raise flags. As does the fact that the Indian woman is facing the prospect of a marriage supported by her family and friends that she does not really want. Do people like this exist? Perhaps – I’m wary of making any judgements as to the truth of that as a British white woman – but I think it’s worth asking whether there weren’t other characters and plotlines we could have had for a woman in India or a man in Nairobi, ones that didn’t fit so very neatly into Euro-American stereotypes of what life is like in those places.
From a less significant aspect, we also see stereotyping of white characters based off their nationality. There’s an Australian girl (not a main character) who is very blunt spoken, and everytime she makes a faux pas either she or her boyfriend says it’s because she’s Australian. I’ve known a lot of Australians in my time, but none who acted like that. They… were as varied as other people? And then there’s the Icelandic DJ. She’s has whiffs of Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and her general nightclub/alternative music aesthetic makes me think of Björk. Part of me wonders if a musical alternative girl is the only kind of woman they could imagine coming from Iceland.
I also have questions about the use of the suicide of Angelica Turing (Daryl Hannah) as the inciting incident. Especially as it is at the urging of one man in order to escape another and to ‘give birth’ to the sensates. Whilst this is not a classic case of ‘fridging‘ a woman in order to advance a man’s plot – as she advances the plots of several woman, too – it is using the death of a woman as a plot device, it is to fulfil the designs of a man, it is also to escape man-on-woman violence, it substantiates a sense of men as patriarchal figures, and the ‘giving birth’ metaphor gives it an unnecessary veneer of reporductive violence as well.
All of which is not to undermine the fact that these are still engaging and rounded characters or that I find myself incredibly moved by their stories. Rather, it is to acknowledge that these stories are not perfect. In comparison to everything else I am watching right now the show is still infinitely more diverse, it does provide a range of female characters such that I don’t feel any of them particularly stands as representing what it is to be a woman, it also provides a racially diverse cast (including the beautiful Naveen Andrews as Jonas <3), as well as an array of LGBT characters. One could wish for some disability diversity too, but overall, it’s a refreshing improvement.
And as for the science fiction… well, it’s more fantasy than science fiction, but that’s OK. The light-touch on scientific explanations offered so far is better than the Heroes route of talking absolute rubbish about evolution in order to justify the plot. I would like to see more consideration given to the dodginess of just taking over someone else’s body, but it’s early days, yet. Bodily autonomy is definitely a theme. I feel for these people. I engage with these people. I see both male and female characters I don’t often get to see on screen, and that means something to me. And they have superpowers. And those superpowers are both making them awesome and giving them emotional problems. Which is right up my alley, basically.
If you’re in need of some quality drama and starved of shows that don’t give centre stage to straight white cis men, Sense8 is a really wonderful choice, and I commend it to you.