Once again, Hollywood fails to represent marginalized identities. Zero points for effort because it’s just not that hard.
Audiences wanting to see more than straight white dudes blowing things up have rallied around Sense8, a show featuring characters who are not straight, white or male blowing things up. The diehard fans are so devoted, they’ve gotten Netflix to resurrect the show for a Christmas finale. But those hopeful fans are wrong. Sense8 is not what they want it to be.
The latest from the Wachowskis, the sisters behind The Matrix, is not a bastion of racial and sexual diversity despite its reputation. While the show takes a small step forward for representation by featuring LGBT characters and a few nonwhite characters, its portrayal of those characters falls short.
The show drew acclaim and fans for its high number of LGBT identities. Two, to be precise (the bar is low). One of the main characters is a trans woman, Nomi, played by trans actress Jamie Clayton. That’s noteworthy in light of Hollywood’s long history of casting cis actors in trans roles. Her character is informed by the Wachowski sisters’ own experiences as trans women and as such, Nomi is given the most complex story of the show’s sexual and racial minority characters. She feels the most authentic. The rest don’t.
The other main LGBT character is Lito, a closeted movie star living in Mexico. The Wachowskis use Lito as a conduit to explore the fear and ramifications of coming out. However, the show fails spectacularly to build a sympathetic case for his suffering as a closeted celebrity. He trades his female friend to her abusive ex for the ex’s silence on Lito’s sexuality. After an offensive amount of time, Lito rescues her eventually but only to appease his own boyfriend, Hernando.
Lito is celebrated as her savior, not her horrible friend who left her to get beaten up because he refused to come out. He becomes grand marshall of the São Paulo pride parade while she still has marks on her face. Chronicling the issues with coming out is a valid storyline and concern for LGBT people. But it’s hard to sympathize with a rich and buff gay man whose desire for a closet is so strong, he’s willing to enable domestic abuse to ensure his secrecy.
A common issue in Hollywood is that nobody knows how to write gay characters. Lito and his boyfriend suffer the same problem as Netflix’s Grace and Frankie. The writers don’t know how to write a gay couple, so they write a straight couple who constantly talks about being gay. As if gay people don’t have lives and interests that don’t just center around same-sex marriage.
The Korean woman, Sun, faces a similar problem. She’s every Asian stereotype mashed into a kickboxing woman with few emotions but many daddy issues. When she goes to jail she barely flinches, because Asians have no feelings, only discipline. Like Hollywood’s inability to write complex gay characters, all southeast Asians are boiled down to martial arts, noodles, and robotic facial expressions.
Sun also fits the stereotype of an Asian daughter who wants nothing more than to please and honor the family patriarch. She yearns for her father’s appreciation, bestowed only on her brother, whom she spends equal amounts of time hating. A super nuanced depiction of a nonwhite female character that certainly isn’t sexist and man-centric.
That stereotype also afflicts the Indian woman, Kala. She waffles between her husband and a white man from Germany. Like many ultra-virtuous fictional non-white women, Kala is a virgin and committed to her family. And ultimately she chooses the German man. Because the dream is always to end up with a white person.
Instead of one main character, the show revolves around eight from wildly different backgrounds. Ultimately, however, the show is led by two straight white men: Whispers, the villain, and Will, the hero. Will is a straight white cop from Chicago and the de facto leader of the sensates. He confronts the villain, he declares war, he gets the girl (a straight white woman).
The Wachowskis don’t know how to keep the Jesus/Neo savior type out of their work, even when it conflicts with the fundamental premise of the show.