quarridors: (The Red Badge Of Gayness)
[personal profile] quarridors
This article contains spoilers for Torchwood: Children of Earth, especially days 4 and 5. If you haven't watched these yet or aren't already aware of the widely discussed spoiler, don't read on...

Also please note that I personally identify as queer and use the term to mean any sexual or gender identity outside of cisgender, vanilla heterosexuality. If you find this term offensive, please substitute the word with 'LGBT' as you read.


The recent Torchwood miniseries, Children of Earth had a climatic ending involving the death of Ianto Jones and the departure of Captain Jack Harkness from the planet. Before this point, Ianto and Jack were in a relationship that had developed through series 2 and the Radio 4 Torchwood afternoon plays.

With the death of one member of a prominent same sex relationship, some fans and observers have accused the storyline, and by extension the writers, of being homophobic.

Personally, I don't believe that openly gay lead writer Russell T Davies is homophobic, even subconciously. However, given the history of popular culture representations of LGBT characters and relationships in mainstream TV drama, I can see how Children of Earth could look homophobic or at least heterosexist or heteronormative, especially when viewed on its own without the context of the previous Torchwood series.

Heteronormatism

Heterosexuality is the default in fiction, so if someone is queer, they're queer for a plot reason. It could be argued that this leads to the tendency to need to write out the queer character when the plotline that made them queer ends.

Does Torchwood suffer from this?

  • No, Jack is a long term, leading character who happens to be queer – Jack actually comes from a time without heteronormativity and set this as the primary attitute within the Torchwood Hub in series one and two
  • No, Ianto/Jack is an on going plot thread that doesn't serve any purpose but character development (in series 2)
  • No, in series 1 and 2 having same sex attraction or romance is shown as normal and not something for characters to angst about (more on series 3 later)
  • Yes, our viewpoint character is Gwen, who is heterosexual and in a long term monogamous relationship. RTD has even gone as far as to describe Gwen as 'the heart and emotion' and 'the humanity' in Torchwood
  • Yes, Rhys, Gwen's partner is bought back when killed in series one and both Gwen and Rhys survive CoE

From Straight to Gay (with Nothing In Between)

As an extension of Heteronormatism, most long term characters start off straight by default and are given a gay storyline later on. This means queer stories on TV are almost always about previously assumed straight or straight by behaviour characters discovering they have feelings for a same sex character and then struggling to accept themself as queer. This almost always means that our viewpoint character's doubt and internalised homophobia are played out, as is the often quite justified doubt of other characters, often without the counter argument that a more self-confident character would supply.

We also get some biphobia here – it's almost unheard of for a character who previously had heterosexual partners on screen to ever use the word 'bisexual'. They'll either say they're only attracted to this one person or they'll identify completely as gay. Cf. Buffy:TVS's Willow who after having a long term crush on Xander, a loving relationship with Oz and a clearly bisexual parallel universe counterpart, but when asked about the part relationship with Oz after meeting Tara says: 'Gay now'.

Does Torchwood suffer from this?

  • No, Jack couldn't be more comfortable about being 'gender blind' in terms of relationships
  • Yes, Ianto in Children of Earth is repeatedly seen as being uncomfortable about being seen as gay
  • Yes, Ianto says it's just Jack and no one else, doesn't say bisexual
  • Yes, Ianto doesn't complain about or respond in kind to casual homophobic jokes by relatives

Nothing at the end of the Street / The Only Gay In The Village

This is especially a problem in soap operas (the British gritty kind) where everything happens in a bubble – nothing goes on outside the street or the square, everyone interacts only with other characters in the soap and only does so in locations that exist in the soap world. If a queer character arrives in Albert Square or Coronation Street, they can't just head of to the vibrant London or Manchester gay scenes, they're stuck in The Queen Vic or The Rover's Return. So the only logical thing to do with a newly arrived LGB character is to 'turn' one of the pre-existing straight by default characters queer – preferably in the most dramatic way possible (ie, 'turning' a married character or a character who's just got their girlfriend pregnant).

Does Torchwood suffer from this?

Now, part of Torchwood's core plot concept is that being part of Torchwood puts you apart from the rest of the world, so the team inherently becomes incestuous and stuck in a bubble. This happens to Gwen with Owen before it happens to Ianto. However:

  • Yes, Jack, who is previously seen as wanting to seduce everyone he meets is now seen only having a relationship with Ianto – only Gwen has a stable relationship outside the team
  • Yes, Ianto's relationship after Lisa dies is with Jack, another team member (who killed Lisa, but that's a different story)
  • Mixed, part of the concept of Children of Earth is what happens when the protective bubble of the Hub is stripped away leaving the time exposed, as such Ianto starts to experience homophobic attitudes from the outside world when in the previous series it was never seen as a negative thing, rather viewed as completely normal – this isn't necessarily a bad thing but if you view Children of Earth alone, there's almost no positive side to the relationship for Ianto, Jack doesn't even say 'I love you'

Too Queer To Live / Fridging The Queer / The Tragic Queer

Once writers are finished with a queer storyline, usually about an established character struggling to accept their sexuality, the writers often don't wish to continue to maintain the same sex relationship that no longer has a 'plot justification'. The logical progression is to move on to character angst from death (killing a lover to motivate a character into revenge is known as 'fridging'). If the couple had a child, a nasty custody battle with the dead partner's homophobic family will often follow (See Carrie Weaver in ER). The number of same sex relationships in TV drama that end in death is extremely significant, to the point when one has to wonder if writers are aware that same sex relationships can break up for the same mundane everyday reasons as heterosexual couplings...

Historically when 1950's and 1960's films started to deal with The Homosexual Question, they would sympathetically show how the poor queer couldn't help having their terrible affliction, allow them to be a positive character and get to express their point of view and see some hope on the horizon, but then kill them off because society wasn't ready for them yet. The 1990s documentary film The Celluloid Closet devotes a third of the film to this subject and includes a montage of dozens of examples, the most memorable of these is the effeminate character Plato in Rebel Without A Cause who idolises James Dean's character and has parents who 'don't understand', but ultimately dies to motivate the other characters and their parents into reconciliation. Interestingly, this was still happening with transgender characters in the late 1990's, see the death of cross dresser Angel in RENT and the trans character (also played by Wilson Cruz) in Ally McBeal.

Does Torchwood suffer from this?

  • Yes, if you view Children of Earth on its own, Ianto's story certainly looks like The Tragic Queer.
  • Yes, Ianto's death does look suspiciously like it's in the storyline entirely to cause Jack angst for plot reasons.

The Magical Queer / The Depraved Homosexual / Gay Panic

Before The Tragic Queer began to appear, recognisably LGBT characters on film were often mystically wise asexual characters who don't get to be fully developed characters, but only exist to be wise and give the other characters advice. Otherwise they were the depraved villain who wants to corrupt our innocent heroes.

Interestingly, even gay literature can fall into these classic tropes with transgender characters (see Mrs Madrigal, a Magical Queer in Tales of the City).

Does Torchwood suffer from this?

  • No, Jack and Ianto are three dimensional, well developed characters.
  • Yes, In Greeks Baring Gifts, Mary arrives to corrupt poor innocent Tosh into betraying the team through the temptation of lesbian sex – looks like a classic Gay Panic story, has no plot reason other than to make Tosh look less perfect and we never see this side of Tosh again – arguably this is the closest to being 'homophobic' that Torchwood ever gets!

Hurt/Comfort – The Masochist Hero

Hurt/Comfort is a common trope of slash fiction that sees one part of a same sex couple experience some horrible event so that the other half of the couple can comfort them. It's a short cut to getting stoic male characters to open up their emotional side and let down their guard to human contact.

This is arguably homophobic as it tends to be used to get otherwise straight masculine characters to behave in feminine ways (or possibly just wildly out of character). It's certainly heteronormative as it assumes that men can't express feelings and show love for each other without suffering great loss or pain first.

Some fic authors and some characters tend to attract more angst than others. Some particular characters move past the comfort part and just seem to experience endless hurt and angst that they can then stoically suffer through, possibly forgiving everyone involved afterwards. Avon from Blake's 7 is a classic example of a character who tends to be endlessly tortured in slash, and even in Paul Darrow's own book and script!

Does Torchwood suffer from this?

  • Yes, hurt/comfort is arguably the first step in the Ianto/Jack relationship
  • Yes, Jack dies for the sins of the Torchwood team at the end of series 1, arises from the dead after three days then forgives them because they knew not what they did.
  • Yes, Jack is ludicrously tortured by the Gray (and so the Torchwood writers) with more and more pain and angst heaped upon the character to the point where series 2 should really end with Jack being irreculably damaged and completely insane (but instead ends with forgiving everyone involved again)
  • Yes, Ianto's death seems to happen simply to give Jack an angst ridden reason to lose hope and give up (and to give the character no reason to stay around at the end of the story)
Is this homophobic? No necessarily, but it's not treating the characters with respect, more like objects of emotional pornography! In fact, one of my friends described the last two episodes of Children of Earth as 'the writers jizzing in the face of the viewers'.

The Bottom Line

Overall, I don't think Torchwood Children of Earth was homophobic, as it's written by an openly gay man and its lead actor is an openly gay man. I don't buy arguments that the story is evidence of RTD's self hatred. The previous series were refreshing in their general attitude that being queer is a normal every day part of human existence.

Unfortunately, and especially when viewed on its own, Children of Earth looks a lot like the same hereonormative, homophobic, biphobic and gratuitous tropes that appear in so many bad representations of queer people in popular culture.

In a cultural context where there are so few positive representations of queer life around, and where almost all of those eventually end in separation, character death or angst, do queer writers have an obligation to take this into account when writing characters out of a series, for whatever reason?

And if a character hasn't yet come to terms with their sexuality and experiences homophobic or heterosexist attitudes from the world around them, do writers have a responsibility to give the opposing view from a happier and more self accepting queer character?

If you enjoyed this article, I've also been involved in a podcast panel discussing the same topic, now available on the Radio Free Skaro blog.

Date: 2009-07-15 06:14 pm (UTC)
nanaya: Sarah Haskins as Rosie The Riveter, from Mother Jones (Default)
From: [personal profile] nanaya
Ooh, very good post, extremely thoughtful and intelligent. Thank you.

the only logical thing to do with a newly arrived LGB character is to 'turn' one of the pre-existing straight by default characters queer – preferably in the most dramatic way possible (ie, 'turning' a married character or a character who's just got their girlfriend pregnant)

You know, for all that, I loved the Eastenders Tony/Simon storyline, and I think it initially did a really good job of dealing with the complexity of newly-discovered queerness, especially when your only other model (?) is a reasonably centred gay man who knows what he is. Plus, for a while, Tony was pretty much the only bisexual character on British telly, and an interesting one at that. The queerphobia he experienced from Theresa's brothers when they were dating was actually quite painful to watch. Shame the writers really really buggered him up (conceptually, not literally!) and then wrote him out.

Date: 2009-07-16 03:24 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] laurapetri.livejournal.com
Excellent post.Good points well laid out and argued from all sides

Date: 2009-07-16 03:56 am (UTC)
hoyland: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hoyland
This is the first reasoned discussion I've seen on this topic. (I came from a link from Radio Free Skaro, if you were wondering.)

I'm kind of puzzled by this bit though:
Yes, Ianto's death does look suspiciously like it's in the storyline entirely to cause Jack angst for plot reasons.
From my perspective, if Torchwood is to have any thematic depth whatsoever (which, admittedly, is not something that it's always been overly concerned with), Jack's relationships have to end tragically. (Perhaps that's the point though--that the show's same sex relationship all but had to end in Ianto's death sooner or later.) For that reason, I see Ianto's death as different than, say, Tara's on Buffy. Tara dies to get the end of season six off going, but her death (as far as I recall) doesn't fit into the overall thematic framework.

I do wonder about the fact that Children of Earth ends with Gwen and Rhys happily expecting a baby and Jack left trying to figure out how to carry on. My understanding of Torchwood dictates the latter occur, but it's an odd contrast.

Did any of this make sense?

Date: 2009-07-19 04:12 am (UTC)
hoyland: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hoyland
For me the key point is that Jack is forced to always carry on, which I see as different to the question of sacrificing Steven. If you see the series hinging on that question, then I think your scenarios work.* I think Ianto's death serves to reinforce that Jack has to keep going because it is without consolation--he doesn't die in a blaze of glory and he doesn't die having lived to a ripe old age. This line of thought does rather disempower Ianto, doesn't it?

I do wonder if I missed the entire point of Children of Earth, with the missed point being the question of what one is willing to do to save the world. In that case, Jack sacrificing Steven is more important than having to live with it. But I don't think the government spends too much time grappling with that question (they may have and I've forgotten). Obviously, they're driving the plot along, but I think thematically they're showing how easy it is to talk people round to the unthinkable and also to set up a contrast with Rhiannon and Johnny. (I spent some time wondering if the point of the whole series was 'civil courage' but never worked it out.)

*Though I almost feel that if Ianto were to leave Jack over the sacrifice of Steven, it would mean Jack is not forced to take the responsibility for examining that action himself.

homophobia in TW

Date: 2009-07-17 05:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] richerichnc.livejournal.com
Enjoyed the Radio Free Skaro podcast. I'd never heard the term "heteronormative" before, but had seen the concept addressed in issues of "heterosexual privledge" or "heterosexual assumption".

Dispite not being completely happy with the ending of Children of Earth, I didn't see it as being homophobic at all. (although the similarity points you bring up do make sense)

I saw Children of Earth to be very much about Ianto's coming to terms with his relationship and possibly orientational issues. And it appeared to me that the show was purposefully pushing not only an "it's okay to be gay" standpoint, but also an "it's okay to be okay with someone else being gay"...

The point that illustrates this the most is when Ianto goes to visit his sister, who confronts him with the allegation that he might be gay. Ianto protests over discussing it in front of his young niece. To this, she replies that it isn't something that needs to be hidden, and that the niece has a friend with lesbian co-parents. When the brother-in-law comes in, I took it as general teasing, and not as really any sign of dislike. The point being, even "common" people could be okay with gay people.

Truth be told, I thought Ianto was gay from the start. The whole Lisa thing came out of left field for me.

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