Sense8: Queer Representation in Media
Lesbian and Transgender Women in Sense8
Sense8 discusses many topics that are considered taboo in the media. Most notably, LGBTQA women and their relationships. It is well known and documented that “Throughout the history of cinema and television, lesbian and bisexual characters have been practically non-existent. Whenever a love story between two women was portrayed, it always ended in tragedy, depression, madness, or perversion.” (quote from Francisco and Moliner, 2012) Sense8, in contrast, has a relationship between two women that never wavers, despite the drama of the show. Not only that, but one of the women is transgender.
There is a slightly less documented trope in media of transgender characters either only being in stories specifically about their gender identity or as sexual objects in the stories of cisgender people. This is directly attacked in the character of Nomi (the trans woman). Her gender is far from being the focus of this action/thriller show and is only mentioned when building her character and relationships. She is also sexualized, as are all eight of the main characters, but it is directly proportional to the cisgender heterosexual (cishet) characters.
Representation of Gay Men
Gay men are also poorly represented in most media, though it is to a significantly lesser extent than women or transgender people. Most gay male characters in media are intensely oversexualized, having no real emotions or goals outside of sex. If this is not the case, then it is likely that the trope in the show is that of the “gay best friend” where the man’s purpose is to support and accentuate the lead female and he is not given any characterization or development of his own. These are two more examples of tropes that Sense8 works against.
Not only is Lito (a gay man) one of the main characters, but he is given an incredible amount of depth and emotion. His relationship is incredibly emotional, and despite his character being an archetype of traditional masculinity he is shown to be an extremely sensitive man. When Lito is outed online, his partner, who is an art history professor in a college, is asked by one of his students if a sexually explicit photo of Lito and his partner should be considered art.
He replies “The eyes of the beholder find not just beauty where they want but also shallowness and prejudice. [A beholder without prejudice] might see two men in an act of pleasure; erotic but also vulnerable. Both connected to the moment and to each other. To love... And art is love made public.” This idea that love is not primarily erotic, but rather beautiful and vulnerable is one that the media generally only applies to heterosexual sex, not homosexual romance.
Sense8’s depiction of a gay relationship is uniquely beautiful. The focus of their relationship is on their love and how they support each other, not their sexual activities. The biggest misconception that the media perpetuates is that there is a difference between gay and straight love other than the gender of those in the relationship. As the saying goes, love is love; and Sense8 does an incredible job of showing this.
Race and Sexuality
Race is also discussed as one of the primary themes in Sense8. Four of the eight main characters are people of color, and each is developed to contradict a specific stereotype and/or media trope. Kala, an Indian woman, is in a marriage that is based on the power and prestige of her husband. Though she admires him and knows their marriage will help her family, she does not love him. Through this lens, the show discusses a woman’s ownership of her body. Kala never has sex with him, despite his insistence that it is his right as her husband. During a heart-wrenching confrontation she exclaims, “We may be married, but my body is mine. It is not a field of land to be purchased and plowed.”
Another of the main characters, Capheus, is a Kenyan man. He is used within the show to discuss the stereotypes of Black men being emotionless, violent, and overly sexual. He is introduced in a scene caring for his sick mother, telling her that today is going to be a good day. When he is forced to fight a group of men in order to get medication for his mother, he doesn’t fight, instead he runs and asks for help from another of the main characters. She does save him, and he is grateful; not at all slighted by being saved by a woman. He is also one of the only two characters in the show to not have a sex scene until the second season, the other being Sun Bak.
Sun is a South Korean daughter of a very prestigious businessman and is the chief financial officer and vice president of his company. She is often diminished because of her gender, being told that she is only good for sexual pleasure and assisting men in the business, but she keeps her father’s business afloat with her sacrifices nonetheless.
She is the character everyone else in the show turns to in physical confrontations, which starkly contrasts the media trope of Asian women being weak and passive. She is also never sexualized outside of her rare sex scenes, despite the audience often seeing her nearly completely naked numerous times. This is used to desexualize the bodies of Asian women, who are most often objects of sexual desire and fetish in the media.
Problems in Sense8 and Possible Concerns
I would be remiss to claim that Sun only contradicts stereotypes, she also falls into the trope of the Asian character being a martial artist. Though this is utilized to combat the stereotype of weak femininity, it is a serious failing of the show, in my opinion, to not include more Asian representation to offset this. Sun does deal with the conflict of being emotional and needing to appear strong to survive which helps to undercut the stereotyping, but it doesn’t overshadow it or make it acceptable. Despite this issue, Sun is a wonderful representation of strong femininity.
Clearly, Sense8 does have some problems, and messages that could raise concern in many different audiences. Many viewers have said that Sense8 glorifies drug use, both when characters use recreational drugs and when untested pharmaceutical drugs are used throughout the show. Characters are also seen struggling with addiction, however, which works to offset the scenes where drugs are portrayed in a positive light.
Sense8 is also not without flaws in its portrayal of sex. No characters are seen using protection, nor do they ever discuss the possible negative outcomes of sex. Still, Sense8 addresses a multitude of generalizations and tropes in media, especially those relating to LGBTQA and racial minorities.
One article, Sexual Orientation on Television says, “Of the LGBTQ characters portrayed on broadcast television, 69% were White, 19% Black, 7% Latino, and 6% Asian. On cable and streaming platforms, the percentage of white characters representing the community were slightly higher between 71% and 72%” Sense8 contrasts starkly with these statistics. 40% of the LGBTQA characters are Latino, 40% are Black, and only 20% are White.
Sense8 is one of the few shows that makes sure their representations of sex promote healthy ideas of sexuality in their viewers, both by challenging stereotypes and by presenting examples of what healthy sexuality might look like. When I recommend this show I do so with full knowledge of its faults and failings, but also with a deep awareness of its many successful themes and the work it does.