Sense8, Queering the Family, and the Collective (Queering SF #13)
I realized quickly when I knew I should
That the world was made up of this brotherhood of man
For whatever that means
(“What’s Up,” Four Non Blondes)
On December 9, 2019, my Queering SF held its final meeting. For the final class, we read one short chapter of Alexis Lothian’s book, Old Futures, and watched the first four episodes of the Netflix series, Sense8.
Sense8 was a bit of a phenomenon when it began airing in 2015. It garnered attention because it was created by the creators of The Matrix trilogy. It was created by two trans women. One of the principle leads was a trans woman. And it featured lots of beautiful people having sex. The series was cancelled after two seasons, putatively because of the enormous production costs. Filming an all-star cast in eight locations around the world does not come cheap.
Sense8 offered enormous potential. Like so many other things with so much riding on it, it just did not live up to the hype.
Oh, it was queer. It featured queer directors and writers, queer actors, and queer characters. Furthermore, it featured (some) queer storylines, from Pride week in San Fran, to a confrontation with TERFs, to unaccepting parents and enforced surgeries. It also queered the notion of family, with a variety of blood and chosen families. Sometimes blood family works, sometimes it does not. Sometimes chosen family works, sometimes it does not.
But, the queerness of the sensate family does not hold up. Most of the sensates have bio-fam issues. Wolfgang had a criminal father who derided him; Nomi has a mother who rejects her identity and name; Kala has a fiancé and father-in-law who are corrupt; Bak Sun has a father who rejects her over his son. Capheus has a mother dying of AIDS; Will has a tough-as-nails cop father who rejects his willingness to save a gangbanger, while Riley is estranged from her father in Iceland. Perhaps their familial issues have made them candidates to become sensates. As their new family becomes activated and integrated, they discover that these new family members do not lie to them; they discover that they have their back; they discover that they support them; they discover that they love them (physically, emotionally). So, yes, Sense8 — as queer communities have long done — queers the nature and function of a family. It does not, however, translate much into personal identity or sexual identity.
The group sex scenes suggest a kind of familiarity, a kind of intimacy not possible elsewhere. They also show eight people engaged in sex with one another. While the show does not feature any non-binary characters, it does feature fluidity in sexual practice. But that fluidity does not appear to be foundational, does not appear to transfer outside the sensate group. In other words, loving others of both sexes, and making love to others of both sexes, has not fundamentally altered their sexual identity. And that, I would suggest, would queer identity, sexuality, and family.
Sense8 also had an issue with race. Yes, it purported to be a racially diverse cast. It features a storyline set in Nairobi, though played by a British actor (Aml Ameen). But Capheus is the only one of the eight sensates who lives in squalor. The Capheus storyline adheres to the common Western stereotypes about Africans. Yes, Sense8 features an Indian woman (Tina Desai), a practicing Hindu. However, the Kala storyline also adheres to a stereotypical notion of Indian women: passive, demure, sexually reserved, devout. It also features “loving” men in her life who are, ultimately, corrupt. The series features a South Korean woman (Doona Bae), who is quite accomplished. However, the Bak Sun storyline also plays on stereotypes of the patriarch who will not accept his daughter, even though she outshines her brother in every way. But her dying mother makes her to promise to take care of her brother. Yes, it features a Mexican man (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) who is a famous actor. However, the Lito story features a closeted gay man within hypermasculine Mexican society. Furthermore, in a country that is predominantly mestizo, Lito is played by a light-skinned Spaniard.
The remaining four sensates are white Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton), Riley Gunnarsdóttir (Tuppence Middleton), Wolfgang Bogdanow (Max Riemel), and Will Gorski (Brian T. Smith). According to Wikipedia, in 2018, only 11.5% of the world’s population was white. If sensates are chosen randomly, it would seem mathematically unlikely that fully half the family would be white. Was that choice racial bias? What that choice marketing? Was that choice budgetary (in terms of travel and filming and actors)? Regardless, of the rationale, the optics are not good.
I think it is also arguable that the white characters are also stereotypes. In some sense, all eight of the sensates are comic characters. Will’s white cop with a big heart, and Nomi’s misunderstood hacker, and Wolfie’s transcendence of his abusive father are stereotypes, too. But I would respond with two points. For one, since white characters really do see much more complicated representations, when they are reduced to a stereotype, it causes less harm. And on the flip side of that, characters of color rarely escape such stereotyped representations. And that perpetuates the myth that that is all there is to them. I am quite certain that some Korean women have lived an experience similar to Bak Sun. But that is all we see; we do not get to see the wide range of possible lived experiences for a Korean woman.
In re-watching the series, one of the central questions for me was, what do the sensates represent? What were the Wachowski’s trying to get at in their creation? What cultural need or gap do the sensates fill? In her short essay, Lothian suggests that they address a yearning for spaces of public sex that the queer community had lost. I would suggest that the sensates also address the notion of the individual versus the collective. At each moment in our history, we have wrestled with this idea. Here in the US, we have vacillated between rugged individualism and collective action. The 1960s saw a turn toward a collective consciousness, while the 1980s saw us turn back toward individualism.
I think we are on the crux of another change in our attitudes about the community, about collectivity. We are seeing, especially among younger citizens, the damage done to our society and our planet by individualism. They recognize that we need to come together to address these issues, to address these injustices. They recognize that we are greater together than the sum of our parts.
I wish that Sense8 had done a better job of representing that ideal, but I do think it pointed us in that direction.
Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of Feminist Epistemology and Feminist Science Fiction and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls.