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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Death By Torchwood, And The Rise Of The Queer Superhero

Few deaths have been more shocking to gay television viewers than that of Ianto Jones in this summer’s Torchwood: Children Of Earth. His death during the fourth night of the BBC miniseries created a huge backlash, none of which surprised me more than claims that Ianto’s demise was an expression of the show’s homophobia.

Created by Russel T Davies, an openly gay writer famous for the complex and empowering Queer As Folk (UK), and starring John Barrowman, who might just be the most boisterously “out” star in the industry, Torchwood has been a bastion of queer pride since its debut in 2006. It evokes a world where homophobia is so non-existent that labels “gay,” “straight,” and “bi” have become irrelevant.

So how does the death of one of TV’s few prominent queer characters involved in a same-sex relationship fit into the show’s socially progressive vision? To my mind, Ianto’s death, rather than being homophobic, serves as a marker on the continuing road to true gay empowerment – a road that has frequently been two steps forward and one step back.

Gay and lesbian characters on screen have gone through a long and difficult journey from invisibility and vilification to understanding and acceptance. This journey is by no means over: queer people all over the world are still fighting for the most basic forms of cultural recognition. But while queer visibility in the media is on the rise in the Europe and North America, the nature of this visibility – and its effects on queer viewers – are not always positive.

For years, the best queer viewers could hope for was subtext. Mainstream movies and TV shows were ripe with it, and for lack of anything better, many of us embraced this subtext with open arms, happy to see even the slightest indication in pop culture that we do, in fact, exist. As the gay rights movement carved out a wider and wider field of visibility, the pop culture grudgingly followed. Over the last few decades, subtext in sitcoms and dramas has, to a large extent, been replaced by expressly queer storylines and characters.

If we agree that pop culture plays an important part in shaping the boundaries of acceptability in the minds of viewers, then this is no small victory. But for years, the overwhelming majority of gay characters in the mainstream media (in other words, films and TV shows not made specifically for the queer audiences) were relegated to the status of a sexless best friend – or worse, a tragically misunderstood Frankenstein monster doomed to be sacrificed on the altar of straight viewers' pity.

This portrayal of victimization might be a necessary step towards the acceptance of any minority group. Pity is as good a way as any to get people on your side; and to be fair, queer people were – and in too many cases, still are – victimized or marginalized in real life. The tragic nature of being queer in a heteronormative world is a reality the mainstream culture has had to face in order to consider the injustice and dangerous consequences of its casual homophobia. Hate crimes still take place in many parts of the Western world (to say nothing of developing countries), but we are unlikely to catch the mainstream Western media openly condoning anti-queer violence.

But while portrayals of queer victimhood have helped straight audiences get over their fear and, to some degree, hatred of gays and lesbians, they do little to empower queer viewers. Tragic demise after tragic demise might have earned us the sympathy of the “straight” society. But what have these portrayals done for queer viewers, other than fuel their (often justified) anger or teach them that pity is all they can hope for? As anyone who’s ever worked with victims of abuse knows, a mind frame of victimhood can become quite addictive and paralyzing, preventing them from reaching true empowerment.

It’s this empowerment the LGBT community desperately needs now – and it’s still sorely lacking in the mainstream culture that seems stuck on patronizing pity. A film like Brokeback Mountain might have pushed the queer rights movement forward 20 years ago; but is it still relevant – and more importantly, does it help its queer and straight audiences move forward – today? In a world where more and more Western countries (and a few countries of the developing world) are moving to recognize the fundamental rights of their queer citizens, we can argue that yet another pop culture event that equates queerness with victimhood can only drag us down.

Simple visibility is no longer enough. We know where we’ve been; now, it’s time to figure out where we’re going.

Xena: Warrior Princess is a perfect – and often frustrating – illustration of the stop-and-go process of queer empowerment in popular culture. The show’s lesbian theme started out buried in subtext, but by the 3rd season, the two lead characters were professing their love for each other and even enjoying an occasional same-sex lip lock.

Still, the show remained as vague on the subject as possible: the closest it came to openly discussing the lead characters’ lesbian relationship was when a secondary character confessed she wanted to be a “thespian” just like Xena and Gabrielle.

Nonetheless, Xena may have been the most empowering queer character of the ‘90s: this fierce warrior chopping up battalions of thugs with a joyful smirk was anything but a victim. And yet, when the show ended, it was not with a battle cry, but with a whimper. Even this undefeated killing machine had to pay for her sexuality with her life, and in the end, she died for love.

Her death might have been somewhat more heroic than the death of, say, Alan in Torch Song Trilogy or Brandon/Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, but to this queer viewer, it was hardly less frustrating or disempowering. If a warrior princess forged in the heat of battle can’t manage to live as a happy dyke, what chance do we mere mortals have?

Like Xena, Torchwood’s “Captain Jack Harkness” (whose real name remains a mystery) is a complex character often haunted by his past misdeeds. And like Xena, he is a gay basher’s worst nightmare: a queer weapon-wielding, ass-kicking superhero gleefully chewing his way through awesome fight scenes.

But Torchwood is a 21st century show (and a British one at that), so it sheds the last vestiges of subtext that had dragged down Xena: Warrior Princess. Where Xena’s sexuality was never discussed, Captain Jack’s sexuality is brought up deliberately, then casually dismissed as irrelevant to who he is and what he does.

His sexuality makes him no less kick-ass, no less respected by his peers and no less feared by his enemies. In all fairness, he goes through his own painful coming out process – though it has to deal not with his sexuality, but with his inability to stay dead. His apparent immortality is often a source of angst and self-hatred; his queerness never is.

No less empowering than his superhero antics is the fact that Captain Jack comes from a future where divisions based on sexuality no longer exist, and even the labels themselves have lost all meaning. Many critics have pointed out that this fact alone makes the show more groundbreaking than anything to come before it.

But while Jack’s blasé attitude towards sexuality certainly rubs off on his present-day cohorts, the present in which they operate is still ripe with divisions. This conflict is most obvious in Torchwood: Children Of Earth, culminating in what I see as a showdown between a future where sexuality is a non-issue and a past where it’s equated with weakness, victimhood, shame and death.

While Jack, who’s been around for centuries, has had countless boyfriends and girlfriends (and probably a few alien squid-friends as well), the show has, so far, concentrated on his relationship with his male employee Ianto Jones. The duo spent the first two seasons cocooned in the safety of the Hub, their super-secret sci fi lair, where the tone of joyful omnisexuality set by Jack was happily followed by the other team members. (By the middle of the first season, every team member got to make out with a member of the same sex.)

The third season miniseries Children Of Earth begins with the destruction of this safe haven, which sends our heroes tumbling through a present-day world that might not be quite ready for this casual acceptance.

When we encounter him in the mundane world outside the Hub, Ianto shows himself to be as much a product of our culture as any of us. The scene in CoE where the audience is first introduced to his sister and her family is essentially the first time homophobia has ever come up on the show – and ironically, its source is Ianto himself.

Apparently, Ianto has kept his relationship with Jack secret from his working-class family. To be fair, his sister and brother-in-law are nowhere near as refined as Ianto as they drop offhand remarks such as “Have you gone bender?” – but these remarks seem more insensitive than mean, and the couple is very protective of Ianto.

Faced with his sister’s gentle questioning about his private life, Ianto looks like a deer caught in the headlights and doesn’t quite notice that she seems genuinely happy for him.

Ianto protests that he doesn’t want to talk about his relationship in front of his young niece – as if the news of him dating a man is something lewd and disgusting. But his sister quickly assures him that it’s not a problem, and that her daughter’s best friend has two mommies. Sexuality is obviously not an issue to Ianto’s family; still, Ianto looks like he could die of shame.

Eventually, he admits that he is, in fact, in a relationship with a man, but is quick to assure his sister that this doesn’t make him bisexual. “It’s not men,” he tells his sister, “it’s just him.”

His claims of innocence sound a bit strange, considering that Ianto has often been the one pursuing Jack. Captain Jack might be an interminable flirt, but he rarely takes things further than that, preferring to wait for others to make the first move. He often takes the back seat, giving others room to figure out their sexuality for themselves. Most notably, he doesn’t act on his attraction to a World War II-era soldier in the show’s ultimate same-sex romance episode Captain Jack Harkness. Instead, he waits for the object of his desire to find the courage to act on his attraction to Jack. This willingness to respectfully step aside is also central to Jack’s relationship with his fellow Torchwood officer Gwen Cooper: while both have deep feelings for each other, Jack quickly recedes from every opportunity to act on them – not because he puts much stock in Gwen’s relationship with her boyfriend, but because she does.

With Ianto, too, Jack rarely plays the seducer. Time after time, in episodes including To The Last Man, They Keep Killing Suzie, and in the 3rd hour of Children Of Earth, Ianto is the one coming on to Jack. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Ianto has had other same-sex experiences (though in the safety of the Hub, he hardly acts like a newbie) – but he’s definitely not the shrinking violet helpless in the face of another’s sexual onslaught that he plays with his sister.

And yet, away from his teammates, Ianto still clings to the need to label his sexuality as “not queer.” In his defensive reaction to his sister, Ianto is making the same mistake too many pop culture powers-that-be still make when it comes to portrayals of queerness. He has failed to notice the strides the mainstream society has made in its attitude towards queer sexualities, expecting people to be much less accepting of him than they actually are.

Just as TV networks and film studios, especially in the U.S. often shortchange their audiences by assuming that they are too stupid or too conservative for a sophisticated discussion of sexuality, Ianto shortchanges his sister and her family by thinking that they somehow can’t handle his relationship with Jack.

In this way, while Jack represents a possible future, Ianto is a character rooted firmly in a past we are eager to shake off: a representation of self-hatred borne of real victimization, unable to move past it towards empowerment. He is reacting to a reality that doesn’t quite exist anymore.

Later in the miniseries, this changing reality is represented by the character of Clem McDonald. Clem is, literally, a throwback to the past, a remnant of events that took place in the 1960s and have triggered the present disaster. When he calls Ianto a queer, Ianto answers forcefully, “It’s not 1965 anymore.” Where his sister’s acceptance had scared and confused him, Clem’s putdown evokes a more familiar expression of contempt that seems to energize Ianto.

Before Ianto dies, he tells Jack he loves him. Back in the surreal world of alien threats, he can once again drop all pretense, stop worrying about being gay or straight, and simply be. The scene reminded me of many disempowering death scenes that invite straight audiences to commiserate with the queer character at the expense of queer viewers’ own self-esteem – but while many Torchwood fans have reacted to it with the anger that those previous disempowering death scenes elicit, I found myself reacting in quite the opposite way.

Showrunner Russel T Davies is no stranger to queer empowerment. His groundbreaking Queer As Folk, unlike its American remake, ends with a jubilant celebration of queer strength that makes me whoop with joy every time I watch it: the vision of the show’s two heroes, guns drawn, reclaiming their pride from a gay-bashing redneck, is sublime.

And while I certainly recognize that mine is only one of many interpretations offered by critics and fans in the wake of Torchwood: Children Of Earth, to me, the death of Ianto Jones is more at home with the empowerment of Queer As Folk (UK) than with the victimization of countless queer death scenes it evokes.

When it comes to Ianto’s attitude towards his sexuality, he’s reactive rather than pro-active; defensive rather than assertive; self-doubting rather than proud; queer only when no one possibly disapproving is present. Ianto’s attitude makes him literally a thing of the past – and the past swallows him up along with Clem and his perfunctory homophobia. In a moment full of poignant irony, Ianto and Clem are killed by the ghosts of the ‘60s.

For the vast majority of us, the fight for queer equality is far from over. Victimization of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual people still exists in various degrees in most countries of the world. But surely, we have won enough ground in enough places that we no longer have to be content with our cultural role as victims.

Armed with an ever growing list of victories, the queer rights movement is gathering steam. What we need now is not pity, but our own superheroes: cultural proof that we don’t just exist – we kick ass.

Television is a good gauge of cultural attitudes. The fact that Torchwood, with its unapologetically queer superhero, is so popular with mainstream audiences, is a good indication of how far we’ve come. The show has been largely embraced – same-sex smooching and all – by the notoriously macho-centric sci fi community, and Captain Jack action figures have taken their rightful place among other pop culture symbols. Queer kids growing up today have a cultural icon to claim as their own in a way none of us ever did before. And as they grow to adulthood, they will shape the world accordingly.

In this context, Ianto’s death seems logical, even welcome: to me, it symbolizes the shedding of our old skin, putting to rest all those doomed gay heroes of the past and starting with a clean slate. The beauty of Torchwood is that Captain Jack, who so dashingly embodies queer empowerment, can never die: he will go on, because he is the future.


Anonymous said...

Sadly, it seems you have analysed Ianto's death to death. Your subtext implies to the casual reader that, because he was a more realistic exemplar of current queer humanity, that he needed to die so that the imperative of indominatable queerdom could thrive. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and I certainly believe yours is as valid as 'personal takes' can be. I just hope that those who see Ianto's death as a loss in more than an analogous sense will not feel that their interpretation is in any way diminished by your thesis.

Anonymous said...

I have to say, this gave me a completely difference outlook on Day 4, which I'll admit I've been struggling with since it aired. I suppose it could have been bubbling under the surface all along. And I don't think you are saying that he needed to die (the past dying etc), rather that it is unavoidable that old attitudes and phobias will die. And thank goodness for that.

Lorraine M. said...

A thoughtful, well written and well-considered look at queerdom through the lens of pop culture, Polina. You certainly offer an interpretation of Ianto's death I had not considered.

Still... I liked Ianto Jones--self-doubting warts and all--an awful lot and loved the Jack-Ianto romance (popularly known throughout the YouTube universe as "Janto"). I will miss Gareth David-Lloyd's sweetly stoic (and slyly witty) characterization terribly, and I still maintain that, only two seasons into this excellent series, the decision to eliminate Ianto Jones was not only unnecessary but a colossal and possibly fatal mistake. Russell Davies offered the argument that it was Ianto's death that made it possible for Jack to sacrifice his grandchild to save the world's children in CoE. Nonsense. After all the lives Jack Harkness has lived and all the things he's done in his long, strange, storied past--including things he is not proud of--he could and would have offered up the child upon realizing there was no other choice.

Jack would have hated himself forever for doing so, of course, and fled as at the end of episode five of CoE, but his immortal loneliness and his love for Ianto (and Gwen, but especially Ianto) would have brought him back to Torchwood--had RTD not been so monumentally short-sighted as to kill Ianto off.

"I came back for you," he said simply, in a previous episode. It would have been the perfect lead-in (or episode denouement) for Torchwood Season 4. Would have been. Alas.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that his self-hatred included not only his sexuality, but also his upbringing. We find later to Rhiannon's dismay, that the team didn't really know Ianto. They all thought that his father was a master tailor and life growing up was all good. However, we find later that it was a lie. Good old dad worked in the the UK's version of K-mart. Ianto also makes an implies that there wasabuse in a scene where he asks his sister to meet him at the place where Ianto's dad broke Ianto's leg.

Adding this to his earlier subterfuges, we finally realize that we never knew Ianto. We really never knew anything about this guy until after he died.

Perhaps this is what is most saddening and disappointing after all... we never really knew him. It disappoints the characters, but it also disappoints the viewers who wanted to give the gay romance a chance.

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