Politically incorrect: queer lifestyle drama
During the latter half of the 1990s, Channel 4 as a fully fledged commercial company selling its own advertising sought to capitalize on its ‘alternative’ image in a branding exercise designed to attract youthful and affluent audiences to its platform of channels. These now included E4 and the subscription film channel FilmFour. Caughie’s (2000: 192-7) assessment is that Channel 4 in the 1980s provided a space for serious, oppositional drama that the prevailing conditions of market-led commissioning couldn’t deliver. In his view My Beautiful Laundrette would struggle to get commissioned today. As well as the fact that it didn’t have an established star name as writer or performer, ‘it is too untidy in its shape, too uncertain in its narrative focus, too many themes are pursued and too few conclusions reached. . . Its ambivalent, complex politics. . . dissolves the boundaries between the good guys and the bad guys’ (ibid.: 198-9). Yet this description is very like the multinarrative forms of postmodern serial drama developed in the US commercial system that are designed to appeal to upmarket audiences. In the UK these ‘quality’ serials have been the site for ‘progressive’ constructions of gay and lesbian sexuality in a market-oriented context for drama. When it comes to sexual diversity commercial channels are now at the forefront of cultural innovation as they develop their distinctive ‘brands’.
Queer as Folk originated as an eight-part serial followed by a two-part sequel (Channel 4 1999 and 2000). Its portrayal of a range of ‘queer’ identities and a no-holds – barred attitude to the embodied performance of gay sexuality was perfect not only as a late night draw on its main channel, where it achieved four million viewers, but also for repeats on the newly launched E4. Its status as a ‘quality’ product was further enhanced by showings at international film festivals around the world. A longer version remade for the US market (Showtime 2000-) is based on the original but written by a team of American writers. In both these forms it has acquired ‘cult’ status, as the extensive merchandising, via the web, of mementoes of the series confirms. The significance of Queer as Folk as a landmark in the representation of gay sexuality in television drama arises from its relation to the preceding twenty years of debates on the representation of gay and lesbian sexuality. The emphasis on simply wanting a presence or on ‘positive’ characters to counteract negative stereotyping was joined by a desire for characters who weren’t ‘bland, saintly, desexualised mainstream figures who might as well be heterosexual’ (Doty and Gove 1997: 87). The impact of queer politics was a reaction to ‘politically correct’ images in favour of openly sexual portrayals that dared to transgress heteronormative standards of decorum and acknowledged the range of ‘queer’ sexual practices that fell outside the assimilated gay or lesbian couple. It was a challenge that posed serious problems for an institution in which the passionate kiss still defined the limits of homoeroticism.
Queer as Folk had been preceded by This Life, a 32-episode, post-watershed serial about a group of young lawyers, produced by Tony Garnett’s independent company World Productions for BBC2 (1996 and 1997). This had aspired to be a ‘drama of
recognition’ for twenty-something professionals (Garnett 2001). A tolerant attitude to gay sexuality is foregrounded from the start, when Warren is appointed to a job at a law firm despite having ‘come out’ during the interview. It was also marked by a more general permissiveness in the language used and in the explicit, non-judgemental portrayal of recreational drug use. In the characterization of Warren and a bisexual character, Ferdy, This Life suggests that casual and promiscuous sex is the norm for gay men. The final episode, for example, shows two men having anal sex in the toilets while attending a wedding party. But the inclusion of one or two gay characters in a drama where the majority of characters are heterosexual cannot stand in for the whole gay and lesbian community. It is in this respect that Queer as Folk is different. All the main characters are gay.
Queer as Folk was undoubtedly shocking to many people but the effect was to generate huge amounts of publicity for the serial without any long-term negative repercussions for the channel, despite all the complaints. The admonishments from the regulators and Channel 4’s response are interesting for the way that they mobilize competing discourses of sexual regulation to justify their positions. The BSC picked out three isolated ‘acts’ that it considered ‘obscene’. The most serious objection was to the explicit and graphic gay sexual encounter involving a 15-year-old boy in episode one. The ITC was more concerned with the overall context within which these scenes were consumed; that is, they were shown without sufficient warning, without responsible educative follow-up on subjects such as safe sex, young people and sexuality. The ITC was also concerned about the celebratory tone of the first episode; it lacked a critical perspective on the acts depicted within the narrative. Channel 4’s response was to declare itself extremely proud of the series, and to argue that illegal under-age gay sex was as legitimate a topic for drama as any other illegal activity, such as murder or theft. Moreover, it defended its mission as a channel ‘to put alternative viewpoints on screen’ (Gibson 1999b).
Not surprisingly, even within the gay and lesbian ‘community’ views about the series differed, views based on differences in political strategy between the lesbian and gay movements and queer activism. From the perspective of the liberal politics of gay liberation, working for the political rights of inclusion as equal citizens, the decision to show sex between a promiscuous and charismatic 29-year-old and a 15-year-old virgin in the first ten minutes of the first episode was politically foolhardy. Stuart’s seduction of the schoolboy, Nathan, is filmed with them lying at the very front of the scene, allowing us to see every detail of the encounter, including ejaculation, a (literally) ‘in your face’ defiance of television’s standards of sexual decorum. This was especially provocative at a time when the British Parliament was debating the equalizing of the age of consent to 16 and when homophobic prejudice that gay men are driven by an uncontrollable desire to seduce young boys legitimized the unequal age of consent.
Yet the assumption that Queer as Folk promotes promiscuous and irresponsible gay sex as a desirable lifestyle depends on a reading of the drama that neglects the serial’s
Figure 5 Stuart (Aidan Gillen) cruises Canal Street in Queer as Folk (CH4, 1999)
complexity and ambivalence. Sally Munt (2000) and Peter Billingham (2000) both show how the drama explores the contradictions and repression that structured gay identity in the late 1990s in ways that evade a neat ideological reading based on notions of positive and negative images. It presents a gay lifestyle rarely seen on television before, in which everything else is incidental to ‘going out and looking for a shag’, thereby deliberately replacing the mainstream stereotype of the ‘gay man as a lone, desexualised helpmate whose function is to service heterosexual plots’ (Munt 2000: 532). The focus is on three gay men placed in relation to their families and friends as well as in relation to each other. Stuart’s confrontational, sexually excessive and risk-taking queer identity is contrasted with Vince’s ethical, placatory, love-sick persona, a contrast that leads Stuart to accuse Vince of being ‘a straight man who happens to fuck men’. But the multiple narrative strands resonate with each other in unpredictable ways as the drama unfolds, undermining any fixed position from which to evaluate their behaviour. It even dares a shift in modality in the final episode, where the naturalistic, if glossy, style transforms into an ironized utopian fantasy parodying the cult film Thelma and Louise (Scott 1991), where love conquers all as Stuart and Vince drive off into the sunset.
The desire to transform the imposed shame of homosexuality into gay pride is shown to be not just a matter of political conflict but also a process full of psychological complexity. Sally Munt reads Queer as Folk as an exploration of the ambivalence, the displacements and the exclusions that are produced by reversing the shame/pride dichotomy in the fight against homophobia. The rhetoric of pride in the lesbian and gay movement is premised on leaving the ‘closet’, a secretive prison of shame. In Queer as Folk this is shown to depend on a process in which shame is displaced to produce other forms of exclusion based on ‘race’, class and gender.
The portrayal of Manchester’s club scene in the commodified gay quarter of Canal Street makes homosexuality into a desirable ‘have-it-all lifestyle’ where the ethos of ‘find ’em, fuck ’em, forget ’em’ seems untainted by any post-AIDS restraint or ethical judgements on sexual excess and hedonism. Yet Munt points out the extent to which Stuart is motivated by shame. This is most obvious in his ‘coming out’ speech to his parents, in which all the insults he has ever endured are listed and reclaimed as positive signifiers of his identity. In a more dispersed way throughout the text, she argues, the pain experienced by living in a homophobic society is repudiated through projection, in violent fantasies of revenge on the perpetrators. These scenes lie outside the boundaries of the newly desirable, gentrified spaces of an attractive and aspirational gay scene. They blow up the car of a suburban mother to avenge one of Stuart’s gay friends for her rejection of him. Nathan’s new-found confidence from his liaison with Stuart enables him to answer back to the homophobic black teacher at his school. Stuart and Vince force the ‘white trash’ figure, who calls them faggot, to apologize in the fantasy ending. ‘Homophobia is now located in non-white and working class cultures who are thus perceived as enemies’ (Munt 2000: 538).
In Munt’s view the text consciously acknowledges these displacements. Nathan, the 15-year-old embroiled in fighting homophobia in his school, laments his oppression, to which his friend Donna retorts, ‘I’m black and I’m a girl. Try that for a week.’ Vince’s lack of gay chic in his naff obsession with Dr Who videos, his petty bourgeois aspirations to be manager of a supermarket and his impoverished but selfless family is a counterpoint to Stuart’s effortless and selfish affluence. While Stuart is the focus for the scopophilic gaze, it is Vince’s unrequited love for him that is the conduit for the viewer’s desire. Stuart’s splitting of love and desire, from this point of view, can be seen not as an identity to be envied but as psychological damage that needs to be healed. The deleterious effects of shame must be acknowledged, in order to be transcended. Sally Munt (2000: 541) argues that Queer as Folk is part of that process. Fictional narratives are one way in which we can inhabit the split-off characters of our inner life: ‘Narratives can move us to restitution through the passage of time that reading, and grief, requires.’ Queer as Folk’s focus on the promiscuous gay scene ‘did dangerously break boundaries, but in unpredictable ways which contained ambivalent consequences for the reformulation of gay identity after shame’ (ibid.: 541).
Television has lagged behind the developments in sexual storytelling in other cultural fields as a result of its preoccupation with avoiding offence to its majority audience. Gay and lesbian narratives in television drama remain relatively scarce and are still very constrained by the requirements for ‘respectability’ in the popular forms of prime time. Nevertheless, on the margins, we have seen how dramas addressed to a minority, for whom the taboos on homosexuality are no longer as potent, have begun to emerge. Changing cultural tastes attuned to a postmodern aesthetic have also affected the forms in which these stories are told. No longer constrained by linear narratives that tell the ‘truth’ of sexual identity and the realist quest for authenticity, postmodern drama is able to explore the shifting identifications and ambivalent experiences that constitute a field of sexual possibilities. These are for an audience used to playful and ironic modes of ‘queer’ reading in which pleasurable fantasy and excess have an accepted role.
The complaint that this constitutes a retreat from political and ethical engagement with the ‘real world’, in which gays and lesbians outside the confines of a privileged urban elite continue to suffer from discrimination and homophobic prejudice, is only partially true and, in some respects, is misplaced. The ‘real world’ of consumer culture has changed the cultural context in which even the most closeted of homosexuals lead their lives. I would argue that equality of cultural provision for sexual minorities should acknowledge what drama does best: being a space for psychological complexity and pleasurable fantasy that goes beyond the demand for citizenship rights in an ‘oppositional public sphere’. These fictional forms do interact with social and political change but we shouldn’t fall into the trap of assuming they must always therefore be ‘politically correct’.