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9 September 2009, 12:00 pm 5 Comments

Gay Geekery: How Bi is Torchwood Really?

This post was submitted by Jack

actualI generally have a pretty poor gauge of what the average American is aware of in my areas of interest. Even given that, though, I would be shocked if many people had managed to entirely avoid this summer’s buzz about the BBC sci-fi drama, Torchwood, as it launched a five-part mini-series third season both here and in Great Britain.

Still, for the uninitiated, I would describe Torchwood as the slightly more mature offspring of British family favorite, Doctor Who, which debuted all the way back in 1963. It’s sort of a campier, crazier, and, yes, queerer X-Files that follows a team of government agents in Cardiff who investigate alien activity and other paranormal happenings.

A lot has been said both inside and outside of the science fiction and LGBT communities about the show’s queer content especially with the increased focus on the character Ianto’s identity development and family relationships this season. Some have gone so far as to herald it as the “coming out” of sci-fi TV. Series creator, Russel T. Davis, who is himself gay, has stated that he wanted every character to be omnisexual to shake up the audience’s ideas about whom various characters can and should be dating. This obviously has been a particular boon to advocates of bisexual visibility who see a great deal of their potential media representation marred by stereotypes perhaps even more than lesbian and gay people. (Katy Perry, anyone?)

But so much has been said about all this that it’s given me pause. After three seasons, I think it’s time to take a moment to rewind and look closer at this idea that all of the characters are omnisexual. Let’s take it one character at a time…
torchwood9Rhys- There’s never any indication whatsoever that Rhys might be anything but straight. He even asks Gwen about Ianto’s sexuality during “Children of Earth” in a rather indelicate manner that, while not offensive, hardly seems to betray any identification.

torchwoodGwen- Gwen also really never shows signs of queerness. She does spend most of the three seasons in a long-term relationship, but there’s quite a bit of emotional and physical cheating and none of it’s with gals. What we do get with Gwen, though, is a scene in the second episode of the first season in which she is seduced by an orgasm-energy-eating alien in possession of a female human body resulting in a short girl-on-girl scene. The fact that it’s largely against her will, though, makes it significantly less cool and probably negates any bi representation it could have signaled.

owen_torchwoodOwen- There is one scene in which it’s hinted that Owen might have some interest in guys. In the pilot episode, he steals an alien-created lust-inducing perfume from the Hub and uses it on a woman in a bar. When her boyfriend tries to stop them from leaving together and threatens Owen with physical harm, he redeploys the spray on his assailant and the three happily depart for a threesome. It was, admittedly, an eyebrow-raising moment, but there are a couple of problems. First, it’s not clear that Owen’s actions were taken for any reason other than simply to save himself from getting beaten up or, second, just to keep his plan of hooking up with the guy’s girlfriend alive. Also, two guys and a girl having a threesome really doesn’t say anything much about Owen’s sexuality. After all, during the course of it, they may not physically interact at all. Finally, it seems important to point out for a second time in this article that there are some pretty serious consent issues here. It’s really not okay that he would manipulate anyone into sex against their will even in a zany sci-fi scenario. That’s called rape.

180px-ToshMaryKissToshiko- Tosh pursues three love interests during the show. Two of them are guys and one is a woman, which makes her, in my estimation, the first clearly bi character on the list. Sadly her same-sex liaison only lasts one episode, “Greeks bearing Gifts,” in the first season, and it’s not one-hundred percent clear that she feels really good about it or that she isn’t under a kind of alien mind control spell. But despite its brevity, how often do we see queer Asian-British or Asian-American women on English-language television? Right, almost never. Actually, AfterEllen has a great list here, to which I would add the occasional but notable televisual presence of Margaret Cho.

iantoIanto- This is where we get into the heavy hitters. In Torchwood’s first season, before he was really a main character, Ianto is shown to have had a girlfriend named Lisa who was turned into a cyborg automaton leaving him desperately searching for a cure. She, of course, goes on a rampage attempting to kill the entire team and ends up unplugged. But just as Ianto’s mourning process begins, so does the protracted romantic and sexual build up between Ianto and team leader, Captain Jack Harkness, which lasts through the entirety of what’s been broadcast. So with Ianto, we get two relationships, one with a woman and one with a man, with his attitude towards the two being much the same.

torchwood-jack-harknessJack- Jack is truly the character that most embodies the idea omnisexuality. From his very first appearance in the first season of the new Doctor Who, he is shown flirting with girls and guys, androids and aliens. As noted, during the three seasons we’ve seen, Jack develops a serious relationship with Ianto and has some level of sexual tension with most everyone the team comes across. Many of his old flames make guest appearances as well including two human women and a particularly pesky rogue Time Agent, whom many geeks will recognize as James Marsters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s notable too that the actor who portrays him, John Barrowman, is queer, himself, perhaps aiding in his ability to fully draw the audience into his character.

Really for as loud as this has been trumpeted, I have to say that I’m not fully satisfied with the final checklist, and, without spoiling anything for people who haven’t watched yet, I will say that it looks like we’ll be seeing even less queerness in coming seasons. But the less cynical side of me says that not only is this quite a good showing, it may even be the most appropriate for what Davis is trying to do. Bisexuality, after all, connotes a range of experience including the no-holds-barred Jack-type, the occasionally attracted to girls Tosh-type, and even the incidental contact Owen-type, among many others. Authors and activists like Robyn Ochs, Loraine Hutchins and Lani Ka’ahumanu have championed the anthology genre of bi writing for just this reason – no one ‘B’ person represents the totality of the sexuality. With several different characters across two genders and two races, falling all over the sexuality spectrum, perhaps what we have seen is, in fact, the best of all possible shows.

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  • geek4Chan said:

    Love Torchwood and this article — so queer yet so mainstream in the UK now.

  • Liz said:

    Don’t know Torchwood, but loved “Dr. Who” once upon a time. (Way grown away from it, however.)

  • Liz said:

    This is sort of off-topic, and maybe it’s been discussed before. But my family loves “Brothers and Sisters,” and one of my favorites is the gay son whose name — I can’t believe this, but I kmow it’s because we haven’t watched since the season finale — is gone from my mind. He’s married to Scotty(ie). I like that being gay is just one facet of him. His gayness is just matter of fact and viewers accept that. Somehow, I’m guessing this has come up here before! The thriller “Three Kisses,” by Heath Daniels, treats gay characters the same way — matter of factly. Espionage agents don’t have to be macho.

  • Jen said:

    Liz – the thing about Torchwood is that the range of sexuality shown isn’t “the issue” in this show either – in general the response of any character to finding A canoodling B during the series is nothing to do with the genders of A and B. One person does have a shocked reaction and it’s noteworthy because it’s out of keeping from the rest of the programme. The stories are about the aliens they meet, the evolving team dynamic, the peculiar situation Torchwood Cardiff is in, the relationships in every sense of the word between the team, but never along the lines of “Oh my, Jack’s bisexual, eeek!”

    Similarly when 2005 series Dr Who introduced Jack there was a deliberately blase about bisexuality line from the Doctor (thus leading the audience reaction). Russel T Davies has played a careful game with the whole thing and so both shows get prime time BBC1 slots while pushing TV boundaries.

  • Gay Hunks Fucking » The New Gay » How Bi is Torchwood Really? said:

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