Matt Katz: Earlier this year, the television series It's a Sin broke streaming records in Britain. The show follows a group of queer characters in the '80s and early '90s during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in London. Here's a scene from the show featuring actors, Houmi Miura and Olly Alexander.
Houmi Miura: I've had a look and the result seems to be definite. I'm sorry to say you've passed the threshold into a diagnosis of AIDS. Do you know what that means?
Olly Alexander: Yes, I do.
Houmi Miura: Okay. We've got quite a few ways of approaching this and we're getting new information all the time. I think we can start-
Olly Alexander: It’s all right. I live in a house full of experts. It's all we talk about all day long.
Matt Katz: It's a Sin premiered in the US on HBO Max in February and while it hasn't made quite as big of a splash here as it did across the pond, it still managed to kickstart a range of conversations regarding LGBTQ representation in the entertainment industry today. Here with me now to discuss this is Naveen Kumar, a culture critic and journalist whose work has appeared in them, The Daily Beast and The Hollywood Reporter. Naveen, thanks so much for joining us.
Naveen Kumar: Thanks for having me, Matt.
Matt Katz: We're also joined by Suzanna Walters, director of the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University and the author of numerous books, including The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality. Hi, Suzanna.
Suzanna Walters: Hi, how are you?
Matt Katz: Doing great. Thank you. Naveen, let's start with you. What stood out to you about It's a Sin and how it depicted the AIDS crisis.
Naveen Kumar: What's unique about It's a Sin is it has a joyful, vibrant town that we haven't really seen in previous works about this period. When we think about work that was made earlier, closer to the height of the crisis, like The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer or the movie Philadelphia. There was this urgent need to really get the culture to pay attention to the devastation and the loss. Look, these people are dying. This is what we're going through and we need help.
Now some 30 years later, a show like It's a Sin can go back and focus on how young everyone was and how much fun they hope to have in their lives when AIDS really blindsided them like this.
Matt Katz: Suzanna, in terms of that question of queer community, how do you think the show represents the friendships and the community that many gay people have?
Suzanna Walters: Yes, I couldn't agree more. I think one of the things that struck me about this show was the vibrancy of the queer community and the pleasures of queer life. One of the things that was so great about it too is that it showed community because we rarely see that. So much the history of gay representation has been sort of the token gay, the queer gay, and a sea of heterosexual life.
One of the things I loved about watching this was both the depiction of queer community and queer pleasure and queer sexuality and also a real focus on the ways in which straight culture and the states certainly and governments, both demonized the victims of HIV/AIDS and neglected them. You get both in this, which I think is really rare.
Matt Katz: Suzanna, what about the gender divide that you observed with It's a Sin? What were some of your critiques of the show in that regard?
Suzanna Walters: [chuckles] As much as I loved it, I couldn't help but be irritated at the way in which women were depicted. There's really one major female character and she is the prototypical fag hag. She lives for the men, for the boys. She helps them, she aids them, she offers them support and love, and seems to have no needs or desires of her own. She's there as a support to the men.
In addition, of course, what's invisible is the vibrant lesbian support that was really a part of AIDS support communities from the very beginning. Both straight women and lesbians were integral to the kinds of support networks in New York, in London, everywhere, without which sufferers would have been much more alone.
Matt Katz: Naveen, how do you think It's a Sin does when it comes to depicting queer characters of color?
Naveen Kumar: I agree with Suzanna about the Lydia West character. She's really as joyful as it was to see someone be so generous with their attention, it was pretty clear she was kind of a totem. She's an actress of color. Omari Douglas and Nathaniel Curtis are also in the supporting ensemble. It's still led by a white protagonist, Olly Alexander, who we heard in the clip is a sort of pop singer of some fame in the UK.
I think there's some admirable effort to surround him with a more diverse supporting cast. I wouldn't say in terms of looking at if we think about who's really struggling with the crisis now, it's really Black men and trans women of color. I think there could have been-- What I wish to see especially some not too trans experience with this crisis as well, especially since it's still so ongoing in those communities.
Matt Katz: Right, sure. Naveen, I'm curious why It's a Sin is yet to resonate here as much as it has in the UK. Do you have a sense of that, particularly why it's resonated so much in the UK with younger audience, but hasn't really taken hold here yet?
Naveen Kumar: I think Russell T Davies, the creator, has a profile in the UK as a television creator. I think there's attention that's repaid to his work. In Britain, it was a television event. It's on BBC week to week. It really runs at home. It was more of like event television here. Wisely or not, they dropped it as a binge. It was all out at once.
Just with everything there is to see and watch at home right now, I think it can be tough to breakthrough. I think, it being based in London, and the specifics of that and people over there, I can see them latching on to it more easily.
Matt Katz: Sure, that makes sense. Plus, there is a ton of content to wade through. Sometimes it's not the fault of the show itself if it doesn't break through the cloud, so to speak. Naveen, earlier this year, the movie, Supernova, came out. It stars Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, who are both straight in real life and they play a gay couple. Here's Tucci on CBS responding to the question of whether only gay actors should play gay characters.
Stanley Tucci: I have difficulty with that. I think that acting is all about not being yourself. If we were to use that as a template, then we would only ever play ourselves. I think what we need to do, we need to give more gay actors opportunities. People who are gay have only recently, in the last few years, really have been able to say, "I'm gay and I'm an actor, and I can play straight roles." They always had to hide their sexuality so that they could play the leading man or the leading woman.
Matt Katz: Naveen, what do you make of Stanley Tucci's comment there?
Naveen Kumar: I'm big fan of Stanley Tucci. I understand what he's saying, I think a lot of actors have this idea that playing a character means playing someone outside yourself. I agree that it's about furthering Hollywood's acceptance of openly queer actors or making it a more welcome landscape for those actors to come out.
I think the problem is sort of a business one, with straight actors playing these roles. The reason if you look in a movie like Supernova, Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth, they're bankable stars in this indie landscape. Their attachment to the project help gets the movie made. Then, people will go and see it. The idea is we need to make a more welcoming atmosphere for queer actors to develop careers like this and be able to say, "Look, these actors also, you can take them to the bank."
Matt Katz: Right. Suzanna, what are your thoughts on straight actors playing gay roles?
Suzanna Walters: Oh, God. It's a tough one. I hear what Tucci is saying and I don't disagree. I guess I would say, let's wait 20 years from now. We need more equity before we can get to that place. We need to have reached a place where the closet and gay actors not having to hide their identity is a thing, really a thing of the past.
For all of the fantasies that were there, we're not there yet. I loved that film. As wonderful as the two of them are, I do feel like it becomes a win-win for straight actors and a lose-lose for gay actors.
Matt Katz: [chuckles] Interesting.
Suzanna Walters: There's a way in which it is premised on a fantasy, I think, that everyone can be out and no one's going to be hurt by being openly gay, therefore, it's just an acting job and it just is not the case. I think the business question that Naveen raised is part of it but I think the reality of the Hollywood closet continuing is also a part of it.
Matt Katz: What did it used to be like? Let's look back at the past for a moment. How were queer people represented in media a few decades ago, Suzanna?
Suzanna Walters: Oh, God. For most of the history of popular representation, gays were either invisible or sites of abjection, sites of mockery, stereotypes, abjection, they were the killer queers from hell, they were FBI turncoats. They were spies, monsters, et cetera.
The great history of representation is a history of either abjection or invisibility. Then we get to this moment of explosion of visibility that starts really in the 80s, but I guess reaches its signal moment with the coming out of Ellen in '97, which really, I think, signals a shift in popular representation.
Then we begin to get this trickle of representation, which becomes a flood and we get to the moment we are now. I do think we've moved from the token moments that we had with the Ellen moment where that's this dramatic coming out, the single character to more integrated characters. Characters in television in particular, but some in film as well, where their gayness is not invisible, not abject, but also not everything they are and that seems to me, a really critical moment when you have a robust integration of queers into popular culture narratives.
I think that's a key moment. I think the other key moment and this is to get back to It's a Sin, what's so important about that, another key moment is where gays are not the only one, and that they're not only in relation to heterosexual culture. I do think it's a vital, for me, always looking at what's a good representation? It's a good representation, at least in part, when you begin to see queers not only in relation to straight people. That queers have queer friends, they have queer communities, they have queer families that were not only understood in relation to how we do or do not make heterosexuals anxious.
Matt Katz: Moves away from the tokenism. That's interesting. Naveen, what have you noticed in terms of changes in LGBT representation in media recently?
Naveen Kumar: I agree with Suzanna. I think the big development lately has been we're moving away feels like from looking at LGBTQ+ people as a subculture rather than as an integral part of a broader world, so many theories about young people have central queer characters. Look at Euphoria on HBO, which is in tie to win the Emmy for-- and Generation which actually premieres today on HBO as well.
They have as a matter of course, I think they have queer characters in leading roles. I think there's a sense that to reach young audiences, they want to see worlds on screen that are inclusive and explore gender and sexuality in a more expansive, fluid way that really reflects these developing ideas about identity that they bring down everything they watch.
Matt Katz: Naveen, you mentioned a show that's coming out this week, what's that called?
Naveen Kumar: Generation premieres on HBO tonight. It's Lena Dunham produced series, another one of these edgy high school dramas and their essential queer character in that as well.
Matt Katz: Do you see that that might signal some improvement in terms of the representation, queer representation on the screen?
Naveen Kumar: Absolutely. Every one of these series that we get everything from prestige dramas like Euphoria to something like Love Victor, we want to have a broader range of representation so that one single series doesn't have to stand in for the whole "queer experience."
Matt Katz: Naveen Kumar is a culture critic and journalist and Suzanna Walters is the director of the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University. I can't wait to watch some of these shows. Thanks so much, you guys. I really appreciate it.
Suzanna Walters: Thank you.
Naveen Kumar: Thank you, Matt.
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