Media inspiration: The hope I found in Dear White People and sense8
Warning: the following contains spoilers for the first season of both Dear White People and sense8.
After the foregone conclusion that was the critical and commercial failure of Hollywood’s whitewashed Ghost in the Shell adaptation, it should come as no surprise that identity and representation are as heavy in the public consciousness as they’ve always been. Having just watched the premiere of Feminist Frequency’s new series, “The FREQ Show”, which makes explicit this egregious history, the importance of representation must have been weighing even more in my mind as I sat down to watch Netflix’s new original series Dear White People. Originally planning to watch just a couple episodes to get a feel for the show, I ended up totally enraptured by its intelligent, deceptively timely writing wrapped up in a clever narrative frame and a diverse cast of well-rounded characters. While there are novels that can (and have) been written about the issues that Dear White People presents expertly, what I wanted to write about today is on a more personal level. Unexpectedly, I felt an intense emotional connection with the character of Lionel, and with the premiere of sense8’s second season upon us, I am reminded of the similar representative and inspirational role that the character of Nomi has played for me.
Lionel, played by Tyler James Williams, is a sophomore in college, a introverted black man in a majority white college that likes to play Super Smash Bros. and write for a student paper. Lionel likes guys, and while hesitant to label himself, eventually comes to embrace being a gay man, thanks in part to newspaper head and self-described “gay vers top otter” Silvio’s informal mentorship. The “gay nerd” is not an archetype that is new to fiction or well-made TV; I similarly identified with the tragically-cancelled Looking character Patrick, who cosplayed as Gordon Freeman for Halloween and worked as a level designer for a game company in San Francisco. However, Lionel’s introduction and development arc are stunningly developed and given the appropriate time to play out to characterize him as much more than just the gay nerd. Over the course of ten episodes, Lionel moves from being above labels, to coming out to his roommate as gay (subversively producing a rather passe reaction), navigating the perils of Grindr, and finding happiness dancing alone to “Saturday Night Sunday Morning” in a bar. It was this last scene that made me connect with Lionel on more intimate level that I expected even after being introduced to him earlier in the season. In so many respects, Lionel’s complex experiences, desires, and motivations align with my own on more than a superficial level. As a white person, I could never truly empathize with the varied experiences of being a gay black man in America, nor Lionel’s in specific. But it is an achievement to establish an introverted, nerdy gay character whose aloof nature and intelligence are not made to feel artificial by also enjoying a fun night out, dancing on his own in a crowded public space. When Lionel hit the dance floor smiling, I saw myself.
Like Dear White People, one of sense8’s strongest features is its diverse cast. But for both shows, these casts are elevated to a truly special level by inspired character arcs and plots. Like Lionel, when I first watched sense8’s debut season in 2015 I had no idea what importance the character of Nomi, played by Jamie Clayton, would hold for me. To adequately sum up sense8’s plot would be a task unto itself, but in broad strokes, Nomi is one of eight in a connected group of people who rely on each other despite physical distance, and she is the most technical of the group. When the show calls for some computer wizardry to give the so-called sensates a leg up, Nomi, as a former red hat hacker, is the first responder. Her womanhood and femininity are no obstacle to her astounding technical skills, a fact that is obvious to everyone in her group as well as her girlfriend Amanita. The fact that she is a trans woman who loves women has no bearing on her capacity to fulfill this role despite being traditionally presented as a masculine one, but the realities of being trans are not ignored by the Wachowski sisters. Throughout the show, Nomi is shown actively struggling with the transmisogyny forced on her by her family and those who would do harm to her peers, often quite explicitly and terrifyingly. Even so, Nomi fights against all odds to protect the power of her femininity, her womanhood, and the legitimacy of her personhood. Nomi is a character who actively rejects the society-prescribed ideals of masculinity and cisnormativity, and she is all the stronger for it, both as a person and as a badass hacker.
Lionel and Nomi are characters that I not only identify with, but look up to. As someone who grew up wanting to be a writer, I admire Lionel’s dedication to journalism, and I aspire to his bravery in being an activist in a way only he can be. Meanwhile, Nomi’s embrace of her femininity despite her traditionally masculine career and background serve as an example for myself as a queer person who struggles with the everpresent misogyny in facets of mainstream society, especially in the world of geeks and IT. If Lionel can be a successful introverted gay guy who likes to blow off steam with some Nintendo but is just as happy moving solo on a dance floor, and if Nomi can be an indispensable computer nerd in the face of violent societal transmisogyny, maybe I can work toward embodying even just a bit of these characters’ bravery and exceptional talent myself.