The Problem With Sense8
Or How Sense8’s Faux-Progressive Worldbuilding Falls Apart
It’s renewal season, and we’ve been hit with bad news after bad news. First, the Black woman-led sports drama “Pitch” was axed by FOX after only one season. Soon after, NBC cancelled its time-travelling action show “Timeless”, which is led by a white woman and Black man, but major backlash led them to reconsider their decision. Then, Netflix and Sony decided not to give the revolutionary Afro-Latinx led hip-hop musical “The Get Down” a second season after months of promises to find a new showrunner. Next, WGN was bought by a conservative company, which quickly proceeded to cancel Misha Green’s critically acclaimed Black period drama “Underground” after its second season.
Now, Netflix has cancelled the Wachowski sisters’ “Sense8” and, since its cancellation on June 1st, critics and fans alike have proceeded to group it with the shows mentioned before as an example of networks cancelling inclusive shows, as critic Mo Ryan did in her article for Variety. But putting “Sense8” next to shows created and/or led by people of color feels, at best, like a poor comparison and, at worst, a purposeful attempt to cover up the issues in it by grouping it with truly progressive shows.
Don’t get me wrong, “Sense8” deserves recognition for being a popular/mainstream show created and led by trans women. It’s undeniable at this point that the Wachowski sisters are without a doubt the most famous trans creators in pop culture, and they’ve been shaping science-fiction for decades. When it comes to trans representation, 2016 indie mini-series “Her Story” and the 2015 cartoon “Danger and Eggs” are the only other examples of shows created by trans women that we could find. As for trans women in leading roles, Laverne Cox was cast as a main character in the CBS legal drama “Doubt”, which was axed after only two episodes. There are some recurring trans women in shows like “Claws”, “Orange Is The New Black” and “Star”; but Jamie Clayton’s role as one of the co-leads of “Sense8” is unarguably revolutionary.
It’s undoubtedly a sad day when such vital representation for trans women is taken away, but a question arises: Does the representation of white trans women excuse all the other issues with the show? And, more important: Does the Wachowski sisters’ position as recognized trans filmmakers give them a pass for their racism?
Who are the Wachowski sisters?
Lana and Lilly Wachowski began their career as directors in 1996, with the lesbian action thriller “Bound”, but came to fame in 1999 with the iconic science-fiction movie “The Matrix”. In 2006 they released another staple of modern science-fiction, the political thriller “V for Vendetta”. They have a handful of other movies, including the delightfully terrible “Jupiter Ascending”, but let’s go back to “The Matrix”.
The movie that jumpstarted the Wachowski’s career has been surrounded by controversy ever since it was released. A Black American science-fiction writer, Sophia Stewart, sued the 20th Century Fox and the Wachowski sisters for plagiarism of her book “The Third Eye”. The case had strong grounds, primarily due to the fact that the 20th Century Fox effectively had access to Stewart’s work before the Wachowskis came up with “The Matrix”; it was eventually dismissed, in 2005, due to Stewart’s failure to show up in court. It’s left to the consumers to decide whether they want to believe that the Wachowskis made their fame off the work of a Black woman or not, but this wouldn’t be the first nor the last time that a creator of color was robbed of their due recognition by the Hollywood machinery.
The plagiarism controversy isn’t the only stain in the Wachowskis’ filmography, though. In 2012, the Wachowski sisters released the science-fiction drama “Cloud Atlas”. The movie came under fire after it was revealed that the leading white actors would be in yellowface (wearing prosthetic eyelids to appear “Asian”) in the movie. To these critiques, Lilly Wachowski replied that their goal was “to talk about things that are beyond race,” as if their (white) ideal of a post-racial utopia excused the very tangible act of racism that is putting white people in yellowface. As Racebending put it in their critique of the film, “it seems that the racial conversation is all about performing the same racist actions but justifying them with new words (…) like post-racial, or color-blind.”
The yellowface in “Cloud Atlas” should be more than enough to dismiss the Wachowskis as racist, of course, but they haven’t been content with letting their work speak for itself. In 2015, Lana Wachowski was invited to speak on the Trans100 event on March the 29th. She used her platform to talk about how, as a white woman with pink dreadlocks, she was exotified by people of color in her travels around the world. She disrespected Indigenous peoples by referring to LGBTQ folk as “a tribe that is part of every tribe”, compared trans struggles to the Civil Rights Movement and then proceeded to blame Black people for homotransphobia by stating that African American communities are what’s stopping gender neutral bathroom legislations. (Source.)
Lana, who still rocks those appropriative pink dreadlocks, never apologized for any of the faults in her speech. Only two months later, on the 5th of June of that same year, Netflix released the first season of “Sense8”.
What is the problem with Sense8?
There is no easy, cohesive way to deconstruct and analyse all the issues in “Sense8”, but they can be boiled down to one major problem: racism. The show is racist, and the racism is ingrained in every element and storyline. Whitewashing, White Savior narratives, demonization and desexualization of people of color… There is so much wrong with the show that explaining it all seems nearly impossible.
The show’s issues begin when the demographics of its main cast don’t align at all with its basic premise. If eight people are randomly selected from around the globe, it doesn’t make sense that five of them are white and only three are people of color. Depending on the source, the estimated percentage of white people all over the globe is between 10% and 25%. Black people are between 15% and 20%, and most studies coincide that Han Chinese people alone make up 19% of the world’s population. If “Sense8” wanted to be true to the racial realities of the Earth, only one person out of the eight leads should have been white.
Like “Cloud Atlas”, “Sense8” fails at imagining a world where white western people aren’t the default. The white people are the ones with the most screentime and the ones that move the plot forward and, of course, the majority.
Similarly, the Wachowski’s idea of global communication is a setting where everyone speaks in accented English, rather than just expressing themselves in their respective languages and letting subtitles do the rest. We’re supposed to understand that the sensates’ psychic connection makes them able to understand everything that they think and say, and the characters are actually speaking in their own languages, but the message is muddled in the utter laziness of it.
The fact that white people still are a majority in a cast that purposes to represent the diversity of the world is troubling, but moreso is the kind of stories that are given to the characters of color. All the white characters have complex, multifaceted stories; while the characters of color get half of the screen-time and are based on the most blatant stereotypes about their respective races.
Nomi is a master hacker who lives with her girlfriend and deals with her transphobic family. Will is a cop who struggles with an awful childhood trauma and a complicated relationship with his alcoholic father. Riley is a famous DJ who’s been estranged from her father ever since her fiancee and her newborn child died in an accident. Wolfgang is a diamonds thief who was raised by an abusive father and is caught with his best friend in the middle of a gang war.
All these stories are interesting, complex and even glamorous. On the other hand, the characters of color get cartoonish stories that seem like a collage of movie clichés, especially during the first season.
Kala is a pharmacist working for a major company in Mumbai. She’s a devout Hindu who struggles with the idea of sex and feels trapped in her engagement to an Indian man. Her story, which gets little screen-time, is mainly centered around her love triangle with Rajan and Wolfgang, spontaneous Bollywood-like dance numbers included.
Capheus drives a bus in a gang-ruled neighborhood of Nairobi and struggles to get his mother the medication she needs for her AIDS, and he’s eventually taken in as a driver by a gang leader who offers to provide her mother’s medicine. In season one, he’s presented as having a child-like naivety and gets very little development aside from the action scenes involving the gang war going in Nairobi, but season two improves upon it. (The actor for season one, Aml Ameen, left the show for undisclosed reasons and was replaced by Toby Onwumere.)
Sun is the martial-artist-prodigy daughter of a corporation magnate who looks down on her for being a woman. She doesn’t seem to have any relationships outside of her martial arts trainer and a multitude of corporate men who don’t respect her. When her father’s firm falls under fire for embezzlement, she takes the fall instead of her brother. She’s in jail for most of the first two seasons, showing off her martial arts skills a couple times when her corrupt brother sends men to try and kill her.
Lito is a two for the price of one combo: both racist stereotype and whitewashed character. Though Lito is supposed to be the biracial son of a non-white Mexican woman and a white Spanish man (his younger self is played by Mexican actor Ramiro Cid, and his mom by Mexican actress Dolores Heredia), he is played by a white Spaniard. He is a famous telenovelas and action movies actor who lives terrified that he might be outed as gay and shunned by the homophobic Mexican society. To add to this, his celebrity “beard” (the actress with whom he shows up at events to keep a “straight” image) turns out to be a victim of domestic abuse at the hands of a very homophobic, hyper-masculine Mexican man.
The only white character who could be accused of having a stereotypical story would be Nomi, as part of her story deals with transphobia and transmisogyny; but the presence of two trans women behind the camera shows in the care and depth with which her story is handled. There are no transmisogynist stereotypes, all the transphobia from other characters is called out as wrong, and the story doesn’t center her transition. But the most important factor is that, for the most part, her screentime is spent on her being a fugitive from the law, a badass hacker and a loving girlfriend to her partner, Amanita. She’s not defined solely by the fact that she’s trans nor caged by the clichéd trans narratives.
The characters of color don’t get these luxuries. When you boil down their stories to the basics you get that the Indian woman’s plot is reduced to loveless marriage and struggles with sex; the Korean woman gets patriarchal oppression and martial arts; for the Black Kenyan man we have poverty, AIDS and gang wars; and Lito’s (and the other Mexican characters’) story revolves around the machismo and homophobia of Mexican culture.
These sets of stereotypes make for an image of non-white societies as backwards and more bigoted than “white” First World countries. When paired with the fact that Lana was literally blaming modern transphobia on Black people mere weeks before releasing the first season, we get a very clear idea of just what Lana thinks of non-white people.
If the storylines where stereotypical but showed a certain degree of respect, authenticity and care similar to that put on the white characters’ stories; maybe the issues could be ignored. But that is not the case, especially not during the first season.
In the first season Will, Nomi, Riley and Wolfgang get two thirds or even three quarters of each episode and the leftovers are scattered among the other sensates; this leaves no time for emotional insight or meaningful development. To add to that, Wolfgang, Nomi, Will and Riley are placed closest to the action, with Riley and Nomi being in direct contact with the villains, Will being the only one to communicate with two key players in the plot and Wolfgang’s turf war taking up a good half of the screen-time even before he’s involved in the A-plot.
While the white characters have plenty of meaningful connections and relationships in and out of the cluster and are more or less close to the A-plot, the characters of color have fewer scenes, fewer “real life” relationships, fewer interactions with the rest of the cluster and way less relevance to the A-plot.
The lack of screen-time is somewhat patched in season two, as is a major issue with the desexualization of Kala, Sun and Capheus that runs all through the first season. The show, which has a sex scene within the first few minutes of its first episode, and made some headlines due to having a telepathic orgy in its first season, is very open about sex, but in season one it seemed as if white people were a must-have of romantic or sexual scenes.
Kala, of course, is the prime example, terrified and anxious about the idea of having sex with her fiance all through the season, only showing arousal or attraction when around her white love interest. They’re a neat dichotomy: traditional Indian man who she feels no passion for; sexually liberated white man who prances around her dreams naked and makes her feel things. Even in season two, when Kala finally has sex with both her now-husband and her telepathic side-guy, her sex scene with Wolfgang is beautiful and lasts a couple minutes on-screen while her kisses to Rajan are dry, seconds-long pecks to the lips.
With Sun and Capheus, the issue isn’t as noticeable, because it’s easy to see the problems with an offensive story but it’s harder to spot the fault if the story simply isn’t there. In season one, while every other character is falling in love, having sex, wanting to have sex or participating in telepathic orgies, Sun gets speeches about how she channels her emotions into fighting and Capheus gives everyone else naive, nearly childish pep-talks.
Now, of course having characters that are not interested in sex or romance could have been an interesting element in today’s sex-obsessed media landscape but, when the two characters who are shown as completely detached from such relationships also belong to two of the most desexualized racial groups in media, that doesn’t make for positive representation. It just adds to the endless images of Asian and Black people as emotionless, infantilized and desexualized.
The season two Christmas Special gave us another telepathic orgy, though this one included all sensates — not just the white ones — and season two itself tried to fix things a little, by giving Sun and Capheus love interests. Though that doesn’t magically erase the issues in season one, it makes that particular problem sting a little less.
On the subject of sex, it’s also interesting to note that while the Black and Asian sensates spent all of season one desexualized; the Latinx characters (one of whom is literally played by a White man and the others all played by light-skinned actors) are hypersexualized from the beginning, with Lito and Hernando having the biggest amount of sex scenes in the first season and a pretty questionable approach to their sexuality as gay men that we’ll touch on later.
The stories of the sensates of color have issues, but so does Will’s. Will Gorski, the white American cop and the character with the most screentime in the show, is from his very introduction a White Savior.
In the first episode, Will and his partner Diego, who’s a Black Latino, are on a shots fired call when they find a bleeding, wounded Black kid at an abandoned building. The child, who seems to be around 12 years old, has been injured by a bullet and obviously belongs to one of the gangs that caused the confrontation, so Diego (the Black cop) wants to leave him to bleed out there, while Will (the white cop) wants to take him to a hospital.
What follows is a deeply uncomfortable scene where Diego and a Black nurse at the hospital tell Will that he should just leave the kid (Deshawn) to die because he will probably grow up to shoot Will at another gang-related squabble. Will (who is white) has to convince a Black cop and a Black nurse that this Black child’s life is worth saving. I am not making this up.
The next episode, we get some emotional talk when Will, who by now we must know is a Good White Cop, goes to visit Deshawn in the hospital. They have a chat that shows that he, the Good White Cop, is not so different to this Poor Black Child From A Bad Neighborhood, and we’re all human, and Will doesn’t see color, and everyone can rise above their circumstances and blah, blah, blah.
Will is a cop and very proud of it, but he’s a Good White Cop and the white liberals that this show is made by and for are supposed to love him because he explains racism to people of color and believes in the American Way. As such, we’re supposed to empathize with him when the show presents the idea that people calling cops “pigs” is comparable to calling gay men the F-word or calling Black people the N-word. And no, I am not making this up either.
In the Christmas Special (s02e01) there’s a scene where Lito arrives at his house and finds that the F-word has been spray-painted on his home as a response to his forced outing to the media. This is followed by a montage where each of the sensates is faced with a word that they perceive as violent, prejudiced or oppressive. Lito sees the actual graffiti, the F-word. Nomi sees the word “freak”. Kala sees “virgin”, Riley sees “slut”. Will sees the word “pig”. Capheus sees the N-word. Wolfgang sees “Nazi” and Sun sees “bitch”.
The initial problem is, well, that some of these make no sense. Particularly Capheus’, who, as many Black fans pointed out, was born and raised in Kenya and has no real reason to feel particularly connected to the N-word, as it’s hardly used in such context.
Less obvious, but still questionable, is the use of “virgin” for Kala, which is a word with no real negative connotation, especially in her context. Maybe “prude” would have been more appropriate.
Wolfgang’s word is also muddy, as he’s first established to be from a Russian family and we’re shown that kids used to call him “commie”, so the fact that “Nazi” is his word, as a Russian German living in Germany, doesn’t make much sense. Pairing that word with homophobic and racist slurs when Nazis were both those things makes the choice not just senseless, but downright offensive.
But the fact that the Good White Cop takes offense to being called “pig”, and that this is compared to homophobic and racist slurs, is plain disgusting. The show proposes that anti-cop sentiment from the very people who are marginalized by police as an institution is oppressive, and as audiences we have to accept this.
White People Explain Things to Brown people seems to be a staple of “Sense8”. We have Wolfgang explaining the wonders of sex to Kala, Will explaining that # All Lives Matter to Diego, the Wachowskis explaining to the audience that calling cops “pigs” hurts their feelings. And, a pretty interesting one, Nomi whitesplaining homophobia in Mexico to Lito.
We can take the show at face value and accept that, while the United States is a progressive utopia where the only transphobes Nomi faces are her family and, otherwise, she pretty much lives surrounded by cool LGBTQ people who all enjoy prejudice-free lives, Mexico is a backwards hellscape where nearly every person except for Lito and his boyfriend are violently homophobic and misogynistic. In this case, Nomi’s white American perspective of homotransphobia cannot be applied to Lito’s (whitewashed) Brown Mexican experience of homotransphobia and, when she tells him that he ought to come out and that there’s no real reason to be afraid, that he’s the one hurting himself by staying in the closet, she’s applying her privileged paradigm to his life, which is ugly and White Savior-ish.
But we can also consider that no, Mexico is not stuck in the 1800s and, though homophobia and machismo are unarguably big issues in Latinx society, there has to be a middle-ground between the real world, where Mexico recently legalized same-gender marriage, and the Wachowskis’ world, where Lito is immediately evicted from his apartment due to the fact that he’s gay and no one so much as bats an eye.
So it’s either that yet another White Savior is whitesplaining homophobia to a man who lives an inherently racialized experience of gayness, or that ignorant white writers think all Latinxs are violently homophobic and that’s just how it is. No option is a flattering look for the Wachowski sisters.
When we talk about White Savior narratives in the show, it’s interesting to note that Capheus, the Kenyan character, holds Jean-Claude Van Damme as his personal hero. Many fans have criticized this, pointing out that Van Damme is a Western White Savior narrative. The Wachowskis seem to have taken issue with this criticism, and they addressed it in the second season, in a scene where Capheus is confronted by a reporter (Zakia) while Lito is overwhelmed by homophobic remarks from the press.
Zakia: Tell our viewers why it is that you’re called Van Damn.
Capheus: Have you ever seen Lionheart?
Zakia: No. I don’t watch movies like that. (…) Movies that glorify violence. Movies where the white man saves the world.
Capheus: Lionheart is not about any of those things. It’s about courage.
Mexican Reporter: I just want to understand.
Lito and Nomi: You’re not trying to understand anything. (…) Because labels are the opposite of understanding.
Zakia: But Van Damme is white. (…) So even if it’s about courage, it’s about white courage.
Capheus and Sun: I’m sorry. Maybe I’m not understanding, but what does courage have to do with the color of a man’s skin?
What we get is that this educated Black woman, a professional reporter that surely has studied the importance of things such as media representation, calls out the fact that Van Damme is a white savior and she’s compared to homophobes and portrayed as divisive, taking issue with something stupid, something that should be a non-issue in the Wachowskis’ post-racial imaginary. She suggests that all-white heroes and all-white narratives are harmful to Black people, but her eyes are opened when Capheus argues that courage is colorblind. Of course that this post-racial philosophy makes way more sense than any nuanced critique of the white hegemony in media, and so she brushes aside her critiques and agrees to go on a date with Capheus.
There are other racist details scattered through the show:
For example, Asian fans have mentioned the fact that the show always puts Sun’s name backwards (as a Korean person in Korea, she would use Bak Sun, never Sun Bak), that one-syllable name and last name combinations are extremely rare in Korea, and that Sun is the kind of stereotypical, lazy-pick name that Western creators tend to give Asian characters.
We also have the fact that Capheus and Jonas, specially in the first season, often fall in Magical Black Person and Mythical Asian Person roles. They show up when other characters (usually white characters) need them and give some emotional and kind of cryptic speech that helps the other character find their path, and vanish again. That is, of course, when Capheus is not driving people around.
The Asian men in “Sense8” are, with very few exceptions, nearly all presented as shady-or-straight-up-villainous. Jonas sells out the sensates, Sun’s father didn’t respect her and her brother is trying to murder her, and Rajan and his father are entangled in some kind of pharmaceutical fraud.
Something could be said about the fact that nearly all of the Mexican characters are pale-skinned and white/passing; or about Wolfgang’s Berlin having next to no people of color. A detailed enough watch would probably bring even more issues to light, so we’re gonna skip onto the next topic.
There are more problems in Sense8?
Racism is not the only issue in the show, but it is the most flagrant. The Wachowski’s white gaze permeates every second of the story, but their ignorance (or arrogance) also shows on other fronts. Particularly, anti-semitism and homophobia.
The anti-semitic moment is so short that you could blink and miss it, and it is also the only moment of visible Jewish representation through the show. There are no Jewish main characters, or side characters for that matter (note that Amanita’s last name is revealed to be Caplan in the second season, so, though Freema Agyeman isn’t Jewish, we could assume her character is). There is just Abraham, a merchant that shows up on s01e04 to buy stolen diamonds from Wolfgang at the Holocaust monument. He only buys half of the diamonds and, when Felix and Wolfgang go to sell the other half, they find his shop is mysteriously closed. He doesn’t appear again.
Now, when we think of “Sense8”, one thing we definitely don’t think of is homophobia. Actually, the show has gotten endless praise for its portrayal of the whole LGBT spectrum. Nomi has been repeatedly described by both the Wachowski sisters and actress Jamie Clayton as a trans lesbian, her girlfriend Amanita wears the bisexual pride flag in her hair, Amanita’s parents are a polyamorous family of four, Lito and Hernando repeatedly describe themselves as “gay” through the show and the Wachowskis have spoken a big about pansexual representation. It sounds like the perfect show for LGBT representation, doesn’t it?
Though Nomi was established as a lesbian from the very get-go and Lito has spent two seasons calling himself “gay” on-screen, apparently all the characters are supposed to “turn” pansexual due to their telepathic connection. This is portrayed in their telepathic orgies, where Nomi has sex with men and Lito has sex with women and so do the rest of the characters, but it feels like a cop-out.
First of all, sexuality simply doesn’t work that way. The sensates don’t share the same mind, and this is actually established in the show. They don’t know the languages, skills, information or memories that the others have unless the others are sharing that knowledge at the very moment; and only occasionally they share particularly intense emotions in what’s called “visiting”. Their minds, knowledge or personalities don’t fuse, they’re just connected and that connection is controllable. The sensate connection is, in a way, like learning a new language or acquiring a new method of communication, it’s not a complete fusion of their eight brains. So, if their memories and skills and personalities don’t automatically fuse into one, why would their sexualities automatically fuse into pansexuality?
This is not so much an issue with the heterosexual characters. Sure, sexuality doesn’t work that way, but there is no real issue with making a heterosexual character realize that they are also attracted to their same gender. Now, when you make a gay character — particularly a gay man who’s struggled all his life with his sexuality — magically be attracted to the opposite binary gender by having sex with them? It reeks of conversion therapy propaganda, and that’s just homophobia 101.
An interesting detail is that, despite this idea that suddenly all characters have become pansexual, outside of the telepathic orgies they don’t seem to have changed at all. Lito and Nomi are the only ones who show attraction to their same gender, while the rest of the sensates all have romantic storylines exclusively with people of the opposite binary gender. What was, then, the purpose of the orgies (except for shock value) is yet to be seen.
When we were talking about the racism in the show, we mentioned that Lito and Hernando are uncomfortably hypersexualized and the narrative surrounding their sexuality as gay men is at best a little iffy, at worst another example of blatant homophobia. To recap: Daniela, Lito’s beard, barges into Lito’s private life uninvited as an attempt to escape her abusive boyfriend. This leads to her discovering that Lito is gay and actually sharing an apartment with his boyfriend, Hernando. Daniela’s reaction to finding out Lito is gay is “ I just love gay porn!”
Daniela, a cishet woman, then proceeds to install herself in Lito and Hernando’s apartment, which leads to a series of moments that we’re supposed to take as sexy, funny or wild. Daniela masturbates watching Lito and Hernando making out, and then she takes photos and videos of them having sex without their consent that lead to Lito being outed. In the second season, having learned nothing from her predatory and invasive behavior, she’s shown taking pictures of another gay couple at a bar.
The show expects us to accept Daniela’s presence uncritically, but the heterosexual entitlement and fetishism reeking from the whole storyline is impossible to ignore. Because they are not attracted to her, Daniela feels safe with Lito and Hernando, but she also feels entitled to their privacy and their intimacy, with no respect to their personal boundaries.
The uncomfortable fetishization doesn’t end with Daniela, though. After Lito is publicly outed without his consent due to the pictures that Daniela took, also without his consent, he’s faced with massive homophobic backlash from the media and from his fans. After this, the show jumps to Nomi and Amanita, who share a completely ridiculous and nonsensical reasoning:
Amanita: “I mean, when I look at those pictures of Lito and Hernando, I think, that’s hot!”
Nomi: “Mmm! So hot.”
Amanita: “I just don’t get it. Why can’t the rest of the world see what we see?”
Nomi: “I don’t know.”
We go back to this homophobic Mexico vs. progressive United States dichotomy. Apparently, we have to believe that Nomi and Amanita don’t get homophobia because the USA is so progressive that it just doesn’t make sense to them, and Mexico is so incredibly backwards. And these two sapphic women, who should know damn well that homophobic men everywhere get off to lesbian porn while wishing death on gay people, somehow don’t understand why people don’t just get over their prejudice because Lito and Hernando are hot together.
What the scene communicates is, basically, that gay people deserve rights because they are hot, because other people can get off to the image of them fucking. It’s reductive, fetishistic and completely out of character for two sapphic women who are supposedly educated and surrounded by other LGBTQ people.
A last detail to mention on the matter of LGBTQ representation is Zakia. Zakia, despite that ridiculous scene where she instantly forgives Van Damme’s white savior-ism, is a delightful and interesting character. She’s smart, funny, kind and also, as we learn a bit after her introduction, sapphic.
Her coworkers mockingly tell Capheus that she’s a lesbian when he goes to her workplace to ask her out; which leads to a scene in the street where she explains to Capheus that she is not gay. She says, “Yes, I loved a woman. It’s true. I’ve also loved men. I fall in love with the person, not their genitals.”
There are two issues with this scene, though: the first is that, like many bi/pan characters, she doesn’t use any kind of label for her sexuality. This is a tired and bi/panphobic trope, that erases the very little visible representation MGA (Multiple-Genders-Attracted) people have in the media by skirting around labels and clear identities and relying on vague explanations instead. We could argue that this is because of the cultural context, given that Zakia is Kenyan, but in a show where everything else is Westernized and Americanized, this really makes no sense.
The other issue is the genitalia-based definition of sexuality. In today’s world, no educated adult person with access to the Internet has an excuse to still resort to genitalia-based ideas of sexual orientation. These definitions are reductive, homophobic, dyadist and cissexist. “People who fall in love with genitals, not people,” are transphobes, plain and simple. Gay people aren’t some shallow, superficial evil people who won’t fall in love unless they’ve seen a person naked, and gender (gender, not genitals!) playing a role in gay people’s attraction doesn’t mean they don’t see the soul or anything alike.
The line could have been simply fixed by having Zakia say something like “gender doesn’t play a role in who I love”, or “I fall in love regardless or gender” or any other phrasing that doesn’t imply that what defines men and women is their genitalia or that people who do feel gendered attraction are somehow less than.
Does this mean I can’t like Sense8?
“Sense8” wouldn’t be the first, nor the last show to be remembered as more than it was due to its early cancellation. When the zombie-horror show “In The Flesh”, which was led by a cis pansexual white dude, was cancelled after two seasons, it became impossible to mention the racism that plagued the whole series without being accused of pettiness or homo/panphobia. Similarly, the incredibly racist “Agent Carter” was cancelled after two seasons and White Feminist circles still go on about how it was just too feminist for the network. There are countless other examples of shows that were terribly racist or bigoted in other ways but that, due to having a Strong White Female Lead or some white LGBTQ characters, gained a reputation of being progressive and are now remembered in an almost martyr-like light.
The objective of this essay is not to condemn every person who has watched and enjoyed “Sense8” or any of the Wachowskis’ works, but to push audiences to engage more critically with the material they consume and to analyze it intersectionally. White audiences can comfortably gloss over a show’s racism because it is “feminist” or has LGBTQ representation; and some viewers of color will be able to put up with the racism and still enjoy the parts where they do feel represented. For many viewers of color, though, the racism in “Sense8” is violent and pervasive, and seeing the show be unthinkingly acclaimed by the masses as a paragon of diversity and inclusivity feels like a mockery.
We can hope that tomorrow will bring another show that has racial, gender and sexual diversity in the kind that “Sense8” promised but failed to deliver. But uncritically praising “Sense8” and the Wachowski sisters as some kind of revolutionary element in our current media paradigm diminishes the work that people of color, including women and LGBTQ people of color, are putting into making television and film truly inclusive, and not a collection of offensive tokens trying to pass off as representation.
Good bye, “Sense8”. Let your successors be better than you were.
Note: This essay was finished on June 25th. On June 29th, Lana Wachowski announced that the show will be getting a two hours long special finale in 2018.