The Insidious Queerphobia of ‘Carole & Tuesday’
[CW: Transphobic depictions, racism. Also spoilers for the show.]
Okay, fine, I’ll write about Carole & Tuesday.
When I first heard about this show’s existence, I assumed I would end up writing about it. Kids on the Slope, the 2012 show also directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, is an incredibly deft, delicate, intricately emotional story of the intensity and confusion of adolescence, and has at its heart one of my favorite implicit queer love stories. Carole & Tuesday, from its blurb, sounded like it would be “what if Kids on the Slope but genderswapped and also on Mars for some reason and probably slightly less implicit about its queerness since come on, it’s 2019, and space is gay.” That’s basically how the summary translated in my head anyway. After waiting impatiently for the first season to actually show up on Netflix in the US, I entered it with sky high expectations.
And I clung, and clung, to that hope. I adored the first episode. I got wrapped up in the music and in the easy camaraderie of the main characters. I adored the casual background worldbuilding of this New-York-esque Martian metropolis, from Tuesday’s robot suitcase to Carole’s adorable owl alarm clock AI pet, to the self-driving cars that can be seen weaving through oncoming traffic in background shots. I loved Roddy’s innocent goofiness and giggled at Mamoru Miyano hamming it up in his role as the narcissistic DJ Ertogen. I still think episode four, in which they get scammed by an AI pretending to produce a music video, is a work of comedic genius. (Poor Roddy and his robot figurines…I can barely think about it.)
Holy shit y’all, this show has problems when it comes to the portrayal of queerness. There’s some superficially cute stuff near the beginning, when we learn that Carole and Tuesday’s producer, Gus, has an ex-wife who (gasp!) left him for another woman. Gus is melancholy but gracious about this fact, and although Carole and Tuesday both gape slack-jawed when they realize that they’re in the presence of lesbians (note: if I knew how to make text large and squiggly and moving on Medium, I would, so please picture the word ‘lesbians’ that way here), ultimately Marie and her new fiancée are sympathetic characters. There’s even a little scene where Marie grills Carole and Tuesday about their love lives by asking “do you have a girlfriend or boyfriend?” Wholesome stuff. (Never mind that without either of them answering in a way that specifies sexual/romantic preference, she goes on to say she knows the perfect guy to introduce them (one of them? I guess?) to…) It’s cute — for real, I’m not being sarcastic here — and nice positive representation, not just of the important demographic of punk lesbians who ride motorcycles, but also the important demographic of lesbian-identified women whose romantic past may include things like an ex-husband. That’s a great thing to portray.
(Is every other paragraph going to be the word ‘but’? Keep reading to find out!)
Look, I am nothing if not an expert in implicitly-conveyed subtextual queer adolescent crushes. I do not need my omg-help-I’m-in-love-with-my-best-friend angst to come with loud rainbow flag signposts to appreciate its queerness. Carole and Tuesday’s relationship has all of the superficial hallmarks of exactly the type of subtextual queer romance that I love, and a big part of my high expectations for the show came from assuming that we’d at least get some good implicit pining.
And…I dunno, do we? There are glimmers of it, in the awkwardness of Carole’s failed attempts to give Tuesday a birthday present, or in her not-so-subtle resentment of Cybelle’s pursuit of Tuesday (more on Cybelle in a minute). They have an immediate, easy intimacy with each other — too easy, really, to read to me as teenage romantic attraction. They write emotional, romantic duets together, but that fact never seems to permeate the narrative of their non-musical lives. In the second season, Tuesday develops a sudden out of the blue crush on a slightly older male acquaintance, only to be heartbroken when he turns out not to be available. Carole’s main interpersonal arc in the second season is focused around a newly-introduced male childhood friend — not directly implied to be a romantic thing, but definitely a tool to shape the narrative away from delving deeper into her friendship with Tuesday. (Even as, yes, she does seem a bit displeased with Tuesday’s new attachment to someone else.)
All of these ingredients, as I write them out, sound like they could add up to a nice messy complicated depiction of navigating the confusion and contradictions of queer adolescence. It’s even possible that they were meant to, and the failure came in execution. But it all just falls so flat. Rather than giving me the feeling of a tightly woven narrative depicting a messy reality, I was just left feeling like the narrative itself had no grounding. Threads come and go without payoff. If Carole did feel jealous, we never see it come to a head. If Tuesday ever notices or cares, we’re not privy to that. If either of them ever wonders what the future holds for their friendship, whether this status quo of sharing their lives so completely is threatened by approaching adulthood, we don’t get to know about it. Maybe some of these gaps could be filled in to convey a powerful romance; but the show isn’t interested even in drawing our attention to the gaps.
Now, is it against the rules of nature to write a story about two girls who meet and immediately move in together the same day and write extremely romantic duets together about how they didn’t know true happiness before finding each other or whatever but who are in fact “just friends”? I mean…yes, if you ask me, but people can tell whatever story they want; and if my only complaint about queerness in C&T was that the central relationship fell short of my expectations, I wouldn’t be compelled to write about it two years later. It’s when we zoom out to look at the texture of how queer (especially genderqueer) identities are treated by the narrative that things start to get truly upsetting.
You see, there are the good queers, like Marie, helpful and sympathetic and ultimately, hairstyle aside, pretty compliant with cishet norms — after all, she’s engaged to be married again. And then there are the uncomfortable, sinister, unstable, violent queers. If you’ve seen the show, you know who I’m talking about — gender non-conforming in a way that makes the people around them a bit uncomfortable, and ready to turn viciously violent the moment their desires are thwarted.
Who did you think of?
Was it Dahlia, Angela’s overbearing mother, a trans woman who’s implied to have physically abused her daughter?
Was it the Mermaid Sisters, an a capella group of black trans women who explode in a fit of extremely masculine-coded rage when their song is deemed inappropriate by the judges? (Bonus points for the racism of this one! They crammed stereotypes of trans women as violently unstable and stereotypes of black masculinity as menacing into one throwaway joke!)
Was it Cybelle, the androgynous-presenting talent show competitor whose stalker-esque adoration of Tuesday crosses into romantic overtures, and who then viciously attacks Tuesday with a chemical bomb after Tuesday rejects her advances?
Are you impressed that there were three different possibilities that my original description could have fit?
Listen: One reason I’ve avoided writing this article for so long is that I hate — hate hate hate hate hate — the idea that queer rep has to be “good” in order to be powerful and important. Queer people can be messy, can be villains, can be callous and evil and vengeful and depressed and twisted and all that good narrative shit. All of my favorite characters are. Give me dark queer stories. Give me people dealing with trauma. Give me queers lighting the world on fire. I eat that shit up.
But there’s a difference, and that difference is narrative voice: In C&T, we are not inside Dahlia’s head, inside the Mermaid Sisters’ heads, inside Cybelle’s head. We don’t know their stories, their trauma, their interiority, their darkness. Not from the inside. We are Angela, running away from her violent abusive mother, popping sleeping pills to try to escape the world. We are the panel of judges, attacked without provocation by this ridiculous act whose song was just a string of obscenity. (Literally, the camera angle during the attack is from the judge’s eyes.) We are Carole and Tuesday, terrified of what someone as unhinged as Cybelle might do if Tuesday doesn’t handle her just right. There isn’t space given, within the story, to see these characters as anything but a threat.
And so, while on some level there is undeniably “diversity” in the world of C&T, by the time Cybelle was revealed to have actually been the person behind the attack on Tuesday I was yelling “oh come on” at my screen. The third time in one season that shiftiness, potential violence, volatility was coded to the audience as gender nonconformity? Really? There’s storytelling that explores the very real darkness of being queer in a hostile world, that explores the vast diversity of both the good and bad of humanity to be found within the queer experience….and then there’s just lazy-ass reliance on tropes about the menace of genderqueerness to try to make your audience uncomfortable with a character. Three times. In one season.
And then there’s the juxtaposition of Carole and Tuesday’s relationship against all of this exaggerated, mocked, sinister, othered background queerness. There are shows where the presence of openly queer secondary characters serves to bolster and amplify implicit or subtextual queerness in other parts of the story. In Hunter × Hunter, Killua’s (sorta-kinda-just-barely) implicit queerness is reinforced obliquely by his bond and alliance with [SPOILER], an explicitly genderqueer character, and his ability to empathize with and accept her completely. In Tiger & Bunny, while the eponymous romance remains just barely on the implicit side, the fact that there are multiple openly queer members of the central superhero team provides a backdrop of queer worldbuilding and proves to the audience that the story is interested in the queer experience — the inner struggles of both Dragon Kid and Fire Emblem are handled with empathy and nuance; and we get to see Tiger joke around flirtatiously with Fire Emblem and Bunny react with nonchalance (rather than irritation or disgust) to Fire Emblem’s crush on him. All of this works to build a queer texture into the fabric of the world, which then informs the interpretation of romantic subtext between the titular characters.
On paper C&T has that queer texture…sort of. Queer people certainly exist in this world, but more often than not they’re objects of ridicule or threat, existing not in parallel with but in contrast to our earnest, innocent, and, well, normal heroines. The overly pushy romantic attention from Cybelle is a (literal) threat to Tuesday, unlike the undemanding friendship offered by Carole. Gus’s feud with Dahlia is played for laughs, but there’s no doubt whose side we’re supposed to be on: Gus’s gruff but loving support for Carole and Tuesday’s career versus Dahlia’s overbearing, abusive need to live vicariously through her daughter’s fame.
And what of Marie and her fiancée? What of those adorable moments from episode four, Carole and Tuesday gasping and blushing as they see the two women kiss, Marie’s casual rejection of heteronormative language? More than anything else in the show, Marie’s existence as a supporting character could so easily have been used as a lens through which to bring the queer dimensions of Carole and Tuesday’s own story into focus for the viewer. Anyone who’s watched a lot of implicit queer storytelling can easily imagine this: a simple knowing glance between Marie and her fiancée in the background; a camera fade from the two women holding hands in the audience to Carole watching Tuesday sing; a vague word of wisdom tossed out at a crucial story juncture about the importance of following your heart, the queer context supplied by Marie’s own romantic journey. It is so, so, so easy to sprinkle in these little signposts. Even an awkward glance between the two girls when Marie questioned them about their love lives would have anchored the story’s intention.
Instead, we got none of that. And so then what are we to make of Marie’s presence in the story? She isn’t there to act narratively in the role of queer mentor. She’s there as…diversity? Just to portray and normalize different sexualities and life stories? That would be cool and all, if it weren’t in the context of all of the uncomfortable, sinister queerness present in the rest of the story. Indeed, given that context, the most cynical part of my mind is tempted to take Marie’s presence as a clear delineation between acceptable, benign queerness and the more unstable, unnatural queerness represented by the genderqueer characters discussed above. A world in which a cis lesbian is on Team Good Guys while the characters who cross or blur traditional gender boundaries are sinister is not a world I feel comfortable immersing myself in.
And then…there’s Desmond. Unlike the other genderqueer characters in the show, Desmond — an extremely reclusive musician whom Carole and Tuesday are invited to visit in the second season — is not sinister. They (pronouns are hard to translate, but I’ll go with “they” here for lack of other information) are mysterious, the subject of many rumors (that they’re a vampire who will burn up in sunlight, for example), solitary and frail and otherworldly, melancholy and wistful, dispensing soft pearls of wisdom to the girls about how they must cherish their ability to communicate their emotions through song. And it is from Desmond that we learn that radiation exposure from living on Mars too long can fuck with human hormones somehow, enough so, in their case, that they have become what the subtitles render as “intersex” — ryousei guyuu (両性具有) is the term used in Japanese, meaning literally “possessing both sexes.” And this unnecessary biological worldbuilding leads to a truly uncomfortable speech about biological essentialism of gender:
In the absence of the rest of my discomfort with the role of gender nonconformity in this show, I’m not sure how I would react to this. It certainly made me cringe, but gender is hella messy and people experience these things differently, and I try not to impose my own preferred frameworks on exploration of queer identity in fiction. Desmond goes on to rhapsodize about how “embryos have no gender” and so they feel they’ve been returned to their “original form.” It’s a thought-provoking speech, but it also cements a philosophy in which sex and gender are rooted in biology in a way over which we have no control. Desmond’s genderqueerness, as much as they may wax poetic about returning to the embryonic form, is not an expression of agency or individual identity. It’s not a subversion of normative assumptions about the connection between biology and socially gendered forms of presentation. Desmond is, literally, a victim of radiation poisoning, an external force which has altered their gender identity against their will, however graciously they accept the change.
My point here is not to tear into the depiction of Desmond specifically; like I said, all of this shit is complicated and individuals have different conceptions of how and why their identities evolve over time.
It all just adds up. Why are the Mermaid Sisters so menacing and caricaturish while Desmond is a quirky source of poetic wisdom? Why is Marie’s romantic arc so cute and wholesome but Cybelle’s crush on Tuesday a source of danger? The underlying framework that makes sense of the way the narrative treats these different characters is one in which gender, in particular, is seen as immutable, biological, “natural,” and not to be subverted. When gender lines are blurred or crossed, it’s either a result of external biological forces rather than personal agency, or it’s vilified. The superficial “diversity” of the show is in the service of carving out these distinctions, and at times even plays on the assumption that the audience feels the disgust or discomfort that some of the (protagonist-aligned) characters do. I was not left, at the end of this show, with the feeling that it was interested in the queer experience — not in celebrating it, not in exploring all of its infinite diversity, not in challenging paradigms, not in empathizing with the pain and trauma of navigating messy queer identities.
The depiction of queerness is just one of various muddied and inconsistent aspects of the show. While much of the plot of the second season appears to be a heartwarming, rather preachy parable about how we’re all one human race and Mars must be welcoming to the poor refugees from Earth, there is precisely zero examination of what happened to the native Martian population when humanity expanded to the stars. Not everything is about everything and that’s fine — I’m not saying that just because it has a futuristic setting the show has to be about the impact of human colonialism on the rest of the solar system.
That said, I’m not going to fail to notice the dissonance when the show tries to score emotional points by extolling the virtues of acceptance and shared humanity, and yet the only native Martian we ever see is in a throwaway joke scene where we’re supposed to laugh at them for the ridiculous sin of…wanting to sing in their native language? I’m not going to bestow kudos for having Marie say “do you have a girlfriend or a boyfriend?” when it’s clear from the whole rest of the show that this “acceptance” comes with a huge cisnormative asterisk. I’m uncomfortable hearing the show praised as progressive and diverse when so many of these small details paint me a picture in which so much of humanity is othered and feared.
I wanted to like this show. I wanted to trust it. There is a lot of warmth and beauty and hopefulness in the story, and I know there are people who got a lot out of that. I so, so rarely write critical reviews like this, because I believe passionately that stories are messy and our relationship with them is messy and people resonate differently with different dimensions of any work. Mostly I use my writing to lift up and highlight what happens to resonate with me, rather than pick apart the things that bother me.
But part of pushing discussion on queerness in media beyond dichotomies of canon/non-canon or “good” rep/“bad” rep is thinking deeply about the ways that even a show with as much “explicit” queer representation as C&T can insidiously use those characters to reinforce normative thinking. To me, there are two key distinctions: One, does the narrative framework place the experience of queer characters at the subjective center, giving us insight into their agency and interiority? And two, do the underlying assumptions of the worldbuilding accept or reject normative assumptions that see queerness as marginal and abnormal? The first of these isn’t the same as asking “are the queer characters good or bad people?” and the second isn’t the same as asking “is the world of the story completely accepting of queerness?” The answers are complex, sometimes contradictory, somewhat subjective, woven together out of tiny details layered on top of each other, flitting in and out of focus. There is no simple answer; but that doesn’t mean that the questions aren’t worth asking.
In the end, Carole & Tuesday is a show that puts queer characters on screen, but does not weave a queer narrative with them. Instead we get lazy narrative tropes that present subversion of gender norms as sinister, worldbuilding that doubles down on biological essentialism of gender, and scattered subtextual queer angst with no follow-through. This effort — uneven at best, insidiously offensive and queer/transphobic at worst — does not deserve to be praised over other queer shows purely because some of its queerness passes the explicit labeling test. We can do better.