From Veneno to It’s a Sin: Queer TV shines when it gets messy

TV shows about the LGBTQ+ community are stronger when they embrace the messiness of queer experiences and reject 'safe' hetereonormative narratives.

Three sexily dressed women

Over the past few years, there has been a noticeable shift away from ‘safe’ LGBTQ+ characters towards messy and defiant queer storylines on TV. These narratives are expanding to include sassy gay best friends who must now deal with trauma, animated lesbian science-fi, drag artists redefining the English language one gagatandra at a time, and so much more. 

Amid these changing depictions of queer life on screen, Veneno blazes onto the scene as an unapologetic and celebratory masterpiece about a trans idol in Spain. By seamlessly blending the fantastical with real life as well as capturing the chaotic magic of a found family, this show revels in the messiness that comes from stardom, the media, living openly, fighting back and self-discovery.

Based on a 2016 memoir titled ¡Digo! Ni puta ni santa: Las memorias de La Veneno (I Say! Not a Whore, Not a Saint: The Memories of La Veneno), Veneno follows trans journalist Valeria Vegas as she records the life of Cristina Ortiz, a trans sex worker who shot to fame in the 1990’s. This biographical show was a captivating celebration of freeing oneself from social pressures and taking time to figure things out through trial and error. 

One of the three trans actresses who played Ortiz at different stages of her life, Jedet Sanchéz, defined this icon’s legacy as, “Be who you are, no matter what, and no matter who you piss off.”

After the series finale, Vice President of Social Rights and Agenda 2030 in the Government of Spain, Pablo Iglesias, tweeted that Veneno “makes you cry, laugh, remember, empathise, but above all, understand the savage pain inflicted on trans people simply for being themselves.” 

These two responses to Veneno encapsulate what it means for a show to embrace messiness rather than enforce a one dimensional and exclusionary reflection of the LGBTQ+ community. Mess acts as an umbrella term for those queer experiences that seem to defy time or space. It’s a word summarising feelings around uncovering a hidden queer history, becoming one with the dancefloor, celebrations turning into protests and being free in the face of hate.

However, being messy does not restrict a show to deliver solely mature content. Following the introduction of a non-binary character on Batwoman season 2, writer Daniel Thomsen expressed, “There’s a beautiful messiness to queer coming of age that can be trampled when we feel pressure to adopt a fixed gender identity/expression. Life is long and unpredictable, and the evolution of self should be celebrated.”

“As a writer, I’ve long wanted to add a character to the conversation that knows they deserve a rich journey to find happiness, even if they don’t know precisely what form that happiness will take. The fun is getting there, and the vehicle is confidence,” Thomsen concluded.

Growing up LGBTQ+ can be a confusing rollercoaster ride which oftentimes gets waterdown when represented on screen. However, TV shows such as Gameboys, Love, Victor and Julie and the Phantoms are taking steps towards accurately reflecting the whirlwind experience of being a queer youth. 

Steven Universe, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and many other cartoons also bring their own messy magic to portrayals of younger queer experiences. After all, is there anything messier than a sapphic space rock and a grieving dad being serenaded by the reincarnation of the woman they both love?

Another example for the messiness of the queer experience can be felt throughout the heart wrenching and humorous hit drama It’s A Sin. A defining example dwells within the simple phrase ‘La!’, an in-joke defining the group’s kinship throughout the decade. Showrunner Russell T Davies said, “I put it in because that’s how groups of friends work and I don’t think you ever see that often enough on television and in films.”

Davies further stated, “The groups of people who spend a lot of time together who have these jokes and codes and in-jokes, they might have a funny way of saying ‘thank you’, or little nicknames for each other like this lot feminise each other’s names which we all used to do as little gay kids back in the 1980’s.” 

Historian Dr Justin Bengry spoke with HuffPost UK about the history behind coded language and its importance for the LGBTQ+ community. He said, “Today, queer people still play with language, with irreverence and fun, to celebrate our communities, and while many of us need not worry actively about our safety, many must still rely on code, doublespeak, and slang to remain safe.”

Within the phrase ‘La!’, It’s A Sin embraces the complex history between queer people and language that intermixes both a playful and dangerous quality. From drag artists turning out gag worthy phrases on reality competition programmes to coming out narratives where a teen struggles for the right term to define themselves, TV shows are placed in a unique position to really grapple with LGBTQ+ speech not only through dialogue but also visually. 

Returning back to Veneno, the show introduces Ortiz through silhouettes and shadows, visually creating a fabulous mystery to lure viewers in. When a reporter asks her if she identifies as a man or woman, she responds, “I’m a blinking light, honey.”

The power of queer TV lies in disruptions, whether it be breaking down hetereonormative and binaristic language or celebrating queer friendship. In these small moments, it broadens the scope of television to reveal a much wider and diverse world that’s truly undefinable, both tragically beautiful and beautifully tragic. 

This form of on-screen queer representation can be seen as a far cry from the early day catty gay characters who existed in a state of celibacy or snapped at their friends for enjoying sex. Will and Grace actor Eric McCormack spoke about the show’s depiction of same-sex relationships in contrast to straight dating, “We needed to show that the most accurate way to represent those two relationships was that they were always equal — which, probably, they weren’t in the old days. It was easier to have handsome guys come on and date Deb Messing. Mine were handled with a lot more attention and a lot of being careful.”

Various TV programmes still contain this hesitation around depicting LGBTQ+ narratives, trying to balance community appeal while appeasing a straight viewership. It comes down to the difference between a show featuring queer people and a show for queer people.

In many ways, the move away from safety towards messy can be attributed to the increasing presence of LGBTQ+ creators behind the scene. Pose star Billy Porter expressed, “We are at the forefront of telling our own narrative. It’s not at the hands of other people who are outside the community anymore. It’s so dreamy.”

Speaking on the need for queer creators behind the scenes of TV shows featuring queer content, co-director of Veneno, Javier Ambrossi, told Variety, “If you want to create the stories about the LGBT community, you have to do it with LGBT people. That’s important because these are our stories and no one can tell them like we can.”

TV needs to be messy when representing queer lives. Tell non-linear narratives, send fantasy and reality on a collision course, reshape language and disrupt meaning, show characters make mistakes and fumble about as they try find their place in the community, and, above all else, have fun while taking this wild journey.

Only by embracing the glorious mess of it all can these stories shine and truly reflect the ever changing nature of being queer.

© 2021 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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