Addressing the Deep Breath Kiss
Guest contributor Peter Miles looks at LGBT+ representation and its reception.
By now, I imagine that the majority of us have seen the Series 8 premiere in ‘Deep Breath’. The episode delivered on many fronts with Capaldi’s debut being hailed as a critical success, the episode being seen as a good sign for the future of the series and the new direction the show was taking. The episode also did several other things, such as reintroducing a former monster but the one I’m going to discuss is the kiss between Vastra and Jenny, the first lesbian kiss to be broadcast in the history of Doctor Who and the wider attitudes towards LGBT+ characters. The reason I’m going to talk about this is because it has elicited a rather saddening reaction amongst some fans.
I hope to provide, as a gay man, a heartfelt argument as to why it is imperative we need this representation in our media, to debunk some of the commonly cited reasons against LGBT+ representation (which have been used against Doctor Who but is also pervasive in most fanbases) and to address some of the comments made specifically against Jenny and Vastra. Homophobia and other forms of marginalisation can make fandom a dark, unsafe place.
(Disclaimer: while I make use of the term LGBT+, Doctor Who has largely dealt with issues of sexual rather than gender identity. I use LGBT+ as it is a commonly used acronym in such discussions.
When referring to homophobia, I will be using the following definition:
“Homophobia encompasses a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. It can be expressed as antipathy, contempt, prejudice, aversion, or hatred, may be based on irrational fear, and is sometimes related to religious beliefs.”
Also, by discussing this, I expect I may be opening a can of worms so in the light of potential debate, I hope that civility is maintained.)
“[…] the BBC seem to want to become a porn channel and are slowly edging into it. I think they wish to come out of the closet, well I have no objection to that if they become a private adult channel, but not on our licence fee.”
A same-gender couple who have been together since their first appearance in 2011 are given their first physical expression of their relationship and it’s classed as … porn? A kiss is a universal sign of affection but, to paraphrase Waymon Hudson, people like this individual can’t see a gay couple kiss without thinking “sex”, while they can easily separate the idea of sex and affection in straight couples (I’ll develop this point later). This idea also manifests itself in a lesser form:
“I thought it was gratuitous and not particularly welcome in a family show aimed at kids. It just seems [executive producer Steven Moffat] is on some weird, lizard-lesbian perv trip.”
Many fans voice their displeasure about LGBT+ characters being given explicit representation, particularly in shows with a young audience, using a sentence like the one above. What I find personally interesting is that these phrases are sometimes followed by:
“But I’m not a homophobe, it’s just my opinion.”
It is indeed an opinion. However, it is also a homophobic opinion. By denying LGBT+ representation, it is homophobic as it reinforces the idea that homosexual behaviour is “different” and “bad” and that heterosexuality is the social norm when in truth it is simply more common. While LGBT+ characters are told to keep their “display [of] preferences” private or offscreen, heterosexual characters can kiss and have relationships onscreen without this criticism being levelled at them. This is called Heteronormativity, one aspect of a “culture that “privileges heterosexuality as normal and natural” and fosters a climate where LGBTQ [people] are discriminated against in marriage, tax codes, and employment”.
By not giving fair and decent portrayal of LGBT+ characters in the media, we teach that heterosexuality is the “right” way to live, fosters homophobia through ignorance (as the media has an undeniable influence on our development and opinions) and in a situation where no LGBT+ representation is given, creates significant problems for those who realise that they are not heterosexual which they have been told is “not normal”.
This view also undermines the adaptiveness and intelligence of young people. Some of you will have probably seen this video but this one is also a valuable watch and if you google around, there are numerous anecdotes of kids being easily capable of understanding non-heterosexual people and relationships. The dispelling of heteronormative thinking would seem to only improve the quality of life for both hetero- and non-heterosexual kids and validates LGBT+ identities. Heteronormativity being detrimental can be found with Christian singer Vicky Beeching who recently came out as a lesbian. To summarise the article, she grew up in an environment that denied her sexuality to the point that she developed a physical condition that could have killed her.
Doctor Who is a fantastic example of a TV show that dispels heteronormative ideas by being inclusive of other types of relationships but it can do more. To explain, here are some super-scientific stats from Doctor Who since it was revived in 2005:
- The Doctor has kissed/been kissed by someone from a different gender 16 times, 10 of which were gestures of romance (e.g. the Doctor kissing Martha was not a romantic gesture as the Doctor had no romantic intentions).
- In comparison, the Doctor has kissed/been kissed by someone of the same gender 3 times, all of which have been platonic and not romantic. It’s technically 4 if you consider the 11th Doctor’s failed attempted to kiss Craig to distract him from the Cybermen in Closing Time.
- The total number of kissing depicted onscreen between two people of a different gender is, er, a lot higher. Blame Amy and Rory for that one.
- In comparison, the total number of kissing depicted onscreen between two people of the same gender is 4 (5 including Craig), one of which is Jenny and Vastra’s kiss in Deep Breath.
- There has been at least one heterosexual romantic relationship depicted onscreen between two characters in every series of Doctor Who, including unrequited/one-sided affairs (e.g. Martha’s crush on the Doctor in Series 3).
- In comparison, Series’ 1, 2, 4 and 5 have not depicted a non-heterosexual relationship explicitly on-screen between two characters, although some LGBT+ characters (i.e. Captain Jack) do discuss non-heterosexual relationships that occurred off-screen. In addition, there is only 1 relationship shown on-screen between two characters in Series 6 and 7.
- As of The Time of the Doctor, there have been 22 characters who have been depicted as being heterosexual on-screen with one or several of each other. This includes main characters, recurring characters (e.g. family/friends) and characters who appeared once but had some contribution to the episode they featured in.
- In comparison, there have only been 5 characters who have been depicted as not being heterosexual on-screen. If we widen the criteria beyond the ones used in the last bullet point, this number only increases to 9. All of these characters are recurring or appeared only once in a story, meaning that they have very limited screen-time yet garner more criticism than their heterosexual counterparts. Only 3 of these characters have been in a current relationship but only 2 of that 3 have had the majority of their relationship depicted in Doctor Who rather than another show such as Torchwood.
Why does all of this information matter? For the simple reason that it’s important for LGBT+ characters to dispel the homophobic stereotypes used against LGBT+ people in real life. Without media representation, a lot of us only have these misinformed stereotypes to go on.
The reason why Jenny, Vastra and Captain Jack are so good at representing LGBT+ people is because their sexuality is portrayed as being one aspect of their lives without it ever being sidelined or used as a storyline. They all have jobs, they have distinct personalities and backgrounds i.e. they are three-dimensional characters, and Deep Breath took the next step by showing how their sexuality is still a defining aspect of the lives they live:
Vastra: Jenny and I married. Yet for appearances sake, we maintain a pretence in public, that she is my maid […] I wear a veil to keep from view what many are pleased to call my disfigurement.
As Vastra wears a veil for her appearance, Vastra wears a veil on her relationship, something which still rings true for LGBT+ people today for fear of verbal/physical/sexual harassment, being disowned and made homeless, social isolation and many other issues.
We need representation but we need the fans to support it. For LGBT+ Whovians, particularly young ones, LGBT+ characters are bright stars in a dark sky and it is my hope that the production team continues to include three-dimensional LGBT+ characters like Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Captain Jack Harkness.