As I'm sure you're aware, It's a Sin is currently taking British television by storm, racking up 6.5 million views on All 4 across its five episodes. The show, which focuses on various LGBTQ individuals during the AIDS crisis, has received wide acclaim across the media - the Guardian describes how "Humour and humanity are at the heart of this sublime series about London’s gay community in the 1980s". Furthermore, The Telegraph exclaims how the show is "Russell T Davie's best series so far".
This, however, is going to be a very different article to the ones you've previously seen lauding the new Channel 4 show. Firstly, those of you who know me personally understand how rare it is for me to dabble into the world of TV - nevertheless when I became aware of the overwhelming praise circling around this show, I thought I ought to watch it.
I would like to make it crystal clear that this is an opinion piece and in no way do I aim to detract from people's emotional response from this programme. However, as an openly gay man, I would like to offer some more perspective as to why I think It's a Sin isn't perhaps the shinning beacon of representation people are interrupting it as.
Russell T Davies is a truly remarkable man, behind the revolutionary Doctor Who and various LGBTQ centred projects such as Cucumber and Queer as Folk - it's certainly inspiring to see such stories told through a queer gaze. Recently in an interview with Sky News he stressed how straight actors shouldn't play gay roles, arguing: "You wouldn't cast someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair, you wouldn't black someone up. Authenticity is leading us to joyous places." Sky News also reports that: "While both gay and straight actors were auditioned, the nine characters all ended up being played by gay men". Taking all this into account - the screenwriter has done awful lot for LGBTQ representation in the media - that's why I feel disheartened and enraged by his latest creation.
In regards to It's a Sin - Russell T Davies explains “I wanted to create characters that you love so that when they’re gone, you miss them exactly the same way we missed the people that we lost.” The core of the show concerns the individuals behind the AIDS crisis, but in his attempt to re-educate the modern generation, Davies falls into the stereotypes that are still strongly associated with the gay community even today.
The series opens with a young and fancy-free Richie (Olly Alexander), Roscoe (Omari Douglas) and Collin (Callum Scott-Howells) as an exciting new life awaits them in the big city. At the end of the episode, the three boys are asked what they want to do in the future and their replies of course maintain a sense of foreboding and irony, blissfully unaware of the horrors to come. But unfortunately, whilst Davies wants us to gain a well rounded perspective of the individuals who faced the horrors of the epidemic, their characterisation extends no further than their sex lives.
Now you may quickly remind me that the soul focus of this show is the AIDS crisis - which, of course...involves sex. But what I find frustrating and even more so exhausting, is the constant depiction of gay men as perverts or sexual predators, their illness isn't just a part of them, it becomes them. Whilst you could argue the show succeeds in displaying the public perception of queer men at the time - it tragically feels more like a stereotype that's pushed forward so that the general heteronormative public can easily digest why the problem occurred.
As a matter of a fact, HIV originated from chimpanzees and passed from ape to man. AIDS was not created because man slept with man, AIDS was a devastating and colossal impact for individuals who were simply trying to live their lives. But my problem with It's a Sin is its failure to minimise these stereotypes - our key characters, Richie in particular, is depicted with a ravenous appetite for sex but given very little attributes otherwise. We learn he is an aspiring actor and generally quite naive but the rest of his personality is swallowed up in a role that feels like it does very little to tackle the over sexualised image already attached to the gay community. At the fear of sounding rather old fashioned - I'd like to stress that sex is a completely normal aspect of life and as such should be normalised far greater in the media. However it's discouraging to see gay relations portrayed in such a dirty and disgusting manner; it would've been far more impactful if Davies perhaps explored how sexually suppressed LGBTQ members are and ultimately how that effects their experience with sex.
I appreciate some people may argue this underpinning such an experience through our characters often wild sex lives - but it's extremely difficult to see the real people behind this mask of sexual prowess as portrayed by Davies. To speak quite frankly, I think the over sexualisation of the LGBTQ community in the media is the main reason why so much stigma still exists today. In an interview with Gay Times, Karamo Brown (from the Queer Eye reboot) recalls:
"On the latest season of America’s Next Top Model they had an episode where they go to Los Angeles Pride, and the shots are of these go-go boys with their d*cks out and people grinding on each other, and I was like, “Oh my gosh – this can’t be the image this producer is sending out to middle America when they think about Pride.” It’s so much more than that. It’s about our struggle, our journey, our ancestors, how far we’ve come, and where we’re going."
There's also clear examples of such promiscuity in the relentlessly offensive Bruno (2009) and Cruising (1980). However this oversexualisation impacts all corner of the LGBTQ community: Queer women are often depicted masculine and similarly lustful, take Basic Instinct (1992) for example - a film which was "protested by gay rights activists who felt that the film followed a pattern of negative depiction of gay and lesbian people in the film industry" - according to LGBT project wiki. Likewise,, Michela from A Nerdy Trans Girl describes "The sexualization of trans women, crossdressers, and gender non-conforming people that ran rampant on the 90’s internet was the spark that turned this high-octane mixture into a fire that I wouldn’t go near with a ten foot pole. I never saw trans people advertised as anything more than sex objects, and it was incredibly hard to combine this with my inner desire to be a woman".
Now speaking from my own personal experience. I am quite a visibly androgynous person and on nights out this attracts a lot of unwanted attention, with men often making not only homophobic but rather sexual remarks whilst approaching me in toilets. I recognise my privilege as a white man and to think that people would've suffered ever greater due to their sexual orientation, gender or skin colour is a fact I find exceedingly terrifying to come to terms with. And this is why I point towards It's a Sin and the utmost importance and delicacy of representation and displaying a certain image. I commend Davies for raising awareness about the AIDS crisis and I can't deny the shows ultimate good intentions - but I feel it misses the mark.
We're shown montages of sex scenes, threesomes and other sexual endeavours - as well as widely portraying most of the men as physically forward to one another...but realistically where does this leave us? In a scene towards the end of the series Richie expresses his sexual desires to one of his old school friends, and continues even though his friend is clearly uncomfortable and explains so rather bluntly. I yet again stress that sex is inherent in every human being and it's a crucial aspect of growth and pleasure - but why portray it so exhaustingly? At the end of the day gay culture isn't about gay sex? Tapping into the heads of these characters can be achieved in so much more depth than just through their physical encounters. Referring back to what Brown said - it goes so much deeper than that, and to argue otherwise is, well, entirely missing the point. All these ingredients mixed together, make a cocktail of disaster and distain. Though I may come across as prude, my grievances lie with the lack of nuance given to these LGBTQ characters. Heterosexual characters aren't largely defined by their sex lives in the media - but why are LGBTQ individuals almost entirely defined by theirs.