Sense8 tries to eliminate the label-thinking that surrounds gender and sexuality, whereas Transparent investigates these labels and in connection to that try to change the meanings sticking to those (this is especially evident when it comes to the label woman).
In the following analysis we will, firstly, look at a character from Sense8, Nomi, and two from Transparent, Maura and Ali (post about this is already cooking) in order to investigate how they each represent a more diverse understanding of gender and what it means to be ‘woman’ – and how they are limited by the heterosexual matrix. Nomi, Maura, and Ali are all part of creating a more diverse understanding of gender and sex as categories and challenge a cis-gendered conceptual universe in different ways. They make up three different ‘stages’ in the transition towards an ‘intelligible’ woman.
Next, we will look at Lito, Sense8, and Sarah, Transparent, to understand in which ways the series transgress the boundaries of the heterosexual matrix, including how they challenge traditional ideas on relationship constellations as part of breaking with the matrix.
We don’t have to wait long to be introduced to a non heterosexual (queer) couple that consists of a cisgendered- and a transwoman. In fact, it is one of the very first things introduced in the pilot. In this way, Sense8 breaks with most other (even newer) tv- as well as streaming series – especially since they represent a great number of non-normative identities that challenge the heterosexual matrix (and its predominance in the medias)
Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) is introduced through a close-up of two hands holding a needle while extracting an undefinable fluid from a little, clear bottle:
With this, the reader is introduced to Nomi through her reflection, which is interesting when considering Foucault’s theory on the function of the mirror as the place where utopia (non-existing place that reflects society in its perfect form) and heterotopia (existing counter-place) meet. The mirror both challenges and depicts the real world. Heterotopia is represented through the hormone treatment (injection) and the fact that the mirror only shows a woman, not the needle.
Nb. The mirror metaphor is recurring for both streaming series, which underlines the series’ intention of creating a heterotopia, where queer identities and cisgendered-, binary-, hetero- identities are equal.
In the following frame, Nomi lifts the towel exposing her butt, whereafter she injects the fluid.
Next, we see the bathroom that Nomi uses. In the foreground of the frame, we see a naked woman lying in a bathtub:
In this, rather short, opening scene, we are able to decode a lot of information about Nomi, which requires an invested viewer who might have gained knowledge and information about the series (and thereby know about paratextual elements) (Mittell 2015: 194). This knowledge can forinstants be acquired by seeking out knowledge about the actresses. Mittell describes that this can be part of creating further engagement with the characters since the actresses’ off screen role can open up for other, more in-depth understandings of the character since the boundaries between private and professional life as well as facts and fiction become blurred. This, through a mixture of former roles, and/or the persons visibility on social media. In this way, the actress life outside of the series functions as an intertextual reference:
(Mittell 2015: 122)
In all of these instances and many more, viewers approach a character with a wealth of star-connected contexts from both on- and offscreen references that help shape storytelling practices, highlighting the centrality of actors in constituting characters within serial television
The paratextual knowledge (prior knowledge) ensures that the viewer quickly knows that Nomi is a transwoman just like the actress. Clayton is very open about her life as transgender on social media:
The series appeal to an audience with paratextual knowledge (that has more knowledge than usual about the subject matter), who shares a desire for transgression.
It is worth noting, that Nomi is presented with her girlfriend, Amanita (Freema Agyeman), who is cis-gendered and seems relaxed and comfortable with her (naked) body. Nomi, on the other hand, wears a towel that covers her ‘female traits’, which might be a reference to society at hand, where it is easier to accept a biological determined female body than a non-cisgendered (despite the fact that Nomi, when accepting the mainstream terms, ‘passes’ as a ‘real’ woman).
The injection can be understood as a performative action, which underlines how the series follows Butler’s approach to biological as well as social gender as being performative and not biologically determined. The fact that she needs hormone treatment at all underlines how the boundaries of the body has to be crossed – by stopping the processes that would normally make sure, Nomi was not accepted as a woman (which proves just how caught up by the idea of binary genders we are – since one needs to look like a woman to be admitted into the ‘woman’s category’). With this, the intentions of the series are obvious – to break with the idea of a heteronormative, romantic relationship as the only kind of relationship. Sense8 is not a show that intend to follow the heterosexual matrix!
Later, still in Sense8’s first episode, we are presented with an establishing shot of an apartment, that seems to be split into two rooms: a bedroom and a living room. The colors are low-key and warm (candle lits and lanterns), which underlines the cozy and comfortable atmosphere in the rooms:
While the camera slowly moves towards two people that are barely visible in the back of the room, a woman moans, louder and louder. Considering the expected conceptual universe of the heterosexual, average viewer, it is supposingly a man and a woman having sex (an assumption based on dominating discourses and representations of gender and sexuality in the media: heterosexual men and women).
Next, we see a medium shot of the two people, still far too away to give away their identities. It is not until the third frame, we are able to determine who they are; Nomi and Amanita, having sex:
This is, in every way, a break with the heterosexual matrix as being the only ‘right’ one. Nomi is a transwoman in a queer relationship with another woman.
In this frame, Amanitas wears a strap-on-dildo. Nomi who is penetrated by Amanita. The first important and interesting element in this scene that breaks with heteronormative discourses, is a trans woman (Nomi) with an active sexuality. This is a rare sight and breaks with tendencies to fetichise trans* people in tv-/streaming series. A more recent example of fetichising trans* characters is the character Sophia Burset in the award winning, inclusive and normally very diverse Netflix series Orange Is the New Black (2013-) by Jenji Kohan that has been criticized (by gender researchers etc.) for desexualising Sophia and hypersexualising many of the other female characters (Householder & Trier-Bieniek 2016: 10).
At the end of Nomi’s very loud climax, the camera zooms to show Amanita taking of the strap-on and letting it hit the ground. In the same instant the series cut to a close-up of a rainbow colored dildo where sperm, very explicitly, splashes to all sides as it hits the ground:
By explicitly showing the sperm in this way, the series very clearly states that Nomi is a woman – a real woman. Period. It is even convenient to talk about a form of symbolic castration, where the series disassociate themselves from the idea of the fallos symbol as something belonging to a man (they thereby break with the power that penis normally represent). Choosing a rainbow colored dildo (rather than a more realistic color) is in no way a coincident, since it does not symbolise a penis and in this way, not a man either. With this, the series does not try to reproduce heterosexual sex (simply because of penetration) but a queer (homosexual) relationship that too has a right to penetration sex: the rainbow colored dildo can thereby be seen as an intertextual reference to, and a symbol of, Pride and LGBTQ identities.
The dropping of the rainbow colored dildo on the floor combined with the intertextual reference to Pride are important factors when it comes to introducing, and understanding, Nomi as a person: A woman who is not controlled by her ‘unintelligible’ sexuality or her non binary gender – who is not one to be limited by existing norms.
Everything that could connect Nomi to the male gender (the rainbow colored strap on as a symbol of fallos) is literally thrown to the ground with a bang. This can be seen a part of the series symbolic ‘fuck you’ to the heterosexual matrix as well as biological gender as being destiny.
The sex scene between Nomi and Amanita is uncompromising and has no intention of sparring the viewer. The use of unaccustomed, potentially transgressive elements such as a strap on dildo is definitely part of challenging the viewer’s heteronormative conceptual universe, which is exactly the intention of the series. The abovementioned scene is just one of many in which Sense8 portrays a ‘Butler approach’ when it comes to gender representation as well as sexuality. Heterosexuality as being the ‘natural’ and the biological ‘woman’ as being the only ‘right’ woman is simply non existing in Sense8’s universe. Instead, they encourage the viewers to throw away their existing (ignorant) ideas on sexuality, gender, and relationship.
Mittell, Jason (2015): Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. New York University Press. ISBN: 978-0-8147-7135-8
Householder, April Kalogeropopulos & Trier-Bieniek, Adrienne (2016): Feminist Perspectives on Orange Is the New Black: Thirteen Critical Essays. McFarland & Company Inc. Publishers. ISBN: 978-1-4766-6392-0
Straczynski, J. Michael, Wachowski, Lana & Wachowski, Lilly (2015-): Sense8. Netflix: Limbic Resonance