Ali’s quest for her own identity reflects and embodies Soloway’s definition of ‘queer gaze’:
[the queer gaze is] changing the way the world feels when they move their bodies through the world – we’re back to the body. Feeling themselves as a subject. Women, ladies, girls, gender nonconforming people. And sometimes the first gasp of this awareness when you realize how much you haven’t been able to be in your body. Because you have been the object of the gaze. Your whole life. It’s this sort of paralysis
(Soloway 2016: 28:39)
Due to her newfound role as LGTBQ-activist she meets Lyfe (Folake Olowofoyeku) in Israel. A romance between the two quickly occurs and in a intimate scene between Ali and Lyfe, Ali is challenged since Lyfe does not want to take off her ‘binder’, which is something Ali never had to think about before (she never knew there was an option not to take it off). This goes perfectly well with Ali questioning her own gender identity:
This is yet another interesting part of a fairly new world that is opening up to Ali:
Okay. It just never occurred to me that I could not take this off (…) and, I mean, yeah, I’d love to try having sex without breasts. But I don’t know what that means. How did you… um, figure this out?
(19:20 in Barbar the Borrible)
A clearly surprised and curious Ali has so many questions since she is still ‘new’ to this whole ‘genderqueer’/ ‘gender non-conforming’ understanding of identity as well as sexuality – and she therefore has a lot questions for Lyfe.
Ali becomes, despite her own challenging of pinned down categories, an example of how pinned down those categories actually are, which is exactly the point Butler makes in Gender Trouble (2010). This means that we do not consciously choose to act ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine, ‘straight’ or ‘gay’, but are forced by existing regulations that are so deep within us that it does indeed seem ‘natural’ and ‘normal’. This is why it takes a constant awareness of the discourses that one (most often unwillingly) are subjected to in order to break with those discourses (see Forbruger-/valg-feminisme(which is underway)).
This is further underlined when Ali asks Lyfe about sex roles: “So what’s the dynamic for you? Are you always the guy, and you’re always having sex with the girl? (18:55 in Barbar the Borrible). Here, Ali falls into the same heteronormative understanding of the dominating binary understanding of gender, where you are either ‘man’ or ‘woman’ – even when it comes to two women or a woman and a gender neutral person or even two gender non-conforming people. Lyfe smiles at Ali, overbearingly, since Ali’s question is representative of how the majority of people think – and her response is fittingly: “I’m just a human person. And I just want to be a body. I can do what bodies do” (ibid.: 18:59).
The relationship of Ali and Syd (as well as Ali’s relationship with Gender Studies professor, Leslie) represents the non-heterosexual queer relationship, where existing norms and discourses do not dictate how they live their lives as well as how they ‘do’ their relationship, gender, and sexuality.
Their relationship works as a place where Ali questions monogamy and as a safe space for her to experience with her gender identity as well as redefining phallus and what it can symbolize.
In the below mentioned scene, Ali walks in to the living room with a confident smile (as she is ‘in character’) and places herself in front of Syd. She is wearing a ‘wife-beater’, boxers (for men) and her long hair is done as if she has short hair, which makes her appear more ‘masculine’ than ‘feminine’. The entire scene appears comical and overacted – almost like a caricature. Her way of dressing is a way for her to challenge and play with the viewer’s understanding of gender while also reproducing the stereotypical understanding of a gay / queer relationship that consists of a female and a male part:
Syd quickly points out that Ali is breaking the pagt (the strap-on belongs in the bedroom) and repeatedly asks her to take it off. Nevertheless, Ali continues to perform her role as a powerful (heterosexual) man, who in every way feels superior do to ‘his’ (erect) penis.
Ali puts the strap-on in front of Syd’s face to indicate that she must put it in her mouth next (this is obviously ironic):
Here, Ali and Syd represents a break with the heterosexual matrix and its claim to phallus (penetration), since it exemplifies how two women can have sex ‘with’ phallus, but without heterosexuality.
The way Ali parodies ‘a man’ underlines how one, by performing ‘the male gender’ almost automatically walks, talks, and acts differently according to the privileges given to you because you are born male in a society dominated by a patriarchal order.
I’m going to do everything with this on now. I’m going to do the New York Times crossword puzzle with a dick on (…) I’m going to make tea with a dick on (…) I’m going to throw pebbles in a pond with a dick on (…) I’d like to have some feelings and watch the rain with a dick on
(10:43 in Mee-Maw)
This is also a way of changing the meaning of phallus and its powerful position. This is done by placing it in other non-sexual correlations than what we are used to – doing crossword puzzle, drinking tea, being sensitive, and looking at the rain (‘with a dick on’). The mystery of phallus is hereby removed while its power is being taken away (a form of power men have defined themselves, which Transparent is trying to break with through queer gaze) by redefining it as something ‘safe’ and well known. The remarks ‘with a dick on’ underlines the fact that it is possible to perform one’s gender. The strap-on is something you can take on and off which means that phallus is redefined as something that belongs to everyone, not just men. With this, we witness another ‘fuck you’ – this time (in line with Lacan) aimed at ‘the big Other’ (phallus as the symbol of authority as well as potency (not a real organ)), whereby the series demonstrates exactly how hollow the idea of ‘the big Other’ (the flawless, metaphysical authority) is – both sexually and identity-wise (Rösing 2007: 36, 42, 49).
This is seen when Ali takes off the strap-on and throws it to the floor right before the mood goes from humorous and charictuarizing to intimate. Ali embraces Syd (without the strap-on):
‘Having a dick on’ is something you choose. It has no power in itself, but they, on the other hand, do. With this, it is clear that Transparent seeks to create a new and different societal structure when it comes to power: also in the bedroom. Ali takes on phallus (the power) in order to let it manifest itself in her, next she throws it to the floor, while still keeping the power – ‘female empowerment’ right there!
A third example of a ‘diverging identity’ (on more than one level) is Ali Pfefferman (Gaby Hoffmann) in Transparent. She is a character that goes from identifying as a cisgendered, heterosexual woman to being in a relationship with different women as well as questioning her gender identity. It is made clear throughout the series that she most definitely embraces what Butler defines as ‘queer’, since she is not dictated by the heteronormative matrix or her ‘assigned’ gender as defining og determining for her identity:
(00:50 in Pilot)
Ali is asleep and then wakes up, rather suddenly, and gets ready to get out of bed. The camera turns around, away from Ali, only to find her again. With this, we don’t meet Ali as person, but rather her reflection in the mirror. This means that we meet Ali in a utopian, perfect world, which is quickly brought back down to earth (Ali’s queer world as a counter place to the heterosexual matrix). Here, Soloway’s ‘queer gaze’ is manifested:
The female gaze seeks to destroy all gazes. She is other gaze, queer gaze, trans gaze, intersectional gaze, she is the non gaze, emanating from the center of not a triangle but a circle – undivided, the feel with me gaze, the being seen, I see you gaze, truth gaze
(Soloway 2016: 41:45)
As viewer, we are ‘in feeling’ with Ali, since we move with her and experience her as she experiences herself. The camera is subjective. It tries to gain access to the character. This is a welcomed contrast to ‘the male gaze’, where we look at a person – often with an objectifying gaze. The right to subjectivity is one of Soloway’s main purposes with her intersectional, feminist approach to creating tv-/streaming series.
Next, we follow Ali as she gets up from her bed and leaves the frame. On the wall next to the bed, is a picture of a naked woman, which indicates that Ali is a woman who owns her sexuality. An impression that is constantly proven to be true throughout the seasons.
After, we cut to Ali who has turned her back to the viewer. The light is low key and hard which creates a dramatic and sad, yet exciting atmosphere.
While almost sleeping, Ali walks away from the viewer giving us an opportunity to study her room a little closer. Despite the low key light, the mess caused by magazines and notebooks is obvious. It is clear, that the room lacks structure, which proves to be symptomatic to Ali’s life in general. In this way, one could argue that the mess is a symbol of where Ali is in her life right now direction-wise, since she turns out to be the character that goes through the most developing stages in the four seasons. It is interesting to note, though, that despite the physical chaos, she seems relaxed. This is further underlined by the images, since we then cut to a close-up of two hands pouring water into a coffee machine. By shifting the focus, the mess we saw before is symbolically boxed out. After, we cut to Ali drinking her freshly made coffee, while thinkingly staring out into empty space:
(01:13 in Pilot)
The lines in this setting creates a frame around Ali while also creating an expression of her state of mind. The vertical lines in the left side of the frame might indicate a form of courage, which we will later experience as the courage to explore her sexuality and starting out as an academic student. The tilted lines indicates both action and unease, which we, later in the series, come to experience both as curious and identity seeking, where Ali often looks for answers to questions like ‘who I am?’ and ‘what do I want’. The horizontal lines gives the impression of peace and harmony. Harmony is further underlined by the fact, that it is branches that make up the line, and not metal as is the case with the diagonal lines. The branches then becomes a symbol of nature, which again is a symbol of exactly peace and harmony, and also freedom. Later in the series, we will come to understand Ali as a person who is well-balanced and in many ways one who does not care about norms and societal expectations of what she should do or how she should look. It is interesting to note that the branches are placed behind the other lines, which can be interpreted as the fact that the harmony Ali contains is hidden behind the outer chaos she is in.
In her search for the answer to who she is and what she wants, she goes from being out of job and living off of her Moppas money to being a university student and then later follow in her Moppas footsteps by teaching at the university.
The way the series uses the camera along with a character that appears withdrawn underlines how Transparent uses ‘queer gaze’. The above mentioned frame projects a feeling of safety and ‘being held’ due the atmosphere of cosy domesticity. Despite the potentially trivial, rather normal, things she does, Transparent chooses to focus on exactly those feelings and moods Ali is surrounded by, which can, potentially, appeal to the viewer in a way where one feels like they see her (and might also feel seen) whereby one is invited to engaging with her. This is exactly why this rather intimate situation creates a feeling of ‘I see you seeing me’ due the relatableness occurring between viewer and the character.
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:
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
(Mittell 2015: 122)
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
First part of our analysis of Sense8 and Transparent focuses on “the Heterosexual Matrix”, defined by Butler, and how this matrix dominates society. In this part of the analysis, we investigate how it is presented in both series and how each series is trying to break with it. In short, we look at to what extend both series represent a new and more inclusive understanding of gender and sex.