Queer as Folk
reprinted In 3rd Wave Feminism, Television on November 30, 2015.
It’s Monday night. I’m in the living room. My boyfriend is in the bedroom. I’m wearing my sexy black teddy, mules with gentle pink feathers dangle from my perfectly pedicured feet, my lips are swathed in a lipstick called Fatal Femme. It’s a holy time and I want to be ready. My fireplace roars. My popcorn is poised for the new season of Queer As Folk. Like many women across the country who watch the show – fifty-two percent according to the Nielsen ratings in 2001, and growing – I’m addicted. I am not alone.
“At the beginning, it really surprised me,” says Queer As Folk producer Sheila Hockin. “All of us working on the show, Showtime in the States and Showcase in Canada, expected to have predominantly a gay male audience.” Because most of the lead characters are male, the assumption was that “the group of people portrayed would likely be the people watching the show. It startled us in the beginning and at first, we thought that maybe we’re drawing gay women.” After reviewing fan mail and Web sites about the show they realized it was a lot of straight women.
When openly-gay actor Robert Grant, who plays Michael Novotny’s (Hal Sparks) HIV+ lover Ben, appeared on The Mike Bullard Show, he noted that the women “like the cute guys. They relate to the stories or whatnot, but here’s the key… I found out that the truth is, women love to watch two guys getting it on! I was really surprised by this… it’s always, guys like to watch two women… socialization-wise.” Hot male bodies in action are a big part of the draw. Surprise! We could stop right there if that was all there was to the show’s fascination for women – there’s a hell of a lot more action happening in gay porn that could satisfy a Betty’s need to see Studly getting it on with Dudly.
So what exactly are women getting all wet over? What kinds of identifications are women hooking into? Women are creating their own gender performances in fantasy and play in ways that make gender go nuclear. Straight women watching Queer as Folk might be the ultimate Queer quotient. Femininity and masculinity, associated with “appropriate” sexual identification and desire, is suddenly attached to culturally inappropriate male and female bodies. There is an explosion of identification: girls desiring straight boys playing gay boys. Girls wanting to be a feminine boy kissing a butch boy. Girls wanting to be taken by or wanting to take a gay/straight boy. Girls romanticizing gay desire and freedom of sexual play.
What we are experiencing now is Gender Meltdown.
Why women find QAF appealing finds part of its answer in Hockin’s musing that “women find it erotic and sensual to watch.” Queer representations, however, transform the relationship the straight female audience has with the erotic and sensual, triggering new kinds of identifications because women need to take a leap not usually necessary in traditional (straight) television dramas or comedies.
Eroticism and sensuality are intertwined with romantic situations and dramas housed in queer cloth. Still, women are wrapped up in it. “Women are drawn to the working out of romantic relationships,” says Hockin. “And how people negotiate relationships. The power-plays. There are Ethan-Justin fan groups…a whole group of people on the Web called BJshippers – Brian-Justin Worshippers. People are so heavily invested in that relationship. [The executive producers] Ron [Cowen] and Dan [Lipman] think of Brian and Justin as one of the great Romantic couples.”
Hal Sparks plays the sweet and dysfunctional enough-to-be-believed Michael Novotny, Brian Kinney’s (Gale Harold) best friend. I ask him what aspects of his character might appeal to women. He replies: “His sweetness. His vulnerability and his habit of binge eating comfort food when he gets upset.”
In a more serious vein, he feels there are common romantic identifications. “This is the first time many women have seen what they go through with their husbands and boyfriends portrayed honestly on screen. Most straight relationships on TV are told in an incomplete, male-focused way.” Sparks says that women relate “with a combination of deep rooted teary-eyed understanding and throw popcorn at the screen in frustration. I think we all can relate to unrequited love in some way.”
For straight women, buying into the show’s romance and eroticism is more complex – it is something of an identity juggling act. Keeping all the balls up in the air becomes especially convoluted in the worship of the actors. After all, to fall for one of the boys on QAF is often to fall for a straight boy playing a gay boy. Sparks has been upfront about being straight: “A very small section of the fan base gets angry every time I say I’m straight because they are under the impression that I ask to be asked so that I can say, ‘I’m straight, thanks for asking – here’s 10 bucks,’ and distance myself from the show. In my heart I know this criticism comes from people who have been severely marginalized by our culture and fear it will get worse.”
You may as well be desiring Matt Damon for all the chance you actually have of seeing Michael or Brian waltz through your door at the end of the day. But there is the illusion of possibility that is tempting beyond the illusion. And obviously, you might be falling for a gay boy too. In any case, the so-called secure straight identities actors have in distinguishing themselves from their characters get blurred. They have kissed and often been naked with members of the same sex, after all. In character or not. Juggling the object of desire’s ambiguous sexuality is part of the straight fan’s own gender performance. The object she desires says something about her own sexual play and sexual orientation.
The show brings role-playing to the surface. Femininity is not necessarily female and masculinity male. On QAF there are traditional roles taken on by both sexes. Females, such as Melanie Marcus (Michelle Clunie) take on a traditionally masculine role as the provider for the family and it could be said that Justin, played by openly-gay Randy Harrison, takes on the femme role to Brian’s über-butch. Gale Harold plays a gay man objectifying men in the way that some men have historically objectified women. Brian’s total bad-boy hotness is reminiscent of the womanizer seen on soaps from suds past, collapsing a traditional (straight) male archetype with a butch gay one. Hal Sparks notes, “Ironically, even though the relationships on the show are predominately male-male, since one person must take on the feminine role, women get to see their struggle played out more fully.” Women might find a certain reflection of themselves in a gay ‘feminine-role-playing’ man on TV. Or a butch one.
The toss-up of conventional roles creates a grab bag of lust opportunity and gender play. Sheila Hockin elaborates: “A lot of straight women wildly romanticize Brian Kinney. There is some commentary on the Web, straight women talking about sexual fantasies to do with the characters, where they want to be a guy Brian kisses. They don’t want to be a woman. It all gets very gender-bending.” Women are not just taking a peek as themselves, replacing characters on the screen (Justin, for example) with their pretty, pouty faces, they’re also masquerading as gay males. Gender Meltdown.
With all the hype about women getting turned on by the gaze, straight women are also watching women getting it on. And this is something we don’t usually hear about. How do straight women relate to the lesbians on the show? Exit the Professor, and enter Ginger and Mary-Ann.
The lovely Michelle Clunie plays Melanie Marcus, the somewhat butchier partner to Thea Gills’s Lindsay Peterson. Speaking from “my own perspective as a straight woman,” Clunie describes what turned her on to the show. “Before this, I never saw two women making love in real life or in the theatre or in a porno or anywhere. I know the first time I saw the pilot, I thought ‘wow that’s kind of hot, I never thought about that before.’ I think a lot of straight women are re-thinking ménages-à-trois. I mean, there has always been this fantasy of two women for guys. This puts the shoe on the other foot.” She goes further by saying, “In a way because there is so much male nudity on the show and so much male sex on the show, it’s almost like we’re objectifying men.”
Women are also re-evaluating the ménages-à-trois players. “I’ve even heard women say ‘wow, I wonder what it would be like to be with two men?’” says Clunie. “One boyfriend of a girl came to this party and he said something like ‘do you want me to kiss a guy?’ because the girl watched Queer As Folk and she was really into the guy-guy thing. I think that it’s opening up a whole sexual layer to explore. And I think that’s wonderful and great and why not?” The exploration of sexual layers between ‘straight’ couples takes the term to task… It’s almost as though a new language needs to be created to accommodate the play involved in watching the show.
While the straight female fan hoopla is intriguing, there have been concerns on the fan chat-boards. One gay fan feels that the straight fans are given more credibility, that it means more to the show that there are female viewers, “sorta like AIDS didn’t mean anything until straights were affected…can’t exactly explain why this hits me so oddly, but it does.” Another fan worries the show might change to attract straight fans: “It may be cable but it’s still commercial American television and that is all about numbers, ratings, and demographics.”
I asked Hal Sparks and Melanie Clunie if their performances were affected by the knowledge that they had a huge het female fan base and they both replied in the negative. Clunie’s primary goal was, “to be true to my character.” Sparks says, “My only real focus is on interpreting the script as close to the writer’s intention as I can. The British show had a big female fan base with no help from me. So, I just try to stay out of the way. Let Michael live without my ego getting involved at all.”
Producer Sheila Hockin is adamant that the writers have only been concerned with depicting the characters from their own gay, cultural perspective and that the story would not shift to accommodate a straight female audience. Rather the stories would grow, like the characters, from clubbing to different growth-oriented gay priorities and concerns. “The show has never been written for straight women,” says Hockin.
So what does this mean?
It isn’t surprising to find women subtextually replacing Justin with themselves or with an altered gay male version of self. That is what queers have been doing for decades, watching TV shows that didn’t represent their desire. What gay man hasn’t been Scarlett to Rhett or J. Lo to Ben?
In fact, straight women might be the ultimate Queer quotient when it comes to watching Queer as Folk by inhabiting that twilight zone, the marginal, the Other – qualities of the Queer that are seemingly taking a lovey-dovey hiatus from the show within a gay context irrespective of a straight female fan base.
Women now have fantasy access to back rooms they could never get into before. The straight female fans might be fags in mental drag; they might be Queer as folk.
• Romy Shiller is a pop culture critic and holds a Ph.D. in Drama and Film. Her academic areas of concentration include gender performance, camp, and critical thought.
Books are available online. She lives in Montreal where she continues her writing.
Originally published in FAB Magazine, Number 213, April 23, 2003, 12-17