Seeing our true and lived experiences on screen as queer people can be cathartic and healing, but it can also be deeply upsetting. Historical, biographical, and dramatic queer television programmes are important media and certainly have their place on our screens, but they can often be too shockingly real and representative of negative experiences that we face in our day-to-day lives. From bullying and issues of coming out, to hate crimes and the illegality of homosexuality, sometimes queer shows can be a little hard to watch. We consume media as a form of escapism, to find better and safer worlds to borrow for a little while; so what happens when television reflects our own struggles? Where do we find the good?
This is not to say that these genres and styles of queer media are unimportant; in fact, they are more important than ever. We need to keep our histories alive, keep them visible, and educate the masses through television. Shows based in fact and reality are essential in preserving our culture, our struggles, and our losses. Yet fiction does not have to live by these rules. Television shows in which queer people exist and homophobia and transphobia do not are essential in shaping both our and non-queer people’s views of the world. We can escape to queer “utopias” and encourage others to join us. We deserve a place, albeit fictional, in which we are safe and respected.
The case of What We Do in the Shadows is a rare but important one. All of the five main characters are queer – one is gay, whilst the other four do not use labels – and a majority of the recurring characters are queer too. The vampires don’t feel the need to put names or labels to who they are, because they have never seen or accepted their identities as “other.” They live in present-day New York, on Staten Island, as vampires. Yet whilst they (very understandably) face backlash for their vampirism and the killing of humans, there is never one bad word said about their abundant queerness. In fact, the series actively promotes it wherever possible; the protagonists and their messy gaggle of humans, vampires, and other species eagerly involve themselves in everything queer, including a variety of romantic and/or sexual relationships, pride parades, performances, and pretending to date each other (and enjoying it). Even the very concept of queerness is extremely casual and normalised within their tight-knit circle; it is not surprising when Colin Robinson, the assumed-to-be-straight friend of the group, mentions an ex-boyfriend in season five. He doesn’t need to come out; there is no big reveal, no shocking moment, and the other characters continue as if this is the most natural thing in the world – which it actually is.
Spaces should – and need to – exist without homophobic and transphobic violence. But until we can create those safe spaces in reality, we need to be able to look elsewhere; to literature, to film, and to television. We need queer utopias to aspire to and change public opinion.
Unconditional queer love and acceptance teach us to challenge the beliefs and norms around us. These onscreen queer utopias are not just healing, but educational. They show us what the world could be like, and more importantly, what the world should be like. Contemporary television needs to make space for this new genre and generation of queer media: the queer “utopia” in which we are finally free from harm.
By Holly (she/her)