- Review: Laugh Riot @ Refract:21, Waterside Arts - 30 July, 2021
- Preview: Refract Festival, Waterside Arts, Manchester - 5 July, 2021
- Review: Manchester Jewish Museum - 4 July, 2021
I had so many mixed feelings about Lovecraft Country (and I realise I’m late to the party, having only just watched it). It’s an ambitious, Black-led show that deserves all the praise it’s getting, but I know I’m not the only person who’s been disappointed by its approach to queerness.
Black queerness is so rarely explored in TV — and rarer still at the hands of Black creative teams — so it was perhaps with even greater sadness when Lovecraft Country failed to live up to my expectations. Though, I must also preface this article by saying that we often hold Black creators to higher standards than their white peers – even if we are Black ourselves. This is partly because we want each Black show to make up for all the Black shows we didn’t get. We want the perfect Black TV show right now, even though we haven’t necessarily had the same space to fail forward as white creators. But I digress…
Lovecraft Country, thankfully, has had some very positive reviews. I’m pleased about that. And it means I feel less guilty critiquing it than I would a show like, say, the Charmed reboot, which has been blasted just because two of its main characters are Afro-Latinas and because it’s not a clone of the original show (for the record: I like both versions of Charmed, but I much prefer the reboot).
There are lots of articles talking about what Lovecraft Country gets right, but let’s also talk about one area where it gets things wrong (there are others, too, such as the treatment of its Korean character and the weirdly Jewish name given to an antagonist which evokes the blood libel, but I’ll save those topics for later). So let’s talk about Montrose Freeman. Montrose was always going to be a complicated character. As a closeted Black gay man at a time when racism and homophobia were literally lethal, his story was always going to be one of the hardest to tell. But there are a number of ways his story failed to meet expectations.
One of the most egregious problems with Montrose’s portrayal was the casual murder of two-spirit Arawak character Yahima. First off, Yahima’s introduction was itself terribly problematic. They are revealed, naked and undead, as a spectacle for the heteronormative gaze: the camera lingers on their penis and breasts in a way that’s supposed to elicit shock and exoticism. They are not a person but a zombie, revived from a dried husk, and unable to speak directly to the audience (their words in Arawak are not subtitled, so the words are filtered through Tic, who only gives partial translations). Quite literally, they are objectified, and have no voice.
Nevertheless, I was excited to see them. As a person of Caribbean descent, with some Arawak ancestry and who identifies as genderfluid, I was keen to see a queer person representative of the native Caribbean tribes on a mainstream TV show. I had hoped Yahima would learn English, or the characters would learn Arawak, so that we would eventually get to see what they were saying firsthand. I had hoped they would be more than a trope. Yet Yahima is several tropes at once. They are the noble savage, the magical Native American and the archetypal Hollywood native.
But they also fulfil several harmful tropes around queer, trans and intersex people – bury your gays being the obvious one. Yahima’s death uncomfortably reminds the queer viewer that our bodies are often particularly vulnerable to murder by cis men — especially those of femme-presenting gender variant people. Their death after being sexualised (perhaps even fetishised) is a stark reminder of the trans and non-binary sex workers killed in such high proportions by men who are johns or lovers. It also, for this queer reader, invoked the image of gay panic so often used as a defence in the murder of LGBT+ people — and the equally common stereotype that such murderers are ‘self-loathing gays’ (thereby transferring any blame from cis-hetero people back to queer people).
That Montrose, a queer Black man, should be the perpetrator of this crime is especially pernicious. It feeds into racist stereotypes of Black queerphobia — that all Black people are in some degree more homophobic, biphobic and transphobic, because we are more religious, less enlightened, and more violent and thuggish… You get the idea.
But the slight against Black queers continues. When we see Montrose have sex, it is brutal and rough, from behind. This is a particularly heterosexist stereotype, where gay sex is always violent, impersonal and savage. It’s quite literally ‘backwards’. It also shows a lack of imagination — even straight people have more than one position. Yes, Montrose is unable to engage in real intimacy, but does it need to be so obvious and crass?
So how would I fix this? First, in the case of Yahima, I’d have let them live. If they provided too easy a route to success for the characters (a problem the creators wrote themselves into, I might add), it would have been enough for them to flee. They had already refused to help them; it would make sense that, with their superior magic, they could hide away from everyone else. Or perhaps, with their abilities, they could have discovered the space-time-bending technology used by Hippolyta, and fled to another era or another world entirely.
Not only would this avoid a harmful, offensive and upsetting trope, it would allow a very interesting character to return at a later date. Indigenous characters are often denied a voice or agency in American media, and this would have been a powerful reversal of that trope. A less satisfactory solution would have been to show the undead Yahima rise again, of their own volition, after Montrose left the room — they were seemingly dead once already. That still leaves the bitter taste of anti-queer murder, but it subverts the trope a little. (Maybe this can be a retcon in season 2?)
Had matters of intersectionality been borne in mind during the original planning, it would have been even easier to avoid this situation. Why introduce a ‘twofer token’ character just to kill them off? They could given Yahima amnesia, so they couldn’t remember the Language of Adam, or they could have made their knowledge incomplete. It was the writers who chose to make them a deus ex machina they immediately had to wipe off the board for making the resolution too easily attainable.
As for Montrose himself, there are other ways to show his lack of ability to be intimate. Casual sex in itself can be a way to avoid to commitment, and showing the contrast between an attentive sexual partner who then ignores their significant other after the act is over, could be a more nuanced way to reveal his inner conflict. By showing the possibility that, actually, yes, he can be tender — in certain circumstances, and when no one else is around — you have both a more honest portrayal of what queer love in a time of intense prejudice was really like, but also the promise of what could have been and what can’t be yet.
It makes the horrors of such a society worse, by giving us intimacy and then stealing it away, without resorting to stereotypes about the barbarity of Black men and gay sex alike. It also leaves the door open for a happy ending for Montrose in future, rather than endless shame and isolation — because if we’re writing a fantasy, why fantasise about our own neverending misery?