From "Sherlock" to "Supernatural," TV Explores Homoerotic Gray Areas
Benedict Cumberbatch, as Sherlock Holmes in the classic character's current BBC incarnation, gives Watson a sidelong glance.
When Star Trek first appeared on screen in 1966, it set the model for all sorts of shows to follow—including boldly going into the galaxy of unrequited homoerotic relationships. The devotion of Kirk and Spock, full of longing glances and a sexless intimacy, sparked a whole new genre of queer fanfiction and, to this day, keeps fans rabid for every small moment between the two.
These days, TV is full of couples like Kirk and Spock. While these close same-sex relationships can be sweet portraits of loving friendships, they can also cross a line to be queerbating—shows create queer subtext but yank it away before getting to actual feelings, actions, or any clear understanding of the relationship.
Compared to film, TV gifts its audience with time to become better acquainted with characters, granting space to explore nuanced, ongoing emotional lives. That allows for complicated explorations of characters’ relationships and desires… when shows have the guts to move beyond a black-and-white will-they-or-won’t-they plotline.
A current Kirk-and-Spock dynamic can be found on BBC hit Sherlock, which sets Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) in modern day London with his partner-in-crime Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman). The pair share a flat, spend most of their waking hours together, and are each other’s best (and, really, only) friends. The show often riffs on how people think they’re a gay couple—including their landlord, who insinuates that she supports them as a couple while they consider renting the apartment. “There’s all sorts ‘round here. Mrs. Turner next door’s got married ones,” she tells the pair. Shortly after meeting Dr. Watson, Sherlock’s brother asks, “Since yesterday you’ve moved in with him and now you’re solving crimes together. Are we to expect a happy announcement by the end of the week?” Watson often gets exasperated with telling strangers he’s “not actually gay.”
When Watson and Sherlock first become friends, Watson thinks Sherlock might be gay.
In some shows, misunderstanding the gray area between friends and lovers has been played for laughs (Friends’ Joey and Chandler as well as Psych’s Shawn and Gus come to mind), but there’s not much that’s funny in others’ misconceptions on Sherlock. What seems strange to characters on the show, it seems, is that men would share a flat, be the best of friends, and not be gay. People who assume Watson and Sherlock are gay resist the idea of an intimate male friendship without “benefits.” Sherlock plays with perception and expectation, because while John corrects anyone who thinks they’re lovers (expressing concern to being called a "bachelor" in the media, knowing what’s implied), Sherlock is uncharacteristically quiet on the topic—for a man who is always setting everyone straight on every topic discussed in his presence. Whatever Sherlock’s silence means, it flips the script from the anticipated reply to perceived queerness (“I’m not gay! Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”) presenting a more complicated image for the audience to have to deal with.
Current TNT police show Rizzoli and Isles plays up a similar relationship with female leads detective Jane Rizzoli (Angie Harmon) and medical examiner Maura Isles (Sasha Alexander). There’s the brunching, lounging in bed and talking, and pretending to be a couple to avoid unwanted male attention. Website After Ellen even made a list of the show’s “Top 10 Gayzzoliest Moments.”
And this is the #1 "Gayzzoliest" moment.
Actress Angie Harmon acknowledged in TV Guide, “Sometimes we’ll do a take for that demo. I’ll brush by [Maura’s] blouse or maybe linger for a moment. As long as we’re not being accused of being homophobic, which is not in any way true and completely infuriating, I’m OK with it.” Despite the underlying weirdness of referring to a specific “demo,” which I’ll venture to mean the demographic of queer women and fans of queerness, this highlights a show’s awareness of what their fan base finds titillating, a trend that seems to be on the upswing as social media removes traditional barriers between creators and consumers. No longer are creators in their ivory towers; now they can track fan approval in real time and style their characters accordingly.
Being responsive to one’s audience is a strange new aspect of our media and it doesn’t come without hiccups. Take for example, Harmon’s statement. She disputes the assertion that playing coy with physical touching and glances, but not anything more, could be considered homophobic. While homophobia doesn’t feel like the right descriptor, one could imagine a show’s discomfort with two women in a confirmed queer relationship. It’s considered safer to have light lesbian allusions to satisfy “that demo” but to not commit to having an actual on-screen, same-sex romance. That’s not homophobia, but that’s not being comfortable with queerness, either. Perhaps the more important point is that one fan’s homophobia is another fan’s homoeroticism; so much of this is open to personal interpretation and what we as viewers bring to TV.
There is precedent for these queer-ish relationships across media, but there's also academic standing as well. Adrienne Rich discussed same-sex intimacy in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” diagraming the “lesbian continuum” as variety of experiences and pleasure that can expand "to embrace many more forms of primary intensity,” fluidity, and the ability for women to move in and out of the continuum. As a viewer, I see the relationships in Star Trek, Sherlock, and Rizzoli and Isles being on a queer continuum that, just like Rich’s proposition, allows for fluidity and an inclusive approach to what it means to be queer.
This trope of partners/"partners" is strong enough to support a whole show’s premise based on this blurred line: USA’s 2012 detective show Common Law. The show had only one season, but it was written with all the makings of other homoerotic shows that came before it, in particular a device that forced the good looking male leads Travis and Wes to talk about their feelings during professionally mandated therapy. The show's tagline was: "It's like marriage. Only with bullets."
That's a sidelong glance worthy of Sherlock there, Wes.
Common Law, from day one, seemed like a trap meant for those of us who like our partnerships on the queerer side, but I’d argue it doesn’t make it or its characters any less legitimate. In fact, as TV gets more inclusive, with more and more queer characters cropping up, it is exceptional to see the spectrum open wide enough to include same-sex relationships that are open to interpretation: a deep and meaningful friendship between two people, the tip of a steamier romantic iceberg, or something else entirely. I don’t see it as queerbaiting, but as an acknowledgement that same-sex relationships don’t fit into clean straight and gay boxes.
Furthermore, it seems boring and pat to reduce a relationship to its physical parts. Most discussion of these relationships does begins and ends with the question: When are they going to make out, already?! The better question undoubtedly is: Why do all relationships have to end in making out? Returning to Rich, she defines the erotic as “omnipresent in ‘the sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic.’” Having variability in relationships, especially those between men that include affection and love, helps to liberate the trappings of masculinity—and that liberates us all a little more.
Science fiction seems to loosen boundaries in all manner of places, especially as it applies to relationships. The current incarnation of Teen Wolf, for example, seems well-aware of itself as a vehicle for homoeroticism but never writes queerness into its story line outright. Derek Hale (Tyler Hoechlin) and comedy sidekick Stiles (Dylan O'Brien) banter constantly, push each other up against walls, and save each other’s lives, all the while maintaining sporadic relationships with women, bringing up yet another trope of homoerotic relationships: the significant other, always of the opposite sex, who momentarily distracts one of the pair from the other. This tends to last an episode, but even when it stretches beyond that, the side character strictly in the background is never a threat to the strength or longevity of the same-sex pairing.
One fan's hopeful "hot couple alert" for Teen Wolf's Derek and Stiles.
For yet another example, look at demon-hunting CW show Supernatural, which is now in its ninth season. The show is essentially The X-Files but with brothers Sam and Dean Winchester (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles), who have Mulder-and-Scully levels of sexual tension coursing through their relationship. Fans of the pairing refer to it as “Wincest” and are firm in their beliefs that these brothers want to tear into each other. Former showrunner Sera Gamble calls Supernatural the “epic love story of Sam and Dean.”
The relationship, of course, has spurred a world of "Wincest" fan art:
Sam and Dean wallpaper via FanPop.
An imagined morning-after scene by Nemo via the Supernatural wiki.
There’s other same-sex tension on the show: a deep, abiding love between Dean and dour-yet-smoldering-hot angel Castiel (Misha Collins). When Castiel showed up in the show’s fourth season, he and Dean immediately sparked chemistry on screen and for fans, with the camera lingering on their soulful glances and salacious banter (“Cas, not for nothing, but the last time someone looked at me like that...I got laid”). At a fan convention, Supernatural’s Misha Collins talked about his character Castiel’s relationship with Dean. “We know what it is, what’s going on. We don’t talk about it,” he said. “But we’re all perfectly aware of how the relationship is, the writers are completely aware of how it’s being written. It may be unspoken but that doesn’t mean it’s not there or not true." What Collins said can be applied to any relationship, straight or queer. Perhaps we’ll have to live without knowing all the answers, and settle on enjoying a lingering glance, a flirty retort, an embrace that is full of meaning.
Eyefucking aside, there is a persisting question: is it enough for fans to have these gray area characters and relationships but to never see them evolve? We come to media with our own experiences and view of the world: some of us want to see boys making out, some want stories of commitment with everyone’s hands in PG places. What would be a shame, from a writing perspective, is if a show held itself back from advancing a true same-sex romance. After all, in real life, women fall in love with women and men with men, sometimes after a life of assumed, rigid heterosexuality. It happens all the time and it should happen more often on TV, too. At the same time, friendship can be as big or bigger than a physical, romantic relationship, and two people may keep their relationship in the same zone for years. This, too, can be real and honest as long as it doesn’t come from a place of fear or anxiety for writers. Writing that addresses the full spectrum of our humanity could be considered risky, but it is worth it for fans and for the medium that impacts how we live our lives.
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