Subscribe to Bitch—an award-winning, 80 page feminist magazine. Image Map

Visi(bi)lity: “A 51st Century Guy”: A Few Words on Jack Harkness

A man and woman stand in front of a huge clock. The face each other, and their hands are on each other's hips. The woman is blonde and wears a hooded jacket and blue jeans. The man has dark hair and wears a dark, military-style suit.One could write an entire book about the depictions of queerness in the world of Doctor Who and its spin-off, Torchwood. Sexuality works itself into the mythologies of both shows in complex ways, which is particularly interesting given that Doctor Who is considered a family-oriented show. But since I'm not writing a book, I want to focus today's discussion of Doctor Who and Torchwood specifically on the character who introduced queerness to the modern "Whoniverse": Captain Jack Harkness.

It's critical to mention that the showrunner of both the Doctor Who reboot and Torchwood is Russell T. Davies, an openly gay man. Before relaunching Doctor Who, Davies created the original British version of Queer As Folk. Much of the work he has produced features queer characters prominently, and unlike some other gay male showrunners (I'm looking at you, Ryan Murphy), Davies is committed to portraying a diversity of queer images. Jack Harkness is just one example, but as you'll see, he's a strong one.

Jack is an immortal time traveler; when he is introduced in the first season of the Doctor Who reboot, it's revealed that he is originally from the 51st century. The Doctor later implies that, by the 51st century, everyone is bisexual. Moreover, the concept of gender is expanded to include alien species as well. That, in itself, is a fascinating philosophy—it suggests that human evolution results in sexual fluidity, and that the discovery of extraterrestrial life will lead to an enlightened and expanded perception of gender and sexual identity. I don't know if I agree that this is truly the direction in which humanity is heading (though some argue that we're already there), but I certainly like the idea of it.

The challenge in making bisexuality a societal norm in fictional media is that doing so simultaneously renders bisexuality invisible. If everyone is bisexual, then no one is, and identifying as such is irrelevant. When fictional images of bisexuality present bisexuality as the standard, it minimizes the issues of bisexual visibility today. Media are not always dedicated to promoting relevant social commentary, nor should they be, but to present bisexuality in a completely utopic and accepting light is to ignore the very real reality of biphobia today. However, Doctor Who and Torchwood have an effective way of avoiding this problem: Jack is primarily located in the present day (and sometimes earlier), before bisexuality became ubiquitous. (While, in theory, most of the characters on Torchwood are non-monosexual, Jack is without question the character who presents most prominently as bisexual.) As a result, Jack's sexuality is viewed as strange by most people around him. Jokes about his sexuality run rampant, but they read more as a commentary about the 21st century's archaic discomfort with sexual fluidity and less as authentic digs at Jack's expense. Jack's friends and colleagues may not know quite what to make of him, and they may be caught off-guard by his abrasive flirtations and innuendo at times, but they respect him. They let him be who he is, no questions asked.

Two men kiss, holding each other's faces. One stands while the other is sitting. The background is blue with a stream of bright white light pouring in from the upper left corner. The top upper left corner reads Jack's characterization is refreshing simply because his sexuality is presented so naturally. Though it's frequently referenced, it's never overanalyzed or challenged. It just is. This is a rarity in depictions of bisexuality in the media. So many bi-centric storylines in movies and television shows tend to focus on overwhelming problems and pressure to change one's sexuality or pick a side. But this isn't the case with Jack. Not only is he allowed to be who he is, he's allowed to be happy with that identity. Though his primary relationships are with men (such as Ianto, another bisexual man), he does not fall into the trap of only being with one gender, another common trope that often renders bisexual characters invisible. His relations with women are more often alluded to than shown directly (in particular, there are references to his former wife), but it's clear through his casual flirting and his sexual tension with colleagues, like Doctor Who's Rose and Torchwood's Gwen, that those attractions are still very much a part of his identity. There is never any doubt who Jack is and what his sexuality is about. And thankfully, this fact is presented as a positive.

That isn't to say that Jack's stories are immune to angst and drama. They aren't. Because Jack is immortal, he is forced to outlive all of his lovers, a reality which he faces directly in the Torchwood miniseries, Children of Earth. Moreover, it is repeatedly hinted that Jack feels a deep, unrequited love for the Doctor. He's ultimately destined to be alone, since none of his lovers or family members will ever be able to live as long as him. While this reality is certainly tragic, it also seems fitting for him. It's a situation that allows him to experience countless lovers throughout his life, giving him the opportunity to be in committed relationships while still having opportunities to flirt, meet new lovers, and be himself. It would not be an ideal situation for most people—but, then again, Jack isn't most people, is he?

Jack isn't a perfect character; in many ways, he's problematic. He's overly vain and image-conscious, he uses sexuality as a tool for power and personal gain, he keeps loved ones at arm's-length ostensibly for their own protection (but more likely for his own self-preservation, not wanting to get too close to people he knows will die before him). But "perfection" in characterization should never be the goal as much as "realism," and amazingly, for a character set in a fantastical universe, Jack feels real. He's flawed, but he's comfortable with who he is, and that comfort feels honest. He doesn't judge himself—he just accepts his reality and has as much fun with it as possible. That's a lesson from which we can all learn a lot. The future of human bisexuality is unknown, but there would be worse fates than evolving into "51st century" people.

Previously: Isn't It Bromantic?, Glee's Problem With Bisexual Men

Enjoy reading this article? Good news! Our quarterly magazine, Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, is packed with 80+ pages of feminist analysis, reviews, illustrations, and more. Subscribe today!

Subscribe to Bitch

Comments

13 comments have been made. Post a comment.

This discussion gets really

This discussion gets really interesting if you take into account that it's inferred Jack Harkness is also the Face of Boe-then we can get into ideas of sexuality and the monstrous v. The transcendent.

Why do you think everyone

Why do you think everyone loved the face of boe so much?

Jack's superhero in drag

Interesting post! I think the most fascinating element of Capt. Jack, re: his sexuality, is the way he performs the role of swashbuckling superhero. As the hero of the show, Jack's overt bisexuality puts a unique spin on the uber-masculine action heroes his character takes its cues from. Actor John Barrowman's portrayal of Capt. Jack puts a fine point on the performative nature of gender, butching it up when necessary and playing a swoony pansexual heartthrob the rest of the time. Its great work, both on his and creator Russell Davies part.

Like the article, but I think

Like the article, but I think it might also be worth mentioning that I'm fairly certain Jack is identified as "omnisexual" - not "bisexual" - at some point on the show.

Yes, he is definitely

Yes, he is definitely referred to as "omni-sexual", which covers the future notion of relationships with aliens, other genders, etc.

Megan Elise and Jen - Thanks

Megan Elise and Jen -

Thanks for pointing this out. I admit I'm relatively new to Doctor Who/Torchwood/these characters, so it's definitely possible that there's an explicit reference to omnisexuality that I missed. From what I did watch, Jack's specific label seems to be left ambiguous. Based on what I've seen, a lot of labels could apply -- omnisexual, pansexual, fluid, queer...and since I did not hear a specific label used at any point, I chose to use "bisexual" in my post, because I do think that label applies as well. The definition of bisexuality that I'm using is fairly broad; it includes non-binary genders, non-human species (in the case of sci-fi), etc. So while I understand the reasons why people prefer labels like omnisexual, I think bisexual applies in this case as well.

All that said, had I seen him explicitly referred to as omnisexual in the episodes I watched, I would have used that word. So thank you for pointing it out, and I will make sure to keep it in mind for the future.

Davies specifically wrote

Davies specifically wrote Capt Jack to be bisexual even in the show they never say, but in the first episode the other TW team members do discuss what genders Jack flirts with and Jack walks in and basically says something to the effect of "you people and your silly little boxes."

Yea!

All I really want to say is how glad I am that you addressed Jack! I love Dr. Who, and Jack is one of my favorite characters. Thanks for tackling him.

Fictional bisexual utopias

While I agree with you that in the absence of other depictions of bisexuality (or any other identity that faces societal displeasure or outright discrimination), depicting a fictional world where bisexuality is the accepted norm rather than an outlier would be problematic for rendering those challenges invisible -- I still think there is great power in this kind of story for its ability to model a norm we could strive for (where no one blinks at the pronoun you use in relation to the people you're sleeping with) and for the pleasure it can give those of us who don't get to be the norm and want to indulge in that rarely-depicted fantasy.

You make a really good point.

You make a really good point. In principle, I don't disagree. I think it just comes down to execution. I think Doctor Who and Torchwood do it well -- by using the time traveling device, the shows are able to simultaneously depict bisexuality/omnisexuality as a societal norm/future we should strive for, as well as something that's still stigmatized today. Before I started watching, the "everyone's bi!" premise made me a little nervous, because I didn't know how responsibly it would be handled, but now that I've seen a fair amount, I'm really impressed with how it's done. I just don't know if EVERY show attempting such a premise would pull it off so well.

Regardless of how DW/TW

Regardless of how DW/TW achieves what it does, my point is actually, that it can still responsible and activist writing choice to not show any discrimination or stigma that we're used to seeing in day to day life -- because it can be a model of what that could look like OR it's a straight-up fantasy for those who usually have to negotiate their pleasures with these kinds of texts.

I'm not saying it'd be realistic -- and anyone who painted it with that brush would be suspect -- but I very much disagree that fictional representations of bisexuals (or indeed, any group of people who face societal stigma or worse) should strive to depict that stigma in some way to be 'good' in an activist or quality sense. That framework really would limit the kinds of stories that can be told about or by marginalized people...

I like

I like watching when two girls is kissing but I don't wanna see two man kissing, it's digusting for me :-)

girls kissing

that is a double standard, Wacky man, can't have it both ways