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