The shock of realistic television

A good many of the folks I follow on Tumblr are fans of the show Sense8. As you do when a lot of your friends love something, I watched the first episode a few weeks ago. It was… a lot. Shocking, disorienting, kind of bloody, a plethora of characters and locations thrown at the viewer one after the other.

I gave it a second chance this weekend, and I’m glad I did. I found the second episode less shocking, the editing less disorienting, and the violence level went down. And my heart ached for silent, frustrated Sun, for gorgeous Lito and his adorable Hernando (those glasses!), and most of all for Nomi, abused and terrorized by a mother who calls her daughter by a male deadname.

That’s the point of fiction, or one use of it: To remind us of the realities of other people’s suffering, other people’s joy, by making us feel those things through characters who don’t exist. How many women in this world, young or not so young, in every country and culture, are as frustrated as Sun, unable to express their true power because they are female? How many gay men are still unable to live authentically, whether in their work lives, or with their birth family, or maybe in their religious communities? And I know, furiously, that there are real trans people out there whose families would gladly turn them over to a surgeon who promised to “fix” their brains, to make them okay again, docile and smiling and helpless to do anything but accept the gender they were assigned at birth.

To feel for one fictional character has the potential to make us feel for all the real people in the same dilemma. It doesn’t always work that way; I know, for example, that there have been readers and writers of m/m slash who insist that real-life homosexuality is still a sin. But it has the potential, it has the potential, at least, to crack open the mind and heart.

The first episode of Sense8 really did shock me, in a very visceral way. The scene where Nomi and Nita are making love, and you actually see them climax, then see the dildo and harness Nita tosses on the floor–that shocked me. It jolted me as if I had scuffled across thick carpet and then put my hand on a metal door. Why? I’m not a prude; I read and write erotic fiction, I even watch porn. But I’m used to seeing scenes like that only in porn; more than that, I’m not used to *seeing* sex scenes like that, at all, because I only read about them. A scene of two women having sex, with a dildo, that focuses on their faces, their pleasure, their emotional intimacy, that is not orchestrated for the enjoyment of a male viewer, but merely depicted as a normal part of two people’s life together–where in the world do you see that, except in fanfic, and in other fiction written by and for women?

All the other sex scenes have had the same quality, Wolfgang with his not quite girlfriend, Shugs and the enthusiastic Bambi. The sex is consensual; it’s oriented to pleasure; and it’s filmed as if you just walked in on people having sex, oops! not for the viewer, the male gaze. That’s not television. That’s not cinema. That’s fiction, fanfiction, even, that’s fiction by women–which just goes to prove, I guess, that the Wachowskis really are women. (I jest–of course they are. But there it is.)

I know I have only two seasons to watch, and a movie to look forward to. But I hope the Wachowskis, aided and abetted by J. Michael Straczynski, who was writing awesome female characters in the 1990s in Babylon 5, will continue to explore this kind of territory in their work, and we’ll start seeing more of real life like this on our screens.

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