[Spoilers ahead for Sense8 and Dumbing of Age; contains discussion of transphobia and homophobia]
Just because a story’s world is prejudiced and awful, doesn’t mean the story itself is. In fact, in some cases the story bends the world to its will in order to protect the characters that said world is cruel to.
Sense8’s Nomi Marks, for instance, is a transwoman living in a very transphobic world—even at a Pride celebration, a group of women bully her by erasing her gender identity in a variety of rude and obnoxious ways, and she also has to contend with her overbearing, equally obnoxious mother, who insists on guilt-tripping her and calling her by her (male) birth name. These are things that happen to real people every day, and they’re awful—unfortunately, Nomi is also a protagonist in a sci-fi TV show, so it can only get worse.
And it does: Nomi ends up trapped in hospital awaiting an operation that will effectively lobotomise her, the papers signed by her mother, who insists “I love you, Michael, and this is for your own good” (even if Mrs Marks is kept in the dark about the lobotomy because, as it turns out, it’s secret government agency psychic stuff, the sentiment is still horrifying, and presented as so). The nurses won’t listen to her, she ends up handcuffed to the gurney, and everything is absolutely terrifying and awful, and Nomi sobs for someone to help her. It looks like a bleak fate lies ahead for the show’s sole trans character.
But then, someone does come to help Nomi. Sci-fi suddenly punches a hole in the realistic setting, and Nomi gets rescued via the psychic connection she has to the seven other main characters, in this case Will, who we have seen, quite handily, demonstrating his skills at unlocking handcuffs a few episodes before. It’s not the only time this happens, either—later, Nomi is in danger again, and the story sends a whole battalion of other psychic buddies to her rescue, lending her their combat skills and police intel, and even popping up out of nowhere and happily announcing that they’ll drive the getaway car despite having never (as far as I remember; I watched this show mostly in binge sessions as its Netflix Original format encourages and I have to admit some of it is a blur) talked or connected once before. Nomi was in trouble, and the cosmos (or, the writers) sent her a guardian angel in the form of an action-movie-loving professional bus driver with a heart of gold.
You can see a similar case in Dumbing of Age in the arc that centres around Becky coming out as gay, the climax of which is her devout Christian father arriving on campus to try and drag her home and get her into some “therapy”. Again, this is a real thing that happens and a real attitude that people have—the story world that Dumbing of Age is set in is a mirror to our real one, and bears the same societal prejudices. So Becky, feeling there’s nothing more she can do, agrees to go with her dad to try and keep her friends safe, resigning herself to trapped unhappiness. If that was the end, it would be a decidedly glum one for queer characters all around, and not a very hopeful story for any queer readers.
But this isn’t the end—the arc truly climaxes with a freaking car chase scene, involving a literal masked superhero performing acrobatics and a badass on a motorbike. It’s a wild and wicked cool sequence and the good guys—here being the people who are barging in with the zeal and power of action heroes to protect the lesbian—win! The homophobic father is undeniably the villain in this scenario and he is defeated spectacularly. Becky’s future is kind of hanging uncertainly in the aftermath, but the major point of the matter is that she was in trouble and the Universe sent her a superhero when it could have let her story end tragically.
I loved this so much, but couldn’t quite put my finger on why until I saw the pattern repeat in Sense8. There’s something incredibly effective about using fantastic elements (psychic powers, car chases) to empower and rescue characters faced by very real troubles, and not only frame the oppressive nature of that realistic world as bad, but to frame the queer characters themselves as people worth saving, people worth bending the accepted rules of the universe for. In Dumbing of Age creator David Willis’ own words (emphasis mine):
So bad stuff is happening to Becky, but the narrative says Fuck No. […] Physics is bruised a bit, but that’s the point. That’s the subversion. Becky’s not going down. The universe will melt in the face of her. And she will get that shining final moment with her father where she backs away, all grins, double birds. The last word. Because goddammit, she gets to win this time. Fuck you, dad! God answers lesbian prayers.
It’s effectively a power fantasy, and one we don’t often see—too often, it’s queer characters that end up dead or tragic-fated by supernatural means, and it contributes to a damaging trend that leaves me reluctant to get attached to any of them for fear that they’ll get screwed over. Nomi’s hospital arc was stomach-churning to watch, but in the back of my mind I knew Sense8 was actually written and directed by not one but two transwomen, so it was actually more likely than not that Nomi would be okay. And damn, was I not disappointed—Nomi is a character, like many real people, who has been bullied and belittled and beaten down her whole life because of who she is, and the narrative could have made her a tragic martyr. But the narrative said no, Nomi is going to get saved because she deserves to be saved, and in the most spectacular and awesome way possible.
And even going beyond the psychic business, our handcuff-picking friend Will is framed as a hero not just in helping Nomi escape, but in sharply correcting Nomi’s mother when she calls her “Michael” and misgenders her. It’s a little thing, but it’s presented so as to show that Mrs Marks’ treatment of her daughter is something worthy of scorn by a well-established good guy and heroic figure like Will. Will is a cop with a heart of gold, he’s saved lives before and put himself at risk for the good of others; Will is overtly framed as a hero in the story. And he’s standing up for Nomi, so it must be a good thing too. And oh, this is even without mentioning Amanita, the fiercely protective, unconditionally supportive and openly affectionate girlfriend the writers have gifted to Nomi—even without the psychic stuff, Amanita is a guardian angel delivered to Nomi to show her (and viewers who might identify with her) that she is 110% worthy of love and safety. Amanita will literally fight anyone who disagrees.
The same is true with Becky, who is surrounded by supporters and friends, some of whom literally beat up and chased her abusive dad down a highway. And these are the good guys, the heroes, and Becky deserves them. The villains—and they are definitely shown to be the villains—do not deserve to win. Becky and Nomi are characters that the narrative makes us love and connect with, and characters that the narrative says are good and fine the way they are and don’t deserve to be hurt, and in fact, if anyone representing the ugly and prejudiced real world tries to, the narrative will warp its rules to make sure they know that they deserve to be protected. I think this is hugely powerful, and I’d love to see more of it. The story world might be homophobic/transphobic, but the story doesn’t have to reflect that—it can give the world a very fantastic middle finger through fiction.