Invisible Bisexuality in Torchwood21 min read
One of the best moments in any episode of Doctor Who is in “The Doctor Dances” when the Doctor explains to Rose that their new friend, Captain Jack Harkness, is “flexible” with his sexuality. Jack doesn’t restrict himself to monosexuality. He doesn’t even restrict himself to humans. He’s an omnisexual man of the 51st century, ready to “shag anybody as long as they’re gorgeous enough,” as Toshiko Sato later puts it. Toward the end of “The Parting Of The Ways” when Jack kisses both Rose and the Doctor, he solidified his status as one of my favorite characters and I knew I’d follow him anywhere… even to Torchwood.
I’ve paid dearly for this love on many occasions.
For a long time I counted this price as worth it because I was happy to see a person of fluid sexuality on the screen who is a leading man, an object of sexual desire, and a fully fleshed out character. As a person of fluid sexuality myself (I usually identify as bisexual), I appreciate representation that doesn’t marginalize or Other people like me. All too often mainstream media does just that. Even in supposed LGBT–friendly media, which is mostly about the G with the odd L thrown in. Don’t even ask about the T.
My excitement about Jack increased tenfold when I started hearing more about the spin–off show Russell T. Davies created for him: Torchwood. At least one media outlet described all of the characters as bisexual, and in an interview with the Gay Times, Davies specifically laid out his vision as regarded sexuality:
“Without making it political or dull, this is going to be a very bisexual programme. I want to knock down the barriers so we can’t define which of the characters is gay. We need to start mixing things up, rather than thinking, ‘This is a gay character and he’ll only ever go off with men’.”
With this promising outlook, I jumped into watching Torchwood with no hesitation and a ton of positive feelings. I love Jack, I love Doctor Who, and I love fluid sexuality. What can go wrong?
Yes, I should have known better than to ask such a question.
At first, I was not as down on Torchwood as a whole as some other Doctor Who fans. The writing wasn’t great in those first few episodes, sure, and there is plenty to raise an arched eyebrow at in the characterizations and choices made by Davies and Chris Chibnall, the show runner. But I always looked at Torchwood as televised Doctor Who fan fiction starring one of my favorite characters. Anyone who reads fan fiction knows that you will put up with a lot of terrible crap to read stories about the characters you love doing the stuff you want them to do.
The promise of a whole cast of bisexual characters also kept me watching. Yet the more I did, the more I realized that, like the cake in the video game Portal, the bisexuality in Torchwood is a lie.
Each of the main characters has sexual encounters with both men and women, yes, so on the surface things appear as Davies said they would be. When you take ten seconds to think about the nature of those encounters, or how they’re often brief and easily dismissed, the supposed bisexual nature of the show gets fainter and fainter until it almost disappears.
In “The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure” Kenji Yoshino explores how, in Western culture, both hetero– and homosexual communities, as well as the media, collude in systemic bisexual erasure via “the same three strategies…: class erasure, individual erasure, and delegitimation.” Because of Yoshino’s paper and more vocal activism within the LGBT community by bisexuals, the problem isn’t as pronounced or unnoticed as it was twelve years ago when the paper was published or even five years ago when the show premiered. It is still a problem, though, and Torchwood is an unfortunate exemplar of how bisexual erasure works in popular culture today.
The More Everything Changes, The More It Stays The Same
From the very first episode, Torchwood seemed in a rage to ensure the viewing audience understood how edgy and adult it intended to be. The scene that stands out most in my mind comes toward the middle of “Everything Changes” when members of the team are shown using alien artifacts smuggled out of the Hub. Owen takes a spray bottle of alien origin to a local night spot and makes a clumsy attempt at seducing a woman. When she doesn’t reciprocate, he sprays himself with whatever is in the bottle, which makes her want to shag him immediately. When the woman’s boyfriend chases after them and threatens Owen, he uses the spray again and the boyfriend reacts in the exact same way. Owen then joyfully calls for a taxi to take them both to his place.
I’m sure the scene was supposed to shout: “Look, look, it’s like we said! Totally bisexual because obviously Owen is going home with both!” What it actually shouted was: “Look, look! Owen is a rapist.”
This scene piles problems on top of problems. Not only do we have an unexamined rape going on that is never again mentioned or ever censured in the show, we also get a conflation of sexual desire with rape. Rape is about power, and Owen uses power to get what he wants even if that power doesn’t involve physical force. He uses his power to control on the man here not because of his sexual desires, but because this man is in the way of what he wants and the spray is the most effective tool at his disposal. The end result is sex, or so the audience is led to believe; that doesn’t have a thing to do with Owen’s sexual orientation.
This is our first example of the “very bisexual” Torchwood, and it doesn’t get much better from here.
In the next episode, “Day One,” an alien presence takes over the body of a young human woman named Carys. The alien inside her needs orgasmic energy to survive, so she seeks out sex. When the men climax, they’re destroyed and reduced to a tiny pile of ash. After the Torchwood team captures Carys, Gwen tries talking to her. The two end up in the cell together and, due to the powerful pheromones Carys is pumping out, they start to kiss passionately.
This is Gwen’s only “lesbian” moment. And it’s not happening because Gwen is attracted to women. It’s all because of these alien pheromones.
What’s even worse is that when the Torchwood team notices they watch with their tongues practically hanging out as if this is just some lesbian porn going on for their enjoyment. Sure, Toshiko seems to watch as avidly as Jack and Owen do, but it’s clear that this moment is there for the enjoyment of men, be they in the show or in the audience.
After this episode, Gwen never speaks of this incident again. We never see her show any interest in women sexually or romantically. That doesn’t mean she’s not bisexual — after all, not every bi person sits in the very middle of the spectrum. Some lean more toward men or women while still being attracted to both. And the entire time we know Gwen she’s in a monogamous relationship with Rhys.
Yet this doesn’t stop her from cheating on him. And, let’s be honest: there is never any danger of her breaking faith with her boyfriend with Toshiko.
Despite the equal opportunity snogging, the bisexuals are pretty invisible so far.
Going back to the scene between Carys and Gwen, right in the middle of their kiss Carys pushes Gwen away and says “No! It’s no good. It’s got to be a man.” According to script writer Chris Chibnall, sex between two women isn’t real enough for this alien. It’s just not real sex. Carys needs to have sex with men, and any man will do. At the end of the episode she goes on a sexual rampage through a sperm donation center. One of the men she encounters tells her that he’s gay, yet he still ends up as a pile of post–orgasm ash. Sex with an unwilling (and presumably limp) man is realer than what two women can
get up to according to the show.
This is the first inkling we get of the larger problem in Torchwood’s “very bisexual” landscape.
LUG: Lesbian Until Girlfriend–Is–Sent–Into–The–Sun
After Owen and Gwen get their brief and passing same–sex shenanigans out of the way, it’s Toshiko’s turn. But here Torchwood had a surprise for us: Tosh’s relationship with a woman is more than just a throwaway joke! It merits an entire episode’s worth of plot and character growth.
In “Greeks Bearing Gifts” Tosh meets an enigmatic woman who gives her a pendant that allows her to hear other people’s thoughts. This woman, Mary, turns out to be an alien who is manipulating Tosh for her own ends, but claims at several points that the feelings she has for her are real.Whether this is true or not is debatable. What’s important is that at no time does Tosh indicate that what she felt was in any way not real or artificially induced. Kudos for that and kudos that none of the characters expressed surprise, shock or confusion when learning that Tosh had a relationship with a woman. It’s treated no differently then if it had been a guy.
Unfortunately, those are all the kudos I have to give for this episode.
Despite at first seeming like a sign that Torchwood was finally going to start living up to Davies’ promise, as the show went on it became clear that we weren’t ever going to see the woman–loving side of Toshiko again and that queer female relationships were going to be thin on the ground.
The first problem is with Mary’s role as an evil lesbian temptress, which hews far too close to Gay Panic stereotypes outlined by media commentator quarridors in their post exploring accusations of homophobia in Torchwood. This wouldn’t be as big a problem in the scope of Torchwood’s history if there were more queer women depicted in the series. But when there’s a lack of representation, having the only representation involve negative stereotypes is an issue.
To date, there are only three other women on the show that are identifiable as lesbians or bisexuals, and two of them are by implication. Alice Guppy and Emily Holroyd of 19th century Torchwood (Exit Wounds) seem to be a couple; Charlotte Wills, the CIA/Families double agent (Miracle Day), explicitly mentions an ex–girlfriend. Other than these minor moments, queer female sexuality and relationships are noticeably absent from the Torchwood narrative. Compare this to how much screen time gay and male bisexual relationships get.
We never again see Tosh crush on, fall in love with, or even mention a woman as a past or potential lover. There are several episodes that focus on or mention her attraction to and eventual relationship with Owen plus a charming episode where we find out she has a thing for a soldier from World War I who is kept in cryogenic stasis in the Hub (To The Last Man). Again, not all bisexuals prefer men and women equally, but the problem is that of imbalance in representation.
Looking at what the episodes offer us, it would be easy to conclude that Toshiko isn’t normally attracted to women, that she was either under a spell or coercion or randomly experimenting. Thus, her bisexuality is made invisible.
It doesn’t help that the actress, Naoko Mori, also undermines the idea of Tosh as a bisexual. Mori told IF Magazine:
“For Tosh, I wouldn’t say that she has any kind of label. The minute “Greeks Bearing Gifts” happened everyone assumed she was a lesbian or bisexual. It has nothing to do with that. She just happens to come across as someone she connects to and she just happens to be a woman. Not in a million years, did she ever think she would sleep with a woman, but it was about a human connection and a deeper connection. …It wasn’t a sexual thing it was more to do with her finding an ally. …I’ve always tried to not to put a label on her. She’s not gay, not that I’m condoning it or condemning it either way. It’s just not an issue.”
In an interview with About.com’s Sci–Fi Guide, Mori reiterated these points:
“…everyone is all like, ‘Everyone [on Torchwood] is a bisexual or omnisexual and Tosh is a lesbian’ and so on, and I’m like, you know what, I’m not going to go into that. Because for her, at the I think she was in a vulnerable place and Mary just happened to be the one. She needed intimacy. And here was a person that she could connect with, and she happened to be a woman.”
I find her interview with Fantastic Hollywood the most intriguing:
“…my main concern was to make sure that it wasn’t seen as, for want of a better word, cheap. That it wasn’t a, “Let’s throw this lesbian thing in.” …I talked at length with Russell [T. Davies] and the director, Colin Teague, who’s brilliant… [about it not being] just a social thing. …She was vulnerable and lonely… and it just sort of happened to escalate into the sexual domain… but it wasn’t a lesbian thing, per se.”
And yet, here she also says that the episode “encapsulated everything about Tosh” and upon reading the script felt like “This is who she is. This is what Toshiko is all about.”
What I see going on here is a strange hesitation to put a label on Toshiko concurrent with a sensitivity that just adding “lesbian” sexual content could be construed as something cheap (as we saw in “Day One”) and that being a lesbian isn’t an “issue” meaning that it isn’t a bad thing. But if it isn’t a bad thing, why did Mori repeatedly and explicitly remove that label from her character?
In a generous reading, I can see hints of Mori reaching for a utopia that doesn’t yet exist. One where sexuality is widely accepted as fluid, and even if a person is normally attracted to the opposite sex, they can find themselves attracted to someone of the same sex under certain circumstances. And in an ideal world in which the issues of representation and marginalization aren’t a problem, I can see this being sufficient. As a writer of fiction myself, I often advocate that science fiction and fantasy authors should depict the world they want to see as often as they reflect the troubling aspects of the world as it exists now.
Still, I keep looking at that tiny list of queer female characters in relation to the much longer list of queer male characters and the shadiness of that woman on woman action in “Day One” and this feels less like a utopian vision and more like an erasure.
No True Identity
The story around Ianto’s bisexuality is the flipside of Toshiko’s in that we only briefly see his relationship with a person of the opposite sex and the majority of screentime is devoted to his romance with Jack. Still, the realness of his bisexuality is, at first, supported by the show as well as by the actor himself. At least one author of an officially licensed tie–in novel understood Ianto to be bisexual. But, as always happens with Torchwood, things fall apart in the final act.
In the first series episode “Cyberwoman” we meet Ianto’s girlfriend Lisa Hallet, a woman he loves deeply as evidenced by the great trouble he went to in order to keep her alive. She dies at the end of the episode. Not long after it becomes clear that Ianto is giving in to Jack’s long time advances. Over the course of the first two series he and Jack go from just casual shagging to a real relationship, though it is one the two of them struggle to define, as seen at the beginning of “Children Of Earth.”
On the positive side, Jack and Ianto’s love story isn’t portrayed differently than other complex office relationships would be. Plus, the fact that he was in love with a woman and then falls in love with a man isn’t presented as the most trying aspect of what’s going on between them. On screen, we never saw Ianto struggle with his attraction to Jack in a way that made it seem like being attracted to a man was new for him.
The question of whether Ianto was always bisexual or just went gay for Jack has a different answer depending on who you ask. Gareth David–Lloyd, the actor who portrays him, told an interviewer that Ianto’s attraction to Jack is “definitely a new thing as far as same–sex relationships go for him.” In that same piece he said that if Ianto were to label himself, “he’d probably be bisexual” as opposed to omnisexual, the label often applied to Jack.
In The Twilight Streets, a Torchwood media tie–in novel by Gary Russell, Ianto tells Gwen that “[Being bisexual is] the worst of any world because you don’t really belong anywhere, because you are never sure of yourself or those around you. You can’t trust in anyone, their motives or their intentions. And because of that, you have, in a world that likes its nice shiny labels, no true identity.”
Now, the canonicity of the tie–in novels isn’t solid. They’re officially licensed media, but the show may or may not stick to the backstories or character development in them. But the fact that Gary Russell saw this in Ianto’s characterization is important to note, especially in light of what happens in “Children of Earth.”
On day one of the third series, Ianto’s sister reveals that her friend spotted him having a romantic dinner with Jack. He eventually admits that he and Jack are dating, but says, “It’s weird. …It’s not men. It’s just him. It’s only him.”
When Ianto said these words it felt like a slap in the face. A character who, up until this point, didn’t appear to have any angst or issues around the same–sex nature of his relationship was either lying to his sister about that or erasing bisexuality once again.
One might argue that Ianto simply lied. Even though his sister said that she didn’t have a problem with him being gay or bisexual, her “some of my daughter’s friends’ mothers are lesbians” comment might have been enough to make Ianto doubt her sincerity on that point. Does saying you’re only gay for that one guy that much better, though? I don’t buy that Ianto was lying in that scene or that the writers intended it to come across that way when considered in context with the erasure elsewhere in the show.
The bitter end to all of this is Ianto’s death in “Children of Earth.” Ironically, this event may be the final proof that the character is indeed bisexual. After all, he dies for the purpose of giving a more important character angst and heart–rending development, a role all too often assigned to the character who belongs to the most marginalized group. Jack is the target of the angst–making, so it can’t be him. And Gwen is the heteronormative standard–bearer. So Ianto it must be.
The Flexible Dancer
The foundation of Torchwood as a “very bisexual programme” rests squarely on the shoulders of Captain Jack Harkness. And, on the surface, he comes across as a bisexual character though he’s specifically labeled omnisexual (no limits based on gender or species). But it’s in looking deeper into Jack’s actions during the four series of the show that it becomes apparent why Torchwood fails at bisexuality at almost every turn.
If we count up the relationships Jack engages in, the numbers come out pretty even between men and women. If you count up all the relationships we get to see happen on screen, more of them happen with men than with women. Other than Gwen, all of the ones with women happen off–screen.
In “Children of Earth” we find out Jack once had a wife (or a baby mama, at least). In “Small Worlds” we learn that Jack and Estelle had a serious thing going on back in World War II. All of this happens off screen. We rarely see Jack in romantic or sexual entanglements with women.
Men are a different story. Aside from Ianto, there’s the real Jack Harkness in series one, Captain John Hart in series two, and Angelo Colasanto from “Miracle Day.” Plus, when Jack goes out to seek physical comfort during the fourth series, he engages in meaningless sex with a man. Is it so hard to pull a woman? He reaches out for emotional comfort from Gwen, sure, but never any other woman (that we see) in the entire course of the show. Why is that?
The entirety of Jack and Gwen’s romantic relationship is suspect, particularly if considered in the context of it being evidence of his bi– or omnisexuality.
Aside from it feeling forced and unnatural, it’s a relationship safe from consummation. From the very beginning Gwen is in a long–term, monogamous relationship with Rhys. Even when she steps out on him, it’s not with Jack. After she ends it with Owen, she reaffirms her commitment to Rhys and to heteronormativity by getting engaged and then married. She admits to loving Jack at a moment when it’s guaranteed he won’t remember it. And when he reaches out to her, desperate for a connection that binds only the two of them, she drops it without hesitation to reestablish contact with her husband and child.
As a viewer on the outside looking in, I can see that Jack and Gwen will never be together. Or, more to the point: the show will not allow them to be together. It’s almost as if Gwen is a prop (or a beard) set up to prove Jack’s flexibility while simultaneously not being a threat to his relationships with men.
In the end, it’s John Hart’s desire that saves him, Ianto’s death that devastates him, and Angelo’s betrayal that makes him the most important and dangerous man on the planet. Can any woman in Jack’s life live up to all that?
Queer As Folk?
It would be easy to call out Russell T. Davies, Chris Chibnall, or other members of Torchwood’s creative team for the bisexual erasure chronicled in this essay, but I suspect that none of these people intended to marginalize bisexuality the way they have. I attempted to contact Davies, Chibnall and “Greeks Bearing Gifts” writer Toby Whithouse to discuss these issues with them; I never received a response. Given Davies’ stated intention, I do believe that he did envision characters that knocked down barriers. The reality fell short.
The question we’re left with is: why? There are two factors at work here, and only one is specifically about bisexuality.
The first is Torchwood’s tendency to marginalize or dismiss queer female sexuality. AfterEllen.com editor Karman Kregloe was one of the first to address this at the close of the show’s debut series:
“Sexual tension between the male characters, particularly Captain Jack and Ianto, is standard fare, whereas the women have very few sexual interactions that aren’t quickly explained away by alien circumstances. In a lot of ways, Torchwood… is falling into the Queer as Folk mold. Gay and bisexual men are allowed to have fully developed social lives, while lesbian and bisexual women are added only as supporting cast members at best, and as mere afterthoughts at worst. That is somewhat expected given that Russell T. Davies is the creator of both shows, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.”
I would only quibble with her assessment on one point: the women on Torchwood are allowed to have fully developed social and romantic lives as long as they’re doing so with men. Gwen and her boyfriend turned husband Rhys grow as a couple throughout the show, plus she gets to have a long–term dalliance with Owen. Toshiko also gets her dose of Owen in addition to her relationship with Tommy in “To The Last Man.” The same pattern is visible with the important main and secondary female characters we see in “Children of Earth” and “Miracle Day” whose sexual lives we’re privy to.
This suppression of queer female relationships and sexuality then erases bisexuality for the women in the show.
The first clue that this would happen is right there in Davies’ early statement about Torchwood: “I want to knock down the barriers so we can’t define which of the characters is gay. We need to start mixing things up, rather than thinking, ‘This is a gay character and he’ll only ever go off with men.” (Emphasis mine.)
He doesn’t mention lesbians or women there. He doesn’t even use the fallback inclusive term “queer,” just “gay” and “men.”
Consciously or not, all of the show runners privilege relationships with men as paramount, more real, and more worthy of attention and growth. When it comes to relationships between women, even on the level of friendship, they’re minimized, problematized, or dismissed. Very few episodes of Torchwood pass the Bechdel Test despite there being two female main characters.
When it comes to the male main characters, issues cited by Yoshino’s paper come into play. Bisexuality is presented as a dalliance rather than a valid identity. Except for one brief and disturbing moment, Owen only ever goes off with women. Ianto informs us that Jack is the only man he’s interested in, and if that relationship ended we can only presume he’d go back to women. These two characterizations play off the stereotypes of bisexuals as fence–sitters or “really” straight or gay and in transition or experimenting.
When we’re presented with a character of seeming legitimate bisexuality/omnisexuality, the net effect of his character arc ends up being a reaffirmation of monosexuality.
As a bi–identified person this makes me angry, As a fan of the show this makes me feel sad and disappointed. There’s so much potential in Torchwood and it’s regularly wasted. Having a cast full of bisexual characters could have been an opportunity to show a range of ideas about what constitutes fluid sexuality. Instead, we get the same old stereotypes before the concept is shoved away into a closet in favor of hetreo– and homosexual hegemony.
This is also a baffling place for Jack to have ended up. For someone who started out as a character that disrupted the heteronormative assumptions of the audience while also getting to be a hero, Jack’s ultimate fate as the upholder of a different kind of status quo comes across as a betrayal of the person we met in “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.” The idea of Jack as someone who doesn’t limit himself sexually or romantically by gender or species isn’t just a cool science fiction notion, it’s built on a real identity that real people have to negotiate in their real lives.
When you erase, dismiss or delegitimize these people via the few representatives of that identity — ones you specifically offered up — the results are not just some disappointing and and badly written hours of television, but real damage.
And even for someone who will put up with a lot of crap in my fan fiction, there comes a point when a story is so bad, or so painful, or so offensive that no matter how much you love that character, that pairing, or that kink, you cannot go on. I will always have a place in my Doctor Who–loving heart for Captain Jack, the flexible dancer who loved a Time Lord as well as he loved his companion. It’s just too bad that the Daleks killed him.