In The Flesh: How sexuality in Sci-Fi has moved with the times

by stephaniegunner

Art has always been used to define humanity, especially by determining what humanity is not. Murderers, rapists, incestuous siblings; our visual culture is littered with examples of people we don’t want to acknowledge are born to our species. Homosexuality was often depicted in a similar way, until changes in attitudes began to be reflected in the scribblings of our writers, playwrights and directors. The science fiction genre is a particularly noisy forum for these kinds of debates, and by looking at a recent televisual offering, I hope to illuminate the journey homosexuality has made from human corruption to natural human expression.

In-the-FleshUsing Sci-Fi as a symposium for social phobias is not necessarily new. Filmmakers have long since reflected whatever current fear is stalking the minds of the populace, from radiation poisoning to the communist threat, stopping alongside sexual deviancy and racial tensions along the way. The supernatural is effectively a distorted mirror for our collective attitudes towards difference, and the goblins and monsters easily take the form of the dominant social prejudice du jour.

Racial intolerance, AIDS, and the complexities of male/female relationships have all been explored through alien invasions and the like, but the spectres of sexual difference have also been present as an undercurrent to the drama. In his book ‘Science Fiction Cinema: from outerspace to cyberspace’, Geoff King describes how 1950s science fiction movies can be read in terms of homosexual “threat”, and borrows Harry Benshoff’s example to elaborate on the point. He says that the fear of a perceived homosexual agenda can be seen in movies like I Married A Monster From Outer Space, as the “alien/husband prefers to meet strange men in a public park than stay at home with his wife.”

them_poster_02-300x204Recently however, we’ve seen a shift in the portrayal of homosexuality in Sci-Fi. It’s no longer used as metaphorical shorthand for a dangerous threat to traditional ideals, but part of the fabric of morality that needs to be protected too. It’s also no longer a hinted-at taboo confined to subtext, but a narrative theme in its own right. Gay relationships are treated as natural; not a force intent on undermining humanity, but a valuable part of it. Artifice is an android romance graphic novel which features gay protagonists. In reviewing it for ‘The Atlantic’ earlier this week, Noah Berlatsky notes that the work is not arresting because of its telling of a gay love story, but because reading it makes you “realise the extent to which gay protagonists are normal”. In the last 15 years we’ve also seen bisexual heroes fighting for humanity in Torchwood and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and now BBC3’s In The Flesh has become the latest TV supernatural drama to feature alternative sexuality as a main dramatic theme.

Featuring a gay protagonist called Kieren, who also suffers from PDS (Partially Dead Syndrome), In The Flesh imagines a semi-post-apocalyptic Britain, in which zombies have risen, been thwarted and subsequently quarantined and medicated until deemed safe to return to society. The 3-part drama follows Kieren as he rejoins his family in Roarton, a small town in the North of England where the locals are still fairly militantly anti-zombie after forming their own vigilante group during ‘The Rising’.

The prejudice Kieren faces as a PDS sufferer and the institutionalised bullying tactics of the vigilantes certainly mirrors anti-gay reactions throughout history, but it is the way the writers have treated the character’s actual status as gay that is refreshing. Throughout there is a strong suggestion that Kieren’s relationship with Rick, another Roarton resident killed in Afghanistan before being reanimated during The Rising, is more complex that simply teenage best mates. It isn’t until the final episode that the love between the two is confirmed however, and the real reasons behind their original deaths are revealed. The relationship is not framed as a revelation; rather a confirmation of what the audience had naturally assumed. It is neither hidden nor revelled in that Kieren is gay; it is simply another aspect of his character that he didn’t choose for himself, just as his PDS is. The attitudes of the community around him makes those states of being difficult, not the states themselves, and subscribing to the dominant fear that one is just as frightening as the other is made to look ridiculous. We’re now at a place where Sci-Fi can look at sexuality with a neutral gaze, and use it to detonate subtexts and exorcise social fears of the past.

Sci-fi is not just a forum for summoning our collective demons and cathartically eviscerating them through fictitious events, but a document of how ideas have changed. It celebrates not only humanity’s resilience to external attack, but also its ability to examine dangers from within its own ranks. Since the advent of nuclear weapons we’ve known we have the ability to destroy ourselves literally; it’s now that we’re starting to see how an inability to accept developments in our own humanity could be just as disastrous.

By Stephanie Gunner