OPINION: How Netflix and queer culture are healing the wounds of the patriarchy
"Tearing down constructs of masculinity, heteronormativity and the gender binary, shows like these have massively influenced contemporary social perceptions"
It’s been a long time coming, but queer culture has finally and truly hit the mainstream. With the dramatically positive reception of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Netflix originals Orange Is The New Black and Queer Eye, this generation has become one of progress and inclusion. Tearing down constructs of masculinity, heteronormativity and the gender binary, shows like these have massively influenced contemporary social perceptions.
Drag culture originated as an underground safe space for queer men. Born from a desire to express themselves outside of social norms, drag queens expressed gender fluidity, embracing the duality of the human experience. While masculine and feminine are essences within us all, patriarchal ideals have dictated that they are non-intersecting ways of being. Men were masculine, women were feminine. Deviations from this led to ostracisation and chastisement, causing many of those who did not identify within these limitations to feel forced to conceal themselves.
RuPaul achieved repute within the drag scene becoming what is now known as "drag royalty". Arguably the most iconic Drag Queen of the modern era, his fame overflowed into popular culture. Through this, he launched his show RuPaul’s Drag Race. In recent years this show has become one of the most watched shows on Netflix, catapulting drag culture into the mainstream and adding new dimensions to the discourse around gender. We openly see queer men and transwomen expressing the spectrum of gender on an accessible and open platform. Not only does this give exposure to queer culture, it also validates the lived experience of many. The show has become iconic. With cameos from renowned celebrities such as Lady Gaga and Christina Aguilera, this show has gone beyond the boundaries of novelty, becoming a legitimate and important part of contemporary culture. Drag now contributes to fashion and entertainment more than ever before. In normalising the flexibility of gender, the show encourages the dissolution of the systemic and rigid social constructs surrounding identity. You don’t have to be a woman to wear a dress. You don’t have to wear a dress to be a woman. But RuPaul's Drag Race does more than expand the perceptions of expression of identity. With catchphrases like, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else”, the show preaches an inner acceptance. It heals the wounds inflicted by these social constructs, reminding those who have previously felt outside the norm that in being true to themselves they are not offensive. There is space for everyone.
Netflix original Orange Is The New Black depicts a sincere portrait of female relationships, be it sisterhood, romantic love, sex or… complicated. The media has often marched out one-dimensional portrayals of womanhood. Paradigms of good, bad, virgin, whore, lesbian, bimbo, bitch are disregarded by OITNB. In its stead we find an unapologetically real representation of the complexity and depth of women. All of them are shown as both flawed and with redeeming qualities. Selenis Levya (Gloria Mendoza) believes the show to be “strongly human, about exposing what the humanity of women really looks like… and sometimes that can be ugly.” The characters depicted in this show are not glamourised or idealised in order to laud women. Instead, it humanises women through its liberating and raw truth. It reminds society that women are not superficial stereotypes. It reminds society not to objectify.
The queer relationships go beyond acute discussions of sexuality and labels, creating an atmosphere of an understood sexual spectrum. Where often queer women’s narratives revolve around the struggles surrounding coming out, OITNB moves away from this singular trope and envelopes a myriad of circumstances and storylines. Somewhere between sitcom and gritty drama, it achieves a balance between a binge-worthy watchability and sincerity.
Furthermore, its narratives tackle conversations of sexual violence towards women, transphobia, racism, female prison culture and misogyny as a whole. We are getting queer women on our screens alongside real issues. The show's immense popularity is a testament to the fact that this representation has been desperately needed.
Alongside this we see shows such as Queer Eye, a reboot of Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. This show seeks acceptance, not just tolerance. The Fab Five, made up of Tan, Karamo, Jonathon, Bobby and Antoni, are invited into the lives of men who feel they are in a rut. Through the wonders of interior design, fashion advice, food education, cultural know-how and grooming tips, the Fab Five makeover the lives of these men. This concept touches upon some of the raw perceptions of masculinity and manhood, constructed by the patriarchal ideals of the modern world. In every single episode, without exception, one man cries. In every episode the Fab Five go beyond superficial renovation, delving into the deep emotional scars of their subjects' lives. Their empathy is palpably genuine. In doing so, we see a healing process. The subjects are reminded that taking care of yourself is “not vanity, it’s self-care”. Queer Eye reinvents masculinity in its truest form. Discarding toxic masculinity and the inherent misogyny and self-repression it requires, Queer Eye is a wholesome figure-head of neo-masculinity. The idea that men can feel, men can look after themselves, men can love themselves, without needing to compare themselves to one another, to women. Furthermore, developing from the concept of the original show, the airtime afford to the conversations of different experiences is invaluable. Not only do we see the unpacking of queer stereotypes, such as the heteronormative myth of same-sex relationships (see Bobby and Tom’s conversation in ep one), but also the confrontation of other topical issues. In episode three "Dega Don’t" Karamo and Cory address the underlying tensions between the law enforcement and black men. This conversation leads to an unfathomable healing, expressed deeply from both partakers. Bobby and, coincidentally, Bobby in episode five, Camp Rules, discuss the angst surrounding homosexuality and religion. In Episode two, Saving Sasquatch, Tan and Neal talk of India and Pakistan’s longstanding strain. The rhetoric of the show is one of catharsis and evolution.
Then we come to Netflix’s newest film, I Am Not An Easy Man, which turns gender on its head. Switching the connotations of masculinity and femininity, we see a subversion of the patriarchy. A toxic matriarchal world, in which men are preyed on by and made inferior to women. In displaying through its inversion the problems behind the social coding of gender, the film urges for an egalitarian solution. Within this imagined heterocosm however, one thing that shows no difference is the queer world. Stepping inside of a gay night club, the constraints and limitations of the outside world cease to exist. Queer culture and queer spaces have long been safehavens for those who have been extradited from general society. Now that we see it becoming more and more mainstream, this safe and healing tone is beginning to spread.
All these shows are available on Netflix. Having updated its category from "Lesbian and Gay" to "LGBT+", Netflix is clearly embracing inclusivity and open to adapting. By generating this type of media, it is making a huge and positive impact on modern society. Keep ‘em coming, Netflix!
Opinions expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors of DIVA magazine or its publishers.
Interested in reading a different perspective? Check out this article, Is Netflix failing its LGBT fans?
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