‘It’s a Sin’ and queer representation on the small screen

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It’s a Sin, Russell T. Davies’ new drama about the ‘80s AIDS crisis has been hailed as “a poignant masterpiece”. The show follows a group of young adults, led by Ritchie (‘Years & Years’ frontman Olly Alexander), as they navigate through a turbulent decade of hope and laughs mixed in with heartbreak and loss. Keeley Hawes shines as Ritchie’s emotionally repressed, conflicted mother.

Others of note include rising star Callum Scott, who puts in a devastating performance as sweet Colin. Lydia West plays Jill Baxter, a character modelled on the real Jill Nalder – Davies’ long-term friend who selflessly supported and cared for those faced HIV/Aids diagnoses in the ‘80s.

It received high praise from those who experienced the terrifying time first-hand. The drama is not alone in its portrayal of LGBTQ+ experiences in the last decade: Pose, Gentleman Jack, and Sex Education have also been commended. Nevertheless, there is a strong argument that the British TV industry is not doing enough to organically represent queer experiences.

If there is this disadvantage for LGBTQ+ acting professionals, is it not better to privilege them, or at least equally consider them, in roles where they can draw on personal experiences?

The debate about queer representation has been pushed to the fore by comments from Davies himself. In an interview with Radio Times, Davies spoke about the need for “authenticity” in casting and creative decisions within television.

Therefore, he decided to cast only gay actors in the gay roles of It’s A Sin. This has caused backlash from certain quarters: Andrew Marr asked Davies whether casting the show in this way might “deprive audiences, potentially, of some great performances of gay characters by straight actors?” Davies has responded by citing the structural bias in TV casting, with privilege given to heterosexual actors over those who identify differently. I would argue that Davies makes a very persuasive case for queer casting going forward.

If there is this disadvantage for LGBTQ+ acting professionals, is it not better to privilege them, or at least equally consider them, in roles where they can draw on personal experiences?

Jonathan Bailey, Anthony Bridgerton in Netflix’s hit period-drama Bridgerton, has said that “it shouldn’t matter at all what character people play, but of course there is a narrative that’s very clear, that openly gay men aren’t playing straight in leading roles”. As a gay actor playing a ‘straight’ lead in Bridgerton, this seemingly opposes Davies’ assertion of casting ‘gay as gay’. To complicate matters, Bailey has also expressed a desire to see more gay roles for gay actors.

Davies is unafraid to accurately portray the initial denial of AIDS in the ’80s

However, this debate over the casting of actors based on sexuality should not be allowed to obscure the real issue: a general lack of queer representation on TV. Bridgerton has received criticism for ‘queerbaiting’. This is despite praise for pushing race and class boundaries with the likes of colour-blind casting and greater sensitivity to the female filmic position. Several media outlets have picked up on the relative lack of queer representation in the series.

This had misled some viewers who had expected focus on queer characters due to the trailer featuring the only scene with homosexual intimacy in the series. The scene is played down in that episode, meaning that any queer potential remains implied. As Digital Spy’s David Opie surmises, we can only hope that “season two progresses to a point where LGBTQ+ inclusion is no longer a cause for scandal”.

The TV industry needs to go further in its representation of queer experiences. There is a real dearth in complex gay characters in dramas that do not necessarily put queer subjects in the foreground. This is something that hopefully can be rectified with time.

The two best aspects of It’s A Sin are Davies’ treatment of the AIDS epidemic, and that he does not allow the disease to deny the utter brilliance of his characters’ lives. Davies is unafraid to accurately portray the initial denial of AIDS in the ’80s. Yet, he also determinedly depicts the vitality of these characters, even when facing terrifying reminders of life’s brevity.

This is a unique result of production from those who share in similar queer experiences, and is best epitomised in Ritchie’s promise to his friends: “I’m going to live.” 

Rarely has queer culture been so powerfully and emotionally give voice with such sensitivity and, crucially, such vibrance. We need more of this on TV. Representation needs to be unashamed and unabashed, whether through more inclusive casting or by truthfully representing queer experiences – even when they are not the central focus of a drama. 

All episodes of It’s A Sin are now available to stream on All 4, with new episodes airing every Friday at 9pm on Channel 4.

Image by Yarl via Wikimedia

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