Kingdom: A Lesson In How NOT To Do Queer Representation

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Nick Jonas as Nate Kulina in Kingdom

I’ve mentioned in a previous post about how one of my favorite TV shows, my beloved Kingdom, sort of failed horribly by marketing a rape scene as a sex scene with their gay character. Sadly, that is not the worst part of it.

To set the stage for the uninitiated, Kingdom is a TV show that comes on Audience, a DirecTV exclusive channel, about the lives of a family of MMA fighters and their many dysfunctions. While this post is going to make it seem like I’m negative on this show, I’m going to preface this with reminding the world that I love this show. It is one of the best done television shows I’ve ever watched, because all of the characters are very human. I have never watched anything with more human characters than are in this show. Everybody is flawed. The most likeable ones still make horrible choices and the most unlikable ones still have things that give them a reason to care about their suffering. It’s a beautifully done show with incredible writing, complex characters, amazing relationships, and such a unique setting to tell a very universal story of family and human nature and identity…

And then they absolutely dropped the ball with queer representation.

It disappoints me greatly because I tried so hard to give the show a shot to make it make sense, and it never did, to the point that now, I’ve had to face a realization: they decided to have a young gay man be raped just to give him a way to meet a boyfriend.

In Kingdom, the younger of two sons of this MMA legend is Nate, played by Nick Jonas, and the show starts hinting very early on that he’s gay. This is a really well done character, in that this young guy is a very quiet, reserved, ‘fade into the shadows’ kind of person in ever aspect of his life apart from fighting because he’s gay and deeply closeted. For a long time, this makes for really great queer representation, because Nate is everything that is realistic for an MMA fighter who is the son of a legendary MMA fighter and cannot disappoint his father or lose his career if it comes out he’s gay. He’s deeply closeted to the point of self-denial and we all see the struggle of a queer kid in his situation so very perfectly done.

Season 2 of Kingdom was in a 2A, 2B format and 2A continued to do very well at showing the struggles of a closeted gay man who has finally started at least sneaking around to gay clubs and stuff even though he’s still got a girlfriend cover, hasn’t told a soul, ect. The problem starts in 2B. In season 2B, for reasons I won’t get into, Nate is making money as a personal trainer, and long story short, one of his clients, a middle aged rich business dude, gives him $10,000 to keep him on retainer to ‘always be available’ and we, the viewers, realize what exactly Bob wants with him. Instead, one night Bob calls him to come train him and when Nate arrives, Bob is having a party.

As you can probably see coming, Nate is confused but Bob says ‘just have a drink and enjoy the party’, and of course, Nate has a drink that’s been drugged, and is then dragged to the bedroom by a woman where another man is waiting, and while he’s barely conscious, the woman and man have sex with him while Bob sits in the corner and watches it all. It was a really disturbing and unsettling scene because of what it was, but also because I started to think, ‘Wait, this can’t be the sex scene they’ve been talking about, right?’, and for the rest of the season I TRIED SO HARD to give them benefit of the doubt and wait for him to have sex with someone, but no. Their ‘sex scene’ was him being raped.

The morning after, he wakes up alone in the house with nobody else but Bob’s PA, a young, handsome British man named Will. Will gives him the hush money Bob left for him, because apparently Bob has a habit of doing this, and Will has this whole, “I hate the guy, but this job opens doors” thing, and gives Nate his number, ‘in case you want to talk.’ Right away, I got a bad feeling, that ended up being right of me, because of course throughout the rest of the season, Nate and Will start this ‘going on a date but not really’ thing after a few times of meeting up for lunch while Will brought Nate hush money from Bob the Rapist, who we learn is a repeat-rapist since Will has 3 or 4 other envelopes of hush money to deliver. This goes on for a good while until Will gets tired of the song and dance since Nate is in the closet and tells him to stop calling.

Even up until this point, I tried so hard to give Kingdom the benefit of the doubt, because while it’s ridiculous to imagine wanting to date the PA of the man who was essentially your rapist, rape victims handle things differently. It’s not wildly out there for a rape victim to feel drawn to someone who knows what happened to him, and especially since his mother almost got raped by her rehab counselor a few episodes later. I thought that eventually it would end in a confrontation with Bob or a fight or something that made it relevant to the plot. I expected all of this to play out to some point, some coming out opportunity for Nate, or some bonding with his mother thing. (He came out to his brother without anything related to his rape coming into it, by the way. His brother found Will’s number, but he didn’t know what it was about until Nate came out out to him. This was a beautifully done scene, to Kingdom’s credit.)

It was bad enough realizing, ‘well shit, they had Nate be RAPED just for his brother to find out he’s gay’ when they could have had his brother find out like his girlfriend earlier did by finding his phone logged into Grindr, or something similar and then have Nate come out to him. I was pretty annoyed they just had to go with ‘the gay kid got raped’ just for a really roundabout outing that wasn’t really related to it.

Season 3 premiered last week, and oh boy. It only got worse. Nate has a serious, committed boyfriend this season, which is set over a year after the last season finale, and the boyfriend is Will. No word on whether or not Will is still working for Bob the Rapist, though he does mention having to go to work a few times. Instead of Will having something to do with his rape, something that happened and ended, now, over a year and a half since he was raped, we find out that all this time Nate has been dating Will.

And the problem is that it made my friend and I come to a conclusion that’s very upsetting: Kingdom writers decided the best way to get their sexy, young gay guy living in LA a boyfriend was to have the boyfriend’s boss rape him.

The only reason Nate was raped was to give him a boyfriend and allow that boyfriend’s business card to prompt him to come out to his brother.

This TV show that does everything else so well decided that the best course of action out of all the other possibilities to give their gay character a boyfriend, cause ‘yay representation’, was to have a middle aged man drug him, watch him be raped – in a scene that plays out like an erotic sex scene, by the way – and then leave his hot young assistant to pay him off the next morning, because clearly a hot, buff young thing like Nate living in Los Angeles can’t meet a hot gay guy without it being the assistant of the man who raped him.

I hated seeing the rape scene, because I usually quit watching things with rape scenes in them, but at the time I really thought it was going to lead to something valid to the plot. Boyfriend Will has only been on screen a grand total of about 5 minutes over last season and this season so far. There was no connection between his rape and his mother’s almost-rape. Nobody other than Will knows he was raped. He’s never been shown dealing with the trauma from his rape. There has never been any mention of it ever again. It has had nothing to do with the plot at all other than Will. Even the whole Bob issue just stopped. We never saw or heard about Bob again after Will’s last attempt to get him to take the hush money. I even thought maybe Nate’s brother would find out about it and go ballistic like he did with the man who almost raped their mother (long story short, he almost murdered him).

Up until this point in time, the 2nd episode of the last 10 episode season, the only thing that Nate being raped has led up to is Nate getting a boyfriend.

There are so few words to be said for how unequivocally horrific that is. Of all the things you could do that’s bad queer representation when there were so many opportunities for good queer representation that one is off the charts. I wanted so badly to think something was coming of this, but at this point, I have very little hope in them ever even referencing the rape again. These writers who have so brilliantly crafted every facet of life and humanity and relationships into something so complex and beautiful can get toxic masculinity right, can get women right, can get family right, can get addiction right, can get loss and grief right, all of those things they get so right and they got queer representation so incredibly wrong.

I still deep in my heart have a tiny part of it that hopes and prays they end up doing right by Nate and giving him better representation, especially given that in tonight’s episode we found out the rumor he’s gay is out there in the MMA world, so there’s still a tiny bit of hope that this beautifully done, near-perfect show might not be guilty of such an atrocious fuck up as this seems to be.

…But I’m not holding my breath

(This same post is also posted on Chelsea Loves TV, I cross-posted because queer representation fits here and TV show discussion fits there. Sorry if that confused anyone.)

The REAL Queerbaiting

Something that every queer person, and most other people who are on twitter, has heard about is the concept of ‘queerbaiting’. There’s a lot of debate about the term and what it means, but for the most part, it ends up meaning media (film, tv, books, ect) that tries to entice the queer viewers by hinting at a queer relationship but never carrying through.

For the most part, I as an avid lover of film and TV ignore this entire concept. Most of the things I see labeled ‘queerbaiting’ are just fan interpretation and the cast embracing fans having fun. Often things that are labeled as being ‘queerbaiting’ are either things where we just perceive something platonic as romantic or something that IS romantic is perceived to be slighted up against the heterosexual romantic couples. (I’m not saying this never happens, but I am saying it happens far less than people claim it does.)

I generally feel that you can’t decide something is queerbaiting when it’s viewers/readers who are making that decision based on their own expectations, not the intentions of the creators (there are exceptions, but very few). However, there is a form of queerbaiting that I think most people don’t identify as such that is the real problem, and that is when people identify something as positive queer representation when it isn’t.

Whether it’s people who work for the marketing team of a thing or just people who are writing about a thing for their own publications, there are so many cases in which people really do make queerbaiting an issue when it really wasn’t by the way they advertise or talk about something.

A good example recently would be how everybody started talking about how the new Power Rangers movie had a queer character just because someone asks a girl if she has boy problems and when she doesn’t reply, they change it to ‘girl problems?’ in a scene where that wasn’t even relevant. That entire movie was narrowed down to the discussion of the queer girl representation when honestly it wasn’t even a thing. Hell, that movie had far more diversity in race representation than most movies that come out these days, but nobody talked about it because all they cared about was the SLIGHT mention of potential queerness. And then, when the movie came out and there was no queer content, people were angry because they were promised something by the people talking about it before it was released.

The same happened with Beauty and the Beast, with Le Fou dancing with a guy at the end. That film got boycotted because of a slight hint that Le Fou and Happy In A Dress guy might have a thing for one another. (In a movie where a human girl falls in love with a monster dude. Seriously.) The point is, people try their best to go, “OH LOOK! WE HAVE QUEER PEOPLE!” to draw in viewers, or if it’s said by those not related to the marking team, then it’s done by writers who want hits on their website.

This is what to me the vast majority of queerbaiting actually is.

If not that, then it’s some bullshit where they claim something is positive queer representation when it’s really something very, very negative. A good example of this would be one of my favorite TV shows in the history of TV, a GREAT show, with a shitty promotions department. Yes, my friends, we’re talking about Kingdom.

Since it’s not the most well known show (it’s on a DirecTV only channel), I’ll give you the basics that are important for this discussion: The show is about a father and his sons who are MMA fighters and the youngest son we find out is a deeply closeted gay man to the point of driving him to breakdown. In the lead up to season two, Kingdom was promoted by talking about how Nate’s sexuality was going to be explored further and was going to become a bigger part of the story. They talked a LOT about how he was even going to have a sex scene in season 2. The actor, when interviewed, talked about how he filmed a sex scene where, “It’s really my body, it wasn’t a double in the sex scene.” The key words here are that it was marketed all season with those words: sex scene.

It was a rape scene. He was raped. Nate was drugged by a client he was a personal trainer for at a party and a man and woman had sex with him while his client sat in the corner and watched the ‘show’. The problem isn’t that there was a rape scene. It was horrific but tied into the plot really well. I generally DO NOT watch stuff with rape scenes, but this was very relevant to the plot, and the fact that Nate got raped was fine. Th problem is that they marketed it as “Nate’s going to have sex with a guy”, like it was a pro-queer moment in the season that was coming. It was made out to be something positive in the way of queer representation, when it was a rape scene. Nate didn’t have sex with a man, Nate was raped.

That is also REAL queerbaiting.

Marketing something as a queer sex scene and it ending up being someone being drugged and raped is absolutely queerbaiting. Marketing something as queer representation when it’s a slight moment of ambiguity is queerbaiting. Making a single line consisting of two words in the dialogue into something to be touted as queer representation is queerbaiting.

All of these things are for bigger deals than ‘these two characters flirted that one time so if they don’t end up together it’s queerbaiting’ or ‘the straight people kissed 4 times but the queer couple only kissed 2, this is queerbaiting!’ and all of these are a serious problem we really need to end when it comes to promoting movies and TV. Stop claiming there is queer representation where it isn’t. If you want to attract queer audiences then put actual queer content in your product, don’t claim it’s there when it isn’t.

 

Difficult Question About Queer Diversity In Fiction

I am going to ask a question that I find difficult to answer, not because I am trying to challenge anyone, but because I genuinely want to hear what some people think. This is not a rhetorical question, this is a real question I think needs to be discussed in both the book world and in the film and television world. While this isn’t aimed at Book Twitter, I got into thinking about this because of reading discourse on queer diversity in the Book Twitter world.

The first and most important question I’ve really struggled with is related to the idea that we need more explicitly queer characters that state their identity or orientation. There’s this idea in both books and in other media that this implied queerness is just a cop-out and we want characters to verbally state their sexuality at some point. My actual question here is, “Does this risk lowering the standards of writing?”

Let me explain: In books, film, TV, ect, one of the most important rules of writing fiction is to not treat your audience like they’re stupid, and to ‘show it, don’t tell it’. I’m one of those people that really wants to KNOW what the sexual orientation of characters are because it’s just so rare still to have queer characters. However, I’m also a big fan of GOOD writing practices, and often when writers find a way to get their character to explicitly say, “I’m bisexual” or whatever, they end up having something so terribly contrived that it drags the audience out of the story. Nobody likes writing where it feels like the author is explaining something to the audience because they’re too stupid to pick up on the context clues, and there’s a serious risk of that happening in many cases.

Yes, there are definitely cases where it fits into the story to explicitly state a character’s sexuality, but more often than not, it doesn’t fit in good writing. A good example of this would be something I wrote once that won’t ever get published where this character, in a conversation, just ‘casually’ gives the other person their Tragic Past when it really did not fit the situation at all. It was so contrived and terrible, but it managed to inform the audience of the whole bisexual backstory of the character.

My biggest worry is that, with this new “SAY IT OUT LOUD!” representation demand in fiction, it’s going to make so many more situations like this. We’ve all read some story where there was a token queer character who explains their queerness just for the sake of having someone queer in the story, and it’s so cringe-worthy, isn’t it? I once read a book where there was a non-binary character that was a fucking SIDE CHARACTER and they had like two whole pages of explaining their ‘Xie’ pronouns to the protagonist and basically giving a lesson on being non-binary and then THEY WERE NEVER IN THE STORY AGAIN! It was so pointless and clearly token queer character, and I have this really frustrated feeling that with the demands for diversity, more and more people are going to start sticking token queer characters who have several pages of preaching on their gender or sexuality just so people can be sure to check that box. That sort of thing is something terrible for QUALITY writing.

I want queer characters more than you could probably understand, but I’m entirely against sacrificing quality for diversity. It’s the same reason a lot of people get on my case for giving queer films bad ratings on Chelsea Loves Movies (even though I DO give Queer Films a leg up by only comparing them to each other). I want quality diversity, and I won’t sacrifice my standards just to see more people like me on the screen or on a page.

My other difficult question is related to my own issue there, because I have to ask, “Is enjoyment of non-explicit relationships that are expressed the same as heterosexual couples (ie, their relationship can be implied, not explicit) a bad thing, because it allows people to get away with never making good on queer character relationships?”

I’m a big fan, in every medium, of normalizing queerness and not making it something that needs to be pointed out. It’s the only way I WANT to watch/read/consume queerness in fiction. However, I’m also aware that we might not be to the point yet where that’s enough, because I’m sure that there are people who use this as an excuse for ‘subtext’ and never delivering on the implication. Other times, people get really upset over some writer not delivering when I feel like they did deliver absolutely adequate confirmation of the relationship that I felt they were always working towards portraying.

Because I’m so torn on this topic, I want you guys to discuss this one with me. Comment, tweet me, and I would say DM me but I want this to be a public discussion, so try not to do that if you can help it. This is one of those places where I find myself really struggling because what I want in quality leaves gaps for chickening out on going there. What do you guys think?