Over a decade after the groundbreaking Showtime series ended, writer Ash Griffith looks at Queer As Folk through a 2018 lens and finds both positive and negative aspects.
Ash Griffith | August 10, 2018
“The thing you need to know is that it’s all about sex,” Michael Novotny proclaims in the opening line from Queer as Folk‘s first episode.
Well, yes and no, Michael. Queer As Folk‘s premise, that it would show the everyday lives of gays and lesbians instead of on an occasional “very special episode” or as the token comic relief, was revolutionary. The iconic drama based off the British original of the same name premiered in 2000 and aired its final episode thirteen years ago. In those thirteen years, so much has changed, even as some things – fortunately or not — have stayed the same. In light of everything that’s happened during this time, where does Queer As Folk stand thirteen years later?
The answer is complicated. Some aspects of the show hold up, while others are in desperate need of a revisit. The clearest thing that needs a revisit is the representation. And it needs it desperately.
For example, the first season’s Pride episode features a vacancy that’s positively glaring from today’s vantage point. The only people present at the Pride parade depicted are white cisgender gay men. No people of color, no women, no one transgender. While this issue is hardly confined to the Pride episode, the fact that the characters’ uniformity is so prominent in that episode rings even louder. Even fifteen years ago, Pride was a lot more diverse than its televised depiction on Queer As Folk made it seem.
The show’s main cast consists almost entirely of cis white gay men, except for the lesbian couple — and even they are rarely part of the main storylines. While Queer As Folk was applauded as revolutionary during its original run — and with good cause, it’s hard to get but so excited about it in 2018, when it seems so much clearer that only one fragment of the community is getting a clear shot.
This is not the only element of Queer As Folk that comes across as problematic in a 2018 rewatch. One obvious point is the initial relationship between Brian Kinney and Justin Taylor, who become the focal points of the series. In the series’ first episode, Brian and Justin meet at Babylon, the nightclub that is one of the show’s strongholds.
Having made a connection, they head to Brian’s loft to have sex. But then Brian becomes suspicious about Justin not wanting to go home so soon, and asks him a question he no doubt should have asked him before. Justin eventually reveals that he’s seventeen and still in high school. This is an uncomfortable revelation, but Brian (who is twenty-nine in this episode) not only handles it flippantly, but goes on to tell a room full of acqaintances that he slept with a minor. He does eventually cut Justin off (after they have sex again)… but only for a couple episodes.
Another on the list of things that sure as hell don’t hold up is the language used toward characters in the community that aren’t cis gay white men. And honestly, this stuff should never have made it into the series in the first place. Brian holds the record for most offensive with his use of a laundry list of derogatory terms toward the lesbian community — most of which, in fairness, are directed toward Melanie, as she and Brian hold a very specific level of vitriol toward each other for much of the series. Regardless of this fact, though, it’s still pretty uncomfortable to hear such terms come out of his mouth so nonchalantly.
However, it’s Michael who comes out as the biggest disappointment. As a character, he was originally intended to be the, um, straight man and moral compass of the series.
In one of the series’ final episodes, he delivers a speech at a press conference that is sometimes touted as one of the show’s finest moments. It could have been a moving speech; indeed, I was ready to make an argument that it was the series’ most relevant moment, both then and now… but then, as Michael tried to be intersectional, and to make a case for diversity as a positive value, he used a derogatory term for the trans community.
Well, there went that idea.
I gave up on seeing any bisexual representation before I even started my rewatch, mostly because I remembered enough to know that was never an option. In that time period? Yeah, not happening. However, there was… kind of.
In season 4, one of the big storylines focused on Lindsay cheating on Melanie with a man who worked with her. My issue with this plot is not even necessarily with Lindsay’s cheating — stay with me now — but rather how the situation was treated.
Within the universe of the series, Lindsay is identified as a lesbian. However, there are numerous times that she has relationships and attractions with members of the opposite sex (including, of course, Brian). My issue is with the fact that Lindsay cheating on Melanie with a man is treated as a significantly more serious offense than when Melanie cheated on her with another woman in season one.
After her cheating is revealed, when the man she slept with asks her to be with him again, she tells him no. “My house has many rooms,” Lindsay responds in the season four episode. “I occupy a few. The rest go unvisited.”
This a pivotal moment in Lindsay’s character development, in which she acknowledges that even though she does experience opposite-sex attractions, she continues to live and identify as a lesbian. The problem, though, is that the other characters refuse to let her even acknowledge the possibility of her being bisexual. If it was just a matter of Lindsay owning who she is and how she identifies, that would be one thing. But the fact that the rest of the cast shuts down any possibility of her identifying as bisexual is a huge issue.
Even in 2018, though, it isn’t that surprising to see the notion of bisexuality meeting with disfavor. But it does burn to see members of your own community, even fictional ones on television, shut that shit down quicker than a house fire.
While we could continue to enumerate the issues this series perpetuates for the rest of this article, we would be forgetting the good that Queer As Folk did, for both the media of the era and the LGBTQ community. And that would be a bad idea. So let’s talk about some brighter aspects of the series that still shine after more than a decade.
In season 2, Michael still hasn’t given up the idea that he and Brian will ride off into the rainbow sunset of his dreams, but he has gotten realistic. And thank goodness, because at this point in the series, he meets Professor Ben Bruckner, who eventually becomes his husband. By the way, Ben, portrayed by phenomenal actor Robert Gant, is one of the best, most well-developed characters in the series. But anyway…
The 7th episode of Season 2 brings up one of the most important conversations broached in the series, in which Ben and Michael talk about Ben’s HIV status. Despite the objections of Brian, Ted, Emmett, and his mother, Debbie (AKA Mom of the Year), Michael is staunch in his decision to continue dating Ben. The season is dedicated effectively to the normalization of living with and dating people with HIV.
Realistically, in a series about a group of friends from the LGBTQ community in the early years of the new millennium, this conversation would have to come up at some point. But the tactful, caring way in which it’s handled is excellent, especially in light of the way some other sensitive issues were handled elsewhere in the series.
Let’s be clear: Queer as Folk is hardly a perfect series. It has a lot of issues regarding diversity, intersectionality, and the way it treats marginalized groups within its own community. However, the good it did for the community can’t be denied. Prior to Queer As Folk, the LGBTQ community was always seen as a joke or a minor character in the back. The series gave the community the opportunity to be seen in mainstream media as actual living human beings who deal with day to day issues. And on top of all that, it marked the first time that a male-on-male sex scene was shown on American television.
In spite of its issues, Queer As Folk can still stand the test of time in 2018, because it still tells the stories of real people who demand to be seen. In the end, I think that’s all we really want. To bring it back to Michael’s opening statement, it isn’t all about sex. But it is about being represented — being seen and being heard. In thirteen years, we sure have come a long way.