Double-Emmy-Award-Winning San Junipero follows a party girl determined to live life to the fullest without any emotional attachments – that is until she falls for another girl. Its writer, Charlie Brooker, is renowned for his dark story-telling, but San Junipero unexpectedly became one of the most uplifting queer love stories on TV.
When I recommended to my friend that we watch San Junipero because it was “awesome and gay”, she immediately refused. Each episode of Netflix’s sci-fi show Black Mirror explores a different dystopian universe, and the storylines are usually extraordinarily bleak and twisted. However, it wasn’t just that my friend didn’t fancy mediating on the grim realities of human nature at half nine on a Saturday night. She felt a wariness that many LGBT+ people feel before watching shows with LGBT+ characters.
“We are reminded again and again…that [the LGBT+ community] cannot lead healthy, fulfilling – and long – lives.”
On TV, LGBT+ people rarely have happy stories. They meet their ends so often that they have their own trope: ‘Bury Your Gays’. Queer weblog Autostraddle compiled a list of every lesbian and female bisexual character who died on TV. The list covers just over forty years. The number of deaths totals as 188. Yes, death is a fact of life, but let’s consider the tiny amount of LGBT+ representation currently on TV. GLAAD calculated that of the 881 regular characters expected to appear on primetime broadcast programming in the coming year, 35 (4%) identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. The number of LGBT+ characters that die is overwhelmingly disproportionate to the number on screen. This pattern of ‘Bury Your Gays’ has a troubling resonance. It perpetuates the tired and damaging message that LGBT+ people don’t have happy lives or happy endings.
Regularly, when me and my friend watch TV, we see ourselves either reduced to harmful stereotypes or painted as figures of tragedy. We are often presented as the butt of a joke, merely there for the straight audience’s amusement, or we are creatures who perpetually suffer. Who perpetually die. We are reminded again and again, by the media that we can consume, that we cannot lead healthy, fulfilling – and long – lives.
“We become entranced by the [episodes] music, the thump of INXS and Simple Minds and, also, by the sound of the ocean.”
San Junipero subverts this unhealthy message. It is set in a near-future reality where, after dying, people can upload their souls to a digital party town, San Junipero. The elderly and ill, once a week, can ‘sample’ this idea of heaven before they pass on. Death is key to the plot, and the story is not without its share of heartbreak. The two main female characters – Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) – have both suffered through trauma. Kelly lost her daughter and Yorkie, after a car accident in her early twenties, is paralysed for life. The theme of San Junipero can be easily summarised as one of loss and how we, as humans, deal with it. However, it stands out from other LGBT+ media due to the way in which the bisexual Kelly and lesbian Yorkie are never defined by tragedy.
“The atmosphere of San Junipero is haunting and evocative, but it does not drag you down.”
These characters are written with respect. We watch a tenderly-crafted love story unfold between two girls, one set against a nostalgic 80s backdrop – so vivid and colourful you can almost feel the flashing neon lights on your skin and smell the hairspray of the over-the-top hair-dos. We become entranced by the music, the thump of INXS and Simple Minds and, also, by the sound of the ocean. Kelly and Yorkie kiss with the waves of the near-by ocean cresting and falling outside.
The atmosphere of San Junipero is haunting and evocative, but it does not drag you down. Kelly and Yorkie have their painful pasts, and San Junipero never glosses over them, but the writing offers the characters more than just suffering. It transcends the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope. In San Junipero, Kelly and Yorkie find a place where they can both be themselves and love freely. They are given a second chance at love and life. San Junipero is a story of hope. Of better times to come. Something LGBT+ viewers are often told, by mainstream media, not to believe in.
Featured Image courtesy of IMDB
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