Morality, Humanity and Sexuality in Torchwood

In 2006, Russell T. Davies launched Torchwood, his more adult spin off from Doctor Who. Featuring Captain Jack Harkness, a former con man and Time Agent who had found himself sliding into the reluctant hero position under the Doctor’s influence, Torchwood is the story of an eclectic team working for a secret government agency to study and collect alien artifacts which fall through a rift in time and space, in order to better prepare Earth to be able to defend itself against alien invasion. Given that Earth has been invaded several times on Doctor Who, to the point that people actually remember and remark on it (rather than having their memories erased or some similar plot device), their mission is not one of paranoia but practicality. Jack is originally from the 51st century, but finds himself stranded on Earth in the 19th century after he is brought back to life by a powerful phenomenon and is rendered immortal.  At first just trying to survive, and then spending some time trying to die, to get rid of what he sees as a curse, Jack was eventually recruited into Torchwood. They gave him two options—be tortured repeatedly for eternity, or work for them.

Jack has been a member of Torchwood ever since.

Where Doctor Who was originally conceived as a show for children which developed themes that pulled adults in just as strongly, Torchwood is very much an adult show. Its episodes are layered with sexual and violent moments without the show being about sex and violence (Ginn “Torchwood: Sexy, Dark and Dangerous”). What it does seem to focus on being about is the relationships between people in all their complexity—nonsexual even more than sexual—and forcing viewers to “ask tough questions while considering their own humanity” (Porter 239). Torchwood never refrained from going to the darker places in what humanity is capable of, though there were moments of grace, as well. And it never, ever, gave its viewers an uncomplicated character. Each of the main characters, and all of the significant supporting ones, were richly drawn with deep flaws and moments of shocking grace. They did reprehensible things sometimes, but they did them in the name of the greater good, and the show asked the viewers to decide for themselves if it was worth it. Viewers were given characters who, in their deeply flawed but trying to be better natures, could really provoke an emotional connection. Sometimes these were negative, sometimes they were hopeful, always they were complex.

One piece of that complexity is their sexuality. However, Davies’ characters’ sexuality are not issues within the narrative, they are “an almost throwaway, unimportant point” (Hills 34). Within Davies’ narratives—queer is ordinary, normal. While Davies can argue that this is a non-agenda, because he is making sexuality a non-issue, the very act of doing so is a radical step for a television show. Still, Davies insists that his inclusion of varying sexualities in varying configurations is non-didactic. He wants the sexuality of his characters to be read in a progressive fashion as a non-issue. As much as challenging right-wing prejudice, Davies also launches his “non-issue” in the face of left-wing clichés which encompass the burden of representation—the idea that images of sexuality in narratives must work to counter societal prejudice (Hills 36). All of the main characters on the show exhibit some sexual fluidity, though some more than others. While lauding the show for bringing non-stereotypical homosexual and bisexual characters to mainstream television, however, many scholars have criticized the show for not going far enough (Amy-Chinn; Ginn).

I have argued elsewhere about how these scholars have either failed to support their arguments or are reading the text from a biased angle which they do not acknowledge in their scholarship. An application of critical queer theory that states as its aim to examine if Torchwood really is as radical as it seems, or makes a case for why it should be more radical would at least clarify the scholars’ positionality in their methodology and give their readers a basis for evaluation of their arguments. As they are presented, even to those familiar with queer theory, who can grasp where they are coming from based on the reader’s own knowledge, the answers to their arguments seem to be, “so?”

Sherry Ginn quotes Davies as saying that one of his goals is to break down barriers and eliminate the compulsory preservation of heterosexuality. Without acknowledging that she is coming from an anti-assimilationist queer perspective, Ginn argues that Davies actually upholds heterosexuality and reinforces gender and sexuality stereotypes (“Sex, Blood and Violence: Rock On”). Similarly, Amy-Chinn criticizes the show for the restricting the “scope for characters to explore their bi potential” and that “normativity progressively reasserts its privileged position. In the end, the show bows to forces that militate against true visibility for non-normative sexualities” (Amy-Chinn 64). Ultimately, both may be right in their assertions, but I would argue that in their rigid expectations of what a queer show “should” look like, they are missing out on the complexity of the show and the characters. While saying that gay characters should not be required to be representative, they both seem to criticize Jack for not being queer enough. Both fail to acknowledge that in requiring a fictional character to meet their standards for proper queerness, they are shutting off other people’s notions of what being bisexual or homosexual means and creating alienation in the very population they are seeking to liberate.

Critics who question the queerness of the show seem to me to be missing two key things, though I will acknowledge that I am writing from a far more pragmatic and less activist position and am not convinced that assimilation is necessarily a bad thing for everyone. To tell people that in order to be queer they must be this way, or that way, or cannot be monogamous or want to legalize their relationships strikes me as being problematic—like radical feminists who deny heterosexual women the right to the label of feminist. They are not commenting explicitly on Davies’ stated aim of making sexuality a non-issue not just for conservative viewers, but also from activists who insist on representation which counters normativity (Hills 36).  The main failure of their arguments is not in the fact that they question Torchwood’s destabilizing of heteronormativity.  Their failure is in criticizing it for failing to live up to what they think it is supposed to be, without paying attention to what its creator explicitly says he is trying to accomplish. To criticize Davies and say he should take a more activist stance is one thing, but they dance around this, saying instead that he has tried to do what they think he should, but has missed the mark.

Davies explicitly did not want to create a show where his characters bore the burden of representation for particular sexualities. He was adamant about this. His form of activism is in engaging viewers in the text, in the narrative, and making a world of diverse sexualities seem every day and normal. There are critical positions which one can take against this aim, of course, and it is from these positions I think those who think Torchwood is not queer enough are coming. But their rigid positions are just as problematic, and, ultimately, do their arguments no service, because they are not pragmatic, and in addition, are failing to take into account, except very briefly, the major participants in the discussion of the show and the meanings to be drawn from it: the fans.

Torchwood is a show made by fans, for fans. In his article “Screwing Aliens and Screwing with Aliens: Torchwood Slashes the Doctor,” Richard Berger presents a compelling argument that not only was Torchwood created by fans, it operates as fan fiction, itself. The classic episodes of Doctor Who were written by esteemed veterans of British science fiction novels, such as Douglas Adams and Arthur C. Clarke. The two men who revamped the series in 2005, Davies and current showrunner Stephen Moffat, grew up as Doctor Who fans, who did not just watch and enjoy the show, but wrote Doctor Who fan fiction (stories written by fans set in the world or with the characters of their favorite media texts which play with the canon text, filling in gaps, rewriting events, taking it further than it went in the source material).  Berger argues that the resurrected Doctor Who, written by these fans, operates as fan fiction of the classic text, filling in gaps left in the previous stories and playfully rewriting aspects of Doctor Who canon (Berger “Continuing the Conversation”).

From this position, Berger furthers his argument, exploring Torchwood as slash fan fiction of Doctor Who. While Berger problematically gets the definition of slash fan fiction wrong[1], his argument is still an intriguing one and, given the fluidity of sexualities of characters on Torchwood, the argument has some overall merit as a framework. The way that slash fan fiction has functioned in the decades it has been flourishing, was by taking otherwise heterosexual, heteronormative narratives and queering them, by constructing homosexual relationships instead between the characters presented as ostensibly straight in the text. In many ways, then, Torchwood is the imagined world of “what happens if you take characters from Doctor Who and make them sexually fluid and allow them to have complex sexual relationships?” This sexualizing of the show is the biggest alteration between the two, as storyline arcs often overlap. It is not a perfect argument—Jack is the only character who travels regularly between the two shows, and he is presented as bisexual (or omnisexual, really) in Doctor Who, if with less nakedness, so since slash generally plays with sexuality, Torchwood following through on a canonical piece does not really do anything transgressive or subversive. However, the idea that the show was created by writers who were fan fiction authors, and dealt with Jack’s life and sexuality very explicitly (where it is behind doors, as it were, in the more family show), gives an interesting framework for critical arguments of its level of queerness.

It seems to me that much of the operative problem between the arguments (Torchwood as not queer enough because it reinforces heteronormative values vs. Torchwood as a subversive, transgressive queering of Doctor Who), might lie in the way in which “queer” is being used. Amy-Chinn and Ginn seem to be coming from a radical, critical queer theory position, looking at the text, as I mentioned earlier, from an anti-assimilationist point of view that decries any presentation of sexuality which feeds into any normative portrayals (ether hetero-or-homonormative). Again, because neither of them ever explicitly states where they are arguing from, this is a deduction I am making based on the arguments they make. The queering that slash does, and which, then, if we consider Torchwood to be Doctor Who slash, takes its meaning not from current radical queer theory, but from fan studies, within cultural studies. While queer studies can fall under the umbrella of cultural studies, of course, fan studies often explore texts from a less radical perspective—usually because they are examining the interpretive practices of a non-homogenous group and seeking to understand the meanings they make, not looking to promote an activist agenda. I am not criticizing more activist scholars in the least for wanting to take a more activist position. This is important work for social justice in the world. However, in looking to see what Torchwood does or does not do in living up to their expectations—in reading the text to see if it matches a checklist for “properly” queer, which is how their criticism reads—these scholars neglect utterly to consider what the text and its surrounding narratives actually do, in media, in fandom, in the world[2].

In recognizing my own position, that of a cultural studies scholar, focused on media texts from a variety of positions, but working most comfortably under the umbrella of fan studies, I am able, at least, to enunciate what my problems are with these arguments beyond, “they are just…wrong and ignoring the text.” While I do think they are cherry picking their examples of the upholding of stereotypes and heteronormativity while ignoring examples which directly contradict their thesis[3], I understand that they are seeking to examine the text from a different position than that from which I approach it, and therefore our aims in examining the text—even from a queer perspective—are different. Stating this, however, I still feel that examining the show with such narrow blinders, and without acknowledging the potential of other readings, but instead condemning it as having failed indicates a shallow examination of the text.

The varying representations of gender and sexuality in the show, like the varying expressions of morality and heroism, and the way in which they are handled and explored is one of the things that makes Torchwood so complex. It is not a simple show. It is not a one-note show. Jack is not a white-hat hero. He is not always right, and he does not always examine when he is wrong, and I do not believe that the show is asking us to valorize him when his actions are not what we would hope them to be. Torchwood problematizes things. It presents issues, situations, crises of morality, of sexuality, of ethics, and, most notably, it does not offer answers (Porter 242). Jack is expressly positioned as a man who was a con man and a thief and maybe worse before meeting the Doctor. His experience with the Doctor inspires him to try to be a better man, and the incident which renders him immortal comes about as he lays down his life in a last-ditch effort to save humanity (“The Parting of the Ways”).

Torchwood begins, for Jack, more than a century and a half after the events of “The Parting of the Ways.” In Doctor Who, we see Jack as exuberant, lovable, cocky, incredibly flirtatious, and shifting from shallow to having more depth. His sexuality is there, overt and unapologetic, and his characterization incorporates a veneer of campiness, using older codes for homosexual behavior to reinforce the message: Jack Harkness is not a straight man (Doty 10). This representation, however, is never over-the-top, or stereotypical. Jack is not flaming. Rose has no reason to think he is anything but straight when she first meets him, as he flirts with her quite blatantly. It is only later, when she sees him doing the same with a male soldier that she thinks to question what his preferences are (“The Doctor Dances”). The Doctor, the moral arbiter of the universe of Doctor Who, or at least the one from whom we are supposed to view more progressive views, laughs at her and her notion that people can be so easily categorized. “Relax. He’s a 51st century guy. He’s just a bit more flexible when it comes to…dancing,” he tells her, and after a sort of head tilt Rose accepts this and goes back to flirting with Jack when they are reunited (“The Doctor Dances”).

When we meet him in Torchwood, Jack is more subdued character. This is, from a narrative standpoint, understandable. He’s been stranded on a planet that is not his own, cut off from the people he loves, not knowing why he cannot die, and being temporarily killed and tortured a lot. It would be unreasonable to expect him to be the same exuberant, sparkling character. Jack has grown up. That’s not to say that he does not still have his moments, his flashes of that charm—it is still the way he often presents to the world, but underneath it is a darkness, a sadness, an anger he was not carrying before (Porter 243). This darkening has made him less sensitive toward people’s feelings. He is willing to do things that the Doctor would never have condoned in order to save the planet. The ends justify the means. But while Carrie Dunn argues that the narrative in Torchwood condones misogynistic acts to the point of rape and asks viewers to valorize it, or at least overlook it, I do not think that is the case (Dunn). I agree with Dunn that these non-consensual acts take place, that Jack and others can behave in a misogynistic way, that while sexuality is fluid, gender is not always—they do, he does and it is not. I do not think, however, that the narrative of the show asks us to see these things as okay. When Jack demeans a team member, when he orders torture, when he infantilizes those around him, or when other characters commit acts which are clearly violative, Torchwood does not claim these are right. Instead, it asks us to examine them, to sit in our discomfort, to point out why they are not okay, as Dunn does. I think that the presentation of gender and sexuality does the same.

Torchwood is not presenting its audience with a utopia, where everyone behaves as we wish they would in a perfect, socially just world which has abolished sexism, racism, ageism, gender binaries and where everyone engages in fluid sexual play with others, freely polyamorous and without shame. It is not that kind of show, though it is easy to say that, perhaps, because that is a claim that could be made about pretty much every show on television. However, what makes Torchwood different is that it knows, reflexively, that it is not that show. It is dark. It is scary. It is the story of people who are sometimes the last defense against forces that would obliterate humanity. The characters on the show make hard choices, questionable choices, immoral choices. That they sometimes get away with these does not mean that they are presented as okay. The characters’ own struggles with these acts (for instance, the female lead is shown cheating on her lovable boyfriend with a cad, and never seems quite certain if she wants said boyfriend or to throw it all away for Jack), are made explicit on the show. They are not all explored in detail as moral dilemmas, no, but the characters do not walk away from them unscarred.

For example, Dunn posits Jack’s torture of a woman to gain information about her identity as an alien planning a violent invasion of Earth, as akin to rape. The woman claims she has no knowledge of being an alien, that she is just a girl. She is terrified and wants to know what they are even talking about. Jack orders her mind probed with an alien artifact which includes the insertion of needles into her brain. The woman is not given the information that this procedure can be harmful, even fatal. She is not asked to consent. It is done to her, and it is painful and it is horrifying to watch, for the audience and for the characters (“Sleeper”). Dunn argues that this is a type of rape for which Jack is excused and which the show does not acknowledge that this was torture, that it was wrong, and that Jack used his authority to force his team to carry out these actions. She ultimately concludes that this sort of behavior on television is acceptable and justified in real life, so “why not, then, present it on television for our viewing pleasure?”

Dunn is absolutely right that this behavior is often dismissed or even accepted in the real world. Atrocities are committed in the name of justice and freedom, and we look the other way, or say that is the cost for safety or information or stopping another attack.  “Sleeper” is a direct representation of these horrors in the world, and in presenting them in the way they are presented—with a beloved character carrying out torture on a woman who does turn out to be a sleeper agent, but whose programming was buried so deeply that she was truly unaware of what she was (ergo, they stop an alien attack and the torture is justified)—Torchwood asks us to reflect on that horror (Porter 244). It is not a “pleasant” scene. It is uncomfortable, disturbing, even horrifying, not just for the audience but also for the characters on the show. No one, not one of them, is okay with it, but no one calls a stop to it—just like no one did in the prisons in Iraq, just like no one did in the concentration camps in Germany. Every member of the team, including Jack, suffers from their actions. They can justify them—they saved the Earth and billions of people—but they cannot excuse them. The episode ends with each character isolated and trying to find ways to deal with the horror, but never quite coping. Viewers turning off the episode are left in a sense of disquiet, questioning their own response to the actions, questioning what is right, what is moral, what is justified, and where they as individuals and we as humanity fall on that spectrum (Porter 242). Torchwood isn’t meant to be pretty, easy or perfect. It “symbolizes a chaotic, violent modern world at its most extreme…Torchwood episodes seldom have a happy ending; even the successes require someone’s sacrifice or loss” (Porter 240).

In her book, Tarnished Heroes, Charming Villains and Modern Monsters, Lynnette Porter argues that our understanding of the world has grown too complex for representation in the white hat/black hat dichotomy of hero and villain. It may not be that human nature has changed, but our understanding of it in a late modern/post-modern, technologically advanced and connected world has changed. Moral relativism is a common concept, and it is one that science fiction of the 21st century seems to be facing head on, questioning it, problematizing it, but having no answers to give for it, yet (Porter 57-60). Even as it introduces elements of the fantastic (alien technology, other worlds, time travel), modern science fiction stays grounded in a tradition of realism.

We are people who live in a mediated world. We are increasingly connected by media, by technology; we gain our information in mediated ways; our views of the world are shaped by the media we consume. This mediated world is “at the heart of our social, political and cultural realities and identities” (Gray, Sandvoss and Harrington 12). This is why we study popular culture, because it gives us a window into that world, makes it manifest, and allows us to inspect it and ourselves from a distance that can bring clarity. Our estimation of our own actions can be suspect. We are constrained by our own biases and the way we construct our view of the world around us. Seeing actions in a mediated form, divorced from our sense of selves can turn reflexively back on itself and serve as a critique on what was before taken for granted. But it cannot do that if it presents us with an unreal world with which we cannot connect. Utopia makes for a pretty story, for a while, until we start poking to see the underbelly. Because if there is not one, then there is no conflict, there is nothing to get attached to, there is nothing to emotionally invest in, and we disengage with the text. Without things which shock us, which upset us, which make us say, “That’s not right,” how would we ever question what was?

It is this complexity in Torchwood’s narrative that I feel critics of its sexual representation, or its queerness, overlook. They give it a surface read, as Dunn does, without following the elements in plot or character through to their end point. The horrible things that the characters are forced to do start to destroy them. By the end, only two are even left alive, both of them broken, and with Jack fleeing Earth after having sacrificed both his lover and his grandson in order to save the children and world of other people. This action, however I have worded it here, is not presented as noble. Jack’s guilt carries him through the next series of the show, not at all expunged by its end. It leaves him broken, struggling to recover, to figure out who he is, to know if he did the “right” thing, or a necessary evil. He questions his choices every step of the way. He doesn’t find answers (“Children of the Earth: Day Five;” Torchwood: Miracle Day). Neither do we. Only questions.

This approach is the same one I see being given to sexuality and gender. Dunn reads Jack as hyper-masculine, in his military-inspired clothes, with a gun on his hip. Ginn argues that the “sexual overtones of the series play into the usual stereotypes about gender and sexuality,” but argues that Jack’s omnisexuality “does not detract from his masculinity; cultural constructions of the male homosexual as effeminate clearly do not apply to Jack” (Ginn “Sex, Blood and Violence: Rock On!). If the show is supposed to play into usual stereotypes of sexuality, then how does Jack’s being bisexual and not fitting the cultural constructions of male homosexuality play into usual stereotypes? I would argue that Jack is ultimately fluid both in his sexuality and his gender. Where his period military dress reads to Dunn as “hyper-masculine,” a member of his team, in a discussion with the rest of the team about if Jack is gay or straight, comments, “Period military is not the dress code of a straight man” (“Day One”). Further, the elements of camp which slide into Jack’s construction of character clearly signal “not straight,” and tie into a long history of over-the-top performance, but these codes are positioned up against a strong, conventionally handsome character who functions as a military-trained action hero.

Similarly, Dunn and Ginn both argue about the conventional roles into which the female members of the team are forced, being infantilized and dismissed by their male teammates. In doing so, they fail to recognize women who are serving in elite, traditionally “masculine” fields of science, law enforcement and military combat, who may be spoken to like they are children, but who go on to prove they are not. Sexism exists in the world. When the characters (including Jack) use language that leans toward this behavior, they are not presented as attractive, or right, but are most usually proven wrong.

Fan studies tends to pull into its work from audience reception theory and questions texts from a perspective of the interpretive acts of those who receive the text. While fan reception, interpretation and production is not equivalent to a particular critical perspective, I believe that it can shed light on the practical, actual way a text functions in the world. If one is conducting solely a criticism of a work from within a certain paradigm, this may not be important. However, when you are arguing, as many of these critics are, that a text creates a social effect or fails to do something you think it should do, then it seems to me that examining the reception to that text becomes important. Again, I realize that my theoretical perspective is positioned differently than those of the critics whose interpretations (or effects of interpretation) I question. But three of the major pieces of scholarship I have highlighted are published a book titled Illuminating Torchwood: Essays on Narrative, Character and Sexuality in the BBC Series. “Illuminating” suggests shedding light on, and an exploratory approach which is not evident in what is ignored.

Alexander Doty’s Making Things Perfectly Queer, Eve Karofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, and Stuart Hall’s essay “Encoding/Decoding” make up the trifecta of works most often cited in studies of slash fan fiction and interpretations of sexuality in media texts. Doty’s book is one of the seminal books in queer pop culture, laying down a theoretical framework, and in it he sets forth three ways in which mass culture texts may incorporate queerness. The third is the most useful for fan studies, and for looking at Torchwood: queerness can be found in texts by “adopting reception positions that can be considered ‘queer’ in some way, regardless of a person’s declared sexual and gender allegiances” (Doty xi). He admits that the queerness he will discuss is connotative and insubstantial if examined from a heterocentrist paradigm, which claims that queer readings are subtextual and alternative or pathetic delusions attempting to see something that is not there.

Unlike a great deal of television, Torchwood’s queerness is not connotative or insubstantial. Even if examined from a heterocentrist paradigm, the queerness in the text is not subtextual, but denoted and laid out for all to see. Despite this, Amy-Chinn, Ginn and Dunn all argue that Torchwood upholds and privileges heteronormativity. If this is so, it seems to me that it should be reflected in the works that fans produce. Admittedly, arguments for the subversiveness of fan literature abound, and likely are valid when examining a non-queer text: making characters who seem straight in their canon gay or bisexual is far more subversive than writing gay stories about characters who are ostensibly gay in their canon. But if the text of Torchwood privileges the female lead’s heterosexual life, then that is not a reading that the fans have found in the text, a fact which Ginn does acknowledge in passing in her text (“Sex, Blood and Violence: Rock Out!”)

The primary canon pairing in Torchwood is Jack with one of his team members, Ianto Jones. Despite tension between the female lead (Gwen) and Jack, and clear evidence they love each other, those feelings are never acknowledged, let along consummated. Instead, Gwen marries her long-time boyfriend, and Jack encourages her to keep her normal life. The most forgiving of the presentation of sexuality in Torchwood, Ginn nevertheless argues that it is “fraught with danger: mixed messages that detract from the celebration first experienced at a television series with an openly gay actor portraying a man who could, and did, enjoy sexual relations with both the male and female of the various species he encountered throughout the galaxy.” The “danger” Ginn sees is in the fact that it is Gwen who serves as the “heart” of the show, who humanizes Jack, who wins Jack’s heart, but who ultimately chooses a heteronormative life with her husband (how Gwen’s choosing Jack instead of her husband would not have been heteronormative is not something explained). Ginn asserts that Jack and Ianto’s relationship is stereotypical of male promiscuity and that they are merely dabbling, while Jack’s serious emotional commitments have been to women, and so Torchwood thus privileges the heterosexual relationships. Amy-Chinn makes much the same argument relating to Jack and Ianto versus Gwen and her husband, although she then argues that it is problematic that Jack and Ianto are a committed couple at the end of “Children of the Earth” (72-73). Amy-Chinn finds this construction of them as a homosexual couple problematic, however, as it is homonormative, and sets the couple up to be a mirror for the straight couple instead of something different and queerer, more fluid (73).

As with the construction of morality, I contend that Torchwood is not sending mixed messages about a particular sexuality being right or wrong or privileged. Gwen and her husband are able to exercise more social privilege at the end of the series because they are living in a society that is still not comfortable with queerness. This uncertainty about how to deal with Jack’s fluidity is openly addressed in dialogues between characters in the show (“Day One,” “Captain Jack Harkness,” “Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang”). Ianto’s uncertainty about how to deal with his own sexual fluidity is expressly addressed, as is Jack’s uncertainty about his readiness to make a commitment. Their relationship may start off as casual, with Jack exhibiting stereotypical male promiscuity behavior, according to Ginn and Amy-Chinn (though in the entire course of the show he never has sex with anyone but Ianto, though he flirts with everything).  Amy-Chinn compares this to Gwen’s uncertainty about settling down with her husband, and marks how Gwen and Rhys and Jack and Ianto move from uncertainty to coupledom (74). Yes, they do. Over three seasons, these four people negotiate their relationships, go through ups and downs, question their commitment, their desire, and their place in the others’ lives. Ianto has never had a male lover before Jack, so, in addition, he questions his base sexuality, and how he can only ever have had sex with women before, but now finds the love of his life is a man. Gwen sleeps mainly with men, but she does not embrace a heteronormative life until the end, but that lifestyle is fraught with its own issues and throughout the series Davies shows us alternatives and variants on sexual and relationship choices people make.

While Jack’s developing relationship throughout the series is Ianto, we encounter an ex-boyfriend of his with whom he is still far too emotionally enmeshed, and learn of their unhealthy codependency and troubles negotiating roles and space—something that was constantly in flux (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”). Jack has one evening, not even a night, with a solider in the past who is doomed to die the next day, and they share what was then (and may still be) the longest gay kiss to air on television—one that is fraught with emotion, heartbreak and the knowledge of loving out of time and place (“queer time” to Judith Halberstam) (“Captain Jack Harkness”). We see Jack deal with his family from a heterosexual marriage; interact with an ex-lover from decades before. We watch as he attempts to form a relationship with a young man in turn of the century America, only to have both of them destroyed by the culture of homophobia of the early 20th century (Torchwood: Miracle Day). We see Jack, after Ianto’s death, fleeing Earth to a rootless existence, back to charming people in bars, but disconnected from those who love him (“The End of Time”). Gwen does get the husband and the kid, but Jack was never going to have that, not really, in his position as an immortal. And the contrast of Jack’s life with Gwen’s is not at all due to his sexuality, or his sexual object choice of male or female, but to that immortality. Everyone he loves—male or female—is going to die and leave him. This is a question of humanity and connection—how a person keeps reaching out, loving, trying, when they know it is doomed. How do you maintain your humanity in that position, when you are not certain if that is what you are, even?

Jack loves. He reaches out time and time again, despite everyone he has lost and he searches for that connection. Gwen holds on to “normal” in contrast to Jack’s distinctly abnormal life, but it is seen as often unfulfilling for her, as well. Each wants what the other has; neither can have it because of what they are. Davies entire premise on the sexuality issue in Torchwood was to make it a non-issue. He doesn’t want it to matter who is sleeping with whom or for how long. He does not dwell on how to make his characters “properly queer,” because he focuses on the characters as a whole, not just their sexual object choice. Most people still seek normativity, because that is how we are conditioned in our society. To set a story in this space and time and push it toward a more radical queerness would make that queerness the issue, not the characters, the plot or the other moral issues. Modern audiences would be talking about the sex—who was having it with whom, why, what was better, which lifestyle options seemed the most positive. These are undoubtedly questions we should ask ourselves at some place, but not every text needs to contain every question. Davies was asking non-sexuality related questions with his text. It is far darker, far more focused on ethics, morality, choice, and living with yourself. The sexuality is a non-issue, and ergo it has to have some normativity built in so we can accept it as familiar.

And ultimately, that is what Torchwood does for sexuality, and it is evident in its effect on its fans. While slash is a popular sub-genre of fan fiction, the alternate sexualities posited by the text and explored in fan fiction are overwhelmingly queer. For instance, on Archive of Our Own, a fan fiction archive, there were, at last count, 6,078 stories tagged with Jack as a character in them (not all of them have a sexual or romantic relationship in them, so the numbers below will not add up to 6,078). Of those stories, 2,741 centered around the Jack/Ianto relationship in various stages of its development; 620 featured Jack and a single other male character, for a total of 3,361 homosexual pairings (over half); 275 contained sexual configurations of three or more people, of mixed genders. That is a total of 3,636 stories containing non-heteronormative sexualities. Only 215 stories out of 6,078 surrounded a heterosexual relationship, and given the characters that some of those included, they may have been heterosexual, but they were not heteronormative. These patterns are repeated on other archives. Ginn may argue that Gwen was the heart of the show and meant to privilege heteronormativity, encouraging Jack in that direction, but if that is the case…the fans did not get that message. Ginn herself acknowledges this, that the fans overwhelmingly preferred Jack/Ianto to Jack/Gwen, and, in fact, most do not like Gwen much (“Sex, Blood and Violence: Rock On!).

If Davies, then, meant to privilege heterosexuality and heteronormativity, Torchwood fans did not get the message. Further evidence of this can be seen in fan reactions to John Barrowman (who plays Jack) at fan conventions where he appears as a guest. In 2011 at Dragon*Con, in a panel where John was the main guest, the floor was opened up for fans to come forward and ask questions. There were very few, though the lines ran back through the ballroom. Instead of questions, fan after fan, young men and young women, came up to the microphone and thanked John for Jack. They told story after story about struggling to accept who they were, about having the courage to come out, about trying to figure out who they “had” to be, if they were gay. Some of them spoke about how they never felt it was okay, that they were going to be seen as freaks forever. But then they saw Torchwood, and they saw Jack. And Jack refused to be bound by stereotypes. He could swish a handsome soldier out on to the ballroom floor, or he could face down a demon intent on bringing about Armageddon, or he could hold a child gently reading stories, or…anything he wanted. He traveled with the Doctor. He saved the world. And he was queer, and unapologetic and unashamed of it. It wasn’t a big deal, it didn’t define him. It was just a facet of who he was, and from that these fans learned that they could be anything they wanted, as well. They weren’t defined by who they found attractive, even though so many media messages presented most gays in a few certain stereotypes.

This is what I think the “queer” critics of Torchwood miss—the real world reaction. They could argue that if the show presented more varied types of queerness, or did not privilege monogamy, then it would break down these roles and assumptions even more and start striking at heterosexual privilege. Maybe they are right. Maybe it would. But it would have to stay on the air, on mainstream television, to reach a wide enough audience. It would have to find a way for viewers raised in a heteronormative society to accept not just multiple representations of fluid sexuality (every character on the show has at least one homosexual experience, willingly and enjoyably—even those who wind up being “mostly” straight), but multiple lifestyles that are new to them. Of course, exposure to new things is not a bad thing…but you cannot force exposure, either, to popular culture. It has to become popular in order to carry out its functions, and to be popular, you generally have to start with a premise your audience can make an emotional connection to—something they can relate to. Reaching a radically queer audience is difficult if you can’t stay on the air, and changing the norms of the mainstream is difficult if you only play to a niche audience. None of this is necessarily the fault of, or related to, the actual critiques of the presentation of queer characters. The authors likely are right—Jack and Ianto end up in a fairly assimilationist homonormative relationship. They are the “good gays” as Amy-Chinn calls them, monogamous, committed, in the military, prepared to line up with action heroes around the world to defend Earth (77).

I recognize that activists and scholars who take non-assimilationist positions are not fans of incremental change, and that the position of critical theory is to call into question these norms in our society and what their implications are. In this way, these positions and essays fulfill their goal (though they are still occasionally unclear, contradictory, circuitous and lacking an identifiable point). However, each positions itself as a criticism not of the culture, but of the supposed failings of the show, and I think that is problematic. Without an acknowledgment of the social realities within which the text operates, it is being considered in a vacuum—whether relating to moral and ethical issues or ones of sexuality. It cannot, then, serve as a helpful cultural critique, because it never extrapolates out to the real world—it maintains its space in fiction. If the goal, then, of the work is activist in nature, how have they affected any change? If Torchwood followed their (unclear) advice about what it should have been, what would have changed or what could have?

I think Ginn’s one idea is a good one: that Torchwood should be celebrated as the first show to have an openly bisexual character as its protagonist, played by an openly gay actor, that reached a wide swath of Western culture and was critically and popularly received and made real impacts in the lives of real people identifying as gay, bisexual or queer. Where I think everyone goes off base is in saying that the show is sending “mixed messages.” Hall’s encoding/decoding model of communication says that meaning is made at the point of reception—what the audience interprets the message as. If the audience were confused about if they should follow Gwen or Jack’s example and what they were being told to do, then there would be a more valid argument surrounding the messages “sent” by the show. Instead, Torchwood offers multiple subjects in multiple positions along the sexual continuum, struggling with questions of love, of life, of right and wrong and humanity and identity.  Some of them question if they want the expected heteronormative life (Gwen). Some of them question who they are attracted to, and if that requires a reformation of their identity, or if it matters (Ianto). Some of them question if they are human and what heroism is and where the line is between right and necessary (Jack). No position is unproblematic, and Torchwood makes that exceptionally clear. But no position in life is perfect, either, and there is where the celebration of Torchwood should come in. If it sends a message, it’s that it is okay to struggle with these questions—you should struggle with them. It is okay to feel your identity shift—identities do that. Who you love is one part of your identity, not all of it. It’s okay to have to take some time to figure it out. It’s okay to look at your actions, to think about consequences, to weigh the costs—but there will always be consequences, and you need to be able to live with them. Nothing is simplified in Torchwood. To read it in that fashion is to do it a disservice, and to miss out on the richness and complexity that has no answers, but is asking the right questions.


Works Cited and Consulted[4]

Alexander, Jonathan, and Karen Yescavage. “The Pleasure and Pain of Chasing Amy: Analyzing Reactions to Blurred Identities and Sexualities.” Journal of Bisexuality 1.4 (2001): 115. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 May 2013.

Amy-Chinn, Dee. “GLAAD to Be Torchwood? Bisexuality and the BBC.” Journal of Bisexuality 12.1 (2012): 63-79. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.

Becker, Ron. Gay TV and Straight America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006. Print.

Berger, Richard. “Screwing Aliens and Screwing with Aliens: Torchwood Slashes the Doctor.” Illuminating Torchwood; Essays on Narrative, Character and Sexuality in the BBC Series. Ed. Andrew Ireland. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2010. Kindle

“Captain Jack Harkness.” Torchwood. BBC Three. 1 Jan. 2007.

“Children of Earth – Day One.” Torchwood. BBC One. 10 July 2009.

“Day One.” Torchwood. BBC Three. 22 Oct. 2006.

Dhaenens, Frederik, Sofie Van Bauwel, and Daniel Biltereyst. “Slashing the Fiction of Queer Theory: Slash Fiction, Queer Reading, and Transgressing the Boundaries of Screen Studies, Representations, and Audiences.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 32.4 (2008): 335-347. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Feb. 2012.

“The Doctor Dances.” Doctor Who. BBC One. 28 May 2005.

Doty, Alexander. Making Things Perfectly Queer. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. Print.

Dunn, Carrie. “No Consent Necessary: A Feminist Perspective on Non-Consensual Penetration. Illuminating Torchwood; Essays on Narrative, Character and Sexuality in the BBC Series. Ed. Andrew Ireland. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2010. Kindle

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“End of Days.” Torchwood. BBC Three. 1 Jan. 2007.

“The End of Time.” Doctor Who. BBC One. 25 Dec. 2009.

“Everything Changes.” Torchwood. BBC Three. 22 Oct. 2006.

Ginn, Sherry. “Sexual Relations and Sexual Identity Issues: Brave New Worlds or More of the Old One. Illuminating Torchwood; Essays on Narrative, Character and Sexuality in the BBC Series. Ed. Andrew Ireland. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2010. Kindle

Gray, Jonathan, Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington, eds. Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. New York: New York University, 2007. Kindle.

Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press, 2005. Print.

Hall, Stuart. “Encoding/Decoding.” Culture, Media, Language. Eds. Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe and Paul Willis. London: Hutchinson, 1980. Kindle.

Hills, Matt. Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-First Century. London: I.B. Tauris, 2010. Print.

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“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Torchwood. BBC Two. 15 Jan. 2008.

Klesse, Christian. “Polyamory And Its ‘Others’: Contesting The Terms Of Non-Monogamy.” Sexualities 9.5 (2006): 565-583. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 May 2013.

LaValley, Al. “The Great Escape.” Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian and Queer Essays on Popular Culture. Eds. Corey K. Creekmur and Alexander Doty. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. 61-70. Print.

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Scodari, Christine. “Resistance reexamined: Gender, fan practices, and science fiction television.” Popular Communication 1.2 (2003): 111–130. Print.

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[1] Berger defines slash as fan fiction which is sexually explicit and imagines “sexual relationships between characters in largely mainstream television programmes which weren’t portrayed or explored in the original text.” Most notably, he offers stories with a romantic relationship between the Tenth Doctor and his female companion, Rose, as an example. This is not slash fiction. Stories about heterosexual couples – canonical or not – fall into the category of “het.” Slash is a very specific type of fan fiction and it can be sexually explicit or not. What it must have, however, is a homosexual pairing as the romantic pairing explored in the story. There is some debate about whether it is still slash to write about a canonical homosexual pairing, but most fans still categorize these stories so, mostly because they are still rare enough to not have raised more than an academic, distant debate.

[2] And again, this would not be so problematic, if the claims they made did not assert to be doing this larger work. A feminist reading of Jane Eyre is not going to examine it from the same perspective as a New Historicist reading. They are going to focus on different things, raise different issues. However, in positioning themselves as examining how Torchwood functions as a queer text in general, this is a large piece that is missing from their arguments. They are entitled to their disappointment that it did not present the version of queerness they wanted to see on the screen. They can argue for the need for more radical representation of queerness in the media. But where these sensitive, personal, political agendas lie, it seems to me that a more global argument, or at least a framing of the argument in a particular way, or an acknowledgment of what the text actually does, would be more academically honest, rigorous and thorough analysis.

[4] I had several texts that I did not end up using citable material, but which, along with class discussions over the last two years shaped a lot of my thinking around these issues. Because a lot of it is my own analysis and thinking, extrapolating out from conversations between texts and the thoughts they triggered in me, I wanted to make sure those identifiable works were referenced, even if they did not make it to an actual citable note.