Sense8, pronounced ‘sensate’, is Netflix’s new original series about a group of eight people across the world who begin to share their consciousness with one another brought to us by the Wachowskis and JMS. The show has been flying under the radar a bit, Netflix hasn’t done much advertising on its site and the only reason I even knew about this was from an ad on Youtube. In spite of its shortcomings, it’s still a very strong show with the Wachowskis bringing their cinematography and creativity with JMS bringing his writing. That being said you should be aware of the following triggers: Suicide, Drugs, Violence, Guns, Forced Institutialization, Sex, Alcohol, Misgendering
Now I said I would be reviewing the show, but upon watching the show I realized two things. One, there was a lot stuff to say but it was hard to organize into any coherent form. Two, this is something that deserves its own post. That being said, let’s jump into it.
Beware of spoilers ye who enter
Sense8 is a show that is literally about diversity and the interconnectivity of humanity. 7/8 of the main characters belong to at least one marginalized group yet they all have one thing in common. They’re all abled. In fact, there isn’t a single disabled character in the entire show. Within the show’s framework for diversity: people of color are accepted, LGT people are accepted, the poor are accepted, but the disabled aren’t. Sadly, this sort of exclusion isn’t new, but it never stops being disappointing at the very least.
The closest that the show ever gets to the sphere of disability is in the development of the sensates. These are people who see and hear people that aren’t there, be in places that aren’t their physical surroundings, can act radically out of character as another sensate steps into their shoes, and at least for some part of the show have intense migraines. While all of these things fall under the gamut of what neuratypical people experience, it’s a poor substitute for having actually disabled characters. In a show that is set in the modern-day, real world, a degree of realism is required for the show to work. What this means in terms of oppression and marginalization is that being a member of an oppressed group has consequences in the form of discrimination and microaggressions. This never happens when it comes to the characters functioning as sensates; the most we get is Diego warning Will that his “crazy Exorcist routine” has some people spooked. Compare this to Lito’s plot, which revolves around him being a closeted gay man being blackmailed for that fact. Compare this to Sun’s plot, which hinges upon the fact that as a woman she isn’t as valued as much as her brother. Compare this to Capheus’ plot, which hinges upon him being poor. Compare this to Nomi’s plot, whose identity and life experiences have been shaped by her being trans who grew up in a transphobic household. There’s no equivalent for being disabled. This is not say that those stories should have been replaced by disabled characters, but should have been in addition to.
The first response to this might be to ask about Nomi’s institutionalization and attempted lobotomy. This doesn’t count for a number of reasons. Disabled people aren’t the only ones who have been victims of malicious medical practices. More importantly however, being sensate isn’t the same as having an actual disability. Sensates are superheroes, or at the very least analogous to mutants from X-Men. They’re fantastical, the entire conversation around them is different. They might be metaphors for marginalized groups, but they aren’t the marginalized. A general metaphor means that at some point it breaks down and runs into the laws of the fictional universe that it is operating in. Again, this is egregious in a show that about diversity and has no qualms in having actual members of other oppressed groups be present, and not just as metaphors.
Speaking of other oppressed groups, disability isn’t the only issue I wanted to bring up. Earlier, I used the acronym LGT, this wasn’t a typo. It’s commentary on the MOGAI representation in the show. Where are the bi/pan characters? Where are the asexual characters? Where are the aromantic characters? Where are the characters who don’t fit into the gender binary?
All of these exclusions are disappointing and telling. Creators make choices, conscious and unconscious, about what they include in their stories. The most charitable interpretation is that due to systemic erasure and their own life experiences, they honestly didn’t think about these things. Which should not be interpreted to be a good thing, but it’s at the very least an understandable thing not rooted in malice. A less charitable interpretation is that this was more of an active decision, which is actively hurtful.
Sense8 is a good show, it’s the most fun I’ve had watching a show in a year. But that fun came at the cost of having to turn off part of my brain and part of my identity in order to enjoy it. It’s because of its quality and its focus on inclusiveness that means criticizing its shortcomings on that axis is of the utmost importance. If it was bad, I wouldn’t care as much, but it’s good and those are the things worth engaging. Next week, I’ll be talking about Orange is the New Black Season 3. Till next time.