I have been watching Spartacus since it premiered. Even though I recognize the faux history going on, I still love the ancient setting, the brilliant acting and to be perfectly honest, the absolutely gorgeous bodies. Nearly naked men, dripping in sweat, week after week, is a pretty huge enticement to keep watching – well for me at least, as a straight woman.
Spartacus recently started it’s third season, and I found myself waiting for the inevitable – the death of a gay man. In season one, we were introduced to Petrus and Barka, the beast of Carthage. I was instantly excited, because not only was there clearly love between these two men of colour, their sex scenes were every bit as sexually graphic, as the straight couples. There is very little representation of same sex love and sexuality on television, and even less so when it comes to men of colour. I quickly discovered that I should not have gotten my hopes up, as both men quickly met their death. One committed suicide, and the other was murdered by Quintus Batiatus.
The second season of Spartacus was a prequel. This means that Barka was back, and this time he had a relationship with a White male gladiator. Being more seasoned, I didn’t expect much from the writers. What Barka had with Petrus was beautiful, and if they could allow that to die so easily, I knew that this current relationship would end poorly. I was not shocked, or even disappointed, when Barka’s White male lover quickly died. That was the end of the same sex relationships on the show for the season, though they continued to show forced sex between men for the rest of the season. These sex scenes were predatory, because they involved Romans raping their slaves. If one cannot say no, then one cannot consent, and this fact makes these sex scenes rape.
This season, I found myself wondering who the writers were going to slate for their obligatory gay couple. At this point, it was clear that they have established a pattern. I didn’t have to wait long – Agron and Nasir recently shared their first kiss.
I found myself having no pleasure at this particular turn of events. Instead of being happy that there was mainstream inclusion of gay men, I instantly began to wonder, which of the two men, the writers have slated to die. Watching these two interact, is like watching a ticking time bomb. If the writers hold true to their established pattern, one or both men will die before the end of the season.
This sort of pattern is not inclusion, and it certainly is not positive. I have come to believe that many feel that just by including marginalized characters on their television show, movie, or book, that they are being inclusive. There is very little thought about what these representations actually mean to the communities who are being portrayed, or how falling back on stereotypical tropes, is just as harmful as exclusion. What is the point of including gay male couples, showing them falling in love, and then having them die, season after season?
It sends the message that same sex love is tragic and destined to end badly for all involved, despite the fact that in the real world, there are men happily sharing their lives together. Same sex love in the media is very rarely long lasting. The only example that I can think of is Torchwood. The moment that they are established and perceived as happy, something always has to happen to one or both of the parties involved. It’s almost as though the writers think that gay men who aren’t tortured, or eternally unhappy, don’t qualify as real gay men.
In recent years, there has been a lot more representation of the GLBT community in mainstream media; however, so much of it has been extremely problematic. One of the questions Sparky and I always discuss, is whether or not it is better to be erased, or have to put up with these extremely harmful portrayals year after year. There are times when I believe, I would rather be erased, simply because it has become so painful to watch. When I get to the bottom line of the issue however, I believe that this should not be a choice we are forced to debate. Marginalized people, regardless of the marginalization they face, deserve to see themselves represented, and represented well in popular culture. Gay men should not have to settle for shows like Spartacus, where there is constant death and sorrow. They should not have to hail it as inclusive and wonderful.
I don’t think that the writers realize that this faux sort of inclusion actually elevates their privilege, rather than actually challenging it. Having gay men die season after season, sends the message that heterosexuality and heterosexual coupling, is the only sort of relationship that has positive end results for the people involved. This exactly mirrors much of the social discourse surrounding same sex love, even as the gay community is currently mounting a fight for same sex marriage in the U.S. and abroad. In many ways, I see the constant death of gay characters as a determined effort by the media to stymie the battle for same sex marriage, because of the narrative it upholds about same sex relationships being harmful.
Obviously, I am not a mind reader, and I don’t know for certain, if the writers intend to kill off Agron or Nasir, but the mere fact that I have to consider how likely it is to occur — tells me that there is a significant problem with how the writers of Spartacus treat the gay characters on their show. When a viewer is forced to cringe and wait for the worst, this is not inclusion. Throwing in a few marginalized characters into any movie, book or television show, is not enough to win cookies and praise. It’s more than time that writers and producers begin to reflect on what they have these characters do and why. If the characters lives are nothing but cruel stereotypes, then instead of being inclusive, or even remotely progressive, all that has happened is a very public wallowing in privilege.