Sense8: a Clusterfuck of American-centric same-washing?

Sense8 is Netflix’s straight-to-series show about eight, inter-connected empaths that’s now in its second season. When it originally aired in 2015, it was praised for the internationality of its characters and diversity of its cast by critics and viewers alike. The show includes a trans woman (refreshingly played by a trans actor), as well as characters from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds such as Lito (from Mexico), Sun (from South Korea), Capheus (from Kenya) and Kala (from India). Since then, representation of sexual and gender identities from different backgrounds has grown from the Oscar-winning Moonlight to the groundbreaking When We Rise or, more internationally, Skam and Yuri On Ice. Although Sense8 revisits the same diverse group of characters, by 2017’s standards this no longer qualifies as being ahead of the trend – rather than just being grateful for a show finally providing some much-needed representation, it’s time we looked critically at its attempt.

On a positive note, in its second series Sense8 continues to be complex and interesting: it will appeal to people who love extended universes with their own rules (think Harry Potter, Doctor Who and Firefly). Show creators, J. Michael Straczynski, Lilly Wachowski and Lana Wachowski have apparently mapped out five seasons, so it might be unfair to write off some of the more confusing or apparently unnecessary scenes since this could be part of a long-term plan. The rules of the show, however, seem increasingly questionable: what does consent mean when it’s not your arousal but another person’s? How many sensates are there? What happens when a sensate is born who is racist, homophobic or transphobic toward people in their cluster (and they can’t just be re-cast)? Part of the show’s allure is that the universe’s potential complexity can lead to fascinating and manifold discussions – the downside is there are too many to address them all on screen.

In this sense, Sense8 is incredibly thought-provoking. It also encourages viewers to become more self-aware– scenes that cause you to notice your own reactions are often disarming and revealing. For example, the white member of yours truly felt more distress at seeing Nomi (white American) take the place of Kala (Indian) and Capheus (Kenyan) as they’re swept up in riots. Is this because white people have been conditioned to see white pain as more important? Or is there something in the way this scene was directed and shot that highlighted Nomi’s terror more than the fear experienced by the others?

The Sensates’s struggle against Whispers takes on the mentality and language of oppression, in an attempt to translate the feelings of being persecuted into something that a more privileged audience might understand. Dialogue such as “I’m slowly dying of survival” might be recognised by member of an oppressed minority. However, the writers’ of the show often put such lines in the mouths of white westerners, as Sense8 attempts to straddle the line between the desire to give other cultures and races representation and the desire to explain oppression to white, straight audiences.

Increasingly, we began to find that season two of Sense8 shows a startling reliance on stereotypes, cliches, and general assumptions made by the West Coast, liberal writers. For example, Sense8 suggests that General Tso’s Chicken (described as ‘immigrant food’) is sold all over the world, thus bringing humanity’s shared experiences ever closer – which is seemingly spoken without the awareness that General Tso’s chicken is primarily North American. In the backstory of the evil, shadowy organisation BPO, we have the sister of an upper-middle class doctor, Ruth Al-Sadaawi, being stoned to death for “witchcraft” in Egypt in the sixties. We could find no evidence of stoning happening in the “Golden Age” of Egypt, a time when the country is best represented by scenes like this:

Most laughable for British viewers is perhaps the moment a little old Scottish lady comes out onto a castle balcony overlooking a Scottish Loch and tells Riley that she has made a homemade dinner of “stovies, mushy peas, and fried Mars Bars for dessert”.

Aside from what seems to be a lack of research, or curious lack of desire to accurately depict the cultures they are representing, the biggest issue of the ethos of Sense8 is that it seems to believe in all-encompassing “empathy” in the way some white people believe they are “colourblind”: they don’t “see” difference, only sameness. In the first episode of season two (the Christmas special), Lito, a gay man living in Mexico, comes home to see that someone has spray painted “F*G” across his house. His cluster appear around him to share his outrage, but rather than empathy meaning they inhabit the headspace of a gay man not ready to be out, the camera shows the Sensates seeing slurs that are directed at them. Will, the white Chicago police officer sees “PIG” at the same time that Capheus sees the n-word, and Kala sees “VIRGIN”. The idea that a policeman being called a ‘pig’ elicits the same emotions that a gay man feels upon being called a ‘f*g’, or a trans woman at being called a ‘tr*nny’, is completely ludicrous.

What’s more, the words for non-Americans seem to be chosen without any thought as to what those words would mean outside America. Capheus has lived his whole life in Kenya: it’s doubtful he’s ever been called the n-word, and even if he had, it would mean something very different to him than it does to black Americans. Kala is dubbed a virgin, which might be embarrassing for an American in her 20s, but is the status quo for a traditional, unmarried woman in India. Wolfgang is called a Nazi, seemingly a moniker chosen for him simply because he is German, rather than something that might hurt Wolfgang specifically, such as a reference to his gang ties or the abuse that he suffered as a child.

This Americanised perspective erases difference to celebrates commonality. It exiles worldviews that are contrasting or different, and instead subscribes to the American movie ethos that a rousing speech and ‘being on the right side of history’ is enough to triumph. Sensates, with their extra ability for empathy, and their forced empathy with people from countries and cultures that are not their own, are figured as the solution to the world’s issues. Kala, for instance, is able to stop out-of-date pharmaceuticals being sold to Asia and Africa because, through being a sensate, she knows and loves individuals who might be affected by this unethical and corrupt business practice.

But this worldview is dangerous, a naïve simplification. Sense8 seems to “solve” its issues through simply ignoring real world economics. The response to Kala’s objections about the out-of-date drugs, that ‘this is the only way we can make the margins, this is how all Big Pharma works’, is cast aside as soon as Kala becomes upset. A violent confrontation between a water vendor in Nairobi whose prices have been forced up and the people who still require safe water, is solved by Capheus saying “water is life” and giving the vendor an imploring look. The vendor then happily gives out his “commodity” for free. These are unviable solutions in the real world. Is the vendor going to come back tomorrow and give out more free water? Realistically, will he even have enough money to refill both his water tank and his petrol? Has he just smilingly bankrupted himself?

In truth, Sense8’s best moments are really those left behind in season one, in which the characters visited each other and experienced the simple beauties and joys of the world. Capheus comes to London and tries the English version of tea for the first time. Kala leaves India through her sensate abilities and is amazed by the cold rain (since Indian monsoons are warm). When Will visits Riley’s childhood home she says “Let me show you”, a line that should be the foundation of the sensate experience: you are invited into someone else’s life, you need to be introduced to each part of it, and you remain a guest for a while. However, season 2 seems to ignore the need to be introduced to someone’s else’s experience, the need for explanations when faced with something foreign, instead replacing it with the idea that we are all the same underneath, and any difference is just surface dressing for a deeper same-ness. The rousing speech of episode two culminates in “Who I am is exactly the same as who you are”. With that, we lose all the joy of difference, and the need for difference. We might as well all be exactly the same if difference is so fleeting. And that would be a shame.

Words by Angharad Davies (the white one) and Sunita Rai (the cis-het one)

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