Jack Harkness and How We Judge LGBT Characters

If some passages sound familiar, it’s because they appeared in an early version of this post that was published at Change.org in November 2010.

It’s that time of year again. That time when I – and the rest of the world, for that matter – am out of new Doctor Who episodes to watch. I guess it’s something we can live through (if you can even call it living). But even more tragic is the lack of Torchwood, Doctor Who‘s more mature and tortured cousin.

Now, if you are reading this post and do not know Torchwood, then shame on you. I don’t even know how you found this website, to be quite frank with you. But I’m all about second chances today, so I’ll give it a pass. To understand the charms of this British sci fi drama, you have to understand the charms of its main male protagonist, Capt. Jack Harkness.

Allow me to insult your intelligence briefly for the sake of the n00bs. Jack, played by the delectable John Barrowman, is an immortal human from the 51st century, who was – until the end of the Children of Earth miniseries – in charge of an organization in present-day Cardiff called the Torchwood Institute. Torchwood was developed to protect the Earth from hostile alien life.

Jack is confident, sexy and really knows how to handle a vortex manipulator. And he’s also gay. Or bisexual. Or, according to Wikipedia, he’s an “omnisexual,” due to the possibility of hot alien sex. Which is in and of itself kind of cool. Contrary to what you might imagine, I’m not a Doctor Who expert, but I can’t think of a main character that is so openly non-hetero.

The closest American TV character I can compare him to is The Todd from Scrubs. He’s neither straight nor gay; he appreciates beauty, whatever its form. But this comparison does not do justice to Jack. The Todd is just…gross. Jack is complicated. He’s dark. He’s seen things and killed people. He’s a man of the universe and you never forget it.

But it’s not the fact of Jack’s sexuality that makes the show worth noting. Lot’s of shows nowadays have non-hetero characters. It’s the context.

Just take a second and think of all those awesome gay male sci fi characters. I don’t know about you, but I’m drawing a blank. Admittedly, my knowledge pool in this area is not Comic-Con caliber, but let’s check off some of the usual suspects. Star Trek, no. Star Wars, no. Lost, no. Battlestar Galactica, no. Firefly, no. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, no. I’m sensing a pattern.

I used to think that Jack was an unequivocally “good” (whatever that means) queer character. But then it occurred to me that Jack falls into the bisexual stereotype of being especially promiscuous and DTF every living human being. Think about it. Whenever Jack introduces himself to new characters in the Doctor’s presence, the Doctor shuts it down. (Which probably says more about the Doctor’s comfort with intimacy than it does about Jack, but that’s a topic for another post.)

In some ways, Jack is the emotional opposite of the Doctor. The Doctor likes to keep his human companions at an arms distance, while Jack seems open to close, emotional, and physical connections. (see, Ianto Jones). He never apologizes for these relationships, nor should he. Jack’s relationships show us that, despite his immortality, he is inarguably human. And that makes him more relatable and likeable. I understand where Jack is coming from even though his life experiences are far different from mine. But does this make Jack a good queer television character?

Perhaps that question misses the entire point. He’s a flawed man who has seen some terrible things and has done some terrible things in return. In addition, his sexuality has always been a secondary aspect of his personality. When his same-sex sexual relationships do advance the plot, it is not because it’s not because his partner was a man.

He’s a hero with a mysterious past who does what he has to do to save the Earth (even if that means sacrificing a few kids to alien drug addicts). And that is why I like him.

10 comments

  1. Kmasca says:

    Thanks for this, I like your reading of Jack as the Doctor’s emotional opposite.

    Felix Gaeta in Battlestar Galactica is bisexual, although I don’t think that undermines your points about wider visibility on television.

    • Heh it really doesn’t considering his bisexuality is only discussed in webisodes, not the main show!

      I like this discussion of Jack as the Doctor’s emotional opposite too – I really loved him as a companion! Enjoy him a lot in his own show too but I think he brought a lot to the Doctor Who show specifically which no one else has.

      I hope he comes back at some point with Matt Smith. If nothing else, I long to see River Song & Captain Jack in a scene together.

  2. James says:

    I’ve some problems with the portrayal of bisexuality in Torchwood – I should add that I’m bisexual myself. The original publicity about Torchwood said that all the main characters would be bisexual. We have Jack, who will sleep with anything that says yes. We have Owen, who seduces a man who he’s used the equivalent of a date rape drug on. We have Tosh who has a same-sex fling while under alien influence. We have Gwen who kisses a woman while under alien influence. We have Ianto who has a relationship with the man who killed his girlfriend, which leads to his death.
    There’s some very familiar tropes there. There’s the man who sleeps with anyone. There’s the person who’s exclusively straight but has a same sex fling while under the influence.

    I wasn’t impressed by them, I’m afraid.

    • Mindy says:

      James, that’s totally fair. I just found Torchwood through word of mouth, so I never saw any previews, thus went in with no expectations.

      But I totally take your point. Torchwood could be a lot better.

      • James says:

        Must admit, I really like Jack in Doctor Who, where he’s fun, sweet-natured and affectionate. The you get him in Torchwood, where he seems to have speed-watched five seasons of Angel and discovered his role model.

        And despite my qualms, Torchwood has a bisexual man as a hero. That is pretty cool.

  3. Trudy says:

    **MINOR SPOILERS FOR BATTLESTAR GALACTICA**

    Two of my favorite characters are bisexual in Battlestar Galactica: Gina (the Six Gaius found aboard the Battlestar Pegasus; she was in fact romantically involved with Admiral Cain) and Felix Gaeta, who was involved romantically with Hoshi, an officer aboard the Battlestar Pegasus.

    While neither is a “main character” (I think Gaeta, at least, is a very prominent minor character) and there’s not as much emphasis on their romantic relationships as other het characters in the series, it’s nice to see at least some GLBT representation in science fiction.

    Just wish it was Torchwood levels, though! Apparently, I need to get watching this series.

    • Trudy says:

      And just realized someone else brought up Gaeta. Whoops! Even if Gaeta’s relationship was only brought up in the webisodes, Gina’s relationship with Cain played a very prominent part in Razor (and kind of add another level of complexity to their relationship).

  4. Tabitha Smith "Tabz" says:

    Inara is bisexual on Firefly. Obviously is more attracted to men, but she does choose female clients.

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