Penny Dreadful: A Masterclass in Fluid Sexuality
If you are looking for a show that might have set an example when it comes to fluid sexuality, then look no further than the paranormal series, Penny Dreadful. Not only does it provide the audience with an exciting mystery, it handles the sexuality of its lead characters in the most surprising way.
The post contains spoilers regarding the characters present in the show! You haven been warned!
There are some TV shows that have done wonders when it comes to LGBT representation. You can’t deny the impact Glee has had, or the non-stereotypical portrayal of Shameless’ Ian and Mickey. The queer characters in these shows have their own story arcs and they develop throughout the season. What makes Penny Dreadful stand apart from such series is the genre. Paranormal shows like Supernatural seem to cater to the straight audience. There’s sub-text and queerbaiting involved, but no actual queer representation. Sadly, another paranormal show, Teen Wolf also falls in such a category. However, Penny Dreadful, being yet another paranormal show, is able to provide a refreshing take regarding sexuality. The most impactful thing being that the concept of sexuality is tied to the lead characters, rather than a token gay character that’s in the background. Let’s take a look at some of the lead characters of the show and how it has been handled.
If you are looking for a Hannibal-esque kind of relationship between a mentor and a student, or a creator and creation, then Victor Frankenstein is your guy. The young Dr. Frankenstein is played wonderfully by Harry Treadaway. At first I wanted to criticize the show with ‘in your face’ queerbaiting during Dr. Franks scenes with his creation, Proteus. But the way the series progressed, I couldn’t help but feel that the doctor does indeed hold a special place in his heart for his monsters. The scenes where he tries to teach his second creation, Proteus, about society are downright romantic in nature, and I guess that’s what the show intended the audience to see. There’s also a kind of jealousy when Proteus starts to remember that he had a wife, and shows interest in another female character. A more ‘troubled’ relationship exists between the doctor and his first creation, the Frankenstein Monster, named Caliban. Even here the young doctor can’t understand why Caliban wants a female friend. Though he agrees in the end to create a female monster, one can see that he succumbed to Caliban’s wish because he cares deeply for him. You can say that Dr. Frank loves him as one would love their creation. Caliban also kills anyone who he thinks is getting too close to his creator. Jealousy is one of the major themes between these two characters.
She’s the mysterious female character that takes control of every scene because of how Eva Green plays her. She’s a woman who has been touched by the Devil and it’s revealed that he needs her for the destruction of the world. Her relationship with Mina is far more than just friends, at least from Vanessa’s side. Vanessa puts her life on the line to save her childhood companion throughout the series. Her character even goes on to say that she loves Mina so much that she can kill her.
When I first found out that the controversial literary character, Dorian Grey, would be a part of this show, I was worried about the writers straight washing him. Don’t think I can be blamed after what DaVinci’s Demons did. However, that wasn’t the case and the show did more than I could’ve asked for. Dorian, played by Reeve Carney, looks for various ways in order to excite himself. He’s a perfect example about how immortality can get rather boring and quite lonely living in 1891. Though the show had a sex scene between him and a female, and then showed him being bored during an orgy that included both sexes, it wasn’t until episode four that the show truly surprised me.
As far as I’m concerned, the fourth episode ‘Demimonde’ set the bar when it comes to showing fluid sexuality on a TV show. The encounter between Dorian and the lead character, Ethan, came out of nowhere, and that’s what I liked about it. When it comes to TV shows, the audience sees a lead male character and immediately thing he is straight. No one even considers him gay unless he acts in a stereotypical manner or he or some other character clearly mention his queerness. It’s as if shows want people to think that unless we state a character as gay, he or she is straight. There are a lot TV shows out there where sexuality seems to be the only major defining aspect of a character. Even in Teen Wolf, Danny’s sexuality was ‘told’ to the audience, instead of it being naturally shown. Even before his debut, the new gay kid’s sexuality was the thing being promoted by Teen Wolf for Season 4. I don’t know if it’s homophobia or not, but clearly stating a character’s sexuality when he’s gay, and not using the same tactics to define a ‘straight’ character, does seem problematic to me. How many shows do you know that clearly state that the leads are ‘straight’ when promotional material hits the media? Such a thing doesn’t happen because being straight is considered a norm, and if there’s a gay character in the show, he or she will be promoted to throw light on how open the show is, and LGBT viewers should check it out, even if the character doesn’t add anything to the plot.
This character has to be the best that actor Josh Harnett has played in his career, and a character that clearly surprised me. He’s kind of a counter argument to the viewers that consider every character straight unless proven otherwise. Ethan is the male lead of the show, and he’s very masculine. He’s an incredible sharpshooter; he flirts with women, and then proceeds to have sexual encounters with them behind his trailer. If I’m not wrong, he’s the perfect model when it comes to masculine straight male leads on paranormal, or any other TV show. That changed when Ethan encountered Dorian. Throughout the fourth episode I believed that Dorian was flirting with Vanessa, but in the end, it turned out he had eyes for Ethan. Their interactions led to a little absinthe experiment, and in his emotional state Ethan ended up sleeping with Dorian. So, what’s new about that? The straight masculine male lead had an encounter with the show’s pretty boy, big deal!
Well, episode seven ‘Possession’ had another surprising reveal. Vanessa, under possession of the devil, stated that Ethan was the submissive partner in his and Dorian’s encounter. That’s the first time I’ve seen a typical straight masculine male character being submissive in a gay encounter. What’s more interesting was that the other characters in the room didn’t even bat an eyelash when the statement was made. Even after the reveal, no one questioned Ethan’s sexuality, or considered him less of a man for being a submissive partner, or commented on his current relationship with Brona.
Ethan is also a werewolf, and could be responsible for killing a lot of people. So, his character might have to deal with two things when it comes to coming out the ‘closet’. He will have to deal with the werewolf inside of him as well coming to terms with his sexuality. He could be gay, or bisexual, or anything else on the Kinsey scale. The thing that matters is that the show decided to go in the direction it did with Ethan and gave a message that one’s sexuality doesn’t immediately link to one’s masculinity or who they are as people.
Penny Dreadful is coming back for a second season next year. I’m excited to see the characters deal with a new mystery, and the possible bond between Ethan and Dorian. In all honesty, this is the show I hoped Teen Wolf should’ve been. Even with such sexually fluid lead characters in a show, Penny Dreadful was able to maintain respectable ratings and got a second season. It goes to show that if the series has a good story, people will watch it. The sexuality of characters does come into play, but I don’t think it affects the audience so much that a show is in trouble of being canceled because of a gay character. So, TV shows being concerned about ratings, and not wanting to introduce or fully develop queer characters, doesn’t come across as a strong argument in present time.
Penny Dreadful is highly recommended and it’s included in my list of favorite LGBT shows, along with In the Flesh, because it handles sexuality as the normal thing it is and should be in TV shows. If every character comes out as gay in this show, it would make total sense. It might not be the ‘perfect’ show for some, but at least it does what other shows haven’t in the same genre.
Have you watched Penny Dreadful yet? What did you think of it? Please feel free to share in the comments!
Farid has a Masters in Psychology and an M.Phil in Molecular Genetics. He is the author of numerous books including Arousing the Legacy, Missing in Somerville, The Game Master of Somerville, and The Escaped Murderer of Somerville. He gives us insight on comics, books, TV shows, anime/manga, video games, and movies.
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