Former Doctor Who Showrunner Russell T. Davies Calls Loki’s Queerness a “Feeble Gesture,” but He’s Missing Some Context
Russell T. Davies, the former Doctor Who showrunner and creator of Torchwood and the UK’s Queer as Folk, fired quite the broadside at Loki’s bisexual representation, calling it a “feeble gesture.” While Davies’ comments were made at a Swansea University Pride panel back on July 14th, they received widespread coverage and commentary late last week.
To be clear, Davies wasn’t just slamming Loki apropos of nothing, but rather Disney’s overall terrible record of LGBTQ+ representation, and he was striking out at the rise of giant streamers like Disney+ and Netflix as harmful to queer storytelling. As PinkNews initially reported:
The multi-BAFTA award-winning writer was asked about how he believed media had changed between his esteemed series Queer As Folk and It’s a Sin. Davies spoke about how, in his experience, TV drama commissioners “want gay stories” before he spoke out against the rise of streaming services – like Disney Plus and Netflix.
Davies took issue with how Loki’s bisexuality was presented on the Disney+ show, tying it in with the ascendency of streaming services.
“Nonetheless, I think huge, cleaning warning bells are ringing as the giants rise up with Netflix and Disney Plus especially,” Davies told the online panel.
He continued: “I think that’s a very great worry. Loki makes one reference to being bisexual once, and everyone’s like, ‘Oh my god, it’s like a pansexual show.’
“It’s like one word. He said the word ‘prince’, and we’re meant to go, ‘Thank you, Disney! Aren’t you marvellous?’
“It’s a ridiculous, craven, feeble gesture towards the vital politics and the stories that should be told.”
Davies added that his “worry” about the future of LGBT+ stories on TV is that streaming services will “damn us” with “their condescension in the end”.
[A reminder that the scene actually played out as Sylvie asking Loki about his past dalliances, wondering if there had been “would-be princesses, or perhaps another prince?” To which Loki replies, “A bit of both. I suspect the same as you.”]
Now, there’s quite a bit to unpack here. Davies has a long history of creating queer shows and characters for television, so it’s not surprising that his remarks are generating mass headlines even a month after they were made.
But while I’m all for calling out Disney’s general attempts at queer representation as “feeble” thus far, I’m not sure I’d lump Netflix and other streamers into the same category. Disney has been famously and exhaustingly reticent to provide for any substantial LGBTQ+ representation, especially in its family-friendly fare and superhero properties.
By contrast, Netflix makes a plethora of queer shows and movies, from original works produced by the streamer like the rebooted Queer Eye and those with prominent queer characters like Sex Education, The Old Guard, and the late, lamented Sense 8. It hosts series like Schitt’s Creek and Pose. It also streams queer content from around the globe and often heavily promotes it. Netflix even has specific deep-dive subcategories within its LGBTQ+ category like “Hidden Gems of the 2010s.”
My impression has long been that Netflix will happily throw money at anything that will bring it new subscribers and buzz. Maybe that’s opportunistic capitalism in action, but at least it means we see a variety of content, including movies and TV shows that may not have found a home via more traditional channels.
Disney, of course, is another beast entirely. And it’s not wrong for people to be disappointed that Loki’s bisexuality wasn’t further explored on Loki. Many fans wish there had been a greater degree of representation therein, and I count myself in their number. I agree that it was a sorely missed opportunity. Rumors that spread before the show that Loki would have both a male and a female love interest proved to be false. Personally, however, I also have to disagree with Davies that the scene in which Loki references his bisexuality is “a ridiculous, craven, feeble gesture.”
Davies is missing the context that Marvel fans have been waiting since Iron Man bowed in 2008 for any acknowledgment onscreen in the cinematic and Disney+ MCU that queer people exist. (Marvel series from other studios—including, notably, shows like Runaways and Jessica Jones on those apparently accursed streamers like Hulu and Netflix—have been much better.)
That’s thirteen years of waiting. Thirteen years. We have been further messed about with by Marvel Studios at various points, like that infamous “first gay MCU character” promised in Endgame that was a Joe Russo cameo. We’ve heard after the fact that even the tiniest queer references were cut from films.
Is this reprehensible and inexcusable? Yes, absolutely. Should we be furious that it took so long to receive even a mention? I am, daily. Are Disney and Marvel Studios wildly behind the times to a jaw-dropping degree? There is no doubt. But this was also the reality of the environment into which Loki and the casual, unassuming way Loki acknowledged his sexuality emerged.
It may not have seemed like a big deal to Davies, but to uncountable longtime Marvel fans at the time, it was huge. I stayed up the entire night after that episode of Loki, “Lamentis,” aired at 3 am, excitedly writing up my own reaction and that of fans on social media.
For the next few days, I watched thousands of people on Twitter share their joy about the scene. It felt like a watershed moment for Marvel fandom because it was. For people outside of that fandom, it’s understandable that they might not have experienced the same thing that we did. But that doesn’t negate how much the scene meant to see.
It seemed like a victory that could finally, finally opened the door for better representation going forward—representation that has been promised in future films and series. And with Loki, we weren’t getting a queer side character or a bizarre director cameo; this was one of the most popular MCU characters in history and the eponymous focus of the show. Many fans further appreciated that the scene wasn’t presented as some kind of overt “political” statement, but rather a casual fact that Loki acknowledged as part of himself with an easy smile. Discussing queerness doesn’t always have to be made into a thing of bells and whistles and alarm klaxons.
Now, again, Davies isn’t mistaken in his implication that Loki should have done more in future episodes, and that Disney and Marvel Studios have a lot of work to do. We write about this constantly. That Loki scene, like many in Disney productions, can be easily excised for foreign markets. We need queer characters who can speak about and express their identities onscreen, and we need them to be able to do so in ways that cannot be left on the cutting room floor. And it’s certainly fair to express concern about the growing dominance of a service like Disney+ in the TV market.
But Davies is revealing his lack of engagement with the wider world of Disney and Marvel Studios here. I haven’t seen anyone claim that Loki is suddenly a “pansexual” show in its nature or that Disney, the corporate behemoth, deserves any credit for the scene. That’s down to the writers and the director, a queer woman, who advocated for its inclusion.
There are significantly more problems where Loki is concerned in terms of representation that have emerged throughout its season than this single scene remaining singular. We can and should criticize the series for making a lot of noise in pre-show interviews about Loki being genderfluid, and then having that genderfluidity boil down on screen to a single blink-and-you-miss-it Easter egg glimpse of a file folder and an apparent outlier of a female Loki variant. There has been quite a bit of pushback from fandom, fans, and the media on account of the lack of genderfluid representation, and I’d be entirely comfortable with calling the show’s representational efforts in that respect a “feeble gesture” toward vital “stories that should be told.”
But I don’t think it’s useful to entirely throw the baby out with the bathwater and discount the importance of “Lamentis” because more did not immediately come after in terms of Loki’s bisexuality. Davies should know that it’s difficult to see the representation we want onscreen, and that good intentions can also end up falling short of the mark. Take, for example, his oft-criticized writing and plotting for Doctor Who’s first Black female companion Martha Jones, played by the brilliant Freema Agyeman. And even Davies, who has dedicated much of his career to queer storytelling, doesn’t always get that part right.
In a 2014 article for Apex Magazine, “Invisible Bisexuality in Torchwood,” writer K. Tempest Bradford explores her disappointment in the gulf between how Davies had touted bisexuality on the Doctor Who spin-off versus what we actually witnessed:
Each of the main characters has sexual encounters with both men and women, yes, so on the surface things appear as Davies said they would be. When you take ten seconds to think about the nature of those encounters, or how they’re often brief and easily dismissed, the supposed bisexual nature of the show gets fainter and fainter until it almost disappears.
Bradford calls out a host of issues in how Torchwood treats and represents sexuality. “Given Davies’ stated intention, I do believe that he did envision characters that knocked down barriers,” she writes. “The reality fell short.”
Davies should also be well aware that it can take time, effort, and advocacy to make significant changes to franchises with long histories and vested corporate interests like Doctor Who—or Marvel. He laid the groundwork with the first LGBTQ+ rep and passing references on his seasons of Doctor Who; a decade later, we got a lesbian companion for the Doctor. But that show, like many other properties, could still benefit from more developed representation across the board. We can acknowledge when something good happens and still advocate for more in the same breath.
I don’t think Davies is incorrect to call out Disney or to express this opinion about Loki. From the perspective of a fan who wishes to see Loki gloriously and overtly queer, I agree with the intent behind his overarching message. But I also don’t believe that we should discount steps forward just because they are smaller in nature than we might want.
We always have further to go and better representation to push for. We don’t have to be happy with scraps, but we don’t have to negate the impact of something we’ve hoped for finally becoming canon, either.
Calling a well-executed scene that meant a lot to people craven and feeble because it didn’t lead to further exploration in the next few episodes seems unhelpful. This amounts to searing negativity without any profferred solutions, and these days, that is the kind of thing that gains traction online. It generates a cycle of blowback and seems to discourage efforts at representation rather than highlight what might be done to greater and more positive impact in the future.
It’s strange to watch people who celebrated “Lamentis” alongside me retweeting news of Davies’ comments with “HE’S RIGHT AND HE SHOULD SAY IT.” Where does that get us? It feels, disconcertingly, like we’re right back where we started from.
(via PinkNews, image: Frederick M. Brown / Stringer/ Marvel Studios)
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