History Repeats

The trope of the gay monster had vanished. Then ‘The Tunnel’ brought it back

Does coming full circle constitute progress?

As we queer folk know all too well, movies and television have a long and nasty history of presenting LGBTQ characters as pathetic lowlifes, or worse, psychopathic killers and helpless victims whose lives inevitable end badly. From Rebecca to Crusing, from Rope to The Fan, Hollywood has had little compunction presenting gay people on screen, so long as they acted the part of blood thirsty murderer or victim of blood thirsty murder, and got done in the end (pun intended).

Of course, things really did get better. Heck, sometimes nowadays, we queers even get to play the hero (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Star Trek: Discovery). But does that mean we should be able to play the villain too?

Related: It’s the first gay kiss in ‘Star Trek’ history, y’all!

Case in point: the slick Sky Atlantic police procedural The Tunnel. Set in France and the UK, the series follows a joint force cop team, led by the British Karl Roebuck (Stephen Dillane) and the French Elise Wasserman (Clemence Poesy), as they track a mafia syndicate. Along the way in the second season, Elise has a steamy affair with a female informant.

Now here’s where things get messy. Normally, having a gay/bi heroine would have us celebrating, but The Tunnel makes things complicated by introducing Koba, psycho killer chemist, drug dealer and human trafficker. In one of his earliest scenes, Koba injects a handsome young male junkie/hustler with his favorite combo of meth-like drugs, then proceeds to perform oral sex on his victim while he’s slumped in his chair. For those keeping track, that also makes Koba a rapist, just another in his vast collections of  crimes. (Apparently, he only keeps the kid alive because he is attracted to him.) Throughout the show, Koba likes to remind the audience that he’s gay, that he loves torture, and that he gets off on watching his victims die horrible deaths, always with a lascivious grin while wielding a syringe that eerily brings to mind reports of gay male “chemsex” parties.

So here’s the real question: When balanced out with a queer heroine, are we, the queer community, ready to accept a queer villain?

Theoretically yes. That said, the evil here portrayed as a gay man is not counterbalanced by a heroic lesbian, and although there certainly are murderous gay people on earth, we still need more Alan Turings and less Michael Aligs to correct Hollywood’s history of negative portrayals.

Which brings us back to The Tunnel. If audiences need to accept queer heroes and villains alike, is this particular character, Koba, offensive?

Actually, yes, he is, though not just by making him homosexual. See, audiences love to hate villains, and the best baddies always have an element of fun to them. The Joker, Hannibal Lecter, Magneto—are somewhat outrageous in their over-the-top evil perversity. These textures of character endear a villain to an audience, making them enjoyable to watch, though the other characters in their stories may feel differently.

The Tunnel’s Koba lacks the charisma of those killers. Rather, he seems designed to disgust and offend the audience on every level, making the connection to his sexual orientation even more glaring. Audiences will only feel revulsion while watching him. To that end, the character’s sexuality seems written to exaggerate the gross-out factor. That he rapes one male victim only amplifies that impression. In short, Koba offends precisely because the writers designed him that way—to push every button, to trip every trap and fail every decency test in the human psyche. That his homosexuality would play into that notion of disgusting in every way doesn’t constitute progress so much as it does a backsliding into nasty stereotypes we, as queer people, have worked so hard to dispel.

Adding a queer heroine like Elise on a series like The Tunnel does mark good progress for LGBT characters in TV in film. Koba, however, revives an age-old homophobic trope—that of a character fashioned to disgust and offend, tapping into latent homophobia present in the psyche of viewers. One day we may yet get a villain as awesome and iconic as The Joker or Magneto, who just happens to be queer and who may even do battle with a beloved queer hero.

In the case of The Tunnel, though, one step forward with a queer heroine gets undone by two steps back with a homophobic archetype villain.

The Tunnel airs on Sky Atlantic in the UK and PBS in the US. It is also available as streaming content with PBS Masterpiece.

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19 Comments

  • Rex Huskey

    where is Queerty’s coverage of George Takei’s sexual assault? what’s up with that??

    • Juanjo

      piss off troll

    • am_psi

      Didn’t you read the article? Gays can only be one dimensional heroes now. Anything else is a hate crime.

    • Stache

      Why do you care? It’s one (very drunk) mans word against another. Show me a trail of this behavior and I’ll be willing to listen.

  • Tobi

    “Grab them by the p****y. You can do anything.” Ring any bells?!!

  • shakes_head

    Pretty sure there is a rich gay democrat donor whose fetish was injecting black men with drugs (not always consensually), that actually lead to an escort’s death. He still has yet to be charged with a crime. Sometimes gay men are just that: villains. #JusticeForGemmelMoore

    • PinkoOfTheGange

      Pretty sure you re inserting your own biases into that story.

    • Curtispsf

      @shakes_head – Projecting your OWN needs, are you now?

    • Stephen

      The PC need for establishing a massive % ratio acceptance of positive LGBTQI presence nauseates me. Will we convert all these sexuality fears in the world? No.
      It is a pipe dream. So straight or gay, a hero is a hero. A villain is a villain. But more fun to play in life for an actor.

      A script may or may not allow for depth and complexity within a villainous personae. But give it up! There are thousands of straight bad guys over the 100+ years of cinema and theatre. Straight people don’t bitch about ‘too many straight villains!”

      The problem is the characters sexuality is always more of a political and paranoid attack issue when the villain is LGBTQI. Then suddenly it’s 2 steps backwards. BS. Gay bad guys are the ultimate rare find and I enjoy them. Although Jeffery Dalmer is too extreme for me, as a viewer or actor.

      Issue …
      75% of pedophiles are after young minors who are female.
      15% are after minor aged males.
      10% deal in both or are indiscriminate.

      So my point is all are abusing minors. If I see 100 films and in those 100 – 6 films are about a victim being minor female and 2 films about a victim being a male minor … people only focus on the latter.

      If it is Cruising it’s harmful to gay image and culture. Well guess what?
      They exist in real life. They are under represented on film. They blow up night clubs
      I think the lesson is the same for straight or gay or LGBTQI …

      1.). Go out with a friend and go to the loo one at a time to watch drinks being safe
      2.). If you drink and dance solo, order a new drink when you comeback from dancing. Every time! If you are offered a drink from a stranger watch it from order to your hand.
      3.). If you go on a one night stand text a friend where you are going.
      Because when you ask for the date their address the villain will dump you.
      Or lie.
      If he lies get the hell out. ASAP. You have one chance.
      A second location is it. Endgame!

      4.). A villain is more fun to play as an actor. Gay, Bi or straight. So let me act in what is offered to me without taking a moral inventory of what are the politics of villains sexualities allowing me to do?
      5.). There are always a huge majority of straight villains. Few gay villains. So don’t see it as good or bad. If it was 50/50 I would have an issue too!

      Hard enough to get work. Some directors only hire straight guys for gay roles. Brokeback Mountain. They openly say, “to let you know I don’t think gays can play themselves so I prefer to work with straight actors in this film.” Some are a little flexible. Too few. It’s true some gay actors are not secure or capable to play gay on screen or stage. If Jeffery Tambour can play trans with health issues so she is without the option of surgery, OK. When Yellow is the New Black and others hire real trans actors great!

      But if Whoopy Goldberg can play a straight white morbid obese man then let go of the needs to comment on entertainment and art needing to have political agenda and stop establishing boundaries on what entertainment sexual orientations mean to our movement! It is tedious. The only bad criteria is a rotten script. And a dog is a dog. But I still need to pay my rent and eat so Excuuuuuuuuse Me! If I do garbage.

      As a non related issue, I love bi men. More. Less attitude, more neutral behaviour is is undefinable so its safer and easier. There is less drama of just two men having it off, I know. Not all bi men are drama free. But at least I don’t get into Gaga vs Madonna and gay trivia questions as often. I’d rather date bisexuals exclusively. And sometimes a gay man is a good date, as well.

      There is enough politics to culture, sexuality, I just love a man who loves people not specific shipping containers marketed GAY!!!! Be happy in your own skin. Don’t judge so much.

      Remember Matthew Shephard was a very flawed young man with social & depression issues. (His parents are open about it. Still love him and miss him everyday. But they do not want him to be seen as a gay martyred victim/saint)

      Chill a little bit. See ‘Singing in the Rain’ and enjoy Donald O’Conner as a gay actor who gave a hell of a good performance that was orientation neutral, non issue.

      There is more in life than are dreamt of in your philosophies, Heratio. (Shakespeare). I enjoy avoiding gay bars where I have been called a troll by millennia’s for my being over 50. Once is too many. WTF? I fought back at straight surrey boys drive bys Stoning & razzing outdoor lineups at the Gandydancer in the 1970’s! I caught a few with rockets and broke windshields and was charged while they got away.

      But my fight to make younger gay/bi men’s existence a little easier in ways is not on the books. I have the scars. I did the time. I nursed dozens of dying gay friends in 1973-2006. My home was a triage for years.

      I am a guy who loves people more then bodies. So judging is not my issue. I get little respect at times & let it go with the wind. I work on being happy in my own skin.

      One day at a time.

      And best of all I do not have to break my soul, spirit, self esteem and body to look 30 and muscular/ripped at 65 to qualify as still actively available and sexual. Sadly too many of my contemporaries date only young men. 20-30. The gay body image is not as much a bisexual issue.

      History from just a guy in good bad and ugly times.

  • Jaxton

    I don’t have a problem with evil male homosexuals. I just see them as evil men who happen to have homosexual inclinations. It doesn’t help to incorporate gay identity politics on interpretations of such characters.

    What annoys me is when they portray the “lesbian” as ultra-glamorous, sexy and cool, sort of like a straight male’s fantasy woman. That is a true trope. It’s as if TV producers cannot cope with butch lesbians who hate men..

  • andrewl

    Actually if we demand equality it means (and it should) equality in portrayal. Obviously in real life, not all gay men are going to be ‘good looking,happy go lucky, sassy, best friends to everyone’ people. Nor should we always be portrayed as such otherwise it’s tokenism. I think gay men and women are integrated and accepted enough in society (at least in Western countries) that we can be secure and not concerned with how we are portrayed in movies or tv.

  • AntBee

    So, gay men are not to be portrayed as evil psychotic beings, eh?
    Are gay men not also part of the fallible human-race? I believe we are.
    Gay men can be just as evil, heinous, inhuman(e), psychotic, cruel, you name it, as just about every other human being on Earth could possibly be. We are not exempt from any of those tendencies, no matter where or how it may or may not be portrayed.
    Remember, some of the most evil men in history were gay, and it will continue to be a truth in the present and the future.
    I’m being serious here, look at how the Nazis got Hugo Boss, yes, that one, to design all of their top-ranking officials’ uniforms, including the much-dreaded SS. Most of the SS were gay men. Now we have gay men, in the present, who seek to emulate those same evil gay SS officers, by wearing the exact tailor-made uniforms and paraphernalia.
    The Tunnel is a very good show, please do not let the shortsightedness of one editor’s opinion stop you from watching it, or make you quit.

    • PinkoOfTheGange

      The SA was gay, the SS not so much.

  • Ummmm Yeah

    Well it’s OK since he is a white gay man. Who ever is behind this site and the trans site lgbtq nation tell us daily no one is worse than white gay men, until you want something from us.

  • Daniel-Reader

    On the plus side, now that I know about it from this informative article, I can avoid ever watching it.

  • ralston6000

    Season One streaming now on Netflix? I see nothing. There is a show of the same name from 2013. WTF? Either I’m not understanding, or this article is 4 years old or the writer of this is insane and everything in this article should be disregarded.

  • redzebra1

    Fine don’t watch it then. Most TV is garbage this is no surprise

  • Karlis

    I have not seen the television show in question, so I cannot comment on it specifically, but I don’t know that I can accept the idea that a character must not be identified as utterly evil because Hollywood didn’t know what to do with gays back in the 1930s. I don’t think these two things have anything to do with one another. To accept that this portrayal is offensive to gays suggests that Hannibal Lecter and his fava bean and Chianti eating ways should somehow offend heterosexual men. I guess someone will always be offended. Jack on Will and Grace is “too gay,” this character is “too evil,” etc. I do believe the G part of the LGBTQ community has more important things to worry about.

  • Prax07

    The Tunnel is not currently on Netflix US, it was, ages ago, Season 1, and it was a solid crime drama. Had no idea there even was a season 2, so downloaded it last night. Binged watched the first six episodes. The first appearance of the gay villain is not until episode six, and having just watched the scene mentioned here, it’s not as graphic or horrific as this article leads one to believe. A female human trafficker brings an attractive young Brazilian dude to the guys apt, tells him the guy isn’t disposable, to be careful with him. He carefully shoots the guy up, offers some to the woman, who refuses and leaves, and the scene fades as the unattractive bad guy bends down and loosens the hot guys belt. There’s more disturbing/cringe worthy scenes on Law & Order each week.

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