The Following’s (Homo/Bi)Sexuality “Deviance” Problem

Leave a comment

(Minor spoilers ahead.  If you don’t want to have some minor details ruined for you, don’t read beyond this point.)

The Following is good.  Damned good.  I’m almost finished with the first season of this Kevin Bacon vehicle, and I love everything from the premise (Joe Carroll, played by James Purefoy, is a charismatic, Poe-obsessed serial killer who uses his genius to create a flock of followers to do his bidding while he rots in prison) to a deep exploration of the cast (including the followers) to the downright cleverness of the plot (Caroll sees everything as a narrative, with rising and falling
action, etc.).  As a picky TV viewer, I had high hopes for this show, and so far it is delivered in every way…except one.[1]

I’m probably not the only one talking about The Following‘s “gay” problem.  And I’m certainly not the only one talking about the poor representation of LGBT people in television as a whole (though this is changing).  What The Following does with its gay and bisexual characters, however, serves the fantasies of those who perceive non-hetero sexuality as a deviance of the worst order.  All of the LGBT characters in the series also happen to be serial killers (either literally or in the making).  While that’s not necessarily horrible by itself, the fact that the only characters shown engaging in threesomes spurred on by nostalgic longing for murder does.  These characters are never presented as sexually “normal” (i.e., they do not subscribe to mainstream ideas regarding social behavior or coupling — yes, I realize defining this as “normal” is always already problematic).

All the good guys, however screwed up they may be, are seen either pursuing monogamous relationships, expressing socially acceptable interest in the opposite sex, or expressing no interest whatsoever.  Even Ryan Hardy (Bacon), who has a longstanding romantic interest with Joe Carroll’s former wife, adheres to these standards, demonstrating a noticeable discomfort with the prospect of having a relationship with a serial killer’s ex.  Basically, the “deviant” behavior of the protagonist — made clear by the fact that he refuses to disclose or discuss it with anyone else — is never shown with the same phobic gaze that pervades the LGBT scenes.  His romantic interests aren’t the sorts of things expected of his sexual persuasion, and he damn well knows it (it’s almost as if he’s having an affair and, naturally, doesn’t want anyone else to know about it; he sort of gets over this over time, though).

And that’s the thing:  this is about the phobic gaze (homophobic, you might say).  The LGBT characters are hypersexualized, sadistic, and manipulative, and these behaviors are normalized as, at least in part, associated with their sexualities.  While I doubt this was the intention on the part of the writers, it is nevertheless there, and something the writers must address to avoid this absurd paradigm within which heterosexuals are justified in “abnormal behavior” by their apprehension, but homosexuals are condemned as “wrong” simply because they give in to those behaviors (or enjoy them because they are murderers) and are not particularly bothered by it (except Jacob, played by Nico Tortorella, who seems uncomfortable with his homosexuality — however, his discomfort doesn’t seem to have anything to do with whether engaging in such behavior is wrong, but with whether he himself is gay or simply putting on an act.  For context:  Jacob and Paul, two of Carroll’s disciples, played a gay couple in order to get close to Carroll’s ex-wife so they could kidnap her child (a.k.a. Carroll’s son); in a sense, the question of sexuality as a performance is layered throughout the narrative of The Following, but the question is only asked of the LGBT characters / serial killers, not the heteronormative couples elsewhere).

But this problem has a solution.  While it is pretty much impossible to reveal Bacon’s character as a homosexual (he could, at most, be bisexual), the same is not true for some of the other “protagonists.”  Revealing other protagonists as non-hetero won’t fully absolve the series from falling into the non-hetero-as-deviant trap, but it will provide a more colorful picture of people by having villains and heroes who are hetero, gay, etc.  Instead of a narrative of deviant sexuality, you would have a narrative about deviant behavior in the broadest sense.

And that’s all I’ve got to say on this subject (for now).


[1]:  I started watching this show months and months ago, so this post is about something I noticed at about the sixth episode.  It’s an old thought, but still a relevant one, I think.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

Leave a Reply