Spoiler alert: Season 1 of The Umbrella Academy.
I recently enjoyed binge-watching The Umbrella Academy on Netflix. This is a show I saw very accurately described by a fan (I'm actually jealous I didn't think of this) as "Lemony Snicket's X-Men as directed by Wes Anderson".
The plot follows a team of super-powered children bought (yes, bought) and raised by an eccentric billionaire to save the world. Like X-Men, there's a lot of family dysfunction and drama between the seven "siblings". Unlike X-Men, the queer representation in The Umbrella Academy exists beyond just metaphor.
I am a child of the 90's and still remember fondly Magneto's "come out and be proud" speech, which was a pretty obvious analog for being queer. However, I've been chronically disappointed in the franchise since then. What once seemed revolutionary now seems dated and sad in 2019.
That's why I was absolutely thrilled to see that The Umbrella Academy didn't just use superhero/mutant status as a code word for queer, but actually featured queer characters.
My favorite part is that their queerness is not a main theme of the show. It's incidental. All too often a character's gender or sexual identity becomes their central trait. At best, they don't get to be treated just like any other character; they have to be dissected onscreen and given some being-queer-related challenge. At worst, the main focus becomes how great their heterosexual or cisgender friends are for accepting them "anyway".
Maybe 20 years ago, at age 13, I might have needed to see that portrayed and normalized, but I'd like to think we've collectively moved beyond needing morality lessons in what is frankly, just being decent to one another. Often, that "anyway" feels hateful.
And why? Why "anyway"? There's never a reversal. There are no coming-of-age stories where gay characters get to evaluate and judge a straight character, and decide to accept them "anyway". (If you know of one, please direct me to it.)
I'm no longer grateful for the tolerance of "anyway". I have higher expectations.
These expectations are well-met in The Umbrella Academy. In the first episode, Five (brilliantly portrayed by Adrian Gallagher) turns to his adoptive brother/superhero team member Klaus and says, "Nice skirt."
Klaus twirls the fringe and says, "Danke!" ("Thank you" in German.)
I actually rewound the part and played it again, because I have never heard "Nice skirt" without underlying sarcasm. Without it being a kind of attack on the character wearing it. But I was surprised to find my first impression seemed correct.
He was really just saying, "Nice skirt." It was an observation, not an insult. Woah.
That's how I ended up feeling about the whole show and the way The Umbrella Academy deals with gender and sexuality. It's part of the story, but it's not the whole story, and it's not even particularly important to the story. When I dug into the why of it - why is this show so different - I found that there had been a lot of actor input into the way their characters are portrayed.
Robert Sheehan, who plays Manic Pixie Dream Boy Klaus and steals all the best one-liners/most scenes he is in, has gone on record to point out explicitly that his character is a) pansexual and b) reducing him to his sexuality is oversimplifying a complex person and kind of discriminatory in and of itself.
He told Digital Spy, "It’s very, very lovely that maybe young people who are embarrassed about the fact that they’re gay and they’re keeping it to themselves, can feel a little less uncomfortable about it by seeing a character like Klaus who is very out there and very colourful and unashamed about the fact that he is pansexual, or whatever you want to call it. But I just wanted to play the truth of it, man." (Source)
The character of Klaus didn't start out pansexual. The show is based on a comic series, written by band My Chemical Romance's Gerard Way. In the comics, the seven siblings are white and presumably (with no evidence to the contrary, at least), cisgender and heterosexual.
Many changes seem spearheaded by The Umbrella Academy's showrunner Steve Blackman, and the creative team at Netflix, who chose to have a more diverse central cast. (Gerard Way has expressed his gratitude that they've changed things, admitting his original take wasn't the most inclusive or best one.)
Instead of casting all white actors, they changed three of the seven sibling's ethnic backgrounds: Allison is African-American, Ben is Asian-American and Diego is Mexican-American. They also removed what would have been a terribly offensive character, "a quiet Indian assistant who wears a turban". Thank god.
Sheehan was allowed to develop the character of Klaus in a way that impacted his narrative arc, changing the gender of his love interest to a male and collaborating on a wardrobe that reads as very genderqueer. "[Klaus] wasn’t even gay when we began. Or he didn’t have gay tendencies when we began. But that sort of developed as we developed the character. It wasn’t always the way that it is. And it sort of developed into that quite organically between myself and Steve [Blackman, showrunner] and Netflix and whoever else, you know? The creative input-ers into Klaus. Basically, not giving anything away, but before he was, let’s say straight-er, than he ultimately was – because it just felt kind of truthful." (Source)
You can also see a lot of Sheehan in Klaus' wardrobe. Sheehan has made waves showing up to premieres and press ops wearing skirts, mesh tops, paisley - a whole lot of fashion choices that don't read as what most people think of as "masculine". Most superheroes wear tights (or these days, skintight body suits), but when it comes time to walk the red carpet, out come the suits and dress shoes. However, Sheehan saw an opportunity to merge his real life choices with his character's persona.
"Klaus is completely not your typical cape-wearing, Captain America-style superhero, he's the far, far end of the, let's say, the male spectrum. He's not necessarily a man, he's kind of just this creature that's not bound by traditional societal norms like 'man', 'woman', 'masculinity', 'femininity'. He just sort of… is. That was important for me, and that's not very superhero, because the concepts of quite reductive masculinity and femininity go hand in hand with your traditional superhero role." (Source)
As someone who has had exactly one genderqueer friend in my life before getting involved at The Center, hearing Sheehan talk matter-of-factly about his clothing choices and expressing zero shame while discussing genderfluidity is refreshing and maybe even a little revolutionary.
Sheehan is a fan of people being who they are and wearing what they want. "Why not? If you enjoy colour and vibrancy, wear whatever you like. I think people should feel less restricted by the perimeters of things like 'menswear' and 'womenswear'. It's not something that I really give much credence to when I'm buying clothes. I buy mostly ladies clothes. I think to be yourself, first and foremost, that's the easiest way to think about it." (Source)
I love how simple that is. The ability to exercise gender-nonconforming tendencies is only possible with certain privilege ("Will this effect my job?" "Could I get fired?" "Lose important relationships?"), but I am happy to see that we have celebrities like Sheehan talking frankly about this stuff and leveraging their privilege to be outspoken about their personal choices.
While Sheehan identifies as heterosexual, he has been open in the past about his sexual experimentation with men. In an interview with Hot Press, he replied to a question about whether he has ever questioned his sexuality, "Yeah, of course, man. I think it would be irresponsible not to question it. I had a couple of experiences when I was younger with dudes where I tried it, experimented, to see if it did anything for me. And it didn’t." (Source)
Ellen Page, who plays Vanya, also got to have input into her character's gender representation and wardrobe. In the comics, Vanya's ultimate costume is basically "nothing". Once she sheds her shy, wall-flower former self, she turns into a walking, talking white violin lady, and is drawn to look almost completely naked (think, Mystique from X-Men). You know, something we've all seen a million times before, on the posters of every Marvel movie, ad nauseum.
In real life, Page is openly gay, is married to choreographer Emma Porter and has spoken before about her struggle with depression and anxiety due to living a closeted life until her late twenties. So it's unsurprising that now she has been living a much more transparent and empowered life, having come out in a touching speech at Human Rights Campaign event in 2014, she is advocating for more diversity of gender expression in the characters she plays.
In an interview with Fashionista, costume designer Christopher Hargadon said that Page was instrumental in creating the look that Vanya has throughout the show. In a major departure from the comics, her costume for the metamorphosis wasn't a white skin-tight bodysuit, but a very dapper white suit with tails.
"Ellen wanted to actually play an androgynous character," adds the costume designer, about Vanya's signature silhouettes of oversize sweaters, denim shirts, jeans and her reliable leather-sleeved zip-up coat. (Source)
While Klaus' costumes read as feminine, Vanya's tend toward the masculine. Button up shirts without any tapering in at the waist, done up to the very top button. Muted, neutral colors. Nothing skintight or fitted.
Without Page's involvement, it's very possible that Vanya's transformation would have been yet another "mousy to bombshell" Ugly Duckling story. From Rocky to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the "Beautiful all along" trope is an easy-to-follow formula: Take off the glasses, let down the hair, add an evening gown with a saucy slit and strap on high heels, and suddenly you're worthy of love.
More than Klaus and his eyeliner, Vanya and her suit break with traditional storytelling. She doesn't have to be feminized and sexy to be a badass; she can be a sexy badass in clothing that still fits who she is.
This is how they move the messaging from ostracizing and alienating and patronizing into something inclusive and empowering. From where I'm standing, this is entirely because Page knows the power of representation.
“I have a responsibility to be out now, because I have these resources. I can access therapists and security and support. But the reality is a lot of people can be in severely grave danger. I think, for instance, it would have been very harmful for me if someone had outed me earlier. When I was 20, someone wrote an article with the headline: ‘The Ellen Page Sexuality Sweepstakes’ in the Village Voice. ‘Is Juno a you know?’ I never even touched a woman outside until I was 27. I was very depressed, and very anxious. I was not well.” (Source)
Now that she's out, Page has been fierce about calling out those who endorse anti-LGBTQ policies, from Vice President Mike Pence to Guardians of the Galaxy star Chris Pratt.
I'm glad she has found her voice and is using it to speak out against injustice. I'm happy to see that Page, and actors like Sheehan and showrunners like Blackman, are collaborating on projects like The Umbrella Academy to elevate the source material, bringing us characters we otherwise don't get a lot of opportunities to see or connect with in mainstream media.
Hopefully this article, while being fairly ridden with spoilers, didn't give away too much. If you do watch The Umbrella Academy (it's on Netflix), be sure to come back and leave a comment to let us know what you thought!
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