Q-Force: Maybe It’s Better Than You Thought

When the trailers for Q-Force dropped during Pride Month, very online queers came out with their pitchforks. The jokes were dated. There was too much sex. Was every single member of the alphabet mafia covered? All centered on a 30-second clip of an adult cartoon show that was supposed to be funny. I assume the Venn Diagram between these mostly younger queers and the ones who think we should ban kink at Pride is a full circle. (This sounds glib here, but bear with me, friends. It’s relevant.)

The problem with any queer media representation is that there is not enough. We don’t get to have messy queers. We don’t get to have bad TV. We don’t get to have mediocre shows centered around us that are fun to watch when we’re too tired to do anything else on the weekend — because has anyone noticed, we’re still in a pandemic.

That was how I binged most of Q-Force, and the show took off for me after Episode 4, “EuropeVision.” This episode allowed all the characters to be human, to go beyond the jokes.

We see the consequences of Agent Mary’s dream of being successful spies when Deb’s wife is kidnapped. Deb’s pain and one-track mind derail their rescue mission multiple times. We see Mary trying to be perfect to his and his team’s detriment; Twink’s competitive nature (magically) kill someone they needed; Stat’s hacking skills incredibly diminished and her reliance on other resources; and Buck getting distracted by his dick. Except for the straight cis man Buck, none of these traits are tied directly to their sexuality or gender.

You don’t have like Q-Force. That’s okay. But the show has more heart than most critics and early queers with opinions on Twitter give it credit for.

Let’s talk about the jokes.

Showrunner Gabe Liedman is 40-years-old, and I am 38. If these jokes are as old and dated, we are too. I’m sorry, but Carol only came out 5 years ago, and the setup for that Tracey Chapman “Fast Car” joke was brilliantly retooled. It was nice to watch a comedy show where I didn’t have to look up a reference only to find out it’s a football player I’m immediately forgetting.

It’s okay to make fun of ourselves. It’s okay to discuss and use the tropes and shorthand we’ve created for ourselves. To make light of queer culture. We’re so used to being openly mocked by cis straight people (and legislated against) that we have a knee-jerk, adverse reaction to any jokes about us. Or we go the opposite direction and, to paraphrase Hannah Gadsby, make jokes where we punch ourselves in the face by putting ourselves down. Which Q-Force takes care not to do.

The joke density on Q-Force could’ve been higher, especially in creating their own in-show gags. I wanted more about the Christmas internet, Cobblestones (an in-universe TV show), Honestly?, and specifics about being spies. Expose more cishet men for never washing their hands in a public restroom. (In the show, it’s not only Buck!)

Not every joke in Q-Force landed because not everything was a joke. Some jokes were just references — which the highest-watched comedy on prime time network TV for 12 years was a show that claimed to be jokes but was only references. But don’t tell that to my grandma, who says it’s her favorite show, or the realtor, who sold my house to me and said I was just like Sheldon.

It was okay that immediately, in episode 3, “Backache Mountain,” we met Ennis and knew (if you missed the title while binging on Netflix) that this was going to be a Brokeback Mountain reference. (Ennis is Heath Ledger’s character in Brokeback Mountain.) The Brokeback Mountain stuff wasn’t particularly funny — though other parts were — but familiar to a queer audience who’d immediately understand what was going on. Unlike Buck, the cishet audience stand-in, who has Mary explain to him 1) why Mary knows Ennis is gay and 2) why Buck isn’t having mission sex.

If Brooklyn-99 (another show executive produced by Mike Shur) can reenact Die Hard approximately 75 different times, we can reenact Brokeback Mountain, L.A. Confidential, and The Princess Diaries.

Not every stereotype is equal.

I adored seeing Sean Hayes as the swoll hunky super-spy Agent Mary. Hayes has spoken about how he regrets some parts of Will & Grace where his character Jack was a caricature of an effeminate gay man. How a lot of Will & Grace’s jokes punched down as Hayes dealt with his own public presentation and only coming out after the show’s original run was off the air for almost five years. (Though many queers, including myself, assumed he was gay given how cagey he was with journalists and the wild things we’ve all said to cishets, who weren’t even People reporters.)

The backlash to the Q-Force trailer was around stereotypes and how stereotypes can punch down or not allow characters to step out of a rigid dehumanizing box. But Q-Force loves its queer cast. Each character has their own depths and nuances, and even the most stereotypical character — Twink, the drag queen (should’ve workshopped that name) — the humor never hated him.

The show is a workplace comedy about spies because Liedman saw spies (James Bond, Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt, etc.) as the last bastion of fragile white toxic masculinity. But Q-Force also loves spies, and the characters love their jobs too much to be a solid critique of masculinity. Queer people were still being put into a copaganda narrative; in the same way, Brooklyn-99 uses a gay Black police captain, women detectives, and jokes to make policing seem kinder than it is and push a “there are good ones” narrative.

SPOILERS! The Q-Force team essentially broke the American Intelligence Agency that they work for by the season end, but they didn’t dismantle it in any critical way. Since it’s unlikely this show will get a second season, we won’t know if it would’ve.

There were many stereotypes, especially toxic ones, the show hinted at but left unexplored. I wish Q-Force had done more with Benji and the fatphobia he experienced in gay male spaces. Especially in contrast with Mary, who’s Marvel movie hero built, and Benji being told that Mary is a big catch for him, much of it implied as Mary being “hotter” than Benji. It would’ve been amazing to see Mary support Benji in these moments, or even delve into how attractive he finds Benji, especially since we see them kissing, snuggling post-coital, and eventually expressing that they love each other.

Every single representation — whiteness and the BTQIA+ of it all.

When you announce a queer show — because we have very few — that show is expected to cover everyone in our community. That’s a lot of people.

A very valid critique of this show is how white it is. Except for Deb, all the main characters are white (or white-passing as Stat is voiced by Vietnamese American actor Patti Harrison), and most of the speaking characters are white. Q-Force’s writers and directors are also majority white. All the executive producers are white cis men. By not having more BIPOC voices in the room, especially in higher-up positions, it’s not surprising that the humor is pretty white gay and lesbian, which is one of the reasons why some of the jokes feel outdated.

It’s well-documented that much of American queer humor and slang comes directly from Black queers, especially those involved in ballroom. That’s where almost every catchphrase you hear on RuPaul’s Drag Race started. And white queers, we have a rocky relationship with that — just like all white people — and once the humor and slang pass into white GL culture, it’s often stale. (Did no one make a Lil Nas X reference because they were afraid of being trolled?)

In addition to the whiteness, the show’s very gay and lesbian-centric, leaving out a whole cornucopia of BTQIA+ people. Now, I might argue that if we had more queer TV shows, not every queer show would get docked for not showing more of the alphabet mafia. Personally, as someone who’s in the missing part (in two different letters!), it’s disappointing, given that our representation is even more sparse. Q-Force not having an explicit trans person was surprising. (Yes, Patti Harrison is trans, but again here, is her character? Saying all the characters use the same pronouns as the actors is not clarity.)

In the last episode, “The Hole,” the team heads to World Pride. To Deb, Twink makes the joke that Pride is so great because “every gay, lesbian, and media conglomerate is here.” Deb responds, “You’re telling me. We’ve gone ten feet, and I’ve already dodged two of my exes and my broadband provider.” After my own knee-jerk applause at slamming corporations for their hallow Pride branding, I felt gutted.

As a bisexual person, I have a complex relationship with feeling included in Pride. Many GL people have explicitly said I’m not welcome or only welcome as long as I’m not actively in a relationship with a person of the “opposite gender” or that I’m not allowed to bring them with me. As a bisexual/pansexual person, my sexuality is not determined by the gender, gender presentation, or genitals of my current or previous partner(s). I’ve known I was queer since I was nine years old and still thought kissing was kind of gross.

Bisexuality was mentioned once for a pun in Episode 7. Trans people were maybe mentioned a handful of times — where were the trans men at Deb and Pam’s BBQ? — and questioning, intersex, asexual, and aromantic people approximately zero times. Maybe we should’ve dumped Buck along the way and introduced a variety basket of queer people.

And finally, some sex.

In the documentary The Celluloid Closet (1995), America’s sweetheart and my nemesis Tom Hanks brags about how his portrayal of Andrew Beckett — a real-life gay man who died of AIDS — in Philadelphia (1993), made gay life palatable for cis straight America. Hanks says, “There is this constant desire on the part of the studios to make characters likable.” He implies that Andrew is likable because Hanks himself isn’t gay and thus “safe.” Additionally, Andrew’s sex life is almost entirely erased, outside of the villain law firm pointing out that “scary and gross” gay sex led to Andrew contracting HIV/AIDS. Hanks reinforces distaste over gay sex with, “I think that’s what the movie is saying, is that it is all the same. Love is spelled with the same four letters.”

Excuse me while I vomit.

Maybe you can forgive Hanks for something he said in 1995, but it doesn’t change that the studios have desexualized queer characters to make them palatable for the straight agenda. Unfortunately, many young queers have fallen into the respectability trap. (See the aforementioned, kink at Pride.) As an elder, who had an anti-Love, Simon growing up experience, it doesn’t get better, and they won’t accept you. You will never be palatable. So live your fucking life.

Most media that features dating needs more sex, and this is a cartoon! I loved Q-Force’s inclusion of sex because people have sex, and every adult cartoon I’ve watched has included sex. Just because it’s a stereotype that queer people, especially gay men (and we greedy bisexuals), have a lot of sex doesn’t mean the show making sex jokes or showing sex is harmful.

And hey, if we brought in some of those asexual queers, that would be a fabulous way to show variety in our community without getting puritanical about it.

We’re queer, we’re here, and we don’t have to like it.

If the knee-jerk happened at the Q-Force trailer, maybe give the actual show another chance. It’s far from perfect, but Q-Force has a lot of heart. I adored the character Stat (not surprising), and the rest had so much room for growth. Not to mention that they could’ve actually critiqued copaganda and added more BIPOC and BTQIA+ characters.

Like a lot of shows, Q-Force stumbled a bit in its first season as it found itself.

We don’t need perfect queer shows. We need more queer shows and to learn to laugh at ourselves — which we can do without punching down, across, or at ourselves. Sometimes, those shows can be just as entertaining as their cishet counterparts. And for me to binge on a Saturday as I’m tired and old and queer.

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