“It is About Dignity” – Netflix’s ‘Tales of the City’ Demands Us to Confront Our Privilege

Netflix’s Tales of the City enriches the possibilities of LGBTQ representation, and shows us that progress is possible, but only if we actually learnt to confront our privileges. Based on the Tales of the City novel series by Armistead Maupin, Netflix’s recent endeavour is a revival of the original miniseries that aired on PBS in 1994. Laura Linney, Paul Gross, Olympia Dukakis, and Barbara Garrick all reprise their roles from the previous miniseries, with the addition of new actors like Ellen Page, Daniela Vega (also in A Fantastic Woman) and Jen Richards (co-writer of Emmy-nominated web-series Her Story). 

In this regard, the latest Tales of the City follows Mary-Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) as she returns to San Francisco to attend Anna Madrigal’s birthday party, and struggles to reconcile with her adopted daughter Shawna (Ellen Page) after leaving her behind for more than twenty years. Apart from Mary Ann, we also witness the unravelling relationship between Michael (Murray Bartlett) and his much younger boyfriend Ben (Charlie Barnett), and an episode long flashback to Anna Madrigal navigating the 1950s as a trans woman. While the writing feels tacky and too simplistic at times, it is unflinching when it comes to calling out racism within the gay community, transphobia, and the complicity of police brutality in queer suffering. 

It is obvious that this revival tries to set itself apart from the previous miniseries by emphasising on the difference in time periods. Through excessively flaunting the accessibility of social media, Tales of the City attempts to suggest that we are living in an age where the fluidity of our identities have become possible. However, rather than delve into the implications of queer identities becoming marketable for capitalistic purposes, much of this plot meanders without a distinct purpose other than superficially highlighting that we are indeed, very much online at all times. Nevertheless, the show’s astute portrayal of inter-generational differences comes not from its aimless musings on social media, but from addressing the bigotry which goes unmarked when we focus too much on the generational divide. While it may be tempting to have the older generation to take the fall for bigotry, this ultimately fails to acknowledge that bigotry has been structurally endemic to our society since time immemorial. Irrespective of age, all of us benefit at the expense of someone else. Correspondingly, older folk who paint the young as overly sensitive fail to realise that we are learning respect, empathy and kindness to survive political violence. 

A standout from the series would be the dinner party between Michael, his much younger black boyfriend Ben, and Michael’s gay friends. Most people, except Ben, is white. Everyone except Ben has lived through the AIDs crisis in the 1990s, an event they wilfully cite to excuse their racism, transphobia and misogyny. Transphobic and racial slurs are thrown around off-handedly, and while Michael obviously is uncomfortable with it, he stays silent and complicit. The light-hearted set up of the party jarringly foregrounds Ben’s displacement, particularly when bigotry of older white men is equated to mere chatter. But bigotry is not chatter, isn’t it? Bigotry is a very real way of advancing an already racist institution by allowing it to thrive in plain sight. To their use of slurs, Ben says: 

“What you call someone is important. It is about dignity. It is about visibility. I think we owe that to people. Especially when you’re coming from a place of privilege.” 

Yet, he is rudely dismissed by the entire table, because these older white cisgender men believe that Ben’s “entitlement” to “dignity and visibility” is solely fought for by the people who have lived through the AIDs crisis, unlike Ben. For these men, it is impossible for Ben to fathom what suffering feels like, for the cost of progress has been entirely paid for in the past. What remains unsaid, however, is that as a gay black man, Ben knows political violence and police brutality more so than anyone else at that table. As a gay black man, progress occurs on borrowed time, or not at all. This entire scene highlights that freedom always comes at the price of others, and that homophobic oppression does not exist within a social vacuum. We can talk about the atrocity of the AIDs crisis, without using it as a means to silence others. We can talk about homophobia, and still understand that for white people, race is a far less significant factor in determining their experiences of oppression. To this end, Tales of the City demands our anger at the current state of politics today. While the conversation on the dinner table is marked by white men silencing Ben, this conversation tells us that silencing is what we cannot do. It seems pretty self-explanatory, but you’d be surprised at how many fail to realise that homophobia is resolutely historical, intersectional, and contingent on other systems of oppression which includes, but is not limited to, that of class, race, gender and ability. 

The latest revival of Tales of the City strikes hard when needed, especially when it comes to addressing inter-community issues. It tells us: don’t just recognise your privilege, actually do something about it. Michael sits silent at the dinner table. We should not, because silence is complicity. Tales of the City breaks his silence, and calls for us to do the same. 

 

by Sharmane Tan

Sharmane is a film/tv writer based in Singapore. She is currently an editor at Much Ado About Cinema and an undergraduate in English Literature. Outside of writing, she is deeply passionate about Gentleman Jack, lesbian autobiographical narratives, and Florence Welch’s entire existence. Her favourite films are Moonlight, Things To Come, A Woman Under the Influence, and The Miseducation of Cameron Post. You can find her on twitter @jenvoievaiser. 

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