Cucumber and the salad of male emotions

Henry and Cucumber: life is hard
Henry and Cucumber: life is hard

I’m supposed to like Cucumber, this new TV show made for and by queer people. Some viewers have found it distasteful. They say the writers rely on stereotypes of gay people: promiscuous queens, the middle-aged queen who can’t settle down for want of one last danger-fuck, the ashamed ‘straight’ guy who’s all mouth and no trousers.

Whatever.

I bloody love it. Yes there are stereotypes but actually the characters are written and played so authentically that you realise that they came first, before the stereotype. And not everyone is a stereotype in any case. Sometimes some characters behave in a stereotypical way, but at other times they are not. There are negative representations of gay people too. But so what? The best way to show someone’s humanity is to show them being selfish and then vulnerable later. Or to show them being sexually adventurous and then possibly regretting it. We’re complicated people, all of us.

The vast majority of characters in Cucumber are men. It probably doesn’t pass the Bechdel test because what few female characters there are don’t really talk to each other. But let that slip: it’s a show about gay blokes. And what an array of masculinity we see. We see men being loving, kind, horrible, selfish, murderous, stupid and smart, rich and poor, successful and failing, sexy, desired and undesirable—in short, all of the things a person can be. I get the feeling that the writer Russell T Davies feels somewhat liberated from certain so-called male characteristics when he’s writing queer men. I suspect that as a writer you’d feel freer to go with your character’s emotions and worry less than you normally would about whether he should be repressing them. Davies certainly managed this with Jack Harkness in Torchwood.

Henry is the best example, especially in last night’s episode when he’s bereaved. We all take a roller-coaster ride when we lose somebody, and in last night’s episode Henry certainly takes several loop-de-loops and big dips. I saw someone say on Twitter that the show was “tonally all over the place”. I guess that meant it was sad one minute and then funny the next. Er, yeah. Welcome to life. Welcome to grief. Davies just pushed Henry through all this, and we watched him at every corner.

That is not to say that gay men are automatically in touch with their emotions. Henry is repressing lots of emotions. In fact, that’s part of the story. He says he regrets not speaking to a certain person at the funeral but he didn’t want to run after her because people would see and he’d look stupid dashing across the room. This is probably one of the saddest moments in the episode. Regret usually is, isn’t it?

I guess I find it refreshing that there is a willingness on behalf of the men in Cucumber to talk about feelings. This serves the drama of course. It is an open and audacious exploration of maleness and gayness, so it helps the writer that his characters are willing to open up. This is not A Single Man. Cucumber comes from another era. The men are not always OK being vulnerable, but in Davies’ hands they frequently go there.

They are desired and want to be desired—this is a very unusual portrayal of masculinity. And even though sex is an essential part of the show and its characters’ lives it is portrayed with just as much complexity as their emotions. In fact, their emotions and their sex lives are totally entwined. In last night’s episode, Freddie’s dilemma of whether to go to Henry in the middle of the night is a perfect example. Finally we see Freddie caring about another person, and when he does he is clearly weighing up sex and love and care and kindness and compassion. Perhaps this complexity offers some redemption to one of the show’s more unlikeable characters.

Freddie and Dean, the young characters, are far less ashamed of themselves than the older ones. This is significant. It is just not just a generational thing, although that is clearly very important. Freddie and Dean have grown up in an era when it is far easier to be gay than Henry, Lance and their friends. In fact, if Dean is ashamed of anything is it his parents’ acceptance of his sexuality!

Henry however is full of shame and pride—not the good kind of pride. Lance has his own shame too. For both of them shame is around sex rather than sexuality. That’s really interesting. And it is probably the most radical element of the show. The point is that a gay man who knows his sexuality and is happy to tell others about it is not necessarily liberated about sex. Most people are not liberated about sex; we’ve all got our hang-ups. I suspect there’s a feeling, certainly among straight people and some young gay promiscuous types, that once you say you’re gay to yourself and to others then you’ve passed through a gate into a field of sexual dreams and openness and exploration, if you want it. That just saying you’re gay is enough to be a fully formed sexual man.

But it doesn’t work like that. Gay people bring just as much worry and shame and horror and fear to the bedroom as anyone else. Probably more. And this is the throbbing pulse that runs through Cucumber. Sex is hard, man. Sex messes you up.

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