Captain Jack Harkness, a rogue time agent and occasional companion in the BBC show Doctor Who, first crosses paths with the Doctor and becomes an important part of the Whoniverse in the first season episode “The Empty Child.” His flexible morality and mischievous sense of humor make him an excellent foil for the Doctor, who abides by a strict code of ethics. The creation of Jack Harkness also represents a shift toward featuring explicitly queer characters on network television. In his first episode, Jack flirts with both men and women, and the Doctor explains that humans from Jack’s time period (the 51st century) routinely partner with people of all genders and species. From the very start, Jack is obviously and unapologetically queer, and his sexual fluidity is treated as entirely acceptable, natural even.
Men who partner with more than one gender routinely find themselves excluded from the LGBTQIA community and erased from mainstream narratives of sexuality. The “fact” that women’s sexuality is more fluid than men’s has been repeated so frequently that it’s become common knowledge, but it is based on studies that rely solely on self-reporting (which is susceptible to societal stigma) or measures of physical arousal (which are a gross oversimplification of sexuality). Men who identify as bisexual, pansexual, or polysexual often face this demeaning rhetoric from both straight and queer communities. Placing a sexually fluid male character in a significant supporting role is a huge step forward for media visibility of polysexual men. Furthermore, Jack’s queerness is accepted by all of the other characters with very little fuss or questioning. No one tries to erase parts of his sexuality by categorizing him as straight or gay, and no one condemns his sexual activity on moral or ethical grounds. This prevalent matter-of-fact attitude treats the existence of male polysexuality as a given and sends a powerful message to viewers.
While I enjoy the humor and unique perspective Jack adds to the show, Doctor Who‘s characterization of him as a queer man is not without problems. Jack is primarily known for his flirtiness, charm, and queer desires. The running joke, as seen in this link, is that Jack flirts with everyone and just can’t help himself. The Doctor perceives him as so hypersexual that he sees virtually all of Jack’s interactions as a form of flirting. American and western European societies typically stereotype men, particularly queer men, as constantly horny and always seeking sex. Bisexual, pansexual, and polysexual individuals face the same sort of hypersexualization. While Jack’s sexual nature is not condemned by other characters on the show, it still reinforces harmful stereotypes that perpetuate discrimination against queer men and polysexual people of all genders. If we had a wide variety of polysexual male characters on television, Jack’s hypersexuality could be a funny quirk in one individual, but we don’t live in that world. In our world, the lone polysexual man in mainstream media is sexually indiscriminate and largely defined by his queerness.
Jack’s identity on the show centers on his sexuality. Virtually every line that comes out of his mouth is steeped in sexual or queer subtext. I love double entendres and find his lines funny, but it is problematic that his character is so one-dimensional. The most visible polysexual man on television is seen as queer first and an individual second. His queerness is so integrated into his personality that there is very little room for anything else. Sexuality is not the same as personality, and I find it tiresome that the media depictions of queer people so frequently conflate the two.
JanelleBelle is a queer feminist grappling with her butch/genderfluid identities, white privilege, and Arabic grammar. When she’s not sticking it to the white supremacist cishetero-patriarchy, she can be found knitting and talking about cats in her tiny hometown.