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Twink, a drag-queen character from Netflix’s Q-Force, poses on a table, in a purple, star-filled bouffant and holding up a fan that says “SLAY” Image: Netflix

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Netflix’s Q-Force continues the Marvelification of queer culture

It’s an inoffensive mediocrity — but it’s a high price to pay for mainstream media acceptance

When the initial teaser for Netflix’s queer animated spy comedy Q-Force hit YouTube, the outrage was immediate and overwhelming. One commenter called the trailer “a 55-second slur. It’s easy to see why: The damn thing starts with one character shouting “Hey, twink!” and ends with another saying, “You can’t pander to the gays. They can smell it.” In between, viewers are assaulted with the rank tagline “Straight aim. Gay heroes.” Meanwhile, Sean Hayes’ head spy character and his team barrel into a room, macho-style. Then he realizes it’s empty, and vents his frustration at “wasting masculinity for nothing,” as if this is an energy-depleting thing for a gay man.

In an era of divisive outrage, this teaser somehow became the great equalizer, with another YouTube commenter marveling, “Wow Netflix did it. They managed to unite homosexuals and homophobes.” That’s an extreme summary, perhaps, but it’s also understandable. Somehow, I have a hard time seeing the latter camp glomming onto a cartoon featuring a man saying, “It made my little butthole go boop.” But I also don’t necessarily see any queer majority, myself included, mounting a defense of this show, whose teaser feels like a rotted olive branch from That Guy Who Called Me F*ggot in High School.

In truth, the actual show itself is nothing to get too keyed up about. It’s true that it’s a one-joke premise. (“What if spies were gay???”) It’s also true that the characters are little more than walking stereotypes. It’s true that the character addressed as “twink” is just fully named Twink, and that everyone calls Sean Hayes’ character Agent Mary. There are the predictable references to Liza Minnelli, Ariana Grande, and to lesbian characters “merging their bank accounts” after their first date. But at the end of the day, Q-Force is little more than an inoffensive mediocrity, the latest in the growing trend of the Marvelification of queer culture.

Four characters from Netflix’s animated spy series Q-Force — two severely suited women, a shirtless man, and a mostly naked man with a shirt tied to cover his crotch — pose in super-group mode Image: Netflix

It’s been happening for a while, but just as the 1990s Batman films and the occasional X-Men or Spider-Man entry eventually gave way to Marvel’s total domination of the cinematic landscape, queerness is becoming more and more mainstream. And just as Marvel has polished the superhero story down to a predictable formula, shows like Q-Force are turning the distinctiveness of queer culture into a series of palatable public memes. Of course, I can’t begin to speak for every LGBTQIA+ individual, but for me, this has been its own kind of struggle. While surely queer acceptance is the goal we’ve all been striving for, seeing a media marketplace that wanted nothing to do with us 15 years ago suddenly start firehosing queer stereotypes onto the screen in the hopes that it will appeal to both straight and gay audiences can feel a bit like cultural whiplash.

There was predictable outrage over Q-Force, a show that panders to the gays, insisting, “You can’t pander to the gays.” But the tensions of a culture not used to being pandered to suddenly being pandered to is exactly what I’m talking about. We’ve had to pick up the scraps at the pop-culture table for so long, and we’ve been aware of the media handwaving away our presence the whole time, so it’s no wonder we quite literally can smell it when the pandering begins.

That’s why there’s always a certain icky feeling during Pride Month, when businesses temporarily rainbow-wash their marketing. Or why there’s outrage every time Disney announces that its latest film will feature the studio’s “first openly gay character.” It’s progress, but it also sucks. Also, I don’t need Josh Gad to tell me that LeFou is gay; having played him twice in community theater, I can assure you, his primary motivation was thirsting after Gaston.

We’re still getting the scraps — it’s just that now, the scraps are being publicized. In that context, it might seem hard to be mad at something like Q-Force, which is made mostly by queer people, and doesn’t really have a mean bone in its body. But I’m really fucking tired of qualifying queer content by saying “It has its heart in the right place.” It’s the same pat on-the-head bullshit I felt in high school when the straight quarterback would call me “buddy” — an encouragement that also feels not only backhanded, but limiting.

Sure, it’s nice to see that the pressure is a bit off queer media, so it can have an unbalanced ratio of mediocre-to-good content, just like the straight stuff. But that also doesn’t mean I have to like it. In other words, call me the gay Martin Scorsese, rejecting Q-Force as cinema.

Mary, the head agent of Q-Force, flees a fire with a large naked man slung across his shoulders Image: Netflix

Last weekend, I went to Portland, Oregon, where I witnessed one of the most striking drag performances I’ve had the privilege of seeing. It was by Darcelle XV, the Guinness Book of World Records-certified oldest drag queen in the world. Seated in the front row between my partner and my partner’s sister’s girlfriend, I was a mere foot away from this 90-something queen. Draped in a golden gown, her high blonde wig frayed and unkempt, she took the stage with the help of a rhinestone-studded walker, planting herself center stage to sing, of all things, “Send in the Clowns.”

Suddenly, the tone of the room shifted. The audience had been snapping and clapping for a varied succession of high-energy lip-synching queens, but here in front of us now was a remarkably spare, naked, and vulnerable performance. Some turned to their table partners, gabbing through the duration. My partner’s sister sang along, not in a mocking way, but in a “Oh wow, I haven’t heard this song in a while” type of way. But I couldn’t focus on anything other than Darcelle, who was standing there performing with a remarkably bold sincerity and a sense of history that I couldn’t shake, even as she was reaching out to a young millennial audience, half of whom had checked out as soon as she started singing.

“Send in the Clowns” is, of course, a song about regret, about missing a moment and choosing to cut through the sadness with a bitter sense of humor. It’s great in the musical A Little Night Music, and Barbra Streisand does it wonderfully. But somehow, it never meant more to me than it did when performed by this drag queen who hadn’t come out until age 37, who had been through more than I could even imagine, now looking out across a room filled with young, openly gay people having a night on the town.

Her performance was sad, but also triumphant. Silly because of the walker and the runny eye makeup, but also an achingly sincere portrait of exactly the kind of spirited defiance that blazed the trail for where we are today. When I thanked her after the performance, she asked how long my partner and I had been together.

“Two years and some change,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. “I was with my partner for 50 years.” And off she went.

I’ve since learned that Darcelle’s partner, Roxy Neuhardt, died in 2017, a mere two years after the legalization of gay marriage in the United States, and long before Q-Force was even a thought in Sean Hayes and Michael Schur’s minds. The concept of paying tribute to those who came before gets paid a lot of lip service in the gay community, but for some reason, this performance and this exchange really hit home for me just how indebted we are to the Darcelles, to the Marsha P. Johnsons, and how important it is to maintain a bold, singular, and defiant identity, even as queerness becomes more mainstream and that defiance seems to be less and less necessary.

I feel lucky to live in a time where RuPaul’s Drag Race feels as essential to mainstream culture as American Idol did in the early 2000’s. Where Queer Eye is welcomed with open arms, and Billy Porter wins an Emmy for his role on Pose. Where a show like The Other Two can strike the perfect comedic balance of savagery and humanity about the gay experience. I also know that we owe it to our queer forefathers and mothers to demand more than mediocrity in our content.

For now, Netflix’s subpar cartoon about the first queer spy agency just isn’t cutting it. We’ve hit the mainstream; Darcelle wouldn’t want us settling for scraps.

The first season of Q-Force is now streaming on Netflix.