Does It Matter That The TV Version Of Constantine Is Straight?

Illustration for article titled Does It Matter That The TV Version Of Constantine Is Straight?

This fall is seeing a huge crop of comic-book TV shows, and one of the most promising is Constantine. The trench-coated antihero who copes with the unsavory side of magic is getting a more faithful portrayal. Except he won't smoke. And now we're hearing his sexuality will be toned down too. Does it matter?

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At the Television Critics Association Q&A over the weekend, executive producer David Cerone was asked if Constantine would be bisexual, the way he is in the comics. In response, Cerone broke down all the different versions of the character who've appeared over the years, to prove bisexuality wasn't a major part of the character. And then, according to EW, he added:

In those comic books, John Constantine aged in real time. Within this tome of three decades [of comics] there might have been one or two issues where he's seen getting out of bed with a man. So [maybe] 20 years from now? But there are no immediate plans.

The producers also said that it wasn't as if Constantine would be a non-smoker — we might see him stubbing something out from time to time.

Illustration for article titled Does It Matter That The TV Version Of Constantine Is Straight?

For the record, I've read dozens of Hellblazer comics over the years, and I can't remember seeing much indication that John Constantine was bisexual or pansexual. But he's a character who's appeared in hundreds and hundreds of comics over the years, so who knows? But it's fair to say that smoking is more integral to the character than sexuality is. At the same time, we don't have nearly enough queer characters on television — especially not heroic ones.

[Edited to add: I didn't mean to skate over this issue quite so glibly — blame deadlines and pre-Comic-Con phone calls. I do think erasing queer people from pop culture is a shitty thing to do, and we desperately need more pop culture that represents the whole range of human sexuality. And it really wouldn't have cost much for them to include an aside about ex-boyfriends along with ex-girlfriends. At the same time, to me the most important aspect of John Constantine is not who he fucks, but who he fucks over. ]

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At the same time, it looks as though Constantine is taking over the Friday night slot previously occupied by Dracula, a show in which it appeared as though every single character was A) bisexual and B) into some pretty weird edgeplay. So you would expect this show to have a bit of leeway. Plus isn't that also the Hannibal timeslot?

In any case, it's way too early to tell how this will wind up affecting the show — we'll know more when we've watched a half season of it. I'm more worried by the reports that they're reshooting a scene in the pilot to make Liv, the show's original lead, less of a badass and more of a "damsel in distress" — because they want to make it easier to write her out of the show after a few episodes.

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Illustration for article titled Does It Matter That The TV Version Of Constantine Is Straight?
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But the larger question — and the one we won't know the answer to until the show's been on for a while — is how much are they toning down the character of John Constantine, in an attempt to make this a show that will appeal to the wider audiences that watched Grimm but not Dracula? And can a Constantine show work if he's not kind of an asshole?

I definitely think the "asshole" thing is integral to the character, and if there's one thing standing in the way of networks that want to reach the critical acclaim (and ratings) of cable shows like Game of Thrones or True Detective, it's the unwillingness to let characters have rough edges. We've all learned that television characters don't have to be admirable, or lovable, to be fascinating — but to make a severely flawed character fascinate audiences requires really great acting, and enough space to let it shine. Something network TV has a hard time providing.

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That's why, for example, a show like Under The Dome starts out looking like a character study of people who go to some pretty dark places — Junior chaining up his ex-girlfriend, Barbie sleeping with the woman whose husband he murdered — but then veers into an endless series of plot devices and mysteries. What do the butterflies mean? How about the glowing egg? Why is the dome changing colors? Etc. etc.

Illustration for article titled Does It Matter That The TV Version Of Constantine Is Straight?
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To some extent, I blame the idea of "watercooler television" — the notion that the best way to get people to watch a network show live instead of a week or a month later is by making sure everybody's talking about it the next day. And somehow, this turns into having lots of emphasis on surprising turns of events, or plot twists, instead of striking character moments.

I don't have much more to say about this, but luckily Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles creator Josh Friedman had some comments last night on Twitter about why it's so hard to make room for small character moments on network TV shows, and I'm just going to cherry pick some of the best bits below, because it's all such great stuff:

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DISCUSSION

Jim_Hague
Jim Hague

"Bisexuality isn't important to the character of John Constantine"

Others have already pointed out how rude and demeaning this choice on the part of the Constantine TV show is. It's cowardly, it's bull, it's bigoted…

…and it's also factually untrue.

Saying that it's not important that John Constantine be shown as bisexual is a lot like saying that it's not important that Batman is an orphan, or that Captain America fought Nazis in World War II. I would argue that bisexuality lies at the very heart of the character.

First off, let me clarify something. I'm not saying that the Hellblazer comics have been "The Hot Bisexual Adventures of John Constantine, Who By The Way Likes 'Em Both, Know What I'm Saying, I Bet You Do, Wink Wink Sailor". His sexuality isn't usually the focus of his stories – but that's not the point. The fact that a bisexual man might want to have sex with either gender isn't the defining trait of that man, any more than the fact that I'm right-handed doesn't dictate everything there is to know about me.

Let's take a step back. The character of John Constantine was originally defined as a reaction against the politics and social policies of Margaret Thatcher and her ruling Conservative party in 1980's United Kingdom. Very often, the supernatural threats he faced were allegories to the crushing weight of marginalization and oppression that people felt in that country. And here's the kicker – one of the issues that Thatcher was the most extreme on was the subject of homosexuality. John's identity as a bisexual is at the very core of why he struggled against the forces of darkness – because he was branded by his society as a freak unfit to live even in the shadows, whispered of as something unclean and destined for Hell. Just as Captain America's witnessing of the horrors of Nazi Germany inspired him to fight for what he believed in, to stand up to tyrants and murderers, so too did John Constantine's sense of fear and anger regarding those who ruled his nation define and inspire him. The only difference is that John was a little more subtle about it; he didn't have a pink triangle wearing a trenchcoat fly through his parlor window one night, giving him the idea that he must become Bisexual Trenchcoat Magic Guy.

So if you're one of those persons waving off this issue as unimportant – that's your privilege talking. I don't like playing the "check your privilege" card, because I think it's too often abused and overused by people who want to bludgeon those around them with the power of self-righteousness, but in this case, I think it's damn appropriate. You might not see this as an issue because it doesn't affect you, but trust me, it affects a lot of people out there, more than you realize, and the sooner you realize that the world isn't just about what inconveniences you personally, the better off you'll be.

And I'll bet you anything that if DC released a new Batman TV show where his parents never got shot in a dark alley, where Bruce simply decided one day that dressing like a bat and beating up poor people would be "totally wicked extreme" and that his mom helped him sew his first bat-logo… that there would be people lining up on the streets screaming about how DC was "forgetting where the character came from", and that you'd be nodding your head in sympathy.

Have I made my point yet, or am I being too subtle?