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Netflix Series ‘Sense8’ Leaves Gaping Holes in Minority Character Plotlines

4 min read

by Maryam Jameela

The Wachowski siblings’ most recent Netflix show “Sense8” is a sci-fi series, which was recently renewed for a second season set to air in 2016, along with its popularity it has been noticed particularly for its diverse cast.

The show involves eight people from around the world who are telepathically linked and able to share their skills and experiences with one another. The series’ depiction of queerness in different forms, notably the character of Nomi Marks and her struggle with medical abuse and transphobic feminists, particularly stand-out as thought-provoking during the course of the season.

However, “Sense8,” is beset with structural difficulties that restrict its plot-effectiveness and enjoyability. A continual problem is the poor level of direction, some scenes are bizarrely edited together with little coherency. The storyline labors on to make certain points while skipping over other elements entirely, and the characters themselves are, for the most part, underdeveloped shadows of original concepts.

Even their superpowers themselves are poorly developed, and after a whole season, it still seems unclear how their powers work or what their limitations are.

These problems are the foundation for why characters, such as Kala an Indian pharmacist living in Delhi, are severely lacking in well-constructed character development. In the same way Netflix uses the white character of Piper Chapman from “Orange is the New Black” as a door to diversity, “Sense8” mirrors this idea with the characters of Will and Riley.

But, this attempt at diversity falls flat as it uses whiteness as a center point, which positions every other character of color as a “deviance” or “other.”

Will and Riley, aside from Nomi, have the most time spent on their backstories while minority characters Kala, Capheus, Sun, Lito, and Wolfgang’s stories are yet to be explained in detail.

Given that Kala has little time on screen, it is especially frustrating that the time she spends on screen does little to develop her into a sympathetic character, or, at the very least, a well-rounded, believable character.

Her story arc revolves around her refusal to marry her finacé, Rajan. The show seems to be at pains to assert that this is a “love” marriage, yet Kala states right away that she doesn’t love Rajan. At no point does she decide to marry him (despite being prompted by various characters) because the camera cuts away as questions are posed. Kala is not even allowed to assert a choice, instead remaining perpetually confused.

The show also commits the cardinal sin of telling, not showing. We are told Kala doesn’t love Rajan but never shown exactly why; this cements the fact that the series, so far, has chosen to portray Kala as a “typical” brown girl—she’s shot with a yellow, almost glowing palette, works hard as a pharmacist and will have a marriage she doesn’t want.

As with the other characters of color in this show, Kala is a half-baked symbol of what the writers thought an Indian girl would be like, but they fail to realize that brown girls are so much more than this stereotype.

Here are a few ideas that are, frankly, more interesting:

1. There is a scene in the first episode where Kala goes to the temple to pray to Ganesha and reveals that she is unsure about marrying Rajan.

I was completely convinced at the time that she was about to come out to Ganesha and I still think that would have been a really convincing storyline. It would have cemented why Kala doesn’t want to marry Rajan and left a great scope to explore what being queer means for Kala, who lives in India. This plot point would have contributed to the conversation of insidious erasure of queer South Asian people.

2. One of the interesting things about Kala is her job, which is taken by her finacé, given he is the boss’ son.

A major trope of the sci-fi genre is the position of scientists manifesting as occasionally well-meaning, but usually intrusive, individuals who threaten the bounds of morality in the pursuit of new discoveries. It would have been downright revolutionary to have Kala become a pioneer in the way of benevolent science.

You can’t expect me to believe that a scientist, regardless of rank, would experience new powers apparently based on genetic mutations and not investigate that further than a simple: “Oh, I can teleport now.”

The concept of consensual science in conjunction with morality would have been new ground, especially with a brown woman leading the experiment.

3. An obvious positive is the group’s ability to share skills, for example, feats of physical prowess can be easily borrowed amongst the group. Kala realizing she can use Sun’s proficiency in martial arts, Capheus’ quick-thinking, Wolfgang’s cool under pressure attitude and Nomi’s hacking capabilities could allow her to forget a marriage with nice-but-forgettable Rajan in favor of becoming a kind of vigilante.

Yes, I know my Ms. Marvel is showing, but we’ve had stories of scientist superheroes before, and it’s about time a brown girl was one of them.

Let us know your ideas for a better “Sense8” character below!

maryam jameelaMaryam Jameela lives in Lancashire, England. She graduated with a B.A. in English literature and an M.A. in gender studies. She is passionate about writing all things desi and will begin her Ph.D research into desi film and literature at the University of Sheffield, U.K. in the fall. You can read more things that she has written here.