‘Gentleman Jack’ Celebrates Lesbian Existence, Bravery, and Love

Gentleman Jack (2019) makes me feel that my life is possible. As a long-time fan of Sally Wainwright, I trusted her to do justice to Anne Lister’s diaries. My expectations were high, but after having been let down time and time again by most lesbian-centered representations, they were still within reason. Before the series premiered, I expected a brilliant portrayal of Lister – one that is done with respect and empathy. However, on the topic of lesbian sexuality, I had far less hopes. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Gentleman Jack unabashedly delights in including its lesbian audience, and revels in speaking only to lesbians. The series goes beyond merely portraying lesbians on the screen, and takes lesbian representation a notch further by being unapologetic about its depiction of lesbian desire, lesbian sex, and lesbian mannerisms.

Just as the real Anne Lister was proud of her ability to seduce women, Lister’s fourth-wall breaks in the series seduces the audience, charms them with her wit, and most importantly of all – remind lesbians that we have always existed. In-between 200 years ago and now where our lives have been violently annihilated by virtue of homophobic cruelty, we always have existed, and we continue to exist.

One of the reasons why Gentleman Jack succeeds in setting a precedent in lesbian representation is its brilliant crew: Director and writer Sally Wainwright, historical consultant Anne Choma, script editor Stella Merz, producer Phil Collinson, and intimacy director Ita O’Brien (who also worked on Netflix’s Sex Education). In an interview for The Oprah Magazine, Suranne Jones mentioned that Choma, Merz, and Collinson, who are all gay, helped Wainwright throughout the production process. Indeed, Jones illuminates a significant and neglected aspect in the area of film criticism – that of the people behind the camera. Criticism focuses on whether actors or directors are gay, but no one credits the crew members who are also responsible for the production of a piece of work. Gentleman Jack’s unabashed lesbianism is only possible because the series actively sought and included the opinions of gay people behind the screen.

Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle in ‘Gentleman Jack’

As Jones has accurately pointed out, she is merely the ‘face’ of Gentleman Jack, the actor who gets to translate the efforts of Anne Choma, Stella Merz and Phil Collinson onto the screen. In this regard, far too much “lesbian-centered” media have allowed heterosexual men to dictate their direction, which always shows in their eventual fetishisation of lesbian sexuality. Gentleman Jack’s portrayal of lesbians, however, is meant for the gaze of lesbians only, and I believe that this success is due to the active decision to value, and seek the advice of gay people during the production process.

Above all, this inclusion is borne out of genuine passion and the desire to not only remember Anne Lister, but also to do justice to her diaries. Despite multiple failures to receive funding, Wainwright persisted for twenty years to make sure this series aired on a huge platform (HBO & BBCOne), with a high production value to boot. Cast members also discuss Lister’s gender non-conformity and lesbianism with an admiration that one rarely sees in promotion material anymore. During discussions of sexuality, often the words universal love are used to describe specifically gay narratives, which is frankly, another way of denying our differences and avoiding the topic of gay sexuality altogether. While that might seem to encourage openness, it only amplifies how taboo our existence is. Love is hardly ever the same. It is made different by our experiences with other political systems of oppression.

Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle ‘Gentleman Jack’

To this end, it is thus genuinely surprising that Gentleman Jack’s cast has only ever referred to Lister as a lesbianchoosing to focus on her sexuality, and the difference that makes for a woman living in an era when the word lesbian did not even exist. I think it draws our attention to the heterogeneity of sexuality itself: We are not the same, and to water down our experiences merely is another insidious form of respectability politics.

As lesbian academic Joan Nestle articulates in A Restricted Country, “being a sexual people is our gift to the world” (xvii). Indeed, the world would be a barren place if not for sexual desire. Yet, for some, sexual desire condemns us a life of willed secrecy. As such, hearing Anne Lister firmly tell her audience: “Whenever I see the girl, she always manages to unhinge me” is a life-saving act of affirmation. It brings out lesbian sexual desire. It brings out our capacity for love, bravery, feeling, and celebrates it in front of millions. For people who have to love in the trenches, to see your desire fleshed out on the screen is a reminder of the possibility of existence. We need that possibility.

Lister is not afraid to desire women in front of us, and neither is she afraid of telling us that she is heartbroken, angry, and jealous all because of sexual desire. Sexual desire, as Nestle has said, is a gift. And for the longest time, up to this present, it remains invested with cruelty, fear and shame. Gentleman Jack, through its celebration of lesbian sexual desire, brings our existence back into view, and tells us that desire is everything that makes us human.

I love, and only love, the fairer sex. My heart revolts from any other love than theirs. And I act as my God-given nature dictates. If I were to lie with a man, surely that would be unnatural.

Sophie Rundle and Suranne Jones in ‘Gentleman Jack’

More importantly, Gentleman Jack does everything right by butch lesbians. Lesbian representation in media is not only overwhelmingly feminine, it crudely packages femininity for the male gaze. While there are some lesbians on television, these lesbians lack all the authenticity associated with lesbian culture. They are always watered down and polished perfectly just so our oppressors can continue funding representations that ironically reflect them in their image. In this regard, butch-femme sexuality is a huge part of lesbian culture and it needs to be screened if lesbian representation were to ever progress somewhere. As theorist Lyndall MacCowan argues: “I’ve heard so much about women’s pain around sexuality (and only rarely of the joy), but I don’t think anyone ever talked about the kind of lesbian pain that butch-femme sexuality answers.”

In Gentleman Jack, Lister’s and Walker’s relationship answers that kind of lesbian pain brought upon by forced exile. During a heartbreaking scene, Lister confides in Walker on how alienating it is to stay true to herself. While usually portrayed in the series as confident in her butch identity, Lister confesses that this confidence comes at a high price – it required her to forget just how impossible it is for anybody to accept her as she is. For LGBTQ people, the knowledge that homophobia is constant forces us to “rise above it” in order to survive. Even then, it feels like rising above it requires us to believe that it doesn’t hurt anymore. It always does, eventually. For Lister, strength has been accomplished alone until she met Walker, a woman who truly loved Lister as she is. In front of Walker, Lister is allowed to be vulnerable. She is allowed to cry and be held lovingly in return. Gone is the overcompensation of confidence to survive pain, and in its place is the courage to be vulnerable in the presence of someone who understands you as you are.

Sophie Rundle and Suranne Jones in ‘Gentleman Jack’

Likewise, while the world treats Walker – or any other woman, really – as fragile, Lister was the first person to tell her just how intelligent, clever, and interesting she is. With respect to Lister and Walker’s relationship, I am reminded of what Joan Nestle has said of butch-femme sexuality, that they are “a symbol of women’s erotic autonomy, a sexual accomplishment that did not include [the straight world]” (94). Indeed, the space created by Walker and Lister is one of shared understanding of lesbophobic cruelty. To this end, their love is a space borne out of the knowledge that they are not seen as women by society. Consequently, within the context where lesbians lacked access to any resources, their relationship was one of the only ways to absolve the pain of gender exile, homophobia, and lesbian loneliness.

Of course, it would be crude to neglect Anne Lister’s politics when discussing her sexuality. Unfortunately, Lister would have been a Tory if she were still alive today. One thing I admire about Gentleman Jack is that it does not shy away from Lister’s political stance. In fact, the series reminds us that Lister is able to pursue women with some amount of freedom only because of her privileged class, a status she sustains by being an immoral landlord. While episode three ends with a joyous portrayal of Lister and Walker having sex on silk sheets, this portrayal is persistently interjected by scenes of Lister’s tenant killing his abusive father in a pig farm just so Lister would not evict his family. It suggests to us that Lister’s freedom comes at the cruel price of others, and that homophobic oppression does not exist within a social vacuum. Any portrayal of sexuality must consider that oppression is mutually determined by other political systems of oppression which includes, but is not limited to, that of class, race, and gender. While women like Lister and Walker were wealthy enough not to marry landed men, poorer lesbians were probably not afforded the luxury of escaping heteronormative societal structures.

Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle in ‘Gentleman Jack’

Gentleman Jack is groundbreaking for how it celebrates the heterogeneity of the lesbian existence. For the first time on primetime television witnessed by millions, we have a butch lesbian as the main protagonist. We have lesbians who drive the plot of the show, and we have lesbians who are treated with empathy, tenderness and respect. We have a lesbian marriage where two women exchange rings, and walk each other down the aisle. Lastly, we have Anne Lister who looks into the camera while doing so, inviting us to be the sole witness to her marriage, thus breaking the years of compromised silence on lesbian love, desire and joy.

Works Cited:
[1] MacCowan, Lyndall. “Re-collecting History, Renaming Lives: Femme Stigma and the Feminist Seventies and Eighties.” The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader,Ed. Joan Nestle, Alyson Publications: Boston, 1992, pp. 299-331.
[2] Nestle, Joan. A Restricted Country, Cleis Press: United States, 1987.

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