On the surface, the plot of Being Human is fairly simply: A vampire named Mitchell and his closest friend, George, a werewolf, move into a home already inhabited by a ghost named Annie unbeknownst to them. The three of them make a commitment to look out for one another while they figure out their “lives.” Each character spends the short 6 epi series wrestling with their identities with the hopes of fitting in and appearing human.
Under this seemingly simple surface, is a long term musing on the nature of humanity. What does it mean to be human? Is humanity any better than the “demons” they fear? And what makes people who have the kind of power which allows you to easily kill, herd, or terrorize others, choose oppression over cooperation and understanding?
Being Human/BBC 4 2009
Sitting down to watch the second to the last episode of Being Human tonight (it’s the second time I’ve watched the series through), I find myself reminded of what I learned from the first season of Torchwood: trust the process.
You see, watching the first few episodes of the series, I wondered about the entertainment value of a show that perpetually insulted women’s basic reproductive functions in order to explain away or belittle their anger, sorrow, or expression of sexuality. There is at least one derogatory reference to menstruation in each of the first few episodes of Being Human. The kind of misogyny necessary to demean women in that way makes how weak and insipid both main character Annie, a ghost, and secondary character Lauren, a vampire, initially seem almost expected. However the real straw, involves Annie being assaulted by a werewolf named Tully. After Tully terrorizes and literally sends her shaken into the street begging for help, Mitchell finds and comforts her, but when they tell George, he responds by screaming “And I bet she loved it!” Though he regrets this comment later, it’s his decision to let Annie’s attacker continue to live in the home she is spiritually bound to that seems utterly inexcusable.
However, one of the main questions in the series is about what it means to be human and sadly, part of humanity is misogyny and violence against women. The series is unapologetic about those moments when even good people resort to cruelty; and in doing so, it makes us question the idea that “good people” cannot do bad things. More importantly, and the reason I give this show a pass when I have failed others for less, Being Human does not allow cruelty to women to go unquestioned. Nor do the directors shoot the show in a way that encourages the audience to empathize with misogyny. Instead, each of these scenes juxtaposes misogyny with caring. When George constantly refers to Annie’s mood swings as her monthly, Mitchell is always there to make a correcting look or remark. And when Tully attacks Annie, not only does Mitchell help and stand up for her, but he is horrified by George’s behavior. George himself acknowledges he was out of line twice when alone with Tully and again when he is next with Annie.
The show avoids the simple construction of good guy vs. bad guy as well. Despite George’s behavior above, he is the kindhearted one to Mitchell’s bad guy. As a vampire, Mitchell has millenia of violence against humans in his past and has particularly targeted defenseless women in homosocial rituals with his maker. Much of who Mitchell is now is an atonement for who he was then. Thus George is as much Mitchell’s conscience as the other way around. In fact, George confronts Mitchell’s violence early on in the series b/c even tho Mitchell is reformed from the bad old days, he continues to drink from young, pretty, women and either kill them or turn them. George reminds Mitchell that his hunger is no excuse for targeting young women.
When George discovers his new girlfriend, Nina, has been permanently disfigured from abuse, presumably done by a male attacker, George makes it clear that violence against women is wrong. More than that, George does not take the typical “patriarchal” approach to violence against women by making it all about his hurt feelings and turning into a rescue, but rather encourages & expresses his concern for Nina. He has the same reaction to Annie’s abuse at the hands of Owen, their landlord and Annie’s ex-fiance/murderer. He consistently encourages her to stand up for herself. In scenes meant to be funny, he even coaches her on being scary when she proves too nice on her own. There is something quite telling about those moments when juxtaposed with Annie’s eventual coming into her own power, both in the ways they illustrate how women are taught to behave and how the latter scenes assure us that it is Annie’s strength and not just coaching from a man that make her able to stand up to her abuser. Thus, both Nina and Annie are encouraged to stand up on their own by both George and the narrative arcs of the series itself.
In many ways, George’s behavior toward Annie could be seen as projection. George is as afraid of life as Annie. He is awkward around women and when he fails he often returns home to sulk. His general passiveness often leaves him desperate to hideaway in his house and/or disappear in his entry level positions. Annie is far more out going with people on the surface, but she is equally shut in. Like George, she often retreats to the house or a fetal position on the couch whenever things go wrong. Thus, its easy to believe that George sees himself in her. When he yells at her to stand up and take control of her life, he is really yelling at himself. His real feelings crystallize in last night’s episode, when he begs Annie not to go. His pain-filled begging for her to “just stay” with them is like a giant light shining on the entire relationship. As she hugs him and says, he never really liked her anyway, he admits it in a way that makes the connection between them permanently clear; George loves Annie, he just hates the things about her that he sees in himself. And as we will see from season’s end, Annie feels the same way about George.
While Annie often plays the victim in the series, not only does she help save the day in the last two episodes of the season, but she is also the most successful at making the human connections all of the housemates wish they could. She is outgoing and friendly, reduced to depression and self-pity only when her abusive ex-fiance is in the picture. While this may be annoying too many, it is a fairly accurate depiction of how many women feel similarly when caught up in the cycle of violence. Like Annie they oscillate between love and hurt, between anger and defeat, trying to find the strength they once had and needing validation b/c abusers are so good at stripping everything good away. If there is any confusion as to why Annie yo-yos through emotions, it should have become clear in last night’s episode when Owen is not only unphased by her attempts to frighten him but also uses her attempts to gain back her power as an opportunity to tear her down emotionally and sexually. Though it initially takes George telling her to take control of her life, and all three of them to scare Owen, Annie’s ultimate stand against Owen is all her own. What she whispers in his ear drives him mad. And when she believes that George has abandoned Mitchell for a “normal life” she tries to rally him the way that he did for her. When that fails, Annie rises up on her own to fight back the vampires and save the innocent. Fully in control of her life and her power, in more ways than one, Annie then discovers what is really going on with Mitchell’s last stand against the vampires and drags George into the fight. Where he once called on her to be strong, she now calls on him. And where George initially shows fear, Annie stands strong against Herrick. Her strength finally shining through.
The other women in the show have equally deceptive characters when it comes to gender stereotypes. Lauren, a 20 something vampire, seems to be a needy, controlling, desperate woman who is stuck on a single man, Mitchell, instead of getting her own “life.” She often shows up just to make Mitchell feel bad about turning her; she clearly hopes that his guilt will permanently bind him to her in a way that desire failed to do so. When tears don’t work to manipulate him, she uses sex, making her character the worst kind of derogatory image of women. Worse, when she isn’t doing these things out of her own obsessing, she does it at the behest of Herrick and his lackey Seth. In other words, Lauren is a stereotypical whiny woman motivated and manipulated by all the men around her.
However, as the series continues, Lauren’s humanity starts to shine through. She stops obsessing about Mitchell and instead asks him for help in breaking her addiction to killing. Part of her admission that she wants to be stronger is the revelation that Herrick and Seth forced her to have sex with an abusive man and let them videotape it. Her story isn’t another manipulation, but part of a larger backstory Lauren tells that shows she has always been controlled and bullied by others; for her sex and tears are some of the only tools she knows to turn the tide. As the series concludes, Lauren, like Annie, finds her own strength and desperately works to develop new tools that will make her proud of herself. The person Lauren wants love from the most is herself not the men around her.
While she fights the lust for blood, Lauren slowly builds the strength to take control of her life. Not only does she finally detach from Mitchell completely, but she begins to center her life around her own needs. When Mitchell rejoins the vampires, Lauren is the one who tries to tell him what is really going on. she endures his scorn and the thinly-veiled threat from Herrick and his minions to try to rise above the genocide they are proposing. She also tries to help Mitchell see that turning the people he loves into vampires is not the solution, foreshadowing her own revelations about who she wants to be vs. whom she is becoming.
Both Lauren and Annie are pivotal in saving Mitchell and George when they try to escape the vampires. When the others are out-numbered and destined to fail, Lauren is the one who ultimately rescues them. Though Lauren’s final decision may not seem like an empowering one to many, the choice is on her own terms and for all the right reasons. Her decision brings her the freedom she never had in life nor un-death. It also acts as a lesson to the others about making hard choices and owning the consequences of bad behavior (both Lauren’s and Mitchell’s). And while it might have been stronger to see her complete the task on her own, I understand the director’s wanting to bring Lauren’s story full circle.
Nina, George’s girlfriend, rounds out the main female cast. Nina, as far as we know throughout the majority of the season, is human. And while she too comes across as a stereotype in her introduction to the show, she is the quickest of the three to establish herself as a multi-dimensional character. When we are introduced to her, Nina is a cranky shrew who mocks George because of his job, his awkwardness, and seemingly b/c he is a man. When George takes misogynist advice from Tully on how to ask her out, Nina emasculates him with little effort. In an act of supreme irony, the writers construct this scene so that Nina also unknowingly dings George for all his “monthlies” comments earlier on.
As the series continues, Nina stands up for her sexual and emotional needs more directly and consistently than any of the women on the show. When George lies and says he has sexual problems, she gets sex positive pamphlets out and delicately explains to him all of the different ways they can be together, with an emphasis on ensuring her pleasure. The humor of this scene helps to alleviate the anxiety many people have about having such frank conversations about sex and sexual pleasure, and I think despite the real issue, George’s werewolf status, encourage other women to be bold.
Nina also confronts George about his secrecy and lets him know that despite loving him she will leave if he cannot create a healthy -honest relationship with her. And when George tries to break up with her without any explanation, Nina demands he take her and their relationship seriously. In other words, she models for other women how to be fully alive and establish mutuality in their relationships. She acts as a counterpoint to the initial actions of the other women, not as the empowered woman vs. the victims, but rather as a survivor of violence herself.
Lest viewers mistake her empowerment as power over George rather than mutuality, Nina’s finest hour comes when she provides George the strength to not be overtaken by the wolf inside him. Despite not knowing about his condition, she walks boldly into his transformation and subsequent battle with Herrick without ever looking away. While the revelations in the final episode might lesson the impact of that a little, she still comes across as bold, strong, and clear headed. Like the other women in the show, her presence was essential to the triumph over the vampires.
Nina’s character is extremely well-rounded. She shows George her vulnerable side on more than one occasion and always when he has earned the right to see it. She also opens up to him and encourages him to do the same. When he hurts her by hiding who he is or what is going on in the roommates’ lives, her character feels that hurt on screen rather than just stuffing it under some man-hating commentary that other lesser well-written female character’s would do in cinema. And I especially applaud the way the writers are able to create her softer edges as part and parcel of her strength, intelligence, and forthrightness rather than as a curative to them.
Being Human also takes on queer issues, though they are largely relegated to a single episode. When Mitchell starts spending time with a child from across the street, his mother, Fleur, makes a seemingly innocuous comment correcting her son’s use of a homophobic slur and referencing her brother and his partner. Like other complexities in the series, the moment establishes Fleur as queer positive only to complicate that when she thinks Mitchell is a child predator with a particularly kinky gay porn collection. When her own child is at risk, Fleur mobilizes homophobia to her advantage, whipping up a child protection frenzy predicated on the myth of the gay male predator. Her actions mirror many people who have queer friends or accept same sex desire in theory but are quick to resort to homophobia and heterosexism when talking about gay marriage, employment protection, or gay neighbors.
However, this episode is problematic from a child protection stand point. Fleur is not only acting on/ mobilizing thru homophobic myths, she also has clear evidence that Mitchell is into violent kink, kink that she catches her child watching in the middle of the night. In any other circumstances but these, that would be more than enough concrete proof that Mitchell was a child predator. Though the show makes much of how her son denies what is going on to no avail, such denials fit with children so intimidated by their abusers that they minimize or deny what has happened. More than that, while Mitchell is incredulous about Fleur refusing to let him explain, I know very few mothers who would let someone explain after giving their child 1) a sex video and 2) a video that ends with the star bleeding out while an invisible figure walks thru his blood. Thus while Fleur’s main reason for not listening to Mitchell is a homophobic reaction that instantly transforms him into pervert b/c, as she exclaims, “it was a naked man!” in the video, I think the point would have been better made had Fleur simply suddenly stopped letting Mitchell see her son when she realized he lived with George. If she had then begun spreading rumors based on the noises coming from the home, which included growling, furniture being shoved around, dishes crashing, and any number of other things that in a homophobic mind could lead to utterly unfair rumor and innuendo, her behavior would still that still have exposed the myth of the gay male child abuser. More than that, it would not give those inclined to believe in it room to find alternative explanations for Fleur and the neighbors outrageous and violent behavior.
Any other queer elements in the show are solely window-dressing. As the writers of The Lair once said “vampires and werewolves are always a metaphor for being gay, b/c of their alienation from themselves and the mainstream world.” No one embodies this concept more than George, whose ease with Mitchell is juxtaposed against his misogyny toward Annie and painful awkwardness with other women. Though the show ultimately pairs all of the characters up in heterosexual relationships by series end (even Annie has a male ghost in love with her), until the characters embrace their identities, the homosocial relationships at the core of the show. For instance, George is mostly only cruel to Annie when she is seemingly in the middle. He resents Annie’s presence in the house b/c it was supposed to be just him and Mitchell. Mitchell’s hero complex means he is unusually protective and attentive to Annie which George remarks draws the attention away from him on more than one occasion. And as I’ve said above, he demeans Annie after Tully attacks her mostly b/c Tully is quickly becoming the center of his universe. One could easily re-read George’s hurt and anger at Annie’s accusation as one in which he sees the man he desires choosing her over him; this of course, requires ignoring the fact that it was assault.
Yet, I think it is a stretch to see George as queer precisely because he spends so much time trying to talk to and date women. From the very first episode to the second to the last, George’s struggle with establishing a long term relationship with a woman is as important as his coming to terms with being the wolf. And while it is easy to presume a quiet, awkward man, with so many successful homosocial relationships and failed heterosexual ones is queer, it seems to buy into a certain kind of stereotype about masculinity and sexuality that I think those of us who do queer media need to get away from. As I’ve argued earlier, the writers of Being Human are troubling easy constructs throughout the show.
The writers/directors of Being Human do play on the George-Mitchell window-dressing for a brief moment however, when the characters try to hide the fact they were spying on Annie. They jump onto the couch in a make-out pose without thinking. They are fully entwined when they look at one another and realize what they are doing. As they pull themselves apart, there is the briefest moment of homophobia, but mostly they just laugh at one another with an ease that plays much more subversively if they are straight.
Herrick’s seething resentment of George is also a less direct exploration of this phenomena. Before George, Herrick and Mitchell were inseparable. Much of Mitchell’s violence against women was set up by Herrick in the homosocial rituals I mentioned earlier. These moments in which they bonded and were excited by each other over the death of an innocent women, smacks of problematic Fruedian constructions of sexuality in which internalized homophobia manifests as misogynist homosociality. Herrick’s disdain for George and inexplicable anger at Mitchell’s having chosen him over the vampires also plays out like the jealous lover. And the final battle between Herrick and George reinforces this reading as the fight is as much about who has Mitchell’s love and loyalty as it is about the fate of the human race.
Unfortunately, these storylines never make it beyond window-dressing, While some viewers can imagine all kinds of backstory about who George and Mitchell were to each other before they moved in with Annie, not only do George’s denials of homosexuality in the same child abuse episode discussed above work against them but the final episode of the show tells us exactly how Mitchell and George met. Not only were they not lovers, Mitchell’s rescue of George includes George’s complaint that he has just lost his long term girlfriend and cannot lose anything else. This loss is regularly referenced throughout the show to explain why George is so timid with women in the present. More than that, Mitchell’s rescue of George has no homosocial overtones, instead Mitchell seems to pity George. He is motivated both by that pity and his own growing discomfort at being a vampire. Ultimately, George’s weaknesses in this scene, all tied to his girlfriend and the wolf, provide Mitchell a means of escape from the vampires he desperately needs. There is no desire here.
Despite the desire to read George as queer, it is perhaps easier to see Mitchell as open to the possibilities. While his character does not resonate with standard markers of gay identity on television the way George’s does, his character is consistently more easy going about making wide and varied connections. Not only does he let his glasses linger next to George after their accidental embrace but he is unfazed by accusations of queerness. His anger in the child abuse episode stems from how easily identity is used to stir up a mob, create violence in the absence of extensive documentation, and ultimately lead to the death of innocents. He does not care if his neighbors think he is gay and clearly finds George’s denials ridiculous. More than that, he has has two long term homosocial relationships on the show that define him, one with the George and the other with Herrick. And as I’ve said, it is easy to imagine that part of why Herrick is so desperate to get Mitchell back into the fold, and why Seth hates him so much, is that Herrick resents Mitchell sharing his life and his adventures with any other man.
For me, while we can queer the way we watch Being Human, the entire vein of seeing actual queerness present is a stretch. the show encourages us to see heterosexuality in these characters, not by default, but by careful construction of it into their core identities. Every single one of them has both a heterosexual past and a heterosexual present. Much of their struggles are intimately tied to these relationships. While we often see George getting unusually close to his male companions, be it Mitchell or Tully, this closeness is always undermined by heterosexual narratives and explained away by clearly presented alternative narratives.
As implied there are no same sex attracted women in the series, an ongoing issue in many of BBC’s cross-over sci fi offerings. But we do get the other requirement for this show to get a pass on gender issues, women do talk to one another and they do so about more than the men they are dating. (For those who don’t know, the standard Bechdel rules are that there must be more than 1 woman, they must talk to each other, and they must talk about more than the men they are dating/want to date for it to count as female positive. Of course these rules assume heterosexuality.) I don’t know, the series has so many positive homosocial relationships and accepting main characters that I think it has room for actual queer characters in the future. And certainly Crichlow, the woman portraying Annie, could pull it off. Cross your fingers.
You may have noted that I did not mention race in this review. Despite the fact that Annie is played by a woman of color, the character was written before the actress was cast and was originally given to a white woman, presumably b/c the character was imagined as white. While Gregg Chillin might be partially South Asian, no reference to him being a man of color is made in the show and he will likely read as white by most viewers. The decision to go with race blind casting and the fact that all of the women in the show experience some form of male violence leaves little to deconstruct. More salient in this show is the decision to cast and/or write so many Irish and Scottish characters into the script/ as main characters. Overall, the show is extremely diverse when you think about race and ethnicity together and as far as I remember there isn’t a single racist moment. There are ethnic slurs howeverm but they only occur when the celtic vampires are laughing about draining the people who used them. One thing I would like to see improved in a second season however is more visible diversity in the “crowd shots”, they work in a hospital but there are no people of color, there are no Black British vampires in the lair, no people of color in club shots or their neighborhood, etc.
Ultimately, Being Human gets off to a rocky start with gender issues but soon presents us with complexity that is both fantastical and extremely astute about the human condition. While the first few episodes likely turned feminists off, as well as viewer’s sick of supernatural creatures who feel guilty about who they are rather than embracing it, the series offers varied characters and complex interactions that soon undermine easy reading. The last two episodes in particular are not to be missed. Not only does the series fill up with unapologetic vampires on the hunt by season end, but all of the women in the show come into their own in these episodes. Lauren and Nina both display immense strength and self-reflection, and Annie becomes a powerhouse neither the vampires nor her abuser can best.
Being Human has been confirmed for a second season. Given what they have promised about both Annie and Nina’s characters in the final episode, the series can only get better.
- images 1-4, 7-8 & 12 – Being Human/BBC 4 2009
- images 5-6, & 9-10 – BBC Touchpaper 2009 via Being-Human.tv
- image 11 Sugar Rush/BBC 4 2005