Sense8: Aspiring for ‘A different story about difference’

by: , September 12, 2018

© Screenshot from Sense8 (Netflix 2015-2018)

‘I saw transgender characters in films or in television shows; and they were inherently tragic, or they were a joke, or a victim or – most typically – psychopathic serial-killers. Those kinds of characters reflect the dominant narrative in our culture about difference. Difference is something to fear, difference is something to laugh at, difference – most importantly – is something that divides. So… I wanted to tell a different story about difference. I wanted to tell a story in which difference was not something that set us apart from each other; it was actually – fundamentally – the thing that united us because difference is the one thing that we all have in common. Lana Wachowski [1]



Eight individuals, Nomi (Jamie Clayton), Will (Brian J. Smith), Riley (Tuppence Middleton), Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), Sun (Doona Bae), Capheus (Aml Ameen/Tony Onwumere), Kala (Tina Desai) and Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), were born in different corners of the world on the 8th of August, year unknown. A few years later, they were simultaneously experiencing the most intense sexual ecstasy in an orgy that involved all of them – even though they were thousands of miles apart. Over the course of two seasons, Sense8 revolves around the protagonists’ tumultuous path of coming to terms with the realities, particularities and consequences of their newfound ability to connect, as well as the developments and events occurring in their own life. The ‘cluster’ of these eight individuals is revealed to belong to a different human species, called ‘homo sensorium’. Their genetic difference to homo sapiens allows them to communicate with each other (through ‘visiting’ each other’s reality, or ‘sharing’ an experience), inhabit each other’s bodies and interchangeably utilize their skills as if their brains are part of a network. Ultimately, an unbreakable bond between them is formed; a bond resembling an amalgamation of companionship and love. Against them stands the Biologic Preservation Organization (hereafter BPO), a corrupt institution that hunts the ‘sensates’ in order to maliciously experiment on this wonderous mental connection they enjoy. This is the intriguing backdrop against which the sensates connect, interact and aid one another both in their personal challenges and their shared fight against the villainous BPO and its agents.

Taking under consideration the work of the Wachowskis over the past two decades, the storyline of Sense8 aligns with the creators’ thematic focus – since they have repeatedly alluded to the persecution of difference as well as the fight for freedom and diversity. My aim is to show that the ‘lens’ or arena chiefly utilized to signify such struggles in Sense8 is that of sexuality. One could argue that the show endeavors to evolve and/or deconstruct the concept of intersectionality (Crenshaw 1989: 1991) by presenting a cluster of eight deeply connected individuals – with different sexual, ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds – who are, nevertheless, able to experience each other’s lives, to share their thoughts, able to profoundly affect each other, to simultaneously be elated, excited, threatened, aroused or afraid. As I will argue in the course of the article, the significantly ambitious attempt of the Wachowski to canvass a world of racial and cultural diversity has been met with a degree of controversy regarding the process of character building and development, potentially pinpointing to the subjectivity of the creators. Consequently, matters of sexual diversity and difference hold a pivotal role in the show. A realistic reason to stir our attention to matters of sexuality on the show derives exactly from the frequent and explicit nature of the sexual encounters in the two seasons of Sense8. I suggest that such an abundance of sexual expressions becomes an important vessel for the show to propel its messages – both the overt and the nuanced – forward. To be clear, I do not regard sex as the sole or most significant theme of the show. I argue, however, that narratives of sexuality and gender (and, generally, the body) are noteworthy in their symbolism and layered in their nuances, in ways that call for the unpacking of their meanings.

More saliently, my choice to shine a light on the sexual experiences of the sensates is inspired by the multiple meanings that sex has acquired in our post-modern society. It has been stated that sex ‘serves a multiplicity of purposes, including pleasure, the establishing and defining of relationships, the communication of messages concerning attitudes and lifestyles’. (Plummer 2003: 19) This multiplicity is strongly present in Sense8. I argue, accordingly, that the centrality and qualities of the sexual connection and experiences between the sensates mark a point of demarcation from digital connectivity — potentially implying an attempt to circumvent the ‘disembeddedness’ and fragility of postmodernity. (Giddens 1990) This centrality can also be viewed through the lens of a carnival of sexual deviance (Presdee 2003), allowing the protagonists and the audience to revel in the obscenity and celebration of erotic encounters.

Lana Wachowski has underlined the main themes and driving forces of Sense8 while several members of the cast echo the same sensitivities in their own messages to the audience. (Presdee 2003) According to all of them, Sense8 is an artistic construct built on ‘celebration’, ‘connection’, ‘diversity’ and ‘difference’.[2] My quest is to explore these thematic tenets through the analytical lens of sexuality in order to understand how sexuality is negotiated in the series from a cultural and criminological point of view. To do so, the first section of the articles consists of a brief contextualization where I problematise the issue of directorial subjectivity as regards the intersectional portrayal of difference, a subjectivity that renders the sexualized, rather than the racialized, body as the most eloquent narrative tool in Sense8. Then, I shall employ theoretical concepts from the domain of sociology and cultural criminology to deconstruct, respectively, the notions of ‘connection’ and ‘celebration’. Utilizing the observations made throughout the article, the analysis will culminate in a critical theoretical consideration of ‘diversity’, ‘difference’ and ‘freedom’ in the postmodern, commodified social scenery where capitalist market forces become intertwined with representations of sexuality.

© Screenshot from Sense8 (Netflix series 2015-2018)

Aspirations and subjectivity: A contextualization

Crenshaw has long noted that the perspective of a group that has been subordinated on a single categorical axis but remains otherwise privileged, proves problematic because such a perspective is limited in its scope. (1989) This limitation ‘creates a distorted analysis of racism and sexism because the operative conceptions of race and sex become grounded in experiences that actually represent only a subset of a much more complex phenomenon’. (Crenshaw 1989: 140) Sense8 begins with the grand aspiration to portray a multi-dimensional, holistic reading of difference and diversity, with the Wachowskis placing a critique on race and racial politics as one of the central themes of the series. However, in some cases, they have been accused of portraying a one-dimensional account: that of the Western-White gaze. [3] The first season provided us with simplistic character plotlines for some of the sensates. [4] Conversely, the white characters of the show were granted with nuanced storylines. For example, Nomi — a transgender lesbian hacker from San Francisco — is artfully situated in her urban, societal, sexual and family environments and realities; while her actions were pivotal for the plot advancement. However, there have been accounts arguing that even in the, supposedly, stereotypical scene of an arranged Indian marriage that gets disrupted when a completely naked Wolfgang visits Kala and the latter ends up fainting at the sight of his well-endowed manhood, the Wachowskis have managed to interject a profound exploration on how the penis manages to represent love and pleasure – or the hard fate of those who face the possibility of living without them. [5] As apparent in another controversial scene, the sensates experience a shared act of discrimination during the show’s second season, when Lito is outed as a gay man in the homophobic Mexican society and returns home to find the word ‘faggot’ painted in his garage door. In a montage, we see each of the protagonists faced with a word – an insult or categorisation — that violently offends their diversity. Yet, for some of them, the word is not particularly appropriate or justified by their societal context. For example, Capheus is called a ‘nigger’ even though the word doesn’t carry the same offensive and historical connotations in Kenya as it does in the US. Similarly, Kala is called a ‘virgin’ which is pertinent to her individual storyline, but not a strongly degrading term in her respective culture.

Most characters did receive a significant amount of screen time as the show progressed, but this increased screen time is concomitant with their sexualization. Thus, sexualization functions as the main channel for the development of each character. This can be attributed, in part, to reasons of artistic convention – in the sense that building an erotic arc around a character is a way to invest in a character and, in return, get the audience to invest in said character. Conversely, the same observation suggests that sex becomes the very vessel that propels the show forward. In a way, the variety of racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds of all the protagonists is, realistically, too wide to be tackled profoundly and at length within one or two seasons. Despite their best intentions, the creators have limited time and space to address the intersections they portray. Simultaneously, they are inevitably bound, to a degree, by their own racial and class backgrounds as Western, white citizens. The Wachowskis’ experience of subordination is articulated in the categorical axis of gender (and sexuality), but it cannot fully extend to the axis of race, as the creators cannot fully identify with the experience of non-white individuals and the ramifications or implications of such reality. Indicatively, Capheus is portrayed to love Jean Claude van Damme’s action films because, according to him, they represent courage – and courage has no color. He is supposed to convey a post-racial, optimistic message – even finding it hard to believe that someone would link action films to the glorification of white violence. While his pacifist viewpoint on societal coexistence is substantiated by his background, the audience is still left wondering how and why exactly he constructed such an unassuming mentality on an issue with such intricate racial implications. In another upsetting scene of the second season, we witness a montage of a riot over water supply in Kenya and a violent religious protest in India — while Nomi is sharing the traumatic experience of the two events, and she is left deeply shaken by the hardships of her non-white peers. The scene is dressed in deeply dramatic music and the lyrics of the song read: ‘Has the world gone mad or is it me?’ [6] Quite tellingly, the eyes through which the story is unfolding are hers – the white woman’s eyes; the white woman’s perspective of social disorganization and violence in the global East and South, which does not necessarily depict the reality of the situation, but it certainly speaks to the western guilt of the viewer. During the second season of the show, Nomi and her partner Amanita (Freema Agyeman) discuss with Amanita’s parents on the topical issue of the correlations between terrorism and racial or ethnic profiling, stipulating that gender and patriarchy are never made part of such an analysis. As in the scene mentioned above, watching the dialogue feels more like a commentary of the conscious western citizen rather than a depiction of a highly complex and controversial reality.

© Screenshot from Sense8 (Netflix series 2015-2018)

Sense8: Readings of sex in postmodern representations

The aforementioned explorations, hopefully, pose as justification for my choice to focus on the multiple meanings of sexual representations, narratives or metaphors in the series. Bauman argued that sex itself is mainly a natural product rather than a cultural one. Eroticism enters the picture by investing a ‘surplus value’ to the sexual act, by discussing the infinite variability of the erotic sublimation of sex and fantasy. (1998) Sexuality thus becomes ‘the only soil in which the cultural seeds of eroticism may be sown and grow’. (Bauman 1998: 20) I shall return to the modalities of postmodern eroticism later on, but for purposes of simplicity, ‘sex’ signifies both the physical act and cultural construction when employed in the following analysis.

Sex as connection: a response to disembeddedness

One of the buzzwords around Sense8 is ‘connection’. Connection, as framed in the technologically abundant reality of the 21st century, has been heavily imbued with notions of the virtual life and reality, coming to a point, nowadays, where it strongly – yet not exclusively — denotes digital connectivity. However, Sense8 employs the portrayal of intimate, sexual relations to tell a tale of human, emotional, ‘real’ connectivity. Such a version of connectivity constitutes a response to the uncertainty that comes with living in the post-modern, ‘liquid’ society — a society where everything is unstable and malleable. (Bauman 2000)

Theorising the consequences of modernity, Giddens introduced the term of ‘disembedding’ to indicate ‘the “lifting out” of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across indefinite spans of time-space’. (1990: 21) [7] The inevitability of disembeddedness results in the formation of societies where trust is vested in abstract capacities rather than individuals. But a sense of reliability and continuity of persons and things (and not only of abstract notions) – which is closely intertwined with the notion of trust— becomes pivotal for construction of ontological security, as a sense of ‘being’ and, for that matter, ‘being in the world’. Ontological security can be understood as ‘the confidence that most human beings have in the continuity of their self-identity and the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments of action’. (Giddens 1990: 92) Therefore, on the one hand, the proliferation of disembedding mechanisms calls for trust in impersonal principles – and anonymous others – as an indispensable aspect of social existence. At the same time, we ceaselessly yearn to find others to trust, and yet, personal connections are characteristically lacking in the post-modern reality. Thus, our ‘being in the world’, our own existential significance and place, the tangibility of our interactions and relations is thoroughly questioned and doubted. The constant uncertainty, fragility and fragmentation of the globalised world make us ontologically insecure. The erotic connection between the sensates could potentially be read as a remedy, an answer, a solution of these problematisations. Perceiving and adapting these sociological debates in its plot, the show suggests that erotic relationships can be considered as triggers and platforms for acquiring security.

The strength of emotions associated with sexuality expectedly makes the realm of erotic involvements a focal point for self-disclosure and openness towards one’s partner. (Giddens 1990) Such emotional investment, provided it’s met with mutuality by the significant other, reinstates reliability to people and warrants ontological security. A crucial aspect of sex is the fact it is something shared. It is, thus, a ‘practice through which each partner gets under the other’s skin, which binds the couple together and renders the relationship more than the sum of its parts’. (Jackson & Scott 2004: 243) Modern relationships are thought to be associated with the construction of an ethos or an ideal of romantic love. (Giddens 1990: 121-2) The Wachowskis partly echo these views when depicting the relationship between Lito and his partner Fernando (Alfonso Herrera). When Lito is asked what it takes to be a great lover, he replies: ‘First, you have to be selfless. The pleasure of your lover must become your own. But, at the same time, you must also remain… selfish, because wanting someone so much that it feels the same as the need to eat, to breathe. This is where desire becomes love’. While he gives his short speech, the camera cuts to images of Lito passionately kissing Fernando’s lips, embracing him, breathing in his scent. Respectively, when Fernando – a university professor — finds himself in the embarrassing position of having to defend his relationship with another man to his students, after photos of them having sex are leaked online, he warmly states: ‘Someone with a set of eyes capable of seeing beyond societal conventions… such a beholder might see an image of two men caught in an act of pleasure. Erotic to be sure, but also vulnerable, neither aware of the camera, both of them connected to the moment, to each other, to love…Art is love made public’. In a flashback of their first date, we see Fernando arguing along similar lines: ‘Love is just like art: a force that comes into our lives without any rules, expectations or limitations. Love… must always be free’. The connections between freedom, art and love are a potent symbolism of connection in Sense8. While it could be argued here that love is the main theme of these quotes, I believe instead that the focus is placed on making love, on indulging in the paramount act of love, on its most carnal manifestation. Love is materialised and glorified – turned, thus, into art – when its erotic expressions are set free.

But what makes Sense8 unique is that the Wachowskis also move above and beyond this idealised form of connection, taking it to the next level. In their universe, the couple is not the limit. It is often stated throughout the series that sensates are capable of experiencing love in its purest form. Moreover, after their rebirth as sensates, they immediately become part of a new formation that bounds them forever more to seven individuals with whom they share an unbreakable bond of love. Such is, in a way, a new idealised notion of the ethos of erotic involvement. In this chaos of globalisation, the ever-changing and never stable mode of living, the sensates have an immovable, irrefutable reference point: the rest of their cluster. Within this new framework, though, the pinnacle of love and sexual connection is still found in the notion of coupledom, creating a paradoxical balance between the hegemony of heteronormativity — reinforced by the depiction of heterosexual couples as the exemplification of love, and the ‘revolution’ of polyamory. Throughout the episodes, two couples are formed inside the cluster: Will and Riley, and Wolfgang and Kala. The gravitational force that pulls them together is presented to be stronger than the connections between the cluster as a whole. This heightened form of connection is underlined as intensely physical even if they are miles apart. At the same time, the same connection is their weakest spot. An older sensate warns Riley about the perils of falling in love with someone in the same cluster. ‘Love inside a cluster is pathological… [it] is the worst kind of narcissism’. Severing that connection is the most tantalising blow against a sensate. But the sensates who are in love seem to be more than willing to take this chance, solidifying the significance and inevitability of their erotic connection. When Kala – fearful of the intensity of her feelings towards Wolfgang — asks Riley on her connection to Will, she replies: ‘If you’re wondering about the sex, no matter what I say, it won’t be enough’.

This insistence on connectivity that transcends boundaries and defies odds, or even reality, has been a recurring theme in Wachowskis’ work, as portrayed in films such as The Matrix Trilogy or Cloud Atlas. This pattern reveals a deeper desire to overcome or penetrate the frontiers of a literal and metaphorical distance; to fight against the fragmentation of postmodernity. Sex serves a central and sacred role in this effort. ‘We exist because of sex… It’s not something to be afraid of… it’s something to honour, to enjoy’, says Sun to Kala when the latter tries to reconcile her conservatism with the feelings of newfound sexual excitement she experiences. Shortly after, the sensates celebrate their birthday — the first breath they took together — with a larger than life, Dionysian orgy that sees the eight individuals, and some of their respective partners, sharing extremely arousing moments of erotic gratification. The scene is imbued with a ritualistic undertone. We are presented with almost ten people moving as one body, as a tidal wave, enjoying every possible combination of partners. Sex between them transcends space and time. From a bathroom stall in Mexico we are transported to a loft in Amsterdam, and from there to a San Francisco hill. It is night, and it is day, and it is dawn, and it is dusk – and, after all, time has no significance. What matters is their unwavering erotic energy, their embrace, their touches and caresses. This energy renders locality and temporality secondary, breaking any natural law or rule. The sensual song accompanying the montage literally suggests that their love attempts to change the world.[8] The way in which natural elements (light, water and wind) interact with the protagonists indicates that making love is an experience that resembles a revelation – as the intensity of their feelings is surprising even to them. Placing a hand on your partner’s back, their neck, their face, their ass, their breasts provides a newfound sensation of pleasure. Bauman has noted how contemporary sexual encounters embody a form of ‘liquid love’ in which relationships tend to be ‘easy to enter and exit’. (2003: xii) These developments are shaping individual love life as a series of as a series of effortless yet profoundly fragile encounters. (Attwood 2006) Sense8 endeavours to circumvent this precarity, echoing almost wishful thinking of its creators for the possibility of enduring human connection. Sex, in Sense8, is something to be shared and it becomes stronger when shared. This is supported by a very deliberate directorial choice. Namely, several of the sex scenes are either the gateway to a wider polyamorous explosion of intercourse or they happen simultaneously. In the second season, for example, Capheus and his girlfriend Zakia (Mumbi Maina) are portrayed to have sex for the first time. At the same time, the second couple of the cluster, Wolf and Kala, engage in intercourse even though the one is in Germany and the other in India. The combination of the scenes makes them seem even more erotic and honest. Moreover, it poses as yet another symbolism: either in the same room or in different continents, the elation caused from the sexual experience is common and equally legitimate.

The two-hour finale of the show further deals with the modalities of connection through sex, with direct references to the problematisation on trust and insecurity that preceded. Throughout the first 140 minutes of the episode – entitled ‘Amor vincit omnia’, the notion of love is revered and deified. Love breaks through to the other side, love – at last – wins, love does conquer all. Yet, the final scenes of the show have another story to tell. Namely, after the sensates manage to defeat their enemies, they find themselves in Paris, celebrating the wedding of Nomi and Amanita. The woman who officiates the ceremony posits that this wedding stands as proof that ‘for all the differences between us and all the forces that try to divide us, they will never exceed the power of love to unite us’. As a tearful Amanita voices her vows to her future wife, she proclaims that ‘we live in a world that distrusts feelings… we are taught to ignore them, control or deny them’. But, as she continues, she admits to trusting her feelings of love for Nomi more than anything else. When it’s Nomi’s turn to speak, she confesses: ‘I’m afraid of things pretending to be permanent… but with you that doesn’t scare me’. Love is set as the pinnacle of existence, the only outlet to grasping ontological security against the precarity of being. But as the episode draws to its finale, the newly-weds have no wish to leave for a romantic or lavish honeymoon; there is, instead, only one place they want to go.

The remaining five minutes of the finale portray the most sensual and erotic scene of the series. The scene bears significant differences from the similar previous ones – both in its framing and its symbolism. It is less raw, while quite revealing in nudity, and more romantic, while still immensely intense. Under the serene melody of Ludovico Einaudi, we witness a slow, gradual transformation.[9] The sensates and their partners progress from having love to valuing love, to making love, to establishing their connection through the sexual act. While the scene initially foregrounds the image of coupledom, Kala, her husband and Wolfgang indulge in a threesome (as Lito, Fernando and Daniela also do) just as the music builds up, preparing us for a crescendo. And, surely enough, as Rajan (Purab Kohli) – a character not shown before to be prone to the fluid sexuality of the group – hesitantly touches lips with Wolfgang, shuddering his presuppositions on masculinity, legitimate sexuality and passion, the music erupts, and fourteen bodies are now surrendered to erotic delight. There is a novel, all-encompassing level of awareness between the lovers. For the first time, the human partners of the sensates are all conscious of the shared aspect of the experience. They might not possess the abilities of their partners, but – in a symbolic level – they partake to the orgy by reveling on the pleasure they derive. Sex has come further than connecting the sensates: it now connects their erotic histories and becomes the beacon and the melting pot of their romantic narratives. As the camera recurrently cuts to images of the heroes’ firsts (first look, first kiss, first penetration), sex becomes a lens through which their journey makes sense and gains significance – sex is, thus, becoming an unshakable landmark of continuity, existence and security.

In terms of connectivity, it is noteworthy how Sense8 marks a step towards the opposite direction in comparison to the narrative of the Matrix trilogy. The trilogy presented us with a dystopian conception of the endless possibilities of digital connectivity. Written and released at the dusk of the 20th and dawn of the 21st century, the trilogy was dealing with the equally awesome and gruesome ramifications of the invasion and influence of technology in societal co-existence. However, almost two decades later, the Wachowskis seem to explore a diametrically opposite scenario. Sense8 proposes a narrative of disconnection from the digital world. More specifically, it is about no longer wishing or needing to experience connection in the digital world. A connection outside cyberspace is proposed as an answer to the futility of ontologically insecure post-modern subjects. Even though during the series the connection between the sensates is described in ‘computer’ terms (i.e. ‘brain as network’, ‘file-sharing’), the protagonists need no computer to experience their link. In a globalised world, this disregard of both cyberspace and actual space becomes pivotal. Namely, the most eloquent answer to the digitised, disembedding realities that envelop us – generating perpetual insecurity – is the prospect of a connection that immediately, intuitively brings individuals together. Hence the globally diverse – in terms of ethnicity and geography — origins of the sensates is the most appropriate and symbolic scenery for conveying Wachowskis’ grand aspirations, insofar it highlights the diminishing of spatial obstacles.

© Screenshot from Sense8 (Netflix series 2015-2018)

Sex as celebration: (De)Criminalizing sexual freedom

An alternative reading of the representations of sexuality in Sense8 borrows the cultural criminological lens. This lens constantly works on a dual level for the audience of the series. The former level pertains to how the sexual relationships of the sensates with each other constitute an act of transgression and disobedience towards the organisation that criminalises and hunts them. The latter level concerns the representations themselves and the messages they carry forward regarding sexuality, gender and sexism.

After their rebirth as sensates, the protagonists are able to share their sexual pleasure and encounters with their cluster. As mentioned, these encounters tempt the rest of the cluster to join the erotic experience, to partake in the pleasure and celebration of sex with the other sensates— regardless of orientation and gender — or inspires them to engage in intercourse with their own partners. Sexual energy flows freely in the cluster; its sharing leads to its growth, flourishing and intensification. This ability has led to some highly explicit scenes in both the seasons of Sense8 that present us with titillating montages of tangled bodies kissing, grabbing, licking and penetrating one another. Besides the concept of connection, such scenes also capitalise on the notion of celebration. The celebratory aspect of sexual encounters is particularly evident in the two orgy scenes. In the first season’s orgy, the build-up begins with scenes of Will exercising in the gym while flirting with girls passing by. Lito and Fernando are also pulling up weights half naked until Lito starts to sensually dance for his partner. The youthful, robust body – either dressed or naked – poses as a temptation (albeit in a voyeuristic manner that shall be explored later) and slowly turns to a conduit of pleasure. Wolfgang, Nomi and Amanita join this choreographed frenzy while the evocative song accompanying the scene promises: ‘All of your demons will wither away… ecstasy comes and they cannot stay’. [10] Similarly, the second orgy is preceded by actual celebrations for the sensates’ common birthday. They are dancing at a beach party in Positano, then move to the Latin rhythm of salsa and, shortly after, partake in a flash mob in Kenya. All this energy, ultimately, is translated and elevated in sexual intercourse. Interestingly, according to the plotline, the more intense a shared experience is, the more vulnerable the sensates are to the danger of being traced. In that framework, sex becomes a symbol that represents insurgence against the hunters of BPO. Sex in Sense8 is a careless act of rebellion – the merits of the emotional ‘high’ it awards outweigh its perils. Indeed, before ‘sharing’ their celebrations, Will cautiously mentions that ‘visiting’ the other sensates would be a risky step. Riley, tellingly, responds: ‘This is more than an emergency. We shared our first breath. Now, it’s time to celebrate that breath…together’. If we replace the shared sexual act with a criminal act, the metaphor becomes clear. Gilles Deleuze discussed the ‘sensualness’ of ‘wickedness’ in wrongdoing (1997: 37), and Jack Katz discussed the ‘delight of being deviant (1988: 312) that inhabits the ‘hidden aesthetic of the disorderly’. (Presdee 2003: 20)

Presdee maintained that a festive life of carnival acts is bound to quickly become demonised and criminalised by the official rational life (2003) – symbolised in Sense8 not only by the conservative societal structures but also through BPO. The sensates enter the realm of challenge, resistance and carnival by exploring the possibilities of their connection and enjoying the pleasure of the sexual link. The response of the authority — persecutors — is to outlaw and target the protagonists. Labelling theorists have argued that deviancy is created in a process where persons in powerful positions – the so-called ‘moral entrepreneurs’ overreact to – real or perceived — rule breaking. (Henry & Lanier 2004) [11] Sense8 is about individuals who deviate from the sexual norm or, at least, they readily allow themselves to – and for that they are stigmatised. Such examples are abundant: Lito, as a telenovela actor, is facing discrimination for being a closeted gay man in a business of toxic masculinity, his partner is also ridiculed by his students when their intimate photos are leaked, Capheus is made fun of from Zakia’s coworkers who are more than happy to inform him that if he has ‘a dick in his pants, he has no chance’ with her and Nomi has been estranged from her family – especially her mother, who still refuses to accept her as a transgender woman

Yet, the Wachowskis move beyond the sexual discrimination the sensates face as individuals. In the show they are portraying a group of people who by merely ‘being’ – according to their nature and biology, and by capitalizing on the pleasures that derive from who they are, face the unfortunate fate of bending the rules of sameness. They are unwittingly unique, for their mere existence is norm-breaking. Howard Becker in his seminal ‘Outsiders’ (1963:9) noted that ‘deviance is not a quality of the act a person commits but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an “offender”’. The parallels drawn here in regard to the persecution of every sexual minority are abundant. BPO, an allegory for every powerful societal or religious actor is driven by fear of difference. The unexplained powers of a sensate and their demonstration is another metaphor for the extravagant, ‘exotic’ character attributed to LGBT minority repeatedly in history. In a particularly upsetting plot development during the first season, we see Nomi being captured by BPO as the agents of the organisation are getting ready to perform an operation that would effectively lobotomize her. Besides the suspenseful build-up of this arc, the directorial choice of putting a transgender woman in this position is quite poignant. Watching the episode, the reasons of her persecution become blurred – one cannot help but wonder if being a sensate or being a transgender woman is the cause of this witch-hunt. This metaphor probably speaks to the personal stories and hardships of the Wachowski sisters and is artfully portrayed as one of the most potent symbolisms of the first season. Being trapped in the hospital, Nomi is only allowed to see members of her biological family but not her partner, while she has to endure constant verbal abuse by her mother who insists on calling her Michael – unwilling to acknowledge her identity. She is restrained and forced to take medication that will ‘help’ her deal with this unexplained neurological condition she suffers from. In a narrative too shameful but too familiar for transgender individuals, she is presented as paranoid. The threat of persecution of the ‘deranged’ and the ‘criminal’ is a constant, pervasive theme in the show.

On a second level, the Wachowskis are also conscious and aware of the role and influence of these representations — and the dynamics they conceal – for the audience. In other words, they have alluded throughout Sense8 to the significance of artistic freedom, the hazards of censoring said expression and the impact art and cinema potentially have in the life of the audience. In that sense, cinematic representations can also be a form of resistance to rigid societal norms and conservative voices. Sense8 indeed offers a variety of carnivalesque expressions – where it attempts to mock and ridicule the world of logic and conservatism. An already mentioned example is that of the sexual orgies between the sensates. Beyond that, Daniella (Eréndira Ibarra), Lito’s ‘beard’, is depicted as overly excited when faced with manifestations of homosexual eroticism. Her response when she finds out about Lito and Fernando’s relationship is to exclaim how much she loves gay porn. Her excitement becomes quite physical when she ends up masturbating to the sight of the two men having sex. Besides her obsession with capturing her friends’ sexual escapades in her camera (a topic that will also be addressed in the next section), Daniella, despite her conservative background, is shamelessly fetishising gay sex. In a manner both hopeful and problematic, she personifies that part of society that is not just accepting of sexual difference but has come to covet it, to get aroused in the sight of non-normative sexualities. Further on, during the second season, Lito and his boyfriend are shown to kiss in a sandy beach, almost nude. The imagery is reminiscent of various romantic films. It can be read, for instance, as a deliberate re-appropriation of the seminal scene between Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann) but with two masculine men in thongs instead. In yet another interesting scene, Lito gets to narrate his first sexual encounter with Fernando. ‘Our first kiss was over there, in the bathroom. It was for me a religious experience… I went to my knees… I took him in my mouth like I was taking Holy Communion’. The use of religious symbolisms and language to describe oral sex in a bathroom stall – expressed by a character who is born in a Catholic community – could be regarded as an insult towards and a mockery of the Church. It is noteworthy that this sexual encounter took place after Fernando had given a speech about freedom, art and love (as mentioned in the previous section). Irreverence and freedom are here the components that ignite the vehement expression of love between the two. Their entanglement leads to an erotic crescendo that is sacrilegiously likened to one of the holiest rituals of Christianity. The point of these aforementioned occasions is exactly to celebrate the carnivalesque, not only metaphorically but even literally – as it happens in the scenes of Sao Paolo Pride Parade. We witness all the sensates exuberantly dancing and laughing among colourful, exotic drag queens, rainbow flags held by leather ‘daddies’ and naked go-go boys. A Pride Parade – consisting of all those non-normative individuals – is a literal carnival of degradation and immorality to the eyes of the conservatives. The symbolism grows even stronger when considering that the cast and crew of the show actually took part in the Parade, they participated in the celebration of difference not just as their characters but as real people, blurring the boundaries between reality and representation. [12] Last, but not least, the mocking of conservatism proves to be an explicitly conscious aim of the creators in the very last frame of the show. Namely, one of the first scenes of the show’s pilot portrayed Nomi and Amanita having sex using a rainbow-flag strap-on. That very same strap-on appears after the majestic sex scene of the finale. It can be seen as a reiteration, a symbolic celebration of all the modes and possibilities for sexual gratification, a middle finger to homophobic and transphobic voices and is followed by a black screen and a dedication: “To our fans”.

Finally, there is one more aspect in the Wachowskis’ attempt to employ representations of sexual difference within the nexus of freedom, eroticism and the body. Exercising their power as both writers and directors of the show, the Wachowskis are seldom choosing to remedy sexism and discrimination by ‘punishing’ those who hinder the quest for equality by insulting the frivolous celebration of diverse sexualities and sexual identities. Sense8 endeavours to counter sexism and avenge those subjected to it, either directly or indirectly. In a sense, the creators depict a universe where difference is decriminalised, where freedom triumphs over censorship, ignorance or fear and minor happy endings are celebrated. Namely, in the wedding ceremony of Nomi’s sister, the best man makes a crude comment about Nomi having a ‘nice rack for a dude’. Utilising Sun’s martial arts skills, Nomi twists his finger, exacting — in a playful yet efficient way — a small revenge for his phobic comment. Similarly, when a student attempts to ridicule Fernando for his explicit photos with Lito by claiming that what they depict is nothing but ‘shit-packer’ porn, Fernando has the answer: ‘the eyes of the beholder find beauty where they want… but also shallowness, ugliness, confusion, prejudice. Which is to say the beholder will always see what they want to see; suggesting that what you want to see… is, in fact, shit-packer porn’.

© Screenshot from Sense8 (Netflix series 2015-2018)

The commodification of sexual diversity

Stepping beyond the metaphors of sex as connection and celebration, the aspect of commodification of the formerly ‘sidelined’ representations of sexual diversity and the implications of such commodification, at a more abstract and macro-level, ought to be carefully considered. Such a quest aims to encourage the exploration and questioning of the revolutionary potential of any film or show in an era where representations are so closely intertangled with capitalist consumption. The reach of such capitalist consumption has extended to the point where anti-systemic representations have become an improbability, where not only sex and the body but also their diverse expressions are progressively commodified. In other words, I wish to examine whether a narrative of sexual diversity works against a powerful institutionalized discourse of acceptable sexual expression by producing a new discourse of sexuality, if there is – after all – an institution appalled by the frivolous carnival of sexual diversity that Sense8 presents.

Weeks has underscored the need to ‘abandon any theoretical approach which sees sexuality molded by a dominant, determining will’. (2003: 35) Sex is more than a source of intense pleasure or acute anxiety; it has become ‘a moral and political battlefield’. (Weeks 2002: 4) Contrary to the realities of the modern era, the postmodern rendition of eroticism – to invoke Bauman’s terminology – constitutes an unseen novelty. (1998) Disregarding the once dominant cultural strategies of legislative, religious powers, as well as the romantic alternative, eroticism ‘enters alliance with neither sexual reproduction nor love, claiming independence from both neighbors… it proudly and boldly proclaims itself to be its only, and sufficient, reason and purpose’. (Bauman 1998: 21) In the era of globalization and deconstruction, ‘[t]here no longer appears to be a great continent of normality, surrounded by small islands of disorder. Instead, we can perceive huge clusters of islands, great and small, which seem in constant motion each to the other’. (Weeks 2002: 213) Such is the material basis for the current relativism that comes with the fragmentation of postmodernity. The story of Kala best exemplifies these dynamics. During the finale of Sense8, Kala finds herself torn. The man with whom she had an arranged marriage with has proven to be worthy of her love – but, at the same time, her feelings for Wolfgang are overwhelming. While pondering on her dilemma, another protagonist offers a liberating alternative: there are no rules to love. Such prospect frees Kala from choosing one over the other, from obeying to the rules and conventions of hetero-normativity, from restricting herself to monogamy.

Yet, this unprecedented path of freedom is not to be uncritically perceived. Presdee ominously argued that, in the cycle of reproduction of deviance (here we can see the parallels between eroticism and deviating sexualities), all that is left of it is desire and excitement – deviance itself becomes transposed into a commodity. (2003: 26) If we take the central strand of capitalist expansionism, namely the inherent tendency to increasingly colonize areas through a commercialization of social life (Weeks 2002), it becomes evident that capitalism worries little about what is or is not commodified. (Presdee 2003) As an economic system, it operates from the ‘vagaries of morality’ (Presdee 2003: 26), preferring the rational approach of profit which ensures a certain indifference to the terrain it’s working on and through’. (Weeks 2002) Non-heterosexual individuals are, thus, becoming part of the official discourse, they are getting married, they can buy the car and the suburban house, they can have children who will reinforce the future labour force. They are, in short, falling under a slightly modified but still rigid framework of family life – as non-heteronormative identities are gradually becoming institutionalized and normalized. Such dynamics are captured under the notion of homonormativity (Duggan 2002) but carry their own set of dangers – mainly in the questionable recoding of concepts such as ‘equality’ or ‘freedom’. (Duggan 2002: 190) Sense8 finds its place within these debates in a peculiar fashion, due to the twofold manner with which the sexual relations of the protagonists are depicted – the sexual encounters of the characters in their own lives and within the cluster. In the former, we are indeed presented with moments of normalized imagery. Namely, Nomi and Amanita propose to each other by the end of the second season, while Lito and Fernando share a home and live, by and large, as a monogamous, married couple – notwithstanding their supposedly hostile, homophobic social and professional contexts. Even though the couple is presented as somewhat hypersexual – since their sexual interactions are quite frequent throughout the two seasons, the protective ‘umbrella’ of the relationship domesticates the nature of their intercourse. In the latter level, though, the notion of an essentialized sexual identity is tackled by the sexual connection that binds the sensates making them all, by the plot’s design, non-heteronormative.

As the ‘aspirations of the gay liberation movement for an alternative sexual-political culture have been answered by the organization of a huge gay market’ (Weeks 2002: 216), Sense8 potentially initiates a new chapter of capitalist commodification, where not only gay identities but, more saliently, fluid, malleable, carnivalesque, queer sexualities are consumed and commercialized. While even marginalized sexualities are becoming mainstream and conservative modes of power might react in shock and disdain, capitalism artfully follows the proliferation of eroticism, absorbs – or even capitalizes on – those reactions and incorporates them in the cycle of commodified representations. However, a rush to link and interpret sexual change as a ‘new and radical move to democracy’ (Attwood 2006: 83) overlooks and oversimplifies the issues of sexual representation by presupposing a too direct relation between radical sexual politics, demand, capitalism and media output. More importantly, it ignores the potential function of the proliferation of sexual imagery as a regulatory tool for the shaping of sexual identities and practices. (Atwood 2006: 81) In that sense, it is crucial to move beyond acknowledging the, long awaited and refreshing, diversity in modes of sexual pleasures in Sense8 and be vigilant in observing the normalizing imagery of non-heteronormative identity, the persistent essentialisms and boundaries of beauty and attractiveness, and the stereotyping of sexual relations or expressions. The challenge lies in the fact that, most of the times, such stereotypes are hardly discernible and inextricably intertwined with the narrative.

On the one hand, as I mentioned before, Sense8 seldom attempts to optimistically propose a counter-narrative on diversity and sexuality. This attempt is evident in the show’s final sex scene. As the sexual orgy reaches its crescendo, Rajan exclaims: ‘I didn’t think such things were possible’. Indeed, witnessing a conservative, straight man of Indian upbringing not only sharing his wife with another man but also experimenting sexually with Wolfgang – and, symbolically, with a dozen other individuals of all sexes and races – is a testament to the breaking of sexual boundaries that Sense8 purports, proposing the limitless possibilities of what be considered, imagined and depicted as sexual. Such an endless array of images is not portrayed as vulgar, morbid or ‘immoral’ but, rather, as a celebratory, conscious choice of the heroes to experience love and sex to the fullest. Yet, despite the laudable nuances in the representation of non-heteronormative sexualities, Sense8 cannot help but present a somewhat commodified imagery of the man. Wolfgang is the archetypal ‘bad boy’ – he plays football, gets involved in fights and is a relentless stallion in bed. Respectively, Lito and Fernando are highly sexualized and seldom depicted to fall under the stereotypes associated with homosexual men. They are repeatedly shown to have sex in bathroom stalls – which, admittedly, could be an intended, sly salute of the Wachowskis to the long, culturally loaded tradition of bathroom sex in gay history. Connected to the depiction of the Lito and Fernando is the controversial issue of Daniela’s ‘obsession’ with the erotic encounters of the couple. Daniela is portrayed to touch herself every time she witnesses her friends touching or kissing each other – while she hurries to take a photo or a video of the moment. Such a reaction is paradigmatic of the voyeuristic culture of sexualization; yet it remains unanswered whether the Wachowskis believe that such an image is a genuinely sex-positive perspective or if it constitutes a cynical comment to our current fixation with capturing our most exciting moments rather than actually enjoying them (or if, in order to enjoy them, we have come to experiencing a compulsive need to capture them). The most important critique to be voiced though, not completely unrelated to the above considerations, is the connection drawn between beauty and sex. Sex in Sense8 is valorized as an aesthetically pleasing act and imagery. But what seems to be a necessary component in order to partake in such a majestic spectacle is that those indulging in sex are themselves fine human specimens. The women are thin, their skins are impeccable and their breasts seductive. The men are equally muscular, statuesque and well-groomed. All these gratifying sexual encounters become, thus, both commercialized and restrictive – permissible only to those who match these criteria.

A final consideration that ought to permeate the analysis of commodification of sexual difference pertains exactly to the articulation of the role of capitalist forces in this eruption of eroticism. As I hinted above, capitalism only follows the proliferation of sexuality – it cannot be perceived as a causal factor. One needs to critically address ‘the folklore of social science to lay the responsibility for the `erotic revolution’ at the door of the “market forces”. (Bauman 1998: 21) Bauman argues that the free market can only be blamed for exploiting already existing resources, solely guided by their commercial potential. Mere greed for profit is not a sufficient condition for a cultural revolution that untied eroticism from the chains that bind it to reproduction or love for centuries. Rather, eroticism lends itself to consumerist forces upon a process of cultural transformation that rendered it a ‘would-be commodity’. (Bauman 1998: 22) This process came about exactly as eroticism severed the links that tied it to the production of immortality – either physical or spiritual. The postmodern ‘deconstruction of immortality’ offered sexuality an endless array of experimentation possibilities, allowing the sexual experience to become ‘free-floating’ and establish its own rules. Relieved from the necessity to imbue sexuality with meaning or a solid interhuman connection, the pursuing of intense experience and sensual gratification proves to be a double-edged sword for postmodern identity – a novel opportunity and a gruelling feat. The pursuit of unchained delight is, thus, ‘shot through with fear’, as ‘contradictory cultural signals covertly undermine what they overtly praise and encourage’. (Bauman 1998: 32)

Now, if one revisits the considerations on connectedness in Sense8 that preceded, a frustrating dynamic is looming. Namely, the function of sex as an opportunity and a conduit for enduring human connections presented in the series simultaneously poses as a response to the growing ontological insecurity of postmodernity and as an attempt to fill the void that came with the revolution of eroticism against reproduction and love. Yet, the free-floating sexuality of the postmodern individuals (and of the sensates, for that matter), vacant of any traditional value and contesting the norms of human conduct, actually reinforces the very uncertainty and insecurity it problematises. The unconstrained eroticism of the show paradoxically endorses the dynamics and processes it wishes to remedy.


Sexuality in Sense8, indeed, purports to paint outside the margins of any external constraint; it is nuanced and multifaceted, rich in its physical and spiritual implications. One could say that everything in Sense8 is about sex, except for sex; sex in the show is about connection, celebration, diversity, freedom. A surreal, dystopian or action abundant framework is articulated only to become the scenery for the main metaphor to flourish: human subjects have the ability and the capacity to connect regardless of any boundary. The (in)sensitivity of this post-human imagery towards racial, class and gender modalities can be criticized; yet what remains constant in the Wachowskis’ vision is the wishful thinking of a remedy to the literal and metaphorical space-time fragmentation and existential insecurity of postmodernity.

Sense8 can be potentially understood as an artistic construct that seeks to utilise the consumerist mainstream platform to circumvent the flexibility of ‘plastic sex’ (Giddens 1992) by presenting sexual diversity and difference not as divisive individualism but as a unifying call for pure connection and intimacy. At the same time, it is equally possible that the show has unwittingly fallen into the Sisyphean task of attempting to advocate for the freedom of eroticism by putting forward celebratory representations of sexuality that rather result in commodifying the sexual experience. The show most eloquently exemplifies the words of Bauman when he posits that postmodern eroticism desperately seeks a secure abode while fearing the prospect of finding it. (1998) In this perplexed background, the sexual story told by Sense8 implicates itself in the current moral and political debate over sexuality, advocating for the multiplicity of eroticism’s new possibilities and constituencies. (Plummer 1995, 2003) The directors repeatedly interject analyses of art – of images, films, books, paintings – underlining the function of artistic constructions as tools through which the audience can perceive, understand, broaden and de-demonise their ideas around sexuality. Thus, Sense8, implicitly and explicitly, encourages this very same process: through the various, even contradicting, discourses, narratives and metaphors the viewer is motivated to be an active recipient of the Sense8 tale – to identify, accept or reject parts of the story in their own trajectory of identity construction. (Stein & Plummer, 1994)


[1] ‘Sense8 | #HappyBirthdaySense8 Thank You Video | Netflix’. Available at:

[2] Ibid.

[3] For a very comprehensive, yet somewhat unjustly critical, account of Sense8 see Merodeadora, Andrea (2017), ‘The Problem with Sense8′,

[4] The Korean character, Sun is a martial artist trapped in a loop of patriarchal oppression, the Indian character, Kala is a biologist trapped in an arranged marriage and the Kenyan one, Capheus – is a bus driver trapped in an impoverished and crime-ridden social environment.

[5] This intriguing dynamic is explored in more depth in José Arroyo, José (2015), ‘On Episode 5 of ‘Sense8: Art is Like Religion’,

[6] ‘Small things’ by Ben Howard,

[7] Giddens divides the disembedding mechanisms into ‘abstract systems’ and ‘symbolic tokens’. The latter term denotes ‘media of interchange which can be “passed around” without regard to the specific characteristics of individuals or groups that handle them at any particular juncture’. (1990: 22) As an eloquent example, Giddens analyses the token of money. ‘Abstract systems’ on the other hand refer to systems of technical achievement or professional expertise that regulate large areas of current material and social environments. (Freidson, 1986)

[8] ‘I’d Love to change the world’ by Jetta,

[9] ‘Experience’ by Ludovico Einaudi,

[10] ‘Demons’ by Fatboy Slim,

[11] For a relevant analysis, see Cohen (1972).

[12] See Miller, Shannon Liz (2017), ‘Sense8: Inside the Last Minute Scramble to Film at the Biggest Gay Pride Celebration in the World’,


Attwood, Feona (2006), ‘Sexed up: Theorizing the sexualization of culture’, Sexualities, Vol. 9, No 1, pp. 77-94

Bauman, Zygmunt (1998), ‘On postmodern uses of sex’,  Theory, Culture & Society, Volume 15, No. 3, pp. 19-33.

Bauman, Zygmunt (2000), Liquid Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bauman, Zygmunt (2003), Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds, Cambridge: Polity Press.

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Cohen, Stanley (1972), Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers,  Oxford: Martin Robertson. 

Crenshaw, Kimberley (1989), ‘Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics’, U. Chi. Legal F., p. 139.

Crenshaw, Kimberley (1991), ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity politics, and Violence against Women of Color’, Stanford Law Review, 1241-1299.

d’Emilio, John (1993), ‘Capitalism and Gay Identity’, The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader,pp. 467-476

Deleuze, Gilles (1997), Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty, New York: Zone Books.

Duggan, Lisa (2002), ‘The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism’, Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics, Durham: Duke University Press, pp.175-194

Freidson, Eliot (1986), Professional Powers: A Study in the Institutionalization of Formal Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Giddens, Anthony (1990), The Consequences of Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press.

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Henry, Stuart & Mark M. Lanier (2004), The Essential Criminology Reader. Boulder: Westview Press.

Jackson, Stevi & Sue Scott (2004), ‘Sexual Antinomies in Late Modernity’, Sexualities, Vol 7, No 2, pp. 233-248.

Katz, Jack (1988), Seductions of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attractions in Doing Evil, New York: Basic Books.

Plummer, Ken (1995), Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds, London & New York: Routledge.

Plummer, Ken (2003), Intimate Citizenship: Private Decisions and Public Dialogues, Seattle & London: University of Washington Press.

Presdee, Mike (2003), Cultural Criminology and the Carnival of Crime. New York: Routledge.

Stein, Arlene & Ken Plummer (1994), ‘I Can’t Even Think Straight”” Queer” Theory and the Missing Sexual Revolution in Sociology’, Sociological Theory, Vol 12, No 2, pp. 178-187.

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Weeks, Jeffrey (2003), Sexuality: Key Ideas. New York: Routledge.

Weeks, Jeffrey (2005), ‘Remembering Foucault’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol 14, No 1, pp. 186-201.

Films/TV series

Cloud Atlas (2012), film directed by Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski.

From Here to Eternity (1953), film directed by Fred Zinnemann.

Sense8 (2015-2018), TV series created by J. Michael Straczynski, Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski.

The Matrix (1999), film directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski (as The Wachowski Brothers).

The Matrix Reloaded (2003), film directed by Lana Wachowski (as The Wachowski Brothers).

The Matrix Revolutions (2003), film directed by Lana Wachowski (as The Wachowski Brothers).

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