Missed It By That Much...

Netflix's "Q-Force" wants to be a queer "Get Smart," but loses itself in outdated stereotypes and muddled ideas about sex and gender.

The new Netflix animated spy comedy Q-Force arrived with a flurry of think pieces from critics contemplating the impact of an unabashedly queer cartoon produced by and starring primarily queer talent. Most of the excited commentary seems more like fluffing of the show’s celebrity roster, from producer Michael Schur (The Good Place, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) to stars Sean Hayes, Wanda Sykes, and Laurie Metcalf. Netflix has been an industry leader in telling frank queer stories, and on that count, Q-Force is neither novel nor particularly progressive. It just has enough high-powered talent to cause the critics to genuflect and appeals to the middle-aged demographic where most critics reside.

That wouldn’t have bothered me much, but the cultural commentators have bent themselves into pretzels trying to justify the show’s saturation with outdated queer stereotypes that straddle the line of offensiveness without offering an indication that producers Schur and Hayes, or creator Gabe Liedman, understand that biology is not culture, that sex is not gender, and that West Hollywood is not the world.

Q-Force tells the story of a group of queer spies in a fictional intelligence agency’s West Hollywood station, where they have been sequestered by the agency’s homophobic leadership. Together, they form a family drawn from across an alphabet soup of sexual identities, and they go on a series of suggestive missions in which they encounter extremely thinly veiled versions of figures from entertainment popular with queers twenty years older than the characters are supposed to be. It’s a show set in 2021 in which the characters ostensibly aged between 20 and 30 talk about Princess Diana Beanie Babies and loving Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Its social attitudes are also rooted in the mid-1990s—down to the blatant official discrimination outlawed decades ago—and too often it reads like a repressed ’90s teen’s fever dream of the kind of show they would have made in 1998 if not for all the bigotry and oppression. Today’s CIA explicitly recruits racial and sexual minorities; this show pretends the last thirty years of gay rights never happened.

As a cartoon, its animation is passable, if not inspired. The art style is attractive, if a little too reminiscent of styles popular fifteen or twenty years ago. The stories are amusing, but rarely laugh-out-loud funny, and the characters have a lot of heart, even if they aren’t fully fleshed out. But when you compare the show’s version of the queer experience to series like HBOMax’s Genera+ion (which I personally find pretentious) and The Other Two (which is hilarious), it’s easy to see what Q-Force is missing. It’s all style and no substance, pretending to talk about queer culture, issues, and equality but avoiding addressing the real consequences of how sexual identity impacts lives outside of sex and dating.

Because it’s so rooted in the experiences of twenty or thirty years ago, it’s no wonder than Q-Force thinks that outdated stereotypes—the butch lesbian, the fierce drag queen—aren’t just funny but represent the whole of the queer experience, that the cartoonish excess of the West Hollywood party circuit is somehow the world.

NPR’s Glen Weldon tried to explain why stereotypes like those used in the show can be a good thing:

It might be useful to point out here that stereotypes are harmful when they are flatly asserted by those seeking to keep marginalized groups out. But in the hands of a marginalized group, stereotypes can be deployed usefully — they can act as Trojan horses, sneaking us past the defenses of a bigoted system, to get us in the room. No, it's never ideal — one always hopes to be welcomed. But when thoughtfully, cannily exploited, even the broadest stereotypes can help to undermine the prejudices and hatred they seem, on the surface, to embody.

But who, exactly, are these stereotypes being deployed to entertain? It’s a bit like the debate decades ago about whether the mobbed-up goombah stereotypes on The Sopranos were empowering or offensive to Italian-Americans. The Venn diagram of goombah mafiosi and Italian-Americans overlaps, but it isn’t a circle. Q-Force is ostensibly a show made by and for queer audiences. So why revel in stereotypes not to undermine them or even to laugh at them but to embrace them? Do you think all lesbians are huge gearheads and love Subarus? Do you associate gay men with sequins, showtunes, and sluttiness? If you think that all gay men have high-pitched voices, worship brassy broads, and are secretly women’s minds in men’s bodies, then you are either a 1950s psychiatrist or one of the talents behind Q-Force. I kid. But not really.

And this gets to the heart of the matter. Deploying these stereotypes, even affectionately, conflates sexual orientation and gender roles and reinforces the repressive notion that sexual orientation is a gendered performance, that gay men are effeminate and straight men can’t display emotions lest they be thought gay or turn gay. In one episode, the Q-Force travel to “Backache, Wyoming” to meet a taciturn uranium processor named Ennis who they think is straight until a character discovers his Sex and the City DVD set and other stereotypically feminine media interests and realizes he has to be gay. (The “parody” of Heath Ledger’s character from Brokeback Mountain isn’t even a parody; it’s simply a straight-up reference.) That kind of “joke”—and there are several of a similar nature in the series—presses home the idea that masculinity and queerness are in opposition. (Straight men, the show says, are really lesbians with “longer cargo shorts” and “evil in their hearts.”)

That message is depressing as much as its disempowering. Manliness and queerness are not opposites, and to be one isn’t to exclude the other. When we reinforce this cultural idea that masculinity is synonymous with thuggish boorishness and that freedom flirts with femininity, we are institutionalizing the same totalizing ideas about gender that sexual liberation sought to decouple from sex—we’re just reversing the “good” and the “bad” from the 1950s version of sex and gender roles.

Sure, that’s a lot of weight to put on a blandly pleasant cartoon, but when comedies like The Other Two and Genera+ion can do handle similar themes and material with more insight, greater depth, and a better grasp on how stereotypes aren’t who we are but the roles thrust upon us, I expected more from a series whose pedigree includes so many queer luminaries and the guy who managed to mash complex moral philosophy into The Good Place and make it entertaining.

Q-Force is a disappointment not for what it is but for what it could have been. It wants to be a queer Get Smart. Instead, it doesn’t even rise to being a queer Austin Powers in Goldmember.