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Poor LGBTQIA+ representation kept me from enjoying one of Netflix's sweetest anime
When it comes to shows that premiered in 2019, probably the show which most immediately felt like exactly my jam was a Netflix anime called Carole & Tuesday.
The premise behind Carole & Tuesday is simple and sweet. In a future where humanity lives largely on Mars, most pop culture media is being created by algorithms. and tensions are rising as a far-right populist politician is coming to power on a platform of fear-mongering against outsiders. Here, two women from very different backgrounds meet through a shared love of creating music, and decide to perform together without a computer helping write or produce their tracks.
If you've ever watched and enjoyed any of the more popular sports anime, titles like Haikyuu, Free, or Yuri on Ice, the formula and pacing on this show will be pretty familiar. Our protagonists want to do the thing they are passionate about, here making music, because they love the act of getting to do it, not for the sake of fame or as a step up in life. Faced with rival musicians who are in it for the money or the fame, Carole and Tuesday want to move up through the music world because continuing to grow means they get to continue doing what they love and don't have to give up yet on their dreams.
From its explorations of Carole using music as an outlet for working through her feelings of loneliness and abandonment, to Tuesday's fight to escape her family's plans for her future, the show is largely a sweet, empowering, optimistic tale of two women learning to live and create together, navigating a brave new world. The soundtrack is superb, the animation and world design are gorgeous, the skill with which they capture the feel of being in a band as a young adult is commendable, and there is so much to like about the show.
However, as much as I loved so much of it, I couldn't keep watching right through to its conclusion, because the show repeatedly uses minority characters as punchlines, stereotypes for plot progression, or, in the most egregious cases, presents one particular minority group as dangerous violent monsters created by poor environmental factors. This is a repeated problem with the show that I might have overlooked and groaned at once or even twice but eventually was enough to make the show unwatchable.
As a transgender woman, I had to stop watching when the show hit its fourth instance of introducing a queer or non-cisgender character who was either physically violent and dangerous, a point of ridicule, or introduced simply to die in the scene in which they were introduced. Left, right, and center, characters who stray from the gender binary or heterosexuality are referred to with contradictory terms that complicate understanding of what the creators were trying to convey, have contradictory pronouns used for them, and are generally placed into the plot to add tension or a cheap laugh. It was deeply disappointing from a sweet show I was having such a great time watching.
Starting with the first and perhaps most egregious example, let's talk about Dahlia. Angela, Carol and Tuesday's primary rival in their attempted rise to fame in the music industry, is another young woman, but one more interested in fame and success than the road taken to reach it. Angela's mother is Dahlia, who is presented as a driving force behind many of her daughter's actions on her way to the top.
Dahlia is presented as unlikable and villainous right from the start of the show. She is combative, devious, relentless, and ruthless in her pursuit of furthering Angela's music career, largely out of a need to resolve her own unfulfilled childhood dreams and her own moment of stardom that faded all too quickly. She's a pushy stage mum living vicariously through her daughter, which could have been interesting, but she veers into problematic due to the rest of her character presentation.
Depending on if you listen to the English dubbed audio or read the translated subtitles, Dahlia is revealed in an act of blackmail to be either intersex (the subtitles use the outdated term "hermaphrodite" instead) or, in the dub, "androgynous." While androgyny and intersex status are two very different and contradictory things, it feels like what the show is trying to get at clumsily is more like presenting her as a trans woman.
We see photos of Dahlia earlier in her life presenting purely as male, suggesting she was assigned male at birth but no longer identifies that way. We get some vague nonsense about the atmosphere on Mars transforming her somehow but no real explanation at that time about what that means in context.
What really tips this scene over the edge, however, is that in the same scene as her non-cisgender status is revealed, we additionally find out she was charged with multiple instances of violent assault against her young daughter growing up.
While hormone replacement therapy isn't mentioned explicitly, Dahlia later blames her violent outbursts on medication taken as a result of her gender status, adding implications that medication given to trans folks can turn you into an unstable violent child-beater.
However, one violent outburst that is initially falsely attributed to Dahlia is actually caused by a different LGBTQIA+ character, Cybelle.
To set the scene a little, during Carole and Tuesday's attempt to win an X-Factor-style televised singing competition, Tuesday receives a mysterious package which, when opened, is revealed to have been rigged to splash her with acid, making her unable to perform properly during the next round of the competition. While it's initially suspected that Dahlia may have carried out the attack, a very believable assumption given her past on-screen actions, the crime was actually committed by the show's second LGBTQIA+ character, Cybelle.
Cybelle, who I will initially describe as presented by the English Netflix dub, is not a transgender character but a cisgender gay woman. Cybelle is obsessed with Tuesday because of the content of her music, convinced they are meant to be together. Cybelle stalks Tuesday, initially online and later in person. She tries to break up Carole and Tuesday as a musical act and forcibly bites Tuesday on the neck while giving a speech about marking her as owned before ultimately setting up the device to splash Tuesday with acid for refusing her advances. She doesn't respect Tuesday's right to be disinterested, breaking consent boundaries and becoming physically violent as a result.
Cybelle is the show's second character to present LGBTQIA+ people as prone to outbursts of violence to get what they want. It's another example of the show's creators seeming to have some kind of pre-existing assumptions about the LGBTQIA+ community.
Additionally, it's important to note that the show also makes it difficult to explicitly state that Cybelle is a cisgender lesbian because it seems in the Japanese version of the show Cybelle refers to themselves with gender-neutral pronouns, even if the rest of the show's cast refer to them with the pronouns she/her. While this is not reflected in the English dub, it does act as another example of the show seeming to be unclear about what identities it is trying to present, particularly when it comes to muddled language use about presenting potentially non-cisgender characters. It's possible Cybelle is meant to be a non-binary character rather than a cisgender lesbian, but if that is the case, the show's dub glosses over it entirely. It would either way still be an LGBTQIA+ leaping to violence needlessly to get what they want.
Another example of gender non-conforming performers being prone to violent outbursts comes during that same singing competition in the form of The Mermaid Sisters, an act that I'm guessing are meant to be a portrayal of drag queens or potentially an attempt at presenting non-binary people, but again the show's own language usage makes that unclear.
The group, consisting of four bearded performers largely dressed in frilly pink dresses, corsets, and fishnets, describe themselves as "neither men nor women," in "the same way that mermaids are neither fish nor people." They apparently wish to become "A new species," but it's unclear exactly what that means in this context.
The group enters the stage to a series of jokes about how ridiculous they are, then sing a song entirely made of falsetto renditions of swear words designed to further ensure they're not taken seriously. They're told they've lost the round and they instantly leap to violence, removing their wigs, picking up a mic stand, and screaming in deep low voices while threatening to attack the judges with their new improvised weapon. They actively start swinging a heavy metal pole at the judges' table, making impact and causing the show to have to cut away.
The Mermaid Sisters again in more deft hands could have been interesting characters, and I can't deny in isolation their swearing-filled song is fun and catchy, but the scene as a whole once again presents characters who don't neatly fit the cisgender heterosexual binary as being prone to physical violence at the drop of a hat.
Lastly, I want to talk about Desmond, the final character that this show included that pushed me over the edge to stop watching. Clearly designed to be a David Bowie-style singer, Desmond is an eccentric performer who lives in an egg-shaped greenhouse containing a rocket-shaped piano and a beautiful garden.
Desmond is initially described in the English dub of Carole & Tuesday as "not [having] a gender." The subtitles describe Desmond as being intersex, but the dub then refers to them as nonbinary. Once again, in the space of a few sentences, the show throws out three different descriptions for Desmond's identity, several of which actively mean different things to each other, and it makes it really frustrating to understand the actual intended reading of the character.
Once again, as with Dahlia at the start of the show, Desmond discusses that their nebulously non-gendered status is a result of their environment, stating that the atmosphere on Mars causes some kind of radiation that affects some portion of the population and increases the rate of people born who are not cisgender.
Both the Sub and the Dub then complicate and confuse things even further by stating that Desmond "was born a man, but [is] slowly becoming a woman," which again sounds more like being trans than being intersex or nonbinary. The show is describing what sounds like someone assigned male at birth who became female over the course of their life as a result of scary radiation.
The show then doubles back again, scrapping the idea that Desmond is becoming a woman, instead stating that they are returning to some nonbinary genderless state of being.
Desmond is also presented as maybe being gay? It's unclear. They loved a man in a flashback where masculine pronouns are used suggesting Desmond still identified as male at the time. At this point, I was really losing track of how the show wanted me to understand this character. One thing was clear: They were some variety of queer.
Then, oops, Desmond dies in the same episode they are introduced. After one beautiful song is sung, we find out they skipped taking their heart medication because it was messing up their voice and we witness an LGBTQIA+ character introduced just so they could die within the same episode. They died in order to let the main characters hear them sing once in an episode, which doesn't really advance the overall plot in any meaningful way.
I think what makes Carole & Tuesday's missteps with LGBTQIA+ representation so frustrating is that the overall show has really sweet, soft queer energy and even one or two tasteful examples of queer representation fleetingly dropped in. One really nice example overshadowed by all the above is Marie, the ex-wife of Carole and Tuesday's manager who ended her marriage after realizing she was gay. Her very brief story of coming to terms with her sexuality, politely leaving her partner, and becoming more confident and happy as a result was lovely. There are a few casual references to other characters in the series being LGBT too, but the only characters for whom these aspects of identity are put front and center are the characters prone to violent outbursts against our main cast of heroes. Dahlia gets an attempted redemption before the show ends, but it doesn't change the fact that she spends much of the show presented as the scary child-beating trans woman.
If I try to think back on the show's attempts at queer representation, my mind can't help first jumping to the sight of someone male-assigned or same-sex attracted leaping to violence for not getting their way. I had such high hopes for Carole & Tuesday. It's just a shame they spoiled their sweet premise with such repeated harmful representations of queer characters.