The Umbrella Academy is an illustrated comic series turned Netflix Original that follows the adventures of seven supernatural siblings as they try to stop an impending apocalypse. Each character is uniquely traumatized by their upbringing (raised by a Frankenstein-esque scientist named Sir Reginald Hargreeves), yet have a special power to bring to the table.
While the show itself has incredible writing, production and narrative, there was something that really stood out to the whole Queers in Space team: the two queer-coded characters (Vanya and Klaus) are routinely othered, silenced and, frankly, disrespected by the rest of the characters. Ultimately, it is Klaus and Vanya who end up being two of the most powerful characters on the show, but for most of the season they are perceived by their siblings as annoying and weak. They are regularly told to shut up, be quiet and listen to the two traditionally masculine siblings, Luther and Diego.
We have so many questions.
Was the disrespectful treatment of two queer-coded characters written intentionally? Are the writers making a comment on the silencing and shaming of queer communities or are they, like so many other writing teams, subconsciously playing into it?
As any queer woman who watched The Umbrella Academy knows, Ellen Page as Vanya was queer-coded as hell. Ellen Page’s rampant gayness in her personal life (check her Instagram for adorable lesbian content) does aid Vanya’s queer-coding, but it doesn’t cause it. The costumes for Vanya are classic lesbian fashion from head to toe. From button-ups (buttoned ALL the way up, mind you) to loose fitting pants to a full-on tuxedo, Vanya ALWAYS looked like she was headed to your local lesbian happy hour. Which made her relationship with Leonard Peabody so confusing. Did the writers and costume designers mean to make the audience perceive Vanya as gay? Would that make her relationship with Leonard another symptom of her inability to accept herself and her true nature? If the the answer to both of those questions is no, why was she so aggressively portrayed as gender non-conforming? Let us make note here that, of course, not all gender non-conforming people are gay. But when a television show is making such a bold choice as to a character’s costume and affect, we have to ask why. Especially when the othering and silencing that character experiences is suspiciously not unlike the othering and silencing queer people and communities have experienced for centuries.
Klaus, played by Robert Sheehan, is deeply queer-coded as well, but, unlike Vanya, does end up being shown in a homosexual partnership by the end of the season. Like Vanya, he is constantly harassed and underestimated by his siblings. Klaus implores the other members of the academy to notice that his powers have improved and that he is finally getting out of the cycle of addiction, but his words fall on deaf ears. It is painfully familiar to see a queer man be routinely told he is weak, lost and simply not good enough. Klaus is haunted (literally) by ghosts from the past and struggles to get by without numbing himself. This motif is also familiar to queer folks. As people who, very often, didn’t understand ourselves for a long time, many of us carry painful memories that we struggle to live with. Whether it's being bullied, having sex we didn’t really want to have, or simply being lost in a world of compulsory heterosexuality, these memories can hold us back from being the people we want to be. Not to mention the ongoing oppression those in the queer community, especially trans, black and brown folks, experience every day.
The Original Question
Our questions about these characters are made more complicated by the fact that the source material, Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba’s comic books, do not queer-code nor give homosexual storylines to either Vanya or Klaus. Meaning the writers and creators of the show decided to create uniquely queer personas that did not exist originally for these two characters, even going as far as writing a gay storyline for one. We return to the question I originally asked: was the disrespectful treatment of two queer-coded characters written intentionally as a comment on the silencing and othering of queer people? Some may wonder if it matters. Even if they didn’t mean to write it that way, maybe it’s enough that the connection is powerful and that queer folks are getting representation in media.
I wholeheartedly disagree with that line of thinking. It matters so much whether or not the writing team created this dynamic with the obstacles queer folks face in mind, or if they just sort of happened to add queer personas to the Hargreeves family’s black sheeps.
The former means that The Umbrella Academy is a show and franchise that queer people can trust. It means we can happily watch season two knowing that our stories and lives will be taken seriously and given as much credence and power as those of straight people. It means we don’t have to be worried about being killed off unceremoniously or portrayed as the stereotypes we’ve been desperately trying to escape. The latter means the exact opposite. It means the writing team haphazardly created queer characters who suffer at the hands of their family members without considering what that would mean for their queer viewers. Without considering how we would inevitably relate in deep, emotional ways. It means they aren’t thinking about us in their writing of season two. That we may never see Vanya’s obvious gender non-conformity or Klaus’ queer identity properly addressed.
Unfortunately, the show’s writing does not lead me to believe that the creators did, indeed, write Klaus’ and Vanya’s experiences with queerness in mind. The othering these two characters experience is never explored by the show through dialogue, monologue or any other form as relating to their queerness. It’s a connection that, possibly, only queer viewers could make based on experience alone. The show completely neglects to explore how their queer personas interplays with their storylines and relationships with others. The personas are sort of just, there.
A Tale as Old as the White Heteropatriarchy
Sadly, this type of hollow representation isn’t new. Writing teams of movies and television shows have been haphazardly popping in oppressed identities into storylines without any idea how to handle them for a long time. This has especially happened to black and brown folks. White writing teams have consistently attempted to achieve diversity points by adding POC to their cast of characters, all the while refusing to hire any writers with the capability to really tell those stories. This structural myopia has led to such on-screen tragedies as that of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the Netflix remake of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. A black witch was portrayed being lynched by Sabrina due to a team of ignorant writers who failed to recognize what that image meant to black audiences. Who failed to recognize the history of black oppression and how that image resurfaces and reopens wounds that are far from being healed.
My advice to writing teams: do not add characters to your show that you don’t know how to write. Do not write a black female character if you don’t have the personal experiences that would allow you to understand the complexities of being both black and a woman. Don’t write queer-coded characters if you don’t know how to integrate their queerness into every facet of their lives.
Better yet, write in as many characters with diverse identities into your show as you can fit. Then, hire a team of writers with diverse identities. Hire people who know how to write the characters that you don’t understand. Stop trusting yourself to tell other people’s stories. You’re doing a bad job and we’re getting sick of it.
The world may not want to see queer characters in their fullness. Perhaps it’s easier to imagine queerness as something that is exclusive to sex, rather than a whole way of being. In the words of Audre Lorde, if we don’t define ourselves for ourselves than we will “be crunched into other people’s fantasies and eaten alive.” It’s time for queer folks to be allowed to define themselves in media. Long past time.