7 July, 2023.
This review contains spoilers.
Tales of the City primarily focusses on relationships, specifically conflict and budding romances between couples. It's a very realistic take on being LGBT+, in that it doesn't ignore the reality that such couples fight, break up, and even cheat on each other. The cast is hugely diverse, with trans actors playing trans characters, and people of colour in both main and supporting roles.
Palmer, a minor character played by trans actor Marquise Vilsón Balenciaga.
Jake Rodriguez, a main character.
Jake and Margot.
From the very first scene involving Margot and Jake, it's clear that Margot is struggling profoundly with her partner's identity, presentation, and overall life direction. She's exclusively attracted to women and has remained with a partner who is no longer identifying as a woman. When a stranger asks them if they have any children, Margot realises that she is in an assumed-heterosexual relationship due to Jake's presentation, and she is extremely uncomfortable with this. She feels that her identity is being erased, which is entirely reasonable.
While attempting to discuss this discomfort with Jake, she feels the need to add, "I swear to God, if you start in on your 'gender is a construct' speech right now, I will throw this cake at you." I don't know why that comment is necessary or even relevant. Gender being inborn, a construct, or any combination of those two complex realities doesn't change the couple's situation, or the reasons Margot feels uncomfortable.
As a female-to-male transsexual, I've never really understood the insistence on saying "gender is a construct" in situations where it doesn't add to the conversation or even mean anything. I felt that the "gender is a construct" thing was shoehorned in pretty awkwardly, and actually works to erase Margot's lesbian identity further when Jake flippantly implies that yes, gender is a construct, therefore Margot shouldn't feel uncomfortable about the fact that she's not fulfilled in her lesbian identity. It's clear that the pair are unsuited for each other for reasons beyond gender; ultimately, Jake doesn't really care about Margot's distress. He's too determined to believe their relationship hasn't changed, and doesn't want to hear otherwise.
Margot seeking advice from Shawna.
Margot confides in Shawna, a queer woman played by a pre-transition Elliot Page. Shawna accurately guesses, "I think you might still be a lesbian". Margot answers, "Well, Jake says we're queer now," and therein lies the issue. Margot agreed to remain with Jake and to the redefining of their relationship and, now that she's having second thoughts, Jake doesn't want to accept that things have irreparably changed.
Jake and Flaco kissing.
Jake confesses to her that he feels attracted to men, although Margot has already noticed this. He asks for permission to explore with guys, which Margot gives him, although she is clearly uncomfortable and just wants them to be a monogamous couple. Jake spends the night with Flaco, a wonderfully accepting cis man. The scene where they first meet, at Flaco's home, is very beautiful and affirming.
Frustratingly, even after Jake tells Margot he's done experimenting, he remains in contact with Flaco and even sleeps with him before Margot and he are officially broken up. Speaking with Flaco about his struggles, he says, "I'm a fucking mess. It's like a crazy swirl or something, and it's scary. And Margot... She's my only anchor in all of this, and it's like I'm determined to fuck it up, or worse, fuck her up. And I'm starting to fucking hate myself."
What Tales of the City offers isn't a perfect trans person. As a matter of fact, none of the main characters are perfect, which makes the show very valuable and occasionally difficult to watch. The most confronting and important scenes involve Michael (a cis White gay man) and his much younger boyfriend, Ben, who is a cis Black gay man. Michael's unwillingness to confront his gay friends when they make racist and transphobic comments results in intense discomfort for Ben, and ultimately the end of their relationship. This show tackles racism, classism, LGBT+ intergenerational conflict, AIDS, and all kinds of tough topics with incredible grace.
Jake with his sister.
Returning to Jake, I do love many of his scenes. He comes up against gendered obstacles which are faced by many trans men. Despite the fact that he's a nurse who has a lot of knowledge, his sister accuses him of mansplaining when he merely asks her if she has a plan for any complications, because he's concerned about her and wants the birth to go well. He deals with changing cultural expectations from his family, wherein he is both too much of a man, but also not enough of a "real man" to appease both male and female relatives. His profession is mocked by a relative who believes nurses are inferior to doctors. A gay man, assuming Jake is cis, mocks trans men and assumes Jake will agree with his views.
DeDe, Margot's lover.
I was thrilled when Margot moved on from Jake and fully embraced her lesbian identity. I was glad that Tales of the City acknowledged the fact that not all relationships survive a partner transitioning, and that's just reality.
As a trans man, I would definitely recommend this show. It's sometimes frustrating, confronting, and even upsetting, but it's very good. I personally view Jake as a selfish, immature young man. But that's okay. Tales of the City takes a typical soap opera format and inserts LGBT+ identities into tropes which have been thoroughly explored by cishet characters from countless mainstream soap operas. This time, the character who cheats on his girlfriend and hates himself for it happens to be trans. Makes a change from all of the cis blokes and ladies who do it in films and shows!
In terms of general warnings and themes which could make some people uncomfortable, prepare for the following:
Drug use and frequent heavy alcohol use. This includes using alcohol to deal with stress.
Discussed emotional abuse/neglect of children by parents.
Slurs, both reclaimed and used negatively. Many of the characters identify as "queer".
The beating, imprisonment, and implied sexual assault of trans women by police officers.
Explicit sex scenes.
Implied groping and sexual harassment, which is laughed about because the perpetrator is an "old queen". He's "handsy", particularly with the straight man he "has a thing for", which is apparently... funny. To understand why I don't find that funny, see Part 1 and Part 2 of Sexual Assault of Men Played for Laughs.
Another thing that really frustrated me, as a man who has struggled with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, was the misuse of "OCD" to describe non-disordered tidiness and cleanliness. "I am OCD about wiping down the sink." "He's way too OCD." Like... seriously? What fucking year is it? OCD isn't a funny, cute term. It's a struggle and a diagnosis. How can progressive characters, who supposedly care so much about respectful language, justify speaking that way? More seriously, how come nobody stopped the episode from being aired, or took one of the writers aside and said, "hey, this isn't acceptable in 2019"?
These cheap jokes affect real people.