I could be missing something, but John Barrowman as Captain Jack does seem to be a new kind of gay presence in Britain's Saturday evening TV telly schedules. Here's my friendly-critical piece on his Making Of Me programme for the Beeb.
We like John Barrowman in our house. He’s a dashing star of some of our favourite TV shows especially Doctor Who where he plays Captain Jack Harkness, the time travelling bi-guy who can’t die. Jack’s quite a character, flirting with guys and gals alike but signaling gayness loud and clear to any viewer primed to receive.
As Jack, Barrowman's is not your established Saturday evening telly-homo performance. We’re accustomed to camp comperes, but not to an action hero with a certain kind of shine in his eyes. Last night he presented an authored documentary in the form of a quest into the mystery of his own sexuality. For all the reasons above I watched with interest and sympathy. Yet the programme was a missed opportunity.
A belief system reasserting that microbiology is destiny has become a feature of the modern age. Fostered largely by a lazy and credulous media but often encouraged by the hubris of new frontier scientists, it privileges the hormone, the gene, the DNA molecule over all other factors in explaining why humans behave as they do. One of its key revealed wisdoms – one of its articles of faith – is that there is a gene “for” everything, some ultimate explainer of whatever we feel, think and do.
As such, the scepticism and objectivity that science rightly takes such pride in is all but abandoned in the service of an ideology, one that reduces the study of the human social being to a set of “hard-wired” reflexes that must not be merely recognised but honoured as sovereign. To challenge them is to risk being labelled a flat-earther or a crank.
Barrowman’s programme – the first in a new BBC popular science series called The Making Of Me – exemplified this new orthodoxy. This was apparent both in the intellectual framing of the show and, affectingly, in the emotional hunger protested by its subject-presenter. The former was based on the premise that the argument about where homosexuality comes from is essentially one between those who say it’s nurture and those who say it’s nature and that the truth lies in which of these irreconcilable opponents makes the best case. Barrowman’s motive, meanwhile, in embarking on his search was to confirm his conviction that he was “born this way” and to therefore arm himself against those – basically the religious right, although this was never quite said - who contend that homosexuality is a decadent and harmful lifestyle choice.
With such biases at work and, of course, the celebrity angle ever present, it wasn’t therefore surprising that so much time was spent on Barrowman taking part in earnest-but-giggly laboratory experiments, involving having him look at sexy pictures while machines monitored his brain and private parts. The “nurture” side of the debate was mostly dealt with by way of family reminiscences. Was his mother overbearing? Was his father emotionally distant?
Barrowman knew what he wanted to hear. He embraced an evolutionary psychologist who told him, that typically of gay men, a test showed he had the vocabulary of a heterosexual woman. This, apparently, had to be caused by “hard-wiring” (in EP, where such tests are held sacred, no other explanation for anything is given houseroom.) He was puzzled to be informed of a heterosexual relationship between his ring and index fingers. Research claiming that gay men tend to have shorter index than ring fingers has been around for years, but the programme didn’t tell us that its value is contested.
Such was the problem with both the programme and the agenda it conformed to. While it acknowledged the “nurture” side of the argument and that the science of the “nature” side is not conclusive, Barrowman returned from his voyage of discovery convinced and relieved that his gayness was innate rather than learned. I'm not quarreling with him. Yet almost no consideration was given to the possibility that homosexuality might very often be explained by some unmappable combination or interaction between the two supposed polarities of the innate and environment; something that might explain the interviewee in the programme who challenged most strongly the otherwise prevailing assumption that sexuality is best explained by some fixed factor in the brain.
Barrowman was intrigued to meet the greying American man who’d once been gay but had changed into a married heterosexual because he felt that he'd been causing hurt and harm. Was the man lying to the programme? To himself? If not, how had this change occurred? Whatever we may think of the “ex gay” phenomenon, how does the “born this way” thesis explain him? And here, I suppose, we bump up against the inconvenient realities that the new microbiology-in-destiny theology tends to ignore, not least the enduring tendency of human sexuality to refuse to always fit neatly into pigeonholes like “straight” and “gay” but to shift and change in all sorts of unpredictable ways that no gene alone is ever likely to account for.
This, and all my Guardian stuff here.