Tales Of The City: Celebrating Being Queer
“We are done being erased”.
Based on one of Armistead Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’ book, this Netflix show is loosely inspired by the final three books and is a sequel to the original TV adaptations of the 90s. The leading cast included Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton and Olympia Dukakis as Mrs Madrigal, who were also part of the 90s cast, along with Elliot Page as Shawna Hawkins, Paul Gross as Brian Hawkins, Murray Bartlet as Micheal ‘Mouse’ Tolliver, Charlie Bennet as Ben Marshall, Garcia as Jake Rodriguez and May Hong as Margot Park. ‘Tales of the City’, which is both brilliant and eccentric, had a team of queer writers dedicated to show that not every queer individual’s journey is the same, just like not every cis/het person’s journey is same.
“Once you feel seen by someone, the way Anna Madrigal makes you feel seen, you don’t wanna leave”. — Michael ‘Mouse’ says in a faux documentary.
28 Barbary Lane is preeminent as a sanctuary for the queer community and every city deserves to have of its own. It is more than just a living space for people, it is a safe haven where neighbors become chosen families who help each other out. Where they educate each other when it comes to queerness and the LGBTQIA+ community and show that tolerance is no longer sufficient when the goal should be acceptance and acknowledgment. Maupin’s creation of Barbary Lane has a wistful appeal, a place away from the worry and stress of modern life. The eternal essence of Barbary Lane and the city’s loyalty to its mother figure, makes this series worth watching. Yes, the show is mostly about the queer community, but it is also a lot more than that. It is about what a chosen family looks like, the people who love you even on days when you feel like you are unlovable. The people who see your heart, who welcome you with open arms and believe in you, even if you are messy, complicated and imperfect. ‘Tales Of The City’ shows us what unconditional love looks like and that everyone deserves it.
The original ‘Tales of the City’ was about a prim, blond twenty-something Mary Ann Singleton who escapes from Ohio to San Francisco and finds friends in her eclectic group of neighbours at Barbary Lane. Among many things, Tales of the City was one of the first series to normalize queer culture. Cutting 20 years forward, Mary Ann returns to San Francisco for the first time after leaving to pursue her TV career. She comes back to celebrate Anna Madrigal’s 90th birthday and is accompanied by her second husband, Robert Watson (Michael Park). She reconnects with the ones she had left behind namely: her best friend Michael whom she refers to as ‘Mouse’, her ex-husband Brian who is still upset with her for leaving her family behind, Shawna who is their adoptive daughter but is not aware of that fact and of course Anna, trans woman,our cannabis loving landlady of Barbary Lane. Micheal still lives there and Shawna lives there as well instead with her father. Her neighbours include Jake who identifies as trans man, Margot who identifies as lesbian, Jonathan and Jennifer (twins) are seen trying to become Instagram stars with their cartoonish schemes.
On her return Mary Ann tries to connect with Shawna but is shaken when she finds out that Shawna believes she’s her biological mother. Her fixation on this fact makes her blind towards Shawna’s feelings of abandonment. Her refusal to acknowledge that she is the only one responsible for Shawna’s cold behaviour towards her, provides the central emotional arc. But when Anna announces that she has decided to sell Barbary Lane, Mary Ann and Shawna work together to solve the mystery as they are bound by their love for Anna and Barbary Lane. Although they misinterpret some of the situation, this love for Anna brings them a little closer to each other. Aside from their own journey, there is so much more going on in the series. Jake and Margot try to modify their relationship after Jake’s transition changes his desires but find it difficult. Brian is trying to explore the dating world again and ends up messing up a good thing with his hilarious and straightforward neighbour, Wrenita Butler (Michelle Buteau).
Michael, a cis white man and his young black boyfriend Ben face challenges of intergenerational dating when Michael’s smoldering ex-boyfriend shows up. The generational gap is quite visible when Michael and Ben were at a dinner party and one of the party guests uses the term “mexican trannies” and Ben calls them out on their offensiveness. This only enrages the assembled company and one man fires back with:
“Why is your generation obsessed with labels? Any so-called privilege that we happen to enjoy at this moment was won……… I will not be told off by someone who wasn’t there”.
While at the face of it, it is telling of the divided sense of history, where one generation remembers the pain and the struggle profoundly, another may not be fully aware of it, there is also a grappling with how much more difficult it has become in a world like ours today, where intersectional marginalization continues to harm some much more deeply than it does others. Another incident which highlights the divide between the queer community today is when Ben discovers Mouse’s old phone book and sees the crossed out numbers of all the friends he lost, who died fighting for the rights and privileges they enjoy now. However, this does not, in any way, undermine or trivialize what queer folx face today. While the earlier generations had pushed through the door, the younger generations are still kicking it down, the LGBTQIA+ community has been and is still fighting for respect and visibility.
Creator Lauren Morelli and executive producer Alan Poul, found a way to bring out the complex yet different nuances of queer community in the new series. There are flashbacks to show Anna Madrigal’s journey as a transgender and the anguish felt by her when she, and many other queer folx, had to confrom, or pretend to be someone they are not, just to survive. And those who refused to hide and fought for the basic rights were arrested, assaulted and beaten, their money and valuables were stolen from them, showing how inhumanly they used to be (in many ways still are) treated. Anna Madrigal’s flashback hinges around the Compton Cafeteria Riots which was led by trans women, responding to the police harassment.
The show does not hesitate to address the difficult conversations in queer relationships, like HIV, transphobia and racism. There is a far more understanding and awareness of intersectionality, and the need to use politically correct terminology, among the young today, to reveal how racism and sexism intersect with homophobia and patriarchy. The 2019 adaptation of ‘Tales of the City’ explores the diverse experiences of three generations of LGBTQIA+ community and uncovers that the needs amongst them all remain the same, i.e., the need for connection, living one’s truth and a feeling of being seen.
“I always thought you survived for so long because you pass. But I was wrong. You survived because you are spineless”.
“I just wanted to be happy”.
“I am sorry that you are willing to accept so little”.
In this scene, through this whole dialogue, we are shown the ways in which Anna Madrigal intentionally distances herself from passionate and zealous protests of the 1960s. As she focused on becoming a housewife, she was someone who tended to ‘pass’ quietly and easily when compared to the other trans women, conforming to the conservative and heteronormative standards of femininity during those days. When she gets blackmailed into selling Barbary Lane by a complete stranger who found out that she hasn’t been the community focused activist she claimed to be, we see that she regretted and felt ashamed for failing her trans sisters decades ago. This brings in the idea of social justice and shows us how the strength and courage to passionately pioneer for individual happiness is a real one for those who experience marginalization, and they are deeply rooted in the community wellbeing and freedom. Tales of the City is a brilliant miniseries with each episode unpacking some critical, fun and joyous aspects of queer identity. It is an absolute must watch on our list of recommendations.
The struggle and the stigma, be it social, personal or economic, faced by the queer folx are often if not always, due to the cis/het patriachal and homophobic gender structures of the society. This has adverse effects on their mental helath and the mere thought of discrimination is enough to trigger stress and anxiety. At Pause for Perspective we believe that the individual is not the issue but rather the system that we live in. We believe that mental health counselling is intersectional, hence our approach is mindful and affirmative of queer, social justice and transformational justice based. From gay history lessons to family drama to exploration of identity as well as sexualities, Tales of the City just might be that something which could bing a community together.
Written by Insha Fatima, Writer at Pause for Perspective
and Akshata Chonkar, Fellow at Pause for Perspective.