A love letter to Gentleman Jack: Why we think Suranne Jones’ 19th century lesbian is a queer TV hero
I came out to my mum while watching television. Being a snotty mess with tears streaming down my face in front of an episode of Modern Family was never my original intention. It turns out these things rarely go to plan. But with hindsight my coming out couldn’t have happened in a more appropriate setting.
My stomach dropped when I first saw two women kiss on screen. It was Sonia and Naomi on EastEnders and it terrified me. It terrified me because I had been taught by society that was not normal or acceptable. It also terrified me because I knew deep down that I also liked girls. Cue the internalised homophobia that buried those feelings and made me deeply ashamed for having ever thought them.
In my teen years television became my escape; the boxset after boxset I went through can attest to that. And it was queer representation that made me feel seen, made me feel valid and eventually encouraged me to come out. I’ll forever be grateful to the likes of Emily in Skins and Callie and Arizona in Grey’s Anatomy.
But this is a love letter to Gentleman Jack, which is expected to return to the BBC next month. A tribute to positive representation and the acknowledgement of queer women in history. The series follows wealthy lesbian landowner and diarist Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) in the 1830s as she, quite literally, stomps round Yorkshire having affairs with other aristocratic women. The series is based in historical fact with writer Sally Wainwright using Lister’s own - often heavily coded - diaries as source material. Lister’s romancing of her neighbour Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) and their eventual ‘marriage’ is fundamental to the first series.
Though ‘representation’ can sometimes feel like a buzzword, the tangible difference it made to my life has made me a staunch advocate of the good type. Crucially, Gentleman Jack presents a well-rounded depiction of how lesbian romances might have been carried out in a time when such acts were seen as sinful (if it was even believed that - shock - two women were capable of such things).
All romantic scenes are carefully considered. There is purpose; not to titillate or appease the male gaze but to illustrate personality traits and to show genuine love and feeling between the characters. Both Jones and Rundle have noted the importance of the show’s intimacy coordinator in allowing them to feel comfortable in exploring the realistic physicalities of queer sex. Anne Lister isn’t a flawless character either. You don’t always like her or what she stands for. But her sexuality is never shown as a point of pain or a weakness.
And while Lister struts round Halifax in complete contradiction to the patriarchal impositions of the time, those burdens aren’t invisible. Her gender non-conformity (she deliberately dresses in clothes that evoke male fashions rather than the frothy outfits typically worn by women of the time) is heavily judged and she has a reputation that follows her everywhere. In typical Anne fashion, she doesn’t particularly care. And neither, happily, do her family. Her long-suffering sister Marian (played wonderfully by Gemma Whelan) can’t win against her strong sibling and her aunt Anne - yes there is an abundance of Annes - is something of a confidante to Lister when it comes to matters of the heart.
One of the most powerful aspects of Gentleman Jack is that the series outright refuses the notion that being queer is a modern invention. We’re obviously not saying that lesbianism only became a thing with the first onscreen kiss in Brookside in 1994. But much of television would have us believe that women loving women simply didn’t exist in a historical context.
There are obvious - and brilliant - exceptions, my favourite being Dickinson, the AppleTV+ comedy which stars Hailee Steinfeld as American poet Emily Dickinson and Ella Hunt as her lover and sister-in-law (yes, really) Sue. It is utter genius and flawlessly executes Emily’s exploration of her queer identity. The similarity? Both Gentleman Jack and Dickinson are based on real people - must a queer woman have actually existed before TV will consider a period plot line for them? Maybe it’s time to make some up?
Of course it would be reductive to argue that Lister’s mere existence makes her a queer hero. That’s certainly not the case. Her unapologetic sense of self and Gentleman Jack’s handling of her realistically messy romances does that job. But be in no doubt, Anne Lister’s story is extraordinary. And yet, once decoded and her lesbian life revealed, her diaries narrowly escaped burning. It just goes to show how easily Lister could have been forgotten entirely. I dread to think of all the rich, beautiful stories from history that have been erased simply because a person happened to be queer. How many other Anne Listers did have their diaries destroyed, or destroyed them themselves, through shame?
It’s why I’m sympathetic, if not entirely adherent, to the argument that only LGB actors should play LGB roles. Enough queer people have been erased that they now deserve to take centre stage in the telling of queer stories. Yet it’s a complicated matter. For my part, I’m not, in theory, opposed to a straight actor taking a queer role. How do you know with complete certainty that someone is straight, and how is it your business? Not every actor is out nor should they feel pressured to come out. And what if a queer actor is then, against their desires, only ever cast in queer roles?
It’s something that the non-binary actor Jesse James Keitel has spoken about; I also think of Dominique Provost-Chalkley. The Wynonna Earp star came out as queer and later non-binary, crediting their role on the show and the meeting of queer fans as having helped them embrace their identity. Suranne Jones recently spoke of how fans told her that Gentleman Jack helped them come out. That’s a very real and tangible consequence of excellent writing and excellent performances, irrespective of an actor’s sexuality.
Positive representation didn’t stop having an impact as soon as I came out. I still get excited seeing queer women grace my screen and I still learn a lot from their journeys. As the second series of Gentleman Jack approaches I can’t wait to see Anne and Ann settle into life as ‘wife and wife’ and the realities that come with that.
Yes, this is a love letter to Gentleman Jack but, in truth, there are so many other love letters I could write. And as for tears in front of the telly? My mum has now taken over on that front, crying tears of pure joy when David and Patrick got married on Schitt’s Creek. On the day I came out I never thought that would have been possible. Good representation does matter.
Gentleman Jack series two will be on the BBC One in the spring. Series one is on iPlayer now