Filming Sex and Love as a ‘Collaborative Work of Art’
There’s no denying Sense8’s most important legacy lies in the power of representation offered by such a diverse set of characters. It has built a very loyal fanbase all around the world because of it, and particularly so in LGBTQIA communities. If that’s a topic better discussed by those personally concerned with underrepresentation, I’d like to talk about something that is directly related.
What struck me most with Sense8, and what made it one of my favourite shows of the last few years, was its depiction of relationships, love, and ultimately, sex.
As a joke, I sometimes tried to entice people to watch the show by telling them about the telepathic orgies. The truth is, if someone had tried to sell the show to me, telling me about orgies would have had the opposite effect. But that’s because I had no way to know how powerful those scenes would be.
Graphic depictions of sex on TV are very often problematic or unnecessary. I remember a time a few years ago when I wondered which show, of Game of Thrones and Spartacus, had the most sex scenes per episode ratio. I was getting tired of all of it, to be honest. In Spartacus at least, sex was filmed with sensuality and it was most often consensual, which in general made it enjoyable enough to watch. It wasn’t devoid of the ‘male gaze’ though. With Game of Thrones however, I can’t remember more than a couple sex scenes in its entire run without an element of incest, rape or prostitution. It’s always uncomfortable to watch.
Enter Sense8, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Not only is sex (con)sensual, it’s beautiful. It is artistic. It’s also spiritual. It’s not sex as filmed to sell to a male audience. It doesn’t feel anything like porn. It doesn’t feel much like my experience of real life sex either, because of the way it’s filmed. I don’t think that’s the point, however.
The show is about humanity, and how love makes us human. It tells us love has no rules, no shape, and no limit.
It takes us through love in all its forms, as it takes shape in between people that have never met but share a collective mind and identity. We get to see as they become a family. We watch the extent to which people would go to help their friends, out of love.
Finally, we see each and every one of those characters in loving relationships, sometimes with several people. The show doesn’t judge, it doesn’t set barriers. Everything is possible. Love is transcendent. Every time we could expect the show to explore the road of jealousy or rivalry, it reminds us that monogamy too is questionable. Love isn’t finite, there’s enough of it to go around. Its series finale’s title, « Amor Vincit Omnia », was very well-chosen.
Most interesting though, is how the show manages to depict love. In the cinematic world, you can’t tell the audience how characters feel, you have to show them. You need to elicit these feelings in your viewers. The deep family-like love they all feel for each other is made very palpable through musical sequences. Music unites both characters and viewers in that collective experience. But it also uses sex, among other things, to show the depths of romantic love.
I never felt like the show tried to be sexy. It is often sexual, of course. But it does not play into familiar tropes. It does not objectify. It does not use clichéd one-liners that are supposed to make our panties drop to the floor. It does not try to show the ‘gritty, primal nature’ of sex.
What it does, is demonstrate what love and sex can be, or what they should be. Because many of the characters can feel not only their own feelings but also their partner’s, any sort of selfishness disappears. Sex is depicted as a way to go beyond self, beyond geography, beyond matter and physicality, beyond body; together.
The other amazing thing is how Sense8 achieves it, whether in ‘regular’ sex scenes or telepathic orgies. How it uses slow-motion and short visuals that go back and forth to either different characters, or the same characters in another location. And the way it’s all tied up together beautifully with sound, and great musical choices. I do not know a thing about making film or TV, but I’ve watched enough of it to recognise exceptional work, and this is. It makes love itself feel like an art form, one that individuals would express through sex.
And when I think of love as an art form, I’m reminded of Mandy Len Catron’s beautiful TED Talk, in which she argues the way we talk about love is wrong. We ‘fall’ in love, we’re ‘crazy’ in love, it makes us ‘sick’. Our hearts ‘ache’ and then ‘break’. Instead of those unhealthy metaphors, she offers another one: to think about love as a ‘collaborative work of art’.
Sense8 does that wonderfully. The show keeps telling us there are no rules regarding love and relationships. It demonstrates how love can exist in all shapes and sizes, how there’s no one way to love. It tells us to listen to our senses, and our feelings, which is an essential part of art. Like art, it is diverse. Like art, it is limitless. Finally, there’s no shortage of collaboration within the show. Everyone has something to bring to the table, and the characters keep uniting in order to survive and succeed. The orgies themselves are the show’s way of illustrating how the characters each collaborate to the others’ pleasure. Through sex, they build a shared experience and a love story together.
I know I will miss the show terribly. As we all get ready to say goodbye, it’s important to remind ourselves of the many things that made it great.
Sense8’s messages about love, sexuality, and inclusivity, are part of its legacy. And it’s one part I hope will keep inspiring both viewers and creators in shaping the future.