Header Ads

Netflix's Q Force: A Win For LGBTQ+ Representation In Animation or Missed Opportunity?

It’s 2021, it’s America, and the top brass at the CIA – oops, the AIA – is incredibly homophobic. Like soooooo homophobic you won’t believe it. No, really, you’ll see. Enter Q-Force, a team of queer superspies bent (no pun) on saving the world.  Q-Force springs from the creative mind of Gabe Liedman, who wrote and produced on NBC’s smash-hit comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and the creative stylings of animation studio Titmouse (Big Mouth, Star Trek: Lower Decks), with big names like Sean Hayes (of Will & Grace fame) and Michael Schur (The Good Place, Parks and Recreation) weighing in on the production side.

It’s not the first fully queer animated show – that honour probably goes to the 2018 Netflix show Super Drags, a Brazilian production featuring three drag superheroes (think PowerPuff Girls on bad acid) which even the vocal talents of RuPaul’s Drag Race royalty Ginger Minj, Shangela and Trixie Mattel couldn’t rescue. Super Drags, Sashay Away...

The Q-Force story kicks off in 2011. When the US Government repeals ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, Steve Merryweather aka Mary (Sean Hayes) decides to use his speech as spy school valedictorian to come out as gay. It doesn’t go well. Ultra-homophobe AIA Director, Dirk Chunley (Gary Cole) steps in, to give the award instead to neanderthal Rick Buck (David Harbour) on account of him being super-straight.

Mary is banished to set up an AIA office in the gayest place in the world, West Hollywood, but fast forward ten years and we find him bored and frustrated due to lack of active missions, and his queer team – lesbian mechanic-cum-team mom, Deb (Wanda Sykes), master of disguise drag queen, Twink (Matt Rogers); and genius hacker Stat (Patti Harrison) – fed up and ready to quit.

When Q-Force ignore a direct order from their sympathetic but frustrated minder, V (Laurie Metcalf) and go into the field, they prove their worth and are finally given active missions from on one condition: Buck, the straight ape who wants a proper office so he can smell his own farts, gets to “go babysit the Sodomites”. Ouch.  What follows is a ten-episode plot arc which takes us through almost every gay situation and queer calamity imaginable, from illegal raves to drag shows, lesbian BBQs to ‘meet the parents’, with episode titles such as “Backache Mountain” and “Europevision“ ramming home the point, if you’ll forgive the innuendo. And if you watch Q-Force, you’ll get a ton of innuendo, some very on-the-nose gay humour and lots of nudity, swearing and gay sex.

Most eye-catching aspect of the show is the voice talent on display. Sean Hayes (Will & Grace, The Cat in the Hat) and David Harbour (Stranger Things, Hellboy) make the perfect sparring odd couple – though if you’re a gay man you’ll be wondering when they’re going to get it on. Stand-up comedian Wanda Sykes voices the lesbian linchpin of the team while Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne, Scream, The Big Bang Theory) and Gary Cole (The West Wing, The Good Wife) play the AIA bosses. Relative unknown Matt Rogers – who is also a staff writer – steps up (in heels, obviously) as drag queen Twink while Patti Harrison (Ruthie, in Hulu’s Shrill) plays the misanthropic nerd hacker. Creator Gabe Liedman gets to voice the adorable bear-next-door Benji and a few familiar voices pop in here and there, including Stephanie Beatriz (Rosa Diaz in Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Allison Janney (The Hours, Juno, Hairspray) and Jane Lynch (Sue Silvester in Glee).

Q-Force is recognisably a creature of the Titmouse stable, resembling Star Trek: Lower Decks and to an extent Big Mouth. It’s by-the-numbers animation for the most part, lacking the distinctive style of Archer, for instance, but the characters are fun, have their own identities, and – for a G viewer at least – are nice to look at when they get naked. Which is a lot. Especially the straight guy, Buck (Buck, buck-naked, geddit?). 


What you won’t get – and some people will see this as a big problem for a show describing itself as LGBTQ+ – is bisexuality, trans representation or much suggestion of ‘+’ – anyone gender fluid, asexual or aromantic, for instance.

In fact, the show feels quite lopsided. There’s a lot of male nudity, some gay sex and some straight sex, but only one instance of partial female nudity. To (badly) paraphrase Darth Vader: “The G is strong in this Force”. Not that I’m complaining, but I’m acutely aware that a lot of people in the wider LGBTQ+ community will have a big problem with that. The lack of Trans references – not least because trans people are on the frontline in the seemingly endless war on discrimination – is noticeable, and glaring. Actor Patti Harrison is a trans woman, but it’s not clear her character, the hacker Stat, is.  Stat – a misanthropic loner – seems to be asexual/aromantic to kick off with, but then gets into a clumsily-handled romance (no spoilers) which will have most ace people throwing things at the TV, until they realise it probably wasn’t about them anyway. This feels like a real mishit, a failure on the part of a declaredly queer show to understand an always-overlooked part of the community.


Q-Force has already come in for a fair bit of hate online, after the streaming channel posted first a teaser (uber hate for that one) and then a trailer (less hate on that one, but not by much. At time of writing the YouTube Thumbs Downs were on top, the Thumbs Up on the bottom, 8.8k to 3.3k). In fairness, I can understand how Pam saying “Deb and I merged our bank accounts on the first date” or “bee sustainability – that sounds like a job for the lesbians” is going to enrage some viewers, though if I’m honest none of the (male) gay humour irked me in the least which doesn’t feel like equal opportunity offending.

The divide may not just be intra-community/queer-political, but generational too. A lot of the references are quite dated now – Rue McLanahan, Debra Winger, Ally McBeal, Mrs Doubtfire etc – and Q-Force often feels like it was made for an older audience. Internet critics are correct to point out that the main characters are stereotypes: the butch lesbian mechanic and her therapist wife with the twenty rescue pit bulls in the garage; the bitchy, always-fabulous drag queen; the introverted, misanthropic hacker; the muscle-mary literally called Mary; even the knuckle-dragging hairy shag-anything straight guy.

But it’s important to understand what’s going on here. Superspies with rocket cars and gadget watches – the AIA Spy Watch dispenses Viagra, lube and a string of spaghetti (“Haven’t you ever seen Lady and the Tramp?”) for a night of spy sex – have always been ludicrous stereotypes, which is why Austin Powers was such a runaway success.  Viewed from that perspective the main characters in Q-Force are no different to the spies we’re used to seeing on TV and in movies. Like their straight counterparts, our heroes are thrown into relief by the ordinary people in their lives: Deb’s therapist wife Pam and their diverse group of lesbian friends, the hot bear-next-door Benji who Mary ends up dating and so on.

The protagonists grow on us as they develop, stereotypes gradually becoming real people we end up rooting for. By episode four, I wanted to see Deb kick-ass, wanted to see Stat sneak her way into the mainframe, wanted to see Twink slay the latest drag challenge. And wanted to see more of Buck naked. Winner winner chicken dinner on all of the above, as it turned out. This is just as well. The spy plot is overwrought and more bananas than Bond, the gadgetry uninspired, the AIA underdeveloped. But tackling real issues – discrimination, loneliness, falling in love, the constant conflict between demanding careers and any kind of relationship – adds enough depth to carry the dedicated viewer through ten episodes.

I say dedicated because you’ll need to be dedicated to get through it. There are plenty of witty one-liners, put-downs and snap-backs, but you have to be clued in to gay culture – and it is mostly Gay Male culture – for them to really land.

Take for instance: “His parties aren’t our vibe. Ours are ‘let’s get high and watch Chicago. His are ‘let’s bleach our assholes and our teeth.’” Or: “Because of you, your partner now needs to milk bears. And that’s why I came back from Fort Lauderdale with carpal tunnel.” Or: “who’s doing [AIA] recruiting, Sean Cody?”

I happen to have been to plenty of Pride parades, to West Hollywood, Palm Springs, Fort Lauderdale, drag shows, pool parties and last-minute raves and have watched lots of Eurovision (and Brokeback Mountain) so was snickering, chuckling and occasionally guffawing my way through it, but if you’re not on the scene (or hate it) or if you’re straight, good luck.

For all that, I enjoyed Q-Force and am glad it got made. God knows there has been plenty of gay coding in animation (He-Man, Thundercats, She-Ra, the list goes on – one of my mates even used to fancy Mr Ben!) and shows like The Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad have had multiple gay episodes, but we’ve never had anything this unabashedly queer before.  That it takes big swings and misses a few of the more challenging ones is disappointing. Ducking trans, ace and non-binary issues is inexcusable for a show that brands itself LGBTQ+ and makes me wonder what happened. Was this the usual ‘dead hand of the studio execs’ or did Universal fear a Twitterstorm from the vocal ‘Gender Critical’ movement?

A more nuanced, more determinedly diverse approach might have made the show timeless as opposed to novel, and if the online reactions to the trailers are indicative of general viewer reaction, Q-Force might be quietly buried in the gay canon along with pernicious dreck like Vicious (Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as ageing queens) and misfires like Normal, Ohio (John Goodman plays a gay man returning home to a small town in the Midwest after coming out).

But we need to put Q-Force in context: it’s a TV show – and an animated one at that – not a political manifesto. It’s wild, raunchy and queer AF. In the year I was born, in my country (the UK), it was illegal to be gay. It wasn’t until I was thirty that I could say hi to another man at a bus stop without fear of being arrested. I’ve only been able to get married for a few years. I take none of my hard-won rights for granted because I can remember what it was like before. The ire of the younger generation is understandable, but for me, the mere existence of Q-Force is a testament to just how far we have come within a single person’s lifetime – and I ain’t dead yet – a show where virtually all the main characters are gay (cf Will & Grace, which was a ‘collision of the worlds’ comedy, not a ‘gay show’).

Then again, if Q-Force bombs or gets cancelled after one season, maybe that does have greater ramifications, in a way that wouldn’t happen for a ‘regular’ (= straight) show. Because as Mary says: “We’re the first queer agents in the field ever. I feel so much pressure to be the best, because if I mess up, I don’t know if anyone else like us is going to get the chance”.

Mark Brandon has been a fan of all things animated since he can remember, and a writer since he could put pen to paper. He lives in the south of Scotland, where he writes science fiction and fantasy, goes for walks in the country and lifts big bits of metal up and down (mainly for vanity’s sake).