“Based on true events, Gentleman Jack proudly celebrates queer history.”
Title: Gentleman Jack
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creator: Sally Wainwright 👩🏼🇬🇧 based on the diaries of Anne Lister 👩🏼🇬🇧
Directors: Sally Wainwright 👩🏼🇬🇧 (4 eps), Sarah Harding 👩🏼🇬🇧 (2 eps), and Jennifer Perrott 👩🏼🇬🇧🇦🇺 (2 eps)
Writer: Sally Wainwright 👩🏼🇬🇧 (8 eps)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
6/13/2019: Updated LGBTQ category
Hike up your petticoats and get ready to jeté through Gentleman Jack, the playful period drama from BBC One and HBO that follows the written diaries of Anne Lister. Gallantly portrayed by Suranne Jones, Lister was an English landowner from Yorkshire and one of history’s trailblazing women who lived as an unapologetic lesbian in the early 1800s. She wrote over 4 million words in her private journals, almost a million of them in code. Thanks to their unscrambling over a century later, audiences now reap the rewards of seeing Lister’s tumultuous romances with aristocrats like Vere Hobart, Ann Walker, or Mariana Belcombe—played by Jodhi May, Sophie Rundle, and Lydia Leonard—unfold onscreen.
As if clandestine love affairs weren’t compelling enough, the show actively engages its viewers through stylistic quirks like having Lister speak directly into the camera or employing a jaunty theme song throughout the show. Said song, "Gentleman Jack" from Yorkshire’s wife-and-wife team O'Hooley & Tidow, infuses the universe with prancing piano, ascendant folk strings, and pattering claps that deliver an empowered gaiety that laughs in the face of men that would keep our titular hero down.
Unfortunately, overuse of anything will wear out one’s welcome. By the latter half of the season, I found myself sighing at the overabundance of segues and background snippets that hearken back to the same instruments, or the same gait. Accordingly, Gentleman Jack can sometimes feel like a supercut of Lister swaggering in and out of carriages, power-walking to wherever she’s going while dogged by an unwelcome sense of déjà vu. This minor quibble aside, however, the series bowled me over with its fresh and optimistic take on being queer (and privileged) during England’s Industrial Revolution.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Created and penned by Sally Wainwright, a Yorkshire talent whose screenwriting credits reach back to the 1990s, Gentleman Jack boasts strictly female directors in the capturing of a female worldview. While the primary story follows the romance between Lister and Ann Walker, patriarchal forces get in the way through plot points like societal pressures for women to marry, sexual coercion by powerful men, or Lister’s constant battle to be taken seriously within the male-dominated fields through which she traverses and does business in.
Women show up in force through supporting roles like Lister’s wide coterie of female companions past and present, aristocratic peers who frown upon Lister’s proclivities, or through family members. We see Lister butt heads with her more provincial sister, Marian Lister (Gemma Whelan), just as often as she confides in her beloved aunt played by Gemma Jones.
Overall, however, the world still feels balanced from a gender standpoint. Men exclusively deal in the cutthroat business of coal mining, as Lister competes with the unscrupulous Charles Rawson (Vincent Franklin) who is stealing coal from her land. Male allies arrive through sympathetic advisers like Samuel Washington (Joe Armstrong) or her forward-thinking father, Jeremy Lister (Timothy West). The end result is a period piece that feels safe to traverse, thanks to women behind the lens who sensitively portray the injustices of that period from an empowered point of view.
People of color are absent from Gentleman Jack in a way that generally reflects the demography of the show’s setting. While a small number of Black slaves and later Black soldiers and sailors displaced from the Napoleonic wars did live in London during this time period, Lister only spends one episode of the season visiting London. Mostly, she roams the town of Halifax which had a nearly all white population in the 1830s.
This isn’t to say people of color didn’t exist in Lister’s universe. In fact, she first explored her sexuality at age 15 with Eliza Raine, a fellow pupil who was half-Indian. But Gentleman Jack begins much later, when Lister is 41 years old, leaving potential characters of color outside the scope of this show.
Gentleman Jack neatly dovetails into a string of recent works like The Favourite (2018), Colette (2018), or Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017). Each pulls from history to challenge or outright refute the misconception that same-sex love is somehow a modern invention.
In the case of Gentleman Jack, audiences follow several lesbian liaisons that paint a well-rounded picture of how romance between women may have looked during this time period, at least among participants whose wealth and station helped facilitate what broader society would have seen as sinful indiscretions. Above all, it feels invigorating to watch a historical drama centered on a gay woman.
Helped along by female directors and an on-set intimacy coordinator, the show’s many sex scenes smolder with eroticism but avoid the male gaze. Thanks to backstories for all of Lister’s partners, and to a camera that pays more attention to the conversations surrounding sex rather than the deeds themselves, viewers can take comfort in knowing that the depiction of Lister’s voracious appetite for women stays firmly in the hands of other women.
Still, it must be noted that aforementioned women are all straight. Perhaps for this reason, the casting of Anne Lister can feel watered down, considering how she was known to be butch and sometimes mistaken for a man. It feels like a stretch that Suranne Jones would run into that mistake, especially as Anne Lister still wore women’s clothing.
To get a perspective from within the lesbian (and British) community, I spoke with Laura Hindley of Strong Female Lead to get her take on Jones’s casting. She says:
I did like the show, but I do agree [that there is butch erasure]. Even when I look at The L Word—a cult classic in the lesbian community—butch representation was so poor. One of the only characters I've seen on TV that is a genuinely believable butch lesbian is Big Boo from Orange is the New Black. […] But why? I think it has something to do with the male gaze, and how [media] frames lesbian interactions to appeal to the masses.
On the flipside, queer fans are also taking to Twitter to cheer on the actor for reasons like her accurate “butch walk”. Writer Sharmane Tan goes so far as to say that “there’s so much Gentleman Jack does for butch lesbians that no other piece of media have done”, while @queersubtweet praises Jones for “a literally flawless butch lesbian performance.”
To put it simply, the dialogue surrounding lesbian representation continues. Underrepresented communities all over, including the lesbian community, are striving for breadth. Any attempt to get just one or two depictions “right” will lead to disappointed viewers. In the meantime, Gentleman Jack is one step forward in the broader fight for LGBTQ visibility.
Mediaversity Grade: B 4.00/5
Wainwright’s televised take on the diaries of Anne Lister has been one of the most exhilarating new shows to come out this year. Season 1 crescendos to a fantastic finale, full of cathartic release and a seemingly happy ending, so I have no idea where the story can go from here. But I’m eager to find out, nonetheless.