Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Character First. Sexual Character Second. (Ianto Jones Is Awesome)

Sometimes these photos are just to see if you're listening.
Going off of yesterday’s article, which you can read here, I thought today would be a good day to profile how to write a gay character well. Novel idea, right?

So today we’re going to be talking about Ianto from the Doctor Who spinoff series Torchwood. If you don’t know who I’m talking about, just chill. We're getting there.

Doctor Who is a quirky, popular family sci-fi show, about a 1000 year old alien and his human companion(s) travelling through time and space and making things better. It’s weird, lovely, and deliciously insane.

Torchwood is Doctor Who’s grumpy older brother, who’s going through puberty and spends all its time wanking and crying about how nobody loves it. I’d be nicer, but then you wouldn’t get the metaphor. Basically, Torchwood is about a lovable-esque gang of alien hunters in Cardiff, who are headed up by Captain Jack Harkness, one of the Doctor’s former companions. Who is immortal. And also super gay.

Following now? No? Good.

Not pictured: boundaries.
As I said, Captain Jack Harkness is one of the main characters on the show. At the start of the series, he’s about 250 years old and not getting any deader. His character is presented as omnisexual, but a more accurate description would be “horny”, and as he’s played by the delightfully camp John Barrowman, most of the time he just comes off as really flamboyantly gay.

That’s not the point of his character (the point is that he’s immortal and sad and shit), but it is a fair amount of his personality. Which is fine. This is definitely not a case of St. Gaying. Jack Harkness is kind of a douche. He’s just a camp douche.

Jack isn’t actually the main character either. That honor goes to Gwen Cooper, played excellently by Eve Myles. Gwen is a former copper turned alien hunter. She loves her job, is great at it (eventually), and has a loving and mostly-faithful relationship with her fiancé Rhys. There is also Tosh, the shy tech expert with a very shady past, and Owen, the doctor who hates everyone and everything ever. And is totally an asshole. But one that you come to love.

Really likes coffee.
And there is Ianto, the teams’ Alfred, more or less. Ianto (played by Gareth David-Lloyd) is their “tea boy”, a non-agent who hangs around HQ, answers questions at their front office (the Cardiff tourist center), does their research, makes coffee, and cleans up their dead bodies. Literally. That is his job.

He’s also an uptight jerk with almost no lines in the first few episodes, and an unhealthy love of suits.

From here on, SPOILERS for Torchwood seasons 1-4. Yes, we will be discussing Miracle Day. Briefly.

What we don’t know about Ianto at the start, though, is that he’s also, well, a little nuts. He transferred to Cardiff from Torchwood One in London, where the whole operation was destroyed by some warring aliens. He made it out alive, miraculously, but also managed to bring with him his girlfriend, who had been half converted to being a crazy-murdering cyborg. He hid her in the basement of HQ. Because that makes sense.

Not his best plan. Also, most sexist costume ever?
And Ianto tries to fix her. Not believing that his girlfriend is dead and the alien is all that is left, Ianto works valiantly to save Lisa. He hires a specialist (who dies), deceives the whole team, and eventually is rewarded with multiple deaths, Lisa being electrocuted, his own near death, and a whole psych ward’s worth of PTSD.

Ianto makes bad choices sometimes.

In his storyline that follows, though, we see Ianto as a new character, one with depth and feelings, who desperately mourns his girlfriend, but knows that what he did was wrong. He understands this so well that when offered the chance to change time and bring her back, he decides not to. He knows the price of messing with things like that.

Remember how I said we were going to talk about gay characters? Yeah, getting to that.

After Lisa’s death, Ianto fades back into the background for a bit. We see him, of course, when he’s looking up alerts or getting kidnapped by crazy cannibals or having his thoughts overheard (it’s a weird show, okay?), but we don’t really focus on him. Except there’s something running through those scenes that it took a while to put together, but suddenly you see: Ianto is sleeping with Jack.

Ianto, who up until now has been de facto straight, is not only sleeping with his boss, he’s sleeping with his male, promiscuous, insane boss. And they keep on doing it. The rest of the team doesn’t find out for a bit (until the end of the season), but Ianto and Jack keep on having little asides and winks and nods that tell us a lot about them and their characters.

And then Jack leaves and Ianto has to pick up the pieces. The whole team knows about him and Jack now, but they’re left for months without hide or hair of him, so Ianto gets to sort it all out himself. When Jack does come back (at the beginning of Season 2, obviously), he’s just in time to see his ex again, making Ianto a bit of an afterthought.

I never said they had a good relationship, dear readers. Just an interesting one.

The rest of the season has a lot of storylines, from Tosh and Owen’s budding romance to Gwen’s decision to finally make an honest man out of Rhys, to Jack’s issues with his past and Ianto’s PTSD raring their heads. The love story isn’t the focus, and that’s fine.

Though this does happen sometimes too.
It’s fine because it means that we get a character who doesn’t give us all the pieces. Ianto doesn’t spout at length about how Jack is his soulmate or about the Trevor Project (noble though that is). He just goes about his business. Sometimes he and Jack have sex at inopportune times, like when Gwen is looking for them, and sometimes he undermines Jack’s authority, by giving Gwen what she was looking for after Jack told her to leave it alone.

Ianto’s interesting, and his sexuality is just a facet of who he is, and frankly, just a facet of his relationship with Jack.

We learn that Ianto is the one who caught the pterodactyl, that he adores coffee in an unhealthy way, and that his guilt about what happened to Lisa waning. Also he’s funny. Like seriously sarcastic and hilarious and far too enamored of bad puns.

We get to know Ianto, not just his relationship with Jack.

In Season 3, this writing pattern continues. We meet Ianto’s family, his sister and brother-in-law. We find out that he’s really from a lower-class background, can’t relate to his niece and nephew, is generally rubbish with kids, and that he lied about his background because his father was abusive.

It’s also the season where Ianto comes out to his sister, and the way he comes out is just perfect. Not in that it’s a good coming out, in that it isn’t. His sister, Rhiannon, says that a friend of a friend saw Jack and Ianto out on a date. Ianto doesn’t say anything. Rhiannon presses, and Ianto reveals that Jack is his boss, and they’re together, sort of, but he doesn’t know where they stand.

Most importantly, though, when Rhiannon asks him if he’s a “poof”, he doesn’t know. All Ianto knows about his sexual orientation is that he loved Lisa, and now he loves Jack.

When it comes down to it, that’s all we need to know too.

Ianto is an interesting character because he does interesting things. He has many qualities (a terrible love of puns, bad with a gun, socially mobile) that inform his character and his behavior. His sexual orientation is just one more thing that makes him tick.

Yes, he is most often described as Jack’s lover, but he doesn’t see himself that way, and neither does Jack. Ianto had a place in the show before he started up with Jack, and he would have had a place there after. You know, if he hadn’t died and stuff.

Picture of Ianto because Miracle Day sucks.
Which brings me to my final point, and where I talk about the execrable Season 4 of Torchwood, or as it was known in the states, Miracle Day.

In Miracle Day, Ianto was already dead, and Jack is in mourning. It’s been a lot too fast, and Jack misses him. Jack being Jack, though, doesn’t let this stop him from sexing up some new characters, or from expounding on an older flame, or from, you know, saving the world. Ianto was remembered. But he wasn’t just remembered as Jack’s lover. He was Gwen’s friend. He was great with a computer. He was important, and most of the reasons why had nothing to do with Jack and his pants.

I’m not saying that Ianto faced absolutely no discrimination because he was with Jack, or that no one ever said a bad thing to him that forced him to respond. I’m saying that Ianto was a character first, and a sexual character second. Or maybe third. He was an awesome character second.

Ianto’s love story with Jack and his tragic death weren’t making a point about the state of gay rights they were a story about two men from very, very different worlds, who fell in love and lost each other. That’s it.

Do we need gay characters? Absolutely. Should those gay characters be outspoken about their rights and beliefs? Hell yes! But should those characters ever become those rights and beliefs? No.

Sorry, but no.

Story wise, I get what they killed him. Fan wise, I will never recover.


  1. He is one of the better represenations out there. I'm not keen in the habit of denying any and all connection to GBLTQ community and language: but he is a very developed character with his own history, his own goals and development beyond being just a token

    1. I find him very interesting, because it never occurred to me that he didn't identify as bi until Children of Earth pointed that out. I was rather surprised, actually, but I respect the show for showing his confusion and letting it be a thing which never actually got resolved.

  2. I think a lot of not-strictly-heterosexual people start out like Ianto. They're not sure what language to use. They don't know if they're gay or bi or even a straight person sleeping with someone of the same gender. I think Ianto would probably have figured it out eventually, if they'd let him live. I was going to add, "And he might have gone on to have a healthier relationship with someone who isn't Jack," but then I remembered that this is Torchwood, where there is no such thing as a healthy relationship.

    1. I agree about the figuring it out eventually. And as far as healthy relationships on that show go, the closest we have is Gwen and Rhys. Which is...yeah.

  3. As someone who only got into Torchwood recently, Ianto's lack of identification on the actual programme is a bit of a curiousity to me.

    Yes I agree that sometimes labels aren't everything, I mean in S1 E2 Jack himself mocks the 21st century 'classification' of sexuality. But at the same point, the non-use of the word 'bisexuality' grates as it makes me think that such a notion was still considered a novelty more than a serious thing.

    Interesting point to note: I do believe that in the novels (well at least one) Ianto is described as bisexual...

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