Geek Girl Talk: Queer Representation in Roswell, New Mexico
Welcome to Geek Girl Talk, a (biased, subjective, opinionated) conversation about the pop culture we’re currently loving, hating, and obsessing over. For our first installment, we’re unpacking queer representation in Roswell, New Mexico.
Who We Are Vaguely and in Terms Only of the Media We Seek Out Most Often:
Teal (roman type!)
Literally any teen TV show, YA, women’s and feminist media, everything Star Trek
Hanna (italics, baby!)
Reality TV, memoirs, romance novels, anything British, any podcast ever
[Spoiler disclaimer: If you’re not caught up, this post won’t be too spoiler-y, as we just talk about general interpersonal stuff between the characters. We might recommend watching the first episode, though!]
While I’m not (yet) familiar with its source material, I do consider the original Roswell TV series to be an important piece of teen media—not to mention one that I specifically harbor a lot of fondness for. And so, the new CW adaptation, Roswell, New Mexico, is a series I’m both excited about and slightly skeptical of. That being said, I’ve found that this version does have a lot of things going for it. The characters are older by about a decade, the show addresses current social issues directly instead of relying solely on the ambiguous implications of the alien-human metaphor, and the blatant whitewashing of the original cast is being backtracked. In other words, there’s a lot to be hopeful about. If I’m being honest, though, what’s struck me the most about this retelling is what it’s doing in terms of queer representation, and with one of the alien protagonists, Michael, in specific. I won’t argue that it’s the most radical or robust depiction one could imagine, but something about the way they’re writing his bisexuality is affecting me personally and, by extension, shedding light on the way this particular facet of queer representation has been failing us even as popular media is beginning to do a better job of normalizing non-hetero characters and relationships overall.
The sad thing is that I probably wouldn’t have even started watching this show unless you’d told me about the queer representation and the way that this show is highlighting racism, immigration, and classism. But wow. I can’t say that this series has incredible acting or non-cheesy dialogue (an actual exchange between the central characters:“Your heart’s racing.” “It’s not racing because I’m scared of you.”), but what it does have is a pretty central, pretty satisfying queer storyline that is making me FEEL things. One of the first things I texted you, Teal, after I started watching the show was that every time Michael and Alex share a scene I audibly gasp. I’m a sucker for a good ship, but I never GASP at every scene. When they’re on screen, I’m basically giddy, and I think there are a few different reasons for that. But, just to backtrack for a moment, let’s get into the basic gist of Roswell, and Michael and Alex’s plotline in particular. Our main character, Liz Ortecho, left the small town of Roswell ten years ago following her sister’s tragic death in a car accident—an accident that left two other girls dead and might not be an accident at all… Since then, the Ortecho family has been targeted by the bigoted and bitter citizens of Roswell, who also happen to be alien-obsessed due to a rumored UFO crash decades ago. Now Liz is back in town, and trouble is a-brewin’! Along with Liz, we have Max, Isobel, and Michael, three alien siblings doing their best to live double lives as both a Nice Guy Sheriff, Preppy BDSM-Enthusiast, and Misanthropic Cowboy, respectively, and extraterrestrials with supernatural powers. The youngest alien sibling, Michael, has nursed a decade-long crush on his high-school-sweetheart-turned-decorated-war-vet, Alex (Caleb from Pretty Little Liars!). Suffice it to say, the two have C H E M I S T R Y. Teal, like I said, I have plenty of reasons for appreciating their dynamic, but what’s stood out to you?
I’ve written before about how I, personally, as a bi person, am specifically in need of bi characters who are both demonstrably sure of their sexuality themselves and also not challenged in that surety by the story’s other circumstances and players. While there’s obviously a ton of value in stories about coming out and dealing with all of the challenges thereof, I feel a sense of, like, metaphysical loss when that’s all I see. Of course bi/pan people and people who have more fluid experiences with sexual and romantic attraction generally can and do identify with coming out narratives. But, those stories are often framed as though queer people always have a Before self that is irreconcilable with an After self. Sometimes I wonder about what’s going unexplored in terms of the fluidity a lot of queer people feel when that’s the model, especially considering I personally find that understanding my queerness is a process of finding the throughlines of my internal experience, not compartmentalizing a Before and After self. That disconnect between my lived experience and the most common way queer storylines exist in pop culture makes me think about bi erasure and how it’s so imperceptibly weaved into our cultural understanding of queerness. Something we’ve talked about, Hanna, is how neither of us tend to personally notice the day-to-day oppressive effects of bi erasure in a way we can easily articulate, but the fact that I haven’t stopping thinking about the ways Michael’s bisexuality is established in this show makes me think that maybe I’ve been deluding myself a bit on that front. This is all to say that I’m glad Michael, though being distinctly not queer in the original series, is established as being bi pretty immediately and with a lot of nonchalance and assuredness (see: excellent high-school-reunion-make-out scene). And then, in my favorite moment of the show yet, he confirms it explicitly by saying, and I quote, “It’s a real bisexual alien blast around here.”
Agreed. Seeing the ease, comfort, and familiarity that Michael has with his own sexuality made me realize just how much I’ve been subconsciously craving that exact type of representation. Like you said, seeing characters questioning their sexuality, coming out, and navigating their nascent sense of self is wonderful and important, but there’s something so relaxing about seeing a character whose bisexuality is such a deeply ingrained part of his life experience. I wonder if this is an aspect of bi erasure that I haven’t recognized before—that part of what is being erased are the stories that come after. After high school, after coming out, after having relationships and experiences and growing into ourselves more and more. As a bisexual person, I want to see stories that represent a wider array of experiences, identities, and, in this case, life stages. There’s also the fact that Michael is a bi man, an identity that feels even more underrepresented in television than bi women (the only other bi guys on TV that I can think of are Magnus Bane in Shadowhunters, Moose in Riverdale, and Jackson in Teen Wolf—who am I missing?!) Like people of all queer identities, bi guys face their own particular set of misrepresentations, stereotypes, and erasures, and I’m wondering how Roswell will continue to explore Michael’s queerness in a town that values such performative (and toxic) hypermasculinity. Specifically, I want to see what Michael’s queerness means for his romantic and sexual relationships, friendships, relationships with his siblings, and relationship to Roswell itself—a town that is simultaneously comforting and oppressive.
I totally agree. While I don’t have a ton of time or energy for stories centered on cis men, Michael’s story has the potential to address a deeply important facet of representation, both in terms of sexuality and how we collectively imagine masculinity. As it stands now, our popular conceptualization of masculinity ties that identity definitionally to desiring and controlling women. Not only will increased, thorough queer representation of masc people give voice to whole groups of identities, but it will also begin to dissolve the association that gives that toxic (but extremely normalized) element of masculinity such power. I’m hopeful that Michael—assuming his character and plotline continue to receive the attention and development they deserve—is proof that popular media is continuing to inch in this very necessary direction. Hanna, is there anything specific you’d like to see from him as the series continues?
Yes! Here’s to cis men characters that don’t make me roll my eyes every five seconds! I’m hoping to see a couple of things from his character. First, it would be wonderful to see his platonic relationships with women expanded beyond his (very touching) bond with Isobel. I think part of the process of reimagining masculinity beyond the toxic desire-and-control-of-women paradigm involves representing dynamics in which cis men, and in this case cis queer men, embrace their queer masculinity in a way that doesn’t discard or demean women. Second, one of the main aspects that I love about Michael so far is his forthrightness in dealing with his own emotions, specifically in his relationship with Alex. I caught myself being surprised that he expressed such clear desire and love for Alex, and that (after the requisite CW brooding period) he openly owned his feelings. Don’t get me wrong, Michael has plenty of emotional growth left before he’s anywhere near well-adjusted, but with a subject as fraught as emotions—and, certainly, how masc people express their emotions—I’m hoping that the show will take this opportunity to explore the line between expression and repression, emotional honesty and manipulation. Mainly, I’m just really excited to keep watching this show to see our fave alien cowboy and Iraq war vet duo find love.
I’m not even going to add anything else because you’ve covered everything I could possibly hope for and more. We’ll have to circle back around sometime in season two to discuss how things played out (i.e. whether things dissolved unfortunately but not unexpectedly more into queerbaiting or, perhaps more accurately, queercatching, which is a concept developed recently by Rowan Ellis that is so useful!). But, in the meantime, we’d like to hear from you! A key part of our vision for Geek Girl Talk is a larger community conversation we’ll facilitate on Twitter. We can only speak from our limited perspectives, so we’re just here to get things started. If you have any thoughts about the show or the representation of queerness and masculinity in media generally, we’ll be tweeting in a thread hosted by @GeekGirlCon, respectively from @TealChristensen and @hupptwothree, so meet us there!
(Geek Girl) Talk to you soon!