The Representation We Need – Web Series ‘People Like Us’ is a Respectful Portrayal of Being Gay in Singapore
LGBTQ+ stories, you’ve seen them and heard of them. From films on the big screen like Brokeback Mountain (2005) or Call Me by Your Name (2017) to series on streaming such as Pose (2018- current) or Orange Is The New Black (2013-2019). We have been obsessed with watching LGBTQ+ stories and thirsty for that representation but have you heard of our own homegrown series People Like Us?
If you haven’t, People Like Us is a web series by writer-director Leon Cheo. Not only is it nominated for an Emmy but it has also bagged several accolades and with screenings in various film festivals across the globe.
People Like Us is a poignant reflection and insightful look at being gay in Singapore, following the lives of four gay men in Singapore as they navigate life and relationships. The series is raw and telling, never shying away from controversial topics while being respectful of the subjects addressed.
The series is character-driven. Instead of focusing on an overarching plot, People Like Us is fuelled by its four characters’ internal conflict and agency. By fleshing out each of their stories, we get a glimpse of their lives, their daily struggles, and their motivations. This portrayal sees gay men not as the caricatures we are used to but as real living people, humanising them and allowing watchers to fully empathise with them.
While that may not seem that revolutionary, it actually is. Throughout Singapore’s history, the LGBTQ+ community has neither gotten quality representation nor are young people even educated on such things during our school years.
People Like Us gives queer youths in Singapore the representation they have lacked for years, with each of its stories being able to resonate with someone or another. In the web series, serious issues such as HIV, hook-up culture and coming out are addressed and dealt with. At the end of each episode, they even have discussions to readdress the issues shown. This series is unlike anything that has come before, especially in Singapore.
Singapore itself has had a spotty past with the LGBTQ+ community. The first substantial mention of the LBGTQ+ community was a feature in an evening tabloid in 1972 tilted “They are different”. They go on to describe them as living ‘wretched lives’, making the queer seem particularly debaucherous.
And as we move forward as a society, it may seem like we are getting more progressive in our views yet that is not the case. Sexual activity between two consenting adult males is still deemed illegal. It is this attitude of casual exclusivity that ‘others’ the LGBTQ+ community, making them seem like outsiders. This extends to the media and film industry – both in and outside of Singapore.
In the past, LGBTQ+ characters, especially those that are gay, were played for laughs. This came at a time when the mere idea of a man in a dress garnered laughter, enough to be the whole premise of comedy films such as Some Like It Hot (1959). Gay characters were also stereotypical and reductive, favouring portrayals of flamboyant men with limp wrists.
Not only are these portrayals offensive but they also don’t take into account the characters’ humanity and autonomy, making them more of a prop than a person. Queer characters rarely had stories or character arcs and if they did, they would be relegated to side plots or be oversimplified.
If not played for laughs, queer characters are used for drama. Most recent media portrayals of homosexual men have seen them struggling, suffering or even dying. This has since been dubbed the ‘bury your gays’ trope, where character arcs of queer characters are filled with self-loathing, abuse and homophobia. It is not uncommon to see queer characters die to further the stories and character development of straight characters.
But as time goes on we have seen queer representation change in film, with a shift from the ‘bury your gays’ trope. Now, television and media favour the depiction of young gay teens coming out and finding love. In this portrayal they romanticize homosexual relationships, making them seem more monogamous and functional than straight relationships. However, that is not the truth of the matter and fetishized gay relationships rather than giving them the honesty and depth. And that is what People Like Us does so well.
The series perfectly straddles this middle ground as we see four different perspectives on being gay in Singapore, in particular Rai’s (Hemant Ashoka) story as the hopeful romantic, looking for love, only to be met with the sad reality that it isn’t that easy. This kind of honest representation on screen is important especially for youths. With film and media being a medium we interact with every day, we may overlook its importance in shaping our world view.
From Hollywood to our tiny island by the sea, the LGBTQ+ community remains under-represented. We see this a lot in Singapore in particular. Being a conservative society, we rarely touch on sensitive topics such as sex let alone LGBTQ+ rights, considering all of them to be too taboo.
When we look back on the history of LGBTQ+ representation on television in Singapore, we often see them paint homosexuality in a bad light. A perfect example is an episode in 2003’s Crunch Time 2, a locally produced series which had a documentary styles episode vilifying homosexuality. This horrifying portrayal involved subjects such as cruising, sexual abuse and gay conversion therapy.
It is then no surprise that when we do portray queer characters on screen, we rely on the vilification of such characters. Rather than giving them stories and arcs, they play the role of the villains, seeking to corrupt others. This in turn acts as a cautionary tale for the straight characters. This can be seen in the recent outrage over the Mediacorp TV drama My Guardian Angels (2020), where watchers of the series took to social media to express their anger over the predatory gay pedophile character.
As such People Like Us comes at the most crucial time. If LGBTQ+ people are continually misrepresented, this may create negative associations, affecting how they are seen by both others and themselves.
As a series People Like Us features four different perspectives, it adds a lot to the conversation. On top of that, its respectful and realistic portrayals help us empathize with the plight and struggles of characters despite our own sexuality. With strong performances and compelling storylines, it is definitely a must watch.
Particularly poignant is Irfan Kasban’s portrayal of Ridzwan, a closeted male who struggles with his sexual identity, keeping his life heavily compartmentalized. It is easy to feel for him as he struggles with living up to family and cultural expectations while trying to be himself.
With the success of the series, it is only our hope that this could help change the landscape of film and censorship in Singapore to be more inclusive of everyone, giving them the representation they deserve. For now, we can look forward to more representation and hopefully, maybe even a season three of the web series.
The full series is now available on YouTube.
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