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Gentleman Jack-Suranne Jones.jpg

Why ‘Gentleman Jack’ Needs To Be Saved

By Sara Clements | TV | August 16, 2022 |

By Sara Clements | TV | August 16, 2022 |

Gentleman Jack-Suranne Jones.jpg

There’s a chance you’re reading this and thinking, “What’s Gentleman Jack?” When its cancelation was announced last month, many asked just that. And there’s a reason for it, especially if you’re an American TV watcher. The BBC One and HBO co-production about real-life lesbian diarist and industrialist Anne Lister, and her marriage to Ann Walker, was a hit with both critics and audiences, with the Tomatometer and Audience Scores in the 90 percentile. Season two scored higher with 95% for both. These scores for Gentleman Jack’s two seasons are actually higher than other HBO shows like Euphoria, and it comes in at #39 for Best TV Shows of 2022. That’s over 30 spots higher than Euphoria and HBO’s The Gilded Age, both renewed for additional seasons.

How it wasn’t more well-known and why it was canceled are linked. It comes down to viewership. According to its Wikipedia page, this second season raked in an average of 3.4 million viewers in the UK, in comparison to 92 thousand in the United States. That’s an alarming gap, but not a surprising one. The audience knew there was something amiss the moment the season aired on HBO, and the creator knew, too. In an interview with RadioTimes, Sally Wainwright spoke about how the network chose to air the show contributed to its downfall. “It was going out at 10 o’clock on Monday nights there,” she says. Adding, “They didn’t push the second series as much.” She continues by saying, “They’ve been told that they have to cut the budgets and I think they’re not as interested in period drama. They’re certainly not interested in 19th century English lesbians by the sound of things.” Each episode aired in the US a full two weeks after BBC One, losing its build-up from week to week, and fans were irked from the very beginning over the lack of promotion it was being given across the pond.

While Wainwright assumed HBO was no longer interested in period drama, we know that isn’t true since The Gilded Age was renewed. It really comes down to her last point: They aren’t interested in a show about a trailblazing 19th-century lesbian. In HBO’s statement about the decision to not renew the show for a third season, they stated that it was “tremendously gratifying to see how Anne Lister’s journey has resonated with viewers,” but the audience (and seemingly, the show’s creator) could tell that the network didn’t care about Gentleman Jack at all. Like corporations who only care about LGBTQ+ people during pride month, it seemed HBO’s collaboration with BBC One was using queer people for profit in the same way - leading them to their service in the hopes they’ll stick around. When the numbers did not meet their expectations (even though they didn’t try to make it work), they no longer wanted it. Their strategy demonstrates that they didn’t care about Gentleman Jack being seen by anyone - a show about a butch lesbian is too radical.

The cancelation was a shock to both those involved and the show’s strong fanbase. Every mention of the show on Twitter now comes alongside the hashtag #SaveGentlemanJack; a petition to renew it has earned nearly 15,000 signatures; more than 200 people from across the globe took part in a flash mob this week at Lister’s home; a documentary titled, Gentleman Jack Changed My Life, was released this year; a statue of Anne Lister was erected in her hometown. The passion for the show and the celebration of the woman at its center is remarkable. The tragedy of capitalism is that it has no room for everyone. Building community and representation for those that continue to struggle to have it isn’t as valuable as money. Wainwright and BBC are still up for a season three, they just need a new streaming partner who will be able to provide the same production values - and simply see the show’s worth.

I asked fans from across the globe what the show has meant to them in the hopes that another network would see its importance as much as they do.

“It makes me feel understood for who I am, and that kind of understanding is scarce.”

Watching Gentleman Jack was the first time that I felt like I was viewing a show from a lesbian point of view; it feels like coming home. Many shows have lesbian characters, but they aren’t exactly protagonists, and neither is their worldview driving the narrative. It’s wonderful to feel seen and catered to, and a high production value just adds to it. It makes me feel understood for who I am, and that kind of understanding is scarce. I think I would say that it is one of the rare few shows fully committed to catering to a lesbian audience, and has a lesbian romance/struggle drive its narrative arc. I hate to say it, but the last time we had that was The L Word and Generation Q and it is far from a well-written production, as much as I enjoy it.

Shar, 23, Southeast Asia

“Gentleman Jack is more unequivocally queer than most shows.”

I’m in my late thirties. I’m married to a woman whom I have been with for 20 years now, and we have kids. I am a scholar of gender and queer studies, among other subjects. I have struggled with a lot of things, but never with being gay. Nor have I for a single moment in my life suspected I might be anything but gay - that already limits the number of queer female characters on TV that might seem “relatable.” So, from the very limited pool of TV shows centered on queer female characters who are not teenagers, let’s try to think of some who might be considered butch, masculine of center, “not feminine,” or whatever other word you might prefer. The fact of the matter remains that we’re down to a very tiny number, and Gentleman Jack is maybe the only one that gets it.

Gentleman Jack made me do something I hadn’t done since my early 20s: host watch parties. I invited people who shared my enthusiasm for the show and now they have become close friends. We laughed, cheered and cried together. In short, we were emotional together and made ourselves vulnerable in ways no other TV show has. I love Gentleman Jack because it is a well-written show, almost entirely focused on women; the production design is stellar; the costumes are better researched, better designed, and better executed than on other recent shows (e. g. Bridgerton); the score is brilliant; the acting is incredible; the dialogue is often hilarious and just as often gut-wrenchingly tragic; it’s a period piece that isn’t afraid of being a period piece, and yet it often feels very modern; it’s also sexy on many levels. What’s not to love?

It feels to me like Gentleman Jack is more unequivocally queer than even most shows with contemporary settings and yet it is a mainstream show with mainstream production values and (the potential for) mainstream audiences. That’s not only singular, that’s important.

- Katrin, 39, Germany

“[It] gives me so much hope and faith and courage that one day, I too will be able to live my truth.”

Gentleman Jack was the first show where I realized how incredible media representation could be. As someone who is an ethnic minority in my country, I’ve generally been quite skeptical of so-called “minority” representation because oftentimes it seems to celebrate a very particular narrative or isn’t necessarily the representation it claims to be for a certain community. Yet somehow, there was something about Gentleman Jack that made me feel and say, “Yes, I feel seen, and I feel validated.”

In particular, I see a lot of myself in Ann Walker. I’m bisexual but I haven’t really come out to many people, and when I saw Ann struggle with her love for Anne Lister and society’s expectations, I really really felt so seen because I understand what Ann went through. And the fact that in the end, Ann chose to marry Anne, and both women ended up living their truths just gives me so much hope and faith and courage that one day, I too will be able to live my truth.

- Eileen, 20s, Singapore

“Gentleman Jack’s representation matters.”

Gentleman Jack reminded me to stay true to myself. Literally walking upright and claiming space. It also made me realize how lucky am with my partner, to be where I live, and to have the people that surround me. I’ve been out since I was 17 and have experienced many of Anne and Ann’s struggles. Gentleman Jack is the first series that shows real queer people with real strength, courage, and love, but also real struggles within a society that doesn’t accept them. Sadly, this is still true today despite the progress we have made, and this progress is fragile. Gentleman Jack also increased my awareness that if we don’t continue to fight, the win terrain is lost fast. Or, as we say in the Netherlands, if you don’t continue to move your legs when cycling uphill you will eventually stop and roll backward. Equality is a continuous uphill battle. The show is a queer story shown through my perspective, not a heterosexual lens. Gentleman Jack’s representation matters.

- Anita, 49, Netherlands

“Queer people, lesbians especially, are starved for queer content.”

There are many reasons to love Gentleman Jack. The show is a love letter to Sally Wainwright’s hometown hero, Anne Lister, who is a real-life butch protagonist badass; a problematic heroine (like most iconic figures throughout history), but a badass nonetheless. Gentleman Jack is so important because Lister proves that lesbian sex existed prior to 1900. I know this sounds obvious, but many scholars (white, hetero, cis, male scholars) have argued - and it is still a common belief - that women wouldn’t have been able to figure out how to have sex with each other. How ridiculous is that? So, Lister is so much more than just good butch representation, she’s the lesbian Rosetta Stone. HBO has canceled her all too soon, and for what? To promote more white, hetero, cis storylines? Gentleman Jack is a dream case study because of Lister’s diaries, we have lesbian sex and lesbian life from a real-life historical lesbian. And how is it that fully clothed 19th-century women having sex is the most innovative and inspirational media of the moment? Because lesbians are starved. Queer people, lesbians especially, are starved for queer content.

- Rebecca, 41, Georgia

“It was a turning point in discovering my sexuality.”

Gentleman Jack means so much to me because, first of all, when it first aired, I had begun questioning whether or not I was a lesbian. I knew I was queer, but I was bogged down by compulsory heterosexuality and internalized lesbiphobia, which partly was because there were next to no positive portrayals of lesbian relationships in the media. Any lesbian or sapphic couple I saw on TV ended up having some sort of traumatic event happening to them - it was never spoken about or shown positively. So, to see a true retelling of a real lesbian couple in a loving relationship was a massive deal for me. It sparked my love for researching the history of lesbianism and Anne Lister herself. It was inspiring to see Anne Lister’s gender nonconformity and her strength in both her identity and relationships. It was a turning point in discovering my sexuality. A couple of years after I came out as a lesbian, I got the chance to visit York and actually see the church where Anne and Ann took the sacrament as the symbol of their marriage. It was a surreal moment and one I’ll never forget.

- Quinn, 21, UK

“Ann and Anne’s love story is a great lesson for every person in every relationship.”

I think, as a whole, Gentleman Jack reminds me that uniqueness is a positive and that working through personal issues is a strength in and of itself. I suffer from major depression, anxiety, and social anxiety just like Ann Walker. All the times it says she is low in Lister’s diary entries and when it’s seen on the show, I feel like I’m seeing myself.

Both of the Ann(e)s have taught me that it’s okay not to be what society deems as normal. Both of them bring the best out of each other and make each other grow. Watching Ann find Anne Lister gives me hope in my life. I’m straight, but I think Ann and Anne’s love story is a great lesson for every person and every type of relationship. Anne Lister and Ann Walker are so relatable. Both of them feel like they are not enough in different ways. Anne feels like no one wants her for her because of her differences, uniqueness, and brilliance. Ann shows her she should be loved and is loved for who she is. Ann doesn’t love Anne despite her faults, she loves her for them, which is a very brave thing to do back then and now.

If someone doesn’t fit into society’s mold, they are targeted to change and constantly questioned about why they are the way they are. Ann felt she wasn’t able to trust her family enough to be her true self around them. It’s devastating. It’s hard for me to talk to my dad because he doesn’t understand me. No matter how hard I try to get him to see me or open my heart up he won’t accept me for who I really am - like Ann Walker tries to get her family to see her and understand who she really is.

It makes me emotional to see Ann get more and more confident in the series because it makes me feel as though I have the strength to keep going and make improvements in my life.

- Taraina, 31, Louisiana

“Gentleman Jack means everything to all of us.”

Gentleman Jack is not a lesbian show. It’s a show about a real lesbian being the protagonist of a show. Her story is portrayed with incredible detail and brings representation to the community. If Anne Lister could speak to me, a girl from Brazil, that lives in another era and another reality, it’s because she can touch everyone - no matter the time. Even Ann Walker’s story speaks to me and relates so much because I have been growing up in the church since I was a child and my parents have been very religious their whole life. I came out when I was 14 and I had to deal with nightmares and guilt, but I really got their respect with time. I still struggle with anxiety and depression, but I think it was a relief to see myself in a portrayal of a real lesbian on TV. Gentleman Jack means everything to all of us.

- Christine, 24, Brazil

Author’s Note: Quotations have been edited and condensed for clarity