Cucumber’s “radical approach to sexuality”, and its normalisation of rape and relationship abuse

I hoped Cucumber and its partner shows would be as good as Queer as Folk. I feared they’d be nothing like as good. As it turns out, Cucumber is a show you need to watch – at least, that is, if you thought Looking‘s characters were unlikeable, Vicious was the nadir of queer TV or having your molars slowly drilled without anaesthesia was excruciating.

For its entire 45-minute running time, I cringed. Episode one of Cucumber was so non-stop wince-inducing that by the time its credits rolled, I found myself feeling the weight of my own face. I knew there and then that I’d pay a considerable sum never to see another episode – yet also that I’d rewatch it this morning, cataloguing every last thing I hated about it.

Because Cucumber isn’t merely crap. It’s a well written, well-produced, well-executed show that achieves its apparent aims. The trouble is, its aims are fucking regressive – at times even outright dangerous.

Writer Russell T Davies’ one-time Doctor Who colleague Piers Wenger apparently called the series a ‘political piece of writing [with] a radical approach to sexuality’. And yes – if portraying men who like men without exception as dick-fixated sex addicts were radical, Cucumber would certainly be.

There’s nothing wrong with showing gay sex in sweaty detail – it was part of what made Queer as Folk groundbreaking. But Queer as Folk‘s characters were people. Even Stuart Alan Jones was more than just horny – he was defined by sex not because he was gay but because he was Stuart, craving power as well as pleasure, fucking straight men, blowing up cars and shattering showroom windows. Stuart’s eroticism was based on who he is, even deconstructed as the series went on and never reduced to an obsession with men’s penises (whatever their corresponding fruit). Cucumber‘s characters, by comparison, feel like borderline-offensive caricatures, not least its protagonist Henry Best, who wanders supermarkets and office spaces homing in Skynet-like on stranger’s crotches.

If it’s a radical idea that all sexual experience revolves around a penis, Cucumber sure is radical – except it’s not, by any means. It’s a deeply mainstream, even heteronormative idea.

All these strangers look like models, of course, their conventional looks illustrating the tofu-to-cucumber scale in Henry’s mind – and if longing for twentysomething models, as Henry does, were radical, Cucumber would be too. But wouldn’t it be much more radical to show ordinary middle-aged people like Henry and his boyfriend Lance having amazing sex, as – secretly – some middle-aged queer people do?

When Lance proposes, Henry turns him down, delivering a speech one can’t help but feel is supposed to pluck on our heartstrings, citing lifelong ‘knowledge’ he could never marry, hoping instead to lose weight and become ‘sexy’ again. The scene paints Henry as a tragic figure, stuck in his hypersexed gay youth, refusing to settle down monogamously as is only natural and dignified. (Davies ultimately implies much the same about Stuart in Queer as Folk.) This is not radical: in reality, queer people of every age and size have the kind of sex Stuart has and Henry longs to have again, and many queer people – I’m one – avoid marriage simply because it doesn’t interest them, if not on political grounds.

‘It’s just something I’d like, that’s all’, Lance says of the prospect of marriage, unable to say exactly why it would make him happier. ‘I’d really like it. I’d love it.’ Contrary to what Davies’ script suggests, isn’t Lance really the self-loathing, undignified partner here – longing for the official stamp of a state whose police assault him hours later for having sex with another man?

If it were radical to present jerking off to porn as the death knell for a couple’s sex life, Cucumber would be radical – but plenty of couples with glorious, adventurous sex lives enhance them with pornography, either as a shared or solo activity.

If it were radical to show monogamy as the default option – in their nine year relationship, Henry and Lance never seem to’ve discussed whether to be exclusive – Cucumber would be radical. But plenty of couples, not least among queer men, find nonmonogamy a joy – precisely as Henry and Lance seem like they would, possessing different sexual tastes.

If it were radical to suggest sexual and romantic urges need always go hand in hand, Cucumber – which presents Henry and Lance’s dried-up sex life as a failure of their partnership – would be radical. But just as it’s widely acknowledged wanting sex with someone doesn’t require you to want a relationship, wanting a relationship doesn’t require you to want sex with them (and that’s fine).

If it were radical to show fucking as the only ‘real’ form of sex to which everything else is just ‘foreplay’, as Henry’s storyline does, or to suggest a lack of interest in fucking means someone has deep-seated emotional problems, Cucumber would be radical. But not being interested in fucking – lots of men aren’t – doesn’t make you any more hung-up than not wanting to get married, and it certainly doesn’t make you sexless.

If it were radical to present kink – more specifically, orgasm control – as weird or abnormal or a subject of awkward humour, Cucumber would be radical – but kink is how millions of ordinary (sometimes extraordinary) people get off, because they find it hot. And how is being weirded out by kink any more objectively ‘right’ than being weirded out by the thought of fucking?

If it were radical to invoke the (mythical, sex-negative, misogynistic) concept of virginity to shame someone, as Lance does, Cucumber would be radical – but virginity is a bullshit idea sex educators are abandoning. Having sex in any form for the first time doesn’t alter your essence as a human being, and it most certainly doesn’t involve ‘losing’ part of yourself. It has nothing to do with how much of a man you are.

If it were radical to define maleness and masculinity – especially gay maleness and queer masculinity – in terms of fucking and penises, Cucumber would be radical. But there are trans men, gay and queer trans men and cis gay men who are attracted to them.

If it were radical to represent queer people as middle class cisgender gay men, Cucumber would be radical. But it really isn’t. Where are the queer women on this show? Where are the trans people? Where are the bisexuals, apart from Freddie Fox? And…

…if depicting a bisexual character without naming them as such were radical, Cucumber would be radical. But PART OF THE REASON PEOPLE THINK WE DON’T EXIST IS THAT NOBODY ACKNOWLEDGES US.

If depicting bisexuality as a mere byproduct of nymphomania were radical, Cucumber would be radical. But – although some bisexuals, like Freddie, want to have sex with everything that moves (and that’s fine) – that is not typical. It feeds into the notion we’re only bisexual as long as we’re going to bed with both men and women. Larry King, my eyes are on you.

Finally: if it were radical to normalise rape and relationship abuse, Cucumber would be radical. But it is far from radical.

I don’t get upset easily. The scenes in Hannibal where characters are killed and/or dismembered and/or eaten and/or turned into human art exhibits don’t upset me; the scenes in Game of Thrones where characters get their skulls crushed in or throats slit or genitals cut off don’t upset me; the rape scenes in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo don’t upset me. The final ten to fifteen minutes of Cucumber, however, struck me as deeply disturbing – largely because they seemed written as comedy.

In the whole of the show’s first episode, not a single likeable character appears. (The closest we get is nice-but-dim Dean, star of the surprisingly-much-better companion series Banana.) Undoubtedly the nastiest of the lot is Lance, whose every moment onscreen, intentionally or not, rings creepy and insincere – not to mention manipulative.

  • Henry turns down Lance’s proposal on a date; earlier in the day, Lance pressures him to come even though he’s tired and asks to cancel.
  • After dinner Lance pressures Henry to come clubbing, even when he says he’d rather go home.
  • At a nightclub, Lance pressures Henry to have a threesome even when he’s visibly uncomfortable with the idea.
  • On a propositioning a specific, much-younger man, Lance pressures Henry to take him home, even when he expresses (valid) concerns about the man being ‘off his head’ on recreational drugs.
  • When the three of them get home, Lance pressures Henry to have sex even when he says he wants to go to bed.

In between belittling Henry – first for his taste in music, then for his lack of interest in fucking and for being a ‘virgin’ – Lance proceeds to have sex with the younger man even once it’s clear Henry is uninterested – even doing with obvious vindictiveness when Henry is apologising, begging him to stop and offering to marry him after all. (Earlier, at the club, Lance has already made numerous pointed comments about fucking despite Henry’s obvious discomfort.)

It’s as if the whole encounter has been an orchestrated to hurt Henry, a deliberate punishment for refusing to marry him. This is the sort of behaviour characteristic of abusive partnerships, yet the episode’s final scenes (not to mention Cucumber‘s glowing reviews) appear to present it and the resulting argument as a warring sitcom couple’s quaint acts of spite, something about which we ought to chuckle.

Moreover: Henry is right about the man he and Lance pick up being off his head (as well as twenty-odd years younger and with nowhere else to spend the night).

  • During their taxi ride home, he struggles to remain conscious.
  • While Lance is shit-talking Henry, he appears oblivious, unable to understand and collapsing on the bed.
  • When Lance kisses him and sinks to his knees, he seems clearly, visibly zoned out, eyes distant, mind adrift…
  • …and when a police officer confronts him he barks like a dog, talking nonsensically and apparently unaware of his own nakedness. (This too is presented as funny.)

When someone is so intoxicated they struggle to remain awake – WHEN THEY ARE SO OFF THEIR FACE THEY DON’T KNOW WHERE THEY ARE, WHAT’S HAPPENING OR WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING, and when they seem to have difficulty staying upright, IN WHAT SENSE IS INTERCOURSE WITH THEM NOT RAPE? HOW CAN THEY POSSIBLY MEANINGFULLY CONSENT TO SEX OR SAY NO TO IT?

I feared Cucumber wouldn’t be that good. I had no idea it would be this bad.

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Cucumber’s “radical approach to sexuality”, and its normalisation of rape and relationship abuse

10 thoughts on “Cucumber’s “radical approach to sexuality”, and its normalisation of rape and relationship abuse

  1. 1

    Yikes. I can usually still enjoy a TV show/movie/book/play/etc. if it has some problematic aspects but is otherwise well-done (though my tolerance for rape apologia is basically gone), but this just sounds… yikes.

  2. 2

    I’m sorry but the final piece is untrue. The guy is not unconscious: yes, it’s obvious he is drunk or possibly taken something, but in no way is the guy under any pressure: he is a willing participant in what is happening, and is in no way as ‘out of it’ as you imply.

    Furthermore, there’s no actual sexual activity. So how is this rape?

    Sorry but that’s ridiculous.

    1. 2.1

      Your question is already answered in the text of the post. Further, I don’t claim he’s unconscious during the sex act Henry observes; I claim he’s semi-conscious and unaware what’s happening.

  3. 3

    But you didn’t answer my point about their being no sexual intercourse. Screaming “IN WHAT SENSE IS INTERCOURSE WITH THEM NOT RAPE?” would make sense IF there had actually been intercourse. There wasn’t. I don’t understand the point you’re trying to make with this when this never happened in the drama.

  4. 4

    “…its normalisation of rape” is an incredibly bold statement when nothing of the sort actually happened. You cannot in any way say this wasn’t consensual. Had they been seen deliberately drugging the boy, then that might make sense, but this isn’t what happened. Seems a very strong accusation to make when this never occured in the drama.

  5. 6

    I realized that Davies was a talented writer with no sense of proportion and a self-indulgent child a while back. I am truly grateful that he pushed the renewal of Dr. Who. I am also angry that when many fans of Torchwood expressed their dismay when he totally destroyed the show in its third season, he called them “Hysterical women”. I am uninterested in ever watching anything by him again.

  6. 7

    Haven’t seen Cucumber and will not after reading this. I didn’t like the American Queer as Folk because of the abundance of empty headed, pretty Adonis circuit types. Have never seen the British Queer as Folk which is supposed to be much better than the American. Have sadly and unfortunately seen one episode of Vicious. The show is a toxic Gay minstrel act. That seems to exist to reassure Straight people that Gay people are vicious, hateful, catty and pathetic. Derek and Ian should be ashamed. Cucumber is supposed to be worst than that. Ouch!

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