October 8, 2020 | Arts and Culture
be gay, do crimes
radical normalcy in la casa de papel
It’s hard to pin down exactly which secret ingredient in Netflix’s La Casa De Papel (Money Heist in its English translation) makes it so enthralling (other than the conveniently placed cliff-hangers at the end of every. Single. Episode.). Something about the adrenaline of a 12-day standoff against Spain’s best investigators, the romance of a heroic anti-establishment robbery, the ultimate human weakness for love (or is that just me?), the aesthetics of a swath of red behind an army of Salvador Dali masks against a melancholy grey ground. Maybe it’s that, going in, you expect a heist, but you definitely don’t expect the heist to stretch across multiple seasons and become increasingly labyrinthine until you have absolutely no idea how they’re going to get out of this but they’d better, doggonit. Maybe it’s just that the cast is…hot? Whatever the reason, this show is like whatever addictive substance you care to insert here. And to my little gay heart’s delight, the characters are not all cishet.
To be fair, the range of the show’s representation isn’t particularly radical. Across the four seasons that are out on Netflix, the show’s band of characters includes two gay men, a trans woman (even though it sucks that she’s played by a cis actress), and a few characters who are…maybe bi? Even so, something about seeing queer characters in this context was exciting to me. The reason hit me during my search for a good thinkpiece on the show’s treatment of queerness. (I didn’t find even one. Please contact me if you know of any.) I accidentally read a comment (which we all know one should never do) that amounted to “IF THE FACT THAT THE CHARACTER IS QUEER DOESN’T IMPACT THE PLOT THEN WHY DID THE WRITERS HAVE TO MAKE THEM QUEER!!!” I found this hilarious not only because of this commenter’s insightful take on the age-old adage “they’re shoving the gay agenda down our throats,” but also because, when a character is queer but it’s not the main plot device, that’s quite literally the entire point. It’s nice to see the rest of the world wake up to the struggles of being queer via dramatized coming out narratives, but also: We’re normal people. We do normal things. Like, you know, rob the royal mint of Spain.
At the start of the series, a mysterious man who calls himself the Professor gathers a motley crew of criminals in a grand mansion outside of Toledo, where they carefully study his master plan for a nigh-impossible heist. The crew adopts city names as pseudonyms, vowing never to reveal their identities to each other and to never—so help us God never—form any intimate relationships. (If you haven’t already guessed, they don’t do very well on that front.) We expect this story to play out like most other heist stories: they plan the heist in intricate detail, they tie up their loose ends, and at the climax, they pull it off (or don’t). Instead, in the first episode, we are immediately launched into action via a truckload of paper bobbins that is also carrying eight robbers in red jumpsuits.
This is only the first way that La Casa de Papel surprised me. The show is constantly blurring the lines laid down by the dominant socio-political paradigm. The radical—fluidity, dissolution of binaries, socialist tendencies—is hidden behind a run-of-the-mill TV genre. In the first episode of part three, as Tokyo flees the police in Cinta Costera, we catch a glimpse of a graffitied wall that reads “a cop is not a friend.” In a refreshing break from mainstream TV’s collection of glorified cop shows, the police in this show are not the heroes: They are the villains, the torturers, and the abusers. Granted, the majority of heist movies position the robbers as the “good guys” and the cops as the “bad guys,” but this one features Bella Ciao, the anti-fascist anthem of the Italian Resistencia, as a sort of theme song.
The Professor’s crew isn’t petty thieves, either: These guys are Robin Hoods, the resistance. The heisters aren’t just stealing for themselves, they’re stealing from the government, for the people. (Although they do keep plenty for themselves. But also, these are people who’ve been beaten down by life, so I think they get a pass for wanting to live in luxury for a bit. But I digress.) The literal translation of La Casa de Papel is “house of paper.” “What is this?” says the Professor as he holds up a bank note during a confrontation with Inspector Murillo, the negotiator. “This is nothing, Raquel. This is paper.” And that is the core of the show’s motivation: an all-encompassing structure like paper money, in which we place so much symbolic and economic value, is just arbitrary and made up. A radical politics contained within a show that, before you’ve seen it, looks pretty average.
And you know what else is all-encompassing even though it’s arbitrary and made up? Cisheteronormativity. Seeing queer characters in any kind of entertainment, while more common now than it used to be, is still a pleasant surprise rather than a given. And in a world where being heterosexual and cisgender is the norm, those who differ often have their personhood coopted for dramatic narrative effect. Usually when a character is deemed queer, their entire storyline revolves around the isolation of being closeted, the fear and uncertainty of coming out, the danger of living openly as themselves, often death—and just maybe, if we’re lucky, the joy and fulfillment of building a chosen family. Adversity narratives are important, of course. But sometimes you would rather see yourself printing counterfeit bank notes than relive all of the trauma to which your community is subject.
As a baby gay, way back in ninth grade when I was still on Tumblr, I conceptualized queerness as a set of discrete identities that, on the whole, didn’t align with “heterosexual” or “cisgender.” But as I’ve taken a relatively shallow dive into queer theory, I’ve come to understand queerness as something broader, something radical. This is not to say that everyone who falls under the queer umbrella considers being true to their identity a radical act but to say that lately I’ve found comfort in knowing that I don’t have to fit into a neatly described, static box, that I can be mutable and multiple and simultaneous. Which means that my identity can be radical and completely average at the same time.
Although the show’s queer rep is far from perfect, this is why I’m excited about the way La Casa de Papel has written its queer characters. In a media gestalt of narratives about coming out, trauma, and adversity, characters whose queerness isn’t a major plot point are radical in their normalcy. They are not tragic heroes (or if they are, it isn’t because of the tragedy of their scorned identity); they’re just characters—committing treason and negotiating their intimate personal relationships, sometimes falling in love and sometimes being assholes, often under gunfire or at least under constant threat of arrest and imprisonment—who happen to be queer. The show, unlike most others, makes the radical ordinary, and the ordinary radical. The storytelling, aesthetics, and characters take center stage in a way that you can’t help but love.