Anti-Blackness and Biphobia in Netflix’s "The Politician"
Written by Lynn Nichols
Thinking critically about modern satire
“The Politician” season two premiered on streaming video this summer. For those who have not yet seen the series, the Netflix original created by Ryan Murphy stars Ben Platt as Payton Hobart, a young man from a rich family whose life ambition is to become the president of the United States. The series includes deeply emotional moments, but its general tone can be described as a satire, lampooning teenage melodrama and the self-absorbed wealthy. It has also been praised for diverse representation of LGBTQ+ people and people of color in the main and supporting cast. The first season follows Payton in his senior year of high school as he runs for student body president. His opponent, River Barkley (David Corenswet), is also a love interest for Payton, which already sets up a twisty, soap-opera plot at the outset of the show. But when River commits suicide in the first episode, his bereaved girlfriend Astrid Sloan (Lucy Boynton) decides to run in his place, kicking off a cutthroat presidential race. Ultimately, Payton wins the election, but his short-lived term comes at great personal cost to him and everyone in his life.
Still, Payton survives into his emerging adulthood, and season two tells the story of his next election for a seat in the New York State Senate. He jumps into the Democratic primary to challenge Dede Standish (Judith Light), a seemingly unshakeable incumbent. Early in the race, a member of Payton’s campaign staff uncovers a secret in the senator’s personal life: she and her husband Marcus (Joe Morton) are both in a long-term, three-way relationship with another man. One of Payton’s many moral dilemmas this season is whether he should use this information to win the election. However, upon closer examination of the new season’s content, the most problematic aspect of the show lies in badly-written and harmful characterization. Season one was not the pinnacle of representation that reviews and marketing claimed it to be, and season two completely fails to accurately represent people from marginalized groups, especially the Black and bisexual characters.
The show has involved racist writing since its inception, as seen in the character of Skye Leighton (Rahne Jones). Skye is a passionate activist who strives to improve life for women, people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. In season one, she is Astrid’s running mate, but she becomes disenchanted at the last moment and signs on as Payton’s vice presidential candidate. She helps Payton in the last leg of the election race, but once he’s in office, she tries to assassinate him with a poisoned cupcake. When her girlfriend McAfee Westbrook (Laura Dreyfuss) finds out, she is horrified and calls the police to arrest Skye. What makes this fantastical sequence more disturbing is that it reinforces negative stereotypes.
White women like McAfee and Astrid are perceived by default as soft, delicate and pure, so portraying them as ruthless strategists breaks stereotypes. But Black women are already portrayed as aggressive and “angry” in materials ranging from racist caricatures to white feminist theory. This one-dimensional characterization might have been avoidable if Skye had more screen time to develop as a complex person, but that doesn’t happen: besides her aspirations to achieve social change and her short-lived romance with McAfee, viewers know nothing about her. Skye is the only Black character in the main cast, and the only recurring Black female character in the series, so the negative portrayal is especially harmful.
Season two involves even less character development and screen time for Skye. In one scene from episode two, “Conscious Unthroupling,” she struggles and then fails to remember the name of her date (part of a running gag about how she goes out with many women in rapid succession). A montage of the characters’ personal lives since the last season includes a brief scene and snide voiceover comment about Skye’s habit of sleeping with her college professors. When she isn’t being ridiculed as hypersexual in her own narrative, she is enlisted to support the narrative of the white characters. Episode three, “Cancel Culture,” incorporates an earnest monologue in which Skye instructs Payton on how to properly atone for racist actions in his past. But plots where a lone character of color works to educate the white lead are questionable in their own right, and any potential teachable moment is undercut by the fact that the entire scandal was orchestrated by Payton and his team for a political strategy.
The only other recurring Black character in season two is Marcus, Dede Standish’s husband. There are parallels to the writing with Skye, namely that Marcus is a college professor shown to have affairs with his younger, male students. Every character in “The Politician” is flawed, and the plot is driven by shock value and scandal, but why are the Black characters in particular shown engaging in inappropriate power dynamics? Marcus is also written poorly as a bisexual man. His sexual identity goes unlabeled in the show, but since he is in a committed marriage with his wife Dede and has relationships with multiple men, he is likely somewhere under the bi+ umbrella. In the last episode of the season, after Dede and Marcus choose to separate, Dede’s campaign advisor Hadassah Gold (Bette Middler) remarks that he “clearly leans very heavily towards the gay end of the Kinsey spectrum.” It’s as though his preference for men makes any other label irrelevant. That a Black, bisexual man is written as hypersexual and unfaithful to the point of ending his marriage enforces an anti-Black and biphobic trope, made worse by not-so-subtle bi erasure.
Season one was praised for a story where it seemed that “everybody’s bi,” but in season two, the writers seem to be arguing that nobody is really bi. Payton, his former rival Astrid and his long-term girlfriend Alice Charles (Julia Schlaepfer) have a polyamorous relationship for part of the season at Alice’s suggestion. However, her reasoning is that they should observe Astrid and keep her close as a potential political liability. Selfishness and manipulation do not make for a stellar portrayal of bisexual people. Moreover, the relationship with Payton is the only context in which Astrid and Alice are depicted as bisexual. One of the many obstacles facing bisexual women is the misconception that their attraction to women exists only for the sexual gratification of men, and the assumption by straight men that bisexual women are always available for group sex. Yet, this is the primary narrative focus for the bi women in the cast.
"Drawing on widespread stereotypes of oppressed groups is not “edgy,” brave or unique: it’s cruel and lazy writing."
Payton’s colleague McAfee and his mother Georgina have relationships with men and women in this season, but their identities are never discussed in detail, and their relationships with women are shown only in brief montage and voiceover sequences. Furthermore, two of the four bi women in the main cast end the season in relationships with men, and the other two remain single. Bisexual women who date and marry men are still bi — to claim otherwise is bi erasure — but with multiple bisexual female characters, why are there no central, endgame romantic relationships between women? “The Politician” is only willing to depict female bisexuality as a quirk or as a fetish.
Even the title character is subject to biphobic writing. Payton’s relationship with River is central to the plot of season one. He was definitely attracted to River, and their brief time together was framed as a complicated romance. But season two revises this history, describing their relationship as a mostly spiritual, transcendent one. During a tearful conversation with Astrid in “Conscious Unthroupling,” Payton reflects on his relationship with River. “I wasn’t attracted to River in that way,” he says. “I knew he wasn’t gay [. . .] I don’t even think he was bisexual,” he adds a few moments later. So, River never decided to come out or label his sexuality. Is it necessary to show two of the main characters speculating on the sexuality of a dead man — not only a dead man, but a teenager who shot himself? And is it helpful to the community of gay and bisexual men to rewrite a loving relationship and claim that it was never sexual? Just as sex and attraction between women shouldn’t be fetishized as entertainment, sex and attraction between men shouldn’t be dismissed as something impure.
Payton’s specific denial illustrates the writers’ contempt for bisexual identity. In the entire seven-episode season, this conversation is one of only two instances where the word “bisexual” is used. The other time is in reference to William Ward (Teddy Sears), the man in a ten-year relationship with Dede and Marcus. William is a minor character who ultimately leaves his partners and reveals damning information to their political opponents. In this series, “bisexual” is a dirty word, reserved for the duplicitious, indecisive and sidelined.
In its entire run, “The Politician” has never set out to be a moral example for its viewers. It’s a satire first and foremost. The sometimes dry and often bizarre writing shines when it points out the selfishness of the wealthy or the corruption of the political establishment. But Black people and bisexual people are already criticized by society and falsely accused as threats to public morality. Drawing on widespread stereotypes of oppressed groups is not “edgy,” brave or unique: it’s cruel and lazy writing. All creators must be held accountable for their harmful actions, even — and especially — when “it’s just a joke.”