Netflix’s “Tales of the City” Confronts the Queer Community’s Generational Divide

The new miniseries shows the complicated dynamics of chosen families

You can’t expect something called Tales of the City to be just one person’s story. For readers of Armistead Maupin’s weekly San Francisco Chronicle column, which became the book of the same name, that plurality was the heart of the charm: Maupin’s fictional housing complex on Barbary Lane, inhabited by a panoply of characters, seemed to be the city in miniature. The young naive Mary Ann Singleton was our guide in, but readers soon fell in love with her landlady Anna Madrigal, as well as dashing young gay man Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, straight lothario Brian Hawkins, and bisexual Mona Ramsey. Groundbreaking for their Dickensian take on life in San Francisco in the 1970s, Maupin’s columns—and the novels they subsequently became—have become an invaluable time capsule. But with its TV adaptations and particularly this latest Netflix limited series, Tales of the City has become something rarer: not just a portrait of a community but an intergenerational family album.

With the character of Anna Madrigal (played by Olympia Dukakis in four miniseries over the last 25 years), Maupin had always embedded a motherly figure in the world of Barbary Lane. As an older woman who took care of her tenants and who helped steer them in the right direction when needed, she was the center of the “logical” (as opposed to biological) family that Maupin sketched out for his readers. In this sense, Tales of the City was already looking to emulate a genre that until then had been largely heteronormative: the family epic. 

Tales of the City looked to emulate a genre that until then had been largely heteronormative: the family epic. 

Within queer circles, then and now, that remains unexplored territory. If coming out narratives, romantic tales, and later AIDS stories offered LGBTQ readers a window into their own community, they did so by looking squarely at the individual, the couple, and a budding young generation respectively. There was little in books by the likes of Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Larry Kramer, and Andrew Holleran that aimed to speak across generations or that portrayed the way gay culture was passed down from one to the next in bookstores, at bars, in meetings, and at rallies. As Chicano writer John Rechy has noted, the “homosexual” is the one minority individual who’s not born into the same minority community, and thus needs to seek out education and likeminded people. Issues of lineage and legacy—so central to ideas of belonging—have long needed to be retraced and reframed by queer men and women who, for most of the 20th century, saw any ties to a past or future severed once they left their own family narratives.

Maupin’s talk of a “logical family” was one way in which his work tried to wrestle with what it meant to write a narrative for oneself that didn’t completely do away with the comfort of a family unit. Anna wasn’t merely a surrogate mother to many in Barbary Lane; she was also the keeper of a story that had started long before her tenants had arrived and which, presumably, would continue even after they’ve left. That sense of continuance is precisely what opens the latest on-screen adaptation of Maupin’s characters: Mary Ann (Laura Linney) returns to San Francisco and Barbary Lane after decades away to find it housing a new generation of queer individuals—including her daughter, Shawna (Ellen Page), whom she’s been estranged from ever since she left Brian (Paul Gross) behind all those years ago to pursue a career in broadcasting. If, structurally, the family epic reminds us that the lessons of the past endure in the present and will echo in the future, Tales of the City has always stressed the way such a process is much more fraught within the queer community.

This latest Netflix revival, wherein Linney and Dukakis reprise their roles from earlier Tales of the City miniseries, puts front and center the issue of what older generations can teach those coming up and coming out in a presumably more open world, while also suggesting that there’s plenty that Gen Z and Millennials can in turn teach those who came before them. Attempting to reconnect with Shawna, Mary Ann goes out of her way to meet her daughter at the feminist co-op bar where she bartends. There, she’s presented with a radical new feminist world that would have felt unimaginable to her when she first moved to San Francisco in the 1970s (the very incident that kicked off Maupin’s original Tales column). Upon seeing a young woman do a burlesque number, Mary Ann admits that she doesn’t get how that’s feminist, at least by the standards of her day. “My generation,” she explains, “was trying to liberate women from objectification. Not, you know, encourage it.” She then gets a quick lesson in 21st century queer feminism, learning that wresting female nudity from the male gaze and owning it does, in a way, speak to the large leaps female empowerment has undergone in the last few decades. Despite the potential for combative optics (it’s not lost on anyone that an older white woman is attempting to question a young woman of color’s feminism), Tales models instead a generative and generous intergenerational conversation between these women, who better understand one another once they sit down to discuss their own biopolitical sensibilities.

In stark contrast—and in that very same episode—Tales stages a much more explosive conversation between an older generation of (white) gay men and a young (black) gay man that is as enlightening as it is uncomfortable to watch. Michael (Looking’s Murray Bartlett, stepping into the iconic role for this 2019 iteration) and his much younger boyfriend, Ben (Charlie Barnett) are at a dinner party thrown by Michael’s ex. That alone puts Ben on the defensive, finding himself to be a minority in terms of age, race, and—to judge by the decor and dinner party conversation about sojourns to Peru (“Can you believe this one hasn’t been to Peru?” one asks, incredulously)—income as well. Talk of those trips down south quickly make Ben very uncomfortable: “The best thing about Machu Picchu? The Sherpas!” one shares, only for the rest of the crowd to join to say that ogling their beautiful legs and calves is arguably the best part about visiting such a landmark. But it’s only when the word “tranny” begins to be thrown around (amidst an anecdote about a “sketchy part of Mexico City”) that Ben chimes in, innocently pointing out that people don’t use that word anymore, especially not in the context of playfully offending one another. What follows is a hard-to-watch scene wherein Ben’s “woke” politics are at once dismissed and mocked: “I don’t appreciate that we have to be policed,” one attendee bemoans, “at a fucking dinner party,” another adds. Here, then, is a moment when the progressive viewpoints of a younger character of color are pitted against a group of gay white men who feel those notions to be almost comically naive. Self-serving, even. 

This scene tries to show just how difficult it can be to speak across the various schisms that divide the gay male community.

This tense dinner party scene initially looks to be an indictment of the other guests, with Ben as the lone voice of dissent. But with a cast that includes Stephen Spinella (the original Prior Walter in Tony Kushner’s landmark Angels in America), playwright and performance artist Taylor Mac, recent Tony nominee Brooks Ashmanskas, Mad Men star Bryan Batt, and other gay actors who’ve been out for decades like Malcolm Gets and Dan Butler, this Tales sequence is doing something much rarer. It’s trying instead to show just how difficult it can be to speak across the various schisms that divide the gay male community. “Why is your generation obsessed with labels?” Ben’s asked. “Because,” he answers, “what you call someone is important. It’s about dignity. It’s about visibility.” To a keyed-in 2019 audience, the line rings true and merely reinforces how out of touch these privileged older men are. But it’s not presented as the punchline of the scene, with Ben scoring points off the rich out-of-touch dinner guests. Instead, that accusation of privilege helps pivot the conversation into murkier territory. Spinella’s character, delivering a kind of monologue that’s bound to become as iconic as any he delivered on stage, hijacks the conversation to talk about how little Ben and his generation know about what he and other went through when they were his age. “When I was 28 I wasn’t going to fucking dinner parties,” he hisses in between gritted teeth. “I was going to funerals.” The world Ben is living with,  he rails, “with you safe spaces and intersectionalities,” was built by those sitting around that dinner table. “So if a bunch of queens want to sit around a table and use the word tranny…” he trails off, before capping off his argument with as blunt a line as he can muster: “I will not be told off by someone who wasn’t fucking there.” 

What’s thrilling (and unsettling) about this jaw-dropping exchange is the way it captures real-life sentiments from both sides of the generational divide. Ben protests that he knows what losing friends during the AIDS epidemic must have felt like, but his opponents are unmoved. In a way, invoking HIV/AIDS and the way it cleaved gay history in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s feels almost too cruel. It leaves Ben no chance to speak up or further make his case. But it also gets at the way any kind of historical continuance from the world of weekly funerals to PrEP-enabled safe sex practices can end up feeling like a political minefield. By the time Ben, utterly humiliated, lashes out at his boyfriend for not standing up for him, you almost get the sense that there might not be a way to easily suture these separate if complementary histories together. When a white gay man unironically tells a young black man that he knows nothing about living in a society that doesn’t care if you live or die, the chances of being able to have any kind of productive conversations within such separate parts of the community feel all but hopeless. Whereas Mary Ann opens herself up to learn about what new kinds of feminisms have made further inroads, that dinner party scene merely depicts the way some ruptures within gay culture that may well feel generational are in fact much more deep-seated and therefore harder to smooth over.

Despite its rainbow-hued marketing and its depiction of a vibrant young queer community, this newer Tales is intent on exploring what it means to tell LGBTQ stories that not only span generations but that speak across them. Ben and Michael’s friends may not come to an understanding—if anything both sides end up leaving much more convinced of their own righteous perspective. But the “fucking gay version of Get Out,” as Ben puts it, is enlightening to audiences watching. It’s a bold reminder of how siloed various segments of the LGBTQ community remain, yes. But also of how important it is to critically assess how history is passed down—and, more importantly, by and for whom. In bringing Maupin’s characters back and forcing them to reckon with the kinds of histories it helped tell and the ones it still needs to acknowledge, this new revival breaks ground in imagining what a truly diverse and intersectional version of gay history can look like.

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