Culture

Television

Sex, life: The fundamental queerness of ‘Vida’

By Jinghua Qian
Even the hetero sex is bent in Tanya Saracho’s steamy series

Mishel Prada and Melissa Barrera as sisters Emma and Lyn Hernandez in Vida

Every episode of Vida comes with a warning for “high impact sex scenes”, and the show certainly delivers.

There’s a lot to like in this series: meaty conflicts around gentrification, culture and the closet; some extremely GIF-able one-liners; and four magnetic protagonists who deliver vastly different takes on what a woman – specifically, a Latinx woman – can be. But it’s the sex scenes that really get the coloured lights going.

The series centres around Emma and Lyn Hernandez (played by Mishel Prada and Melissa Barrera), a mismatched pair of Chicana sisters who return to the predominantly Latinx neighbourhood of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles after the death of their mother, the titular Vida. She wills them the bar and run-down apartment building they grew up in, but they are to share it with Eddy, a gentle old-school butch and Vida’s wife in her final years. Eddy is a surprise to both sisters but especially Emma, who was kicked out of home after being caught with another girl. Rounding out the core four is Mari, a hardworking young radical who is both a tough activist and a filial daughter.

Showrunner Tanya Saracho is herself a queer Mexican American, and she drew together an all-Latinx and mostly queer team of writers who bring subtlety, verve and a sense of groundedness to the series, which was released on American network Starz and is available in Australia on Stan. While the current golden age of television offers other notable Latinx queer characters (One Day at a Time, The L Word: Generation Q, Gentefied and even Brooklyn Nine-Nine), no other show captures the intricate internal politics of a community quite as deftly as Vida.

Intergenerational tensions are handled with wit and generosity. Eddy flinches at the language and behaviour of a group of young drag kings: “Carnala, they called me a gender queer and an elder,” she confesses to her friend Rocky. “And they throw around the word ‘queer’ like nothing.” Knowing that Eddy is played by nonbinary actor Ser Anzoategui adds another dimension to the exchange.

In Vida, we see queers at their best (gutsy, full-hearted, loyal, inventive; clocking each other from across the room with a ready smirk) and at their worst (cutting each other down for sport). In one scene, Emma is dismissed as a “baby queer” by a pack of her lover’s friends because she rejects identifying with any particular label. “I’m sorry that you think I’m confused or indecisive because I have a wide range of what I can get off to,” she retorts.

Emma certainly does get off to a range of acts, bodies and genders, but more than anything else, she gets off on control. She’s a powerhouse femme top who’s as precise and exacting when she’s instructing a man to strip as when she is managing the bar. One of the most memorable sex scenes is a cold open that shows her pushing someone to the floor, peeling off her own black lacy underwear, and squatting down onto their face. (It made me feel quite cheated that in six seasons and a reboot of The L Word, we probably see enough hair to encircle the earth twice, but not a single decent face-sitting scene.)

Vida’s queerness extends beyond its LGBTIQ characters. Even the sex between men and women is consistently bent, playing with gender anxieties and drawing out the tensions between what they want and who they think they are.

The hetero sex here flips the script, sometimes literally: in the first episode, we see Lyn getting eaten out, and then in the next episode, we see her rimming her boyfriend. The image is a direct inversion of the previous scene, but this time it’s Lyn doing the dining. As the saying goes, the anus is the great equaliser. Later in the series, we see Lyn with a man who loves being pegged but who freaks out when she tries to slide a finger inside him. It’s not how he wants her to see him, or how he wants to see himself.

Though it’s often enjoyable in its own right, the sex in Vida is rarely gratuitous. It’s deliciously specific in a way that – like sex in real life – reveals something instinctive and intrinsic about each person. You can genuinely watch it for the plot.

Tight close-ups, hand-held panning and shot-reverse shot sequences within the sex scenes stretch out the tension and highlight the characters’ shifting focus: a hot palm here, a slow blink there. In other moments, the tension is broken with humour. One of the steamiest bathroom sex scenes includes an awkward intermission when Nico (Roberta Colindrez) pauses to wash her hands. It’s a surprisingly thoughtful addition to a scene that could otherwise feel too down pat.

Throughout the series – which finished on May 31 after three seasons – we see sex denaturalised. Sex isn’t just one thing. Fucking isn’t just one thing. While there can sometimes be a circular fatalism to some of the character dynamics in the show, the writing makes it clear that nothing is pre-determined when it comes to sex.

That’s a powerful and optimistic perspective in a series that puts intracommunity conflict under the microscope – showing us biphobic queers, Latinx gentrifiers, misogynistic patriarchs, and all the assumptions, secrets and internalised rubbish we lug around and fling at each other. Perhaps there’s a lesson here. Neither sex nor solidarity is automatic. It doesn’t just emanate, naturally, from the body. It takes work, understanding, honesty and imagination. It’s not who you are, it’s how you do.

Jinghua Qian

Jinghua Qian is a Shanghainese writer living in Melbourne’s west, on the land of the Kulin nations. Ey has written on desire, resistance and diaspora for Overland, Meanjin, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Guardian.

@qianjinghua

Mishel Prada and Melissa Barrera as sisters Emma and Lyn Hernandez in Vida

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