Netflix’s The Politician: Teen LGBTQ Relationships and Mental Health
March 26, 2020
The 2010s was a decade full of LGBTQ representation and discussion of mental health in film and television, from 13 Reasons Why to Booksmart. As someone who is LGBTQ and has mental health syndromes, I often see people like me in background roles, such as a gay best friend or an anxious sidekick. When I began to watch The Politician, a Netflix original show that aired in September 2019, I saw someone like me as a character who was multidimensional, someone with tangible struggles of their own.
The authors did not make this representation one of the main points of the show. Characters instead were portrayed as normal. This is a breath of fresh air in the entertainment industry, which often makes heterosexual relationships (where a guy and girl date) the status quo and silences other sexual orientations by glossing over them as inconsequential relationships.
Growing up, I didn’t see people I identify with represented in film or television, something that enforced the idea that heterosexual, conventional relationships are the norm. If people see positive messages of LGBTQ teens and other marginalized groups, such as those with mental health concerns, this could help normalize these identities. Seeing LGBTQ teens represented in the media would also support teens who may be struggling to understand and identify their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Politician’s plot introduces Payton Hobart, an anxious and obsessive high schooler trying to become senior class president. The show switches between his presidential race and a past relationship he had with River, his former opponent who died by suicide due to his ongoing depression. River’s girlfriend runs for class president, choosing nonbinary Skye as a running mate. In turn, Payton picks Infinity, who is battling cancer, to be his vice president. Payton later learns Infinity was a victim of her grandmother’s Munchausen by proxy, a syndrome in which a person (the grandmother is this case) makes up health issues for another person (Infinity). Payton and Infinity are joined by LGBTQ McAfee, Payton’s girlfriend Alice and James, who is transgender, to form his campaign team. Other characters are Payton’s mother, who has had an affair with a female groundskeeper, and Andrew, who has Tourette’s syndrome.
The Politician’s first-season cast has more LGBTQ characters and characters with mental health issues than most shows with multiple seasons, with the majority in main roles as well. This was something that resonated with me as it showed how real relationships aren’t perfect and that we all aren’t carbon copies of what many see as “normal” relationships and people. If more shows and movies included people like the ones in The Politician, LGTBQ people or those with mental health issues would be exposed to a healthier amount of characters with similar traits, making these topics less taboo.
Relatable Characters and Experiences
I’ve known I was pansexual since I was eight (more specifically, when I saw Emma Watson in Harry Potter), and I recently came out as gender-fluid. I also have symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and bouts of anxiety caused from it. Even though the characters’ stories may differ from my own, I see my past and present self in obsessive Payton, conflicted about his sexual orientation; proud and political Skye; emotional River with a hard-to-crack exterior revealing tenderness inside; as well as always-supportive Alice. The Politician’s characters can appeal to anybody searching to find out who they are—or wishing to find a much-needed representation of their marginalized communities in television.
In the show, Payton tells River, “I’m not a box. I don’t have four sides for you to look at and approve of….This is the true me. This is who I am.” This quote, like the show, is an affirmation for those who sometimes don’t feel proud of who they are or don’t feel accepted and normal or confident in themselves. It’s also a jab to those who judge people for their differences. In The Politician, everyone can see themselves as a main character and can recognize that they are not alone in their emotions. We should all listen to this message and try to end our judgment of others and ourselves.