With the current cancellation of Gentleman Jack, “representation” has become a keyword in the social media battle to bring the series back. But why? Why does it matter?
Simply put, representation matters because we matter—all of us, any of us who search the often-bleak landscape of today’s media, for one small peek at anyone who might look or act or feel the slightest bit like us. Someone we can relate to, look up to, learn from, pass on to others as a lantern to light the way.
Gentleman Jack provides this beacon. For the first time, we’ve been treated to a strong, smart, adventurous lesbian—a butch lesbian, at that—who knew what she wanted and found it.
Even more important, the series doesn’t give two figs for what the male gaze might want, a condition that most lesbians over the age of fifty have been forced to deal with for most of their lives. No, this time it was two women engaging in lovemaking that was immediately recognizable and not meant, in an overabundance of acrobatic flesh, to bring the boys on board.
These two women felt the same things, dealt with the same challenges we still face, wanted nothing more than to live their lives as they knew they were meant to be lived—just as we do.
For once, we see us. And in focusing on us, Gentleman Jack not only delivers representation at its finest; it draws a huge international audience, thousands of viewers eager to learn more, know more, share more, teach more, eager to connect, to form a community. Why? Because even as a lack of representation causes people to feel alienated and powerless, real representation does exactly the opposite: it gives us strength, as individuals who now know they are part of a much larger group, to find that group.
And that gives us power.
Sally Wainwright's brilliant scripts, delivered by the amazing Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle, give us glimpses of our own lives, both the highs and the lows. They leave us realizing: if the real people the actors represented could make their lives work the way they wanted them to, so can we. Now we have a real-life historical role model, a dazzling, swashbuckling, pistol-packing ancestor who wasn’t afraid to share her innermost fears (or her well-honed letter writing skills).
Furthermore, the series delivers that history full-on, including the horrid details that many of us remember from our own lives—the shame; the brutality of others; the endless impact of those who would tell us that we are unnatural, or evil, or just plain wrong. This representation is as equally important as the love scenes, for this is the history we must never forget, especially now, when it seems that a tide may be rising against us.
Both good and bad, Gentleman Jack gives us a history we can build on, and even more important, gifts us this one undeniable truth: we were created exactly as we were meant to be, and have every right to live our lives as they are intended to be lived.
With this knowledge comes responsibility: our job is to climb onto the shoulders of those who came before us, and to lift others onto ours. We must save—and create—history for future generations.
Representation is the roadmap to our future and the future of those who come after us. We must continue to fight to see ourselves depicted as the people we know we are, the people we are meant to be and the ancestors we shall someday become.
This is why Representation Matters. And this is why we must #SaveGentlemanJack.
Gentleman Jack Is an Important Document in History
I am a historian, and my area of academic focus was on the early 19th century, particularly the decade of the 1810s. This is a somewhat mysterious period that gets attention comparatively rarely in historical scholarship, to say nothing of popular culture. Long before Gentleman Jack premiered in 2019, I became deeply immersed in the private lives of ordinary people, especially women, in Britain and the early United States as part of the research for my dissertation. When I did finally see the show, I was amazed not only at its visual versimilitude, but the unique way it was able to capture the “head space” of this fascinating time in history. Gentleman Jack—the series itself, even aside from the remarkable source material of Anne Lister’s writings—is an important document for transmitting and preserving this history for a broader audience. For this reason alone, there are compelling reasons for the show to continue, beyond the simplistic dollars-and-sense calculations of eyeballs, advertisers and profits.
To be sure, my research didn’t involve Anne Lister or even the worlds of LGBTQ people in the early 19th century. I’m an environmental historian, and I was researching climate. In 1815, a volcano called Tambora, located in what’s now Indonesia, erupted and shrouded the Earth in a cloud of particulate dust that had the effect of altering the world’s weather, making it sharply colder in most parts of the globe. Many people have heard of this event, but what’s less well known is that Tambora was the second volcanic climate event of that time—a previous mountain erupted in 1809 and kicked off the process. I was researching how ordinary people reacted to these mysterious events that changed their weather and often their moods. Much of my source base involved personal diaries from the time period, where people often wrote about the weather and how it affected them. The diaries I researched were disproportionately written by women. This is how I encountered the diary of Lucinda Read in the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Read was not famous or noteworthy. She was an ordinary woman who lived in Greensboro, Vermont. She was born in 1791, so she was a rough contemporary of Anne Lister, and her diary that I read was written in 1815. Read’s family were strict Calvinists—for example, her community publicly shamed and punished people who broke the Sabbath. It was also clear to me that Read was lesbian or bisexual. In one portion of her diary she described, in veiled and suggestive language, what seemed to be a sexual encounter with another woman named Stella. It was difficult to discern from Read’s careful early 19th century language exactly what occurred between them, but it definitely left an impression on her. One clear quote that I took down in my notes was: “Long will my bosom swell with the recollection [of the encounter]!”
Part of the reason it was difficult to determine what happened with Stella was because there were heavy deletions in the diary. Several key passages in Read’s journal were not just erased—yes, you could erase ink from paper in 1815, if you tried hard enough—but someone had taken a sharp tool and literally scraped off the surface of the paper to obliterate what was written there. It wasn’t just a word here and there, but numerous sentences carefully redacted, and they all seemed to involve Stella. I was examining the actual diary, not a scan or photo, and I could see my fingers through the ragged translucent trenches in the paper. Someone, perhaps Lucinda Read herself or some other member of her family, didn’t want the world to learn of her relationship with Stella. The deletions might have been done shortly after they were written, or possibly years later when her family donated her papers to the Massachusetts Historical Society. I am LGBTQ myself and I instantly recognized the aura of fear and censorship that emanated from these 200-year-old pages. This kind of thing was not what I was looking for and I didn’t end up mentioning Read in my dissertation, but I marked it down in my private notes. For the record, Lucinda Read later became a teacher and missionary.
When I first saw Gentleman Jack, a show suggested by my husband, one of the first things I thought of when I saw the depiction of Anne Lister was Lucinda Read’s redacted diary and her mysterious relationship with Stella. Although Gentleman Jack picks up in the early 1830s, a decade and a half after
the period I studied, I instantly recognized the cadence of the spoken and written language and the careful self-censorship and presentation to the world with which most of the other characters—and Anne herself occasionally—navigated their public lives. Indeed, Anne’s defiance of society and her insistence on remaining true to herself, at least in love, represented for me the counterpoint to the desires that Lucinda Read apparently suppressed, or had suppressed for her. Through the medium of the Gentleman Jack series, Anne Lister has been allowed to speak, not just for LGBTQ people of our time, but her own contemporaries. That’s an extraordinary contribution to historical understanding.
Doing a period drama right is a lot more than making sure costumes are accurate and glaring modern anachronisms are left offscreen. It involves fealty to the intellectual and emotional reality in which people in the past were as immersed and surrounded as we are by our modern hypertechnical, attention-demanding environment. Gentleman Jack is one of the most accurate modern depictions of the early 19th century I’ve ever seen, and I’d like to think that I should know. It should be renewed and preserved. Lucinda Read never had her truth made known, but Anne Lister did, and her truth speaks to us.
Let’s save Gentleman Jack.
Dr. Sean Munger
Lesbians have not had realistic representation in the past because of the patriarchy appropriating lesbians as a fetish for the male gaze, as well as de platforming and silencing real lesbian experiences. The patriarchy clearly does not like a strong female lead thus cancels any show that presents a strong and independent woman like in Gentleman Jack. This is because lesbians are seen as a threat because our existence as homosexual women puts this patriarchy in question and challenges its system. Representation of lesbians matters on TV and media because it breaks stigma, shame and invisibility. This is something lesbians have been up against for years. We deal with misogyny and homophobia on a daily basis and to see such a positive and real representation of a lesbian character empowers young lesbians and women globally. Gentleman Jack must have a season 3 because more of this positive representation is needed. Hopefully, it will educate the majority on lesbian relationships and how they navigate life against a system made by and for men. We are not a fetish, lesbian is not a dirty word, and homosexuality is not a choice. We are simply women who have no interest in men sexually or romantically, and that should be respected. After watching Gentleman Jack, I visit Shibden hall on a regular basis, and feel much more confident in myself as a young lesbian.
Representation matters in all aspects of life but one of the most important is in mainstream media. LGBT+ representation in television is extremely important as it not only allows for members of the LGBT+ community to feel seen and heard and shown that who they are is valid, but it also allows an audience that would not necessarily interact with the community to do so and empathise with their struggles. Gentleman Jack offers a glimpse into the rich life of Anne Lister, a remarkable woman once lost from history. This show has provided representation for one of the most marginalised groups in society and has allowed numerous people to come to terms with their sexuality; without this show, many of these people would perhaps not be living as their authentic selves. Gentleman Jack has given the opportunity for Anne Lister to essentially live openly as a lesbian, without censorship of her identity, and for her powerful story to reach an extensive audience. If you saw someone staring back at you from the television screen who is just like you, who struggles the same as you, who makes you realise that it is okay to be you, then I am sure that you would truly understand how much LGBT+ representation matters.
Representation matters to everyone. We all need to feel we belong; to identify; to feel part of something. It's so important to all our well being. Watching Gentleman Jack spoke so loudly to me, every emotion, the perpetual grind against narrow minded prejudice ; the needs; the want; the love; the heartache , this was me , yes, I've felt all those emotions over the years. Instantly , I felt at home.
It matters so much to the community of people who have become so involved in the movement to save Gentleman Jack. It is absolutely necessary to move forward with the program for all the people around the world who are so locked into the story, including myself, and want to see it continue to its climax. I am convinced that I could not live without it. I would be so depressed, undone I think. Keep hope alive and get this magnificent program back on track.
Why I think representation matters: I can't stress enough how important it is to see yourself on the TV. People who've always had themselves represented in movies and TV shows probably don't realise this.
For a marginalised group, it's important that we see ourselves on the TV as, just-like-everyone-else, as normal people, as /human/. And, it's important other people see this, as well.
For LGBT people, seeing yourself on TV could also mean starting to question your own sexuality. For some, it could be the beginning of a life changing journey.
We know that Gentleman Jack has been exactly this for many people. This show has changed lives, and saved lives.
Representation matters. So much.
Representation matters because unfortunately we still live in a world where being gay trans or bi are discriminated and that shouldn't be the way forward. I feel like lgbtqia shows really help people come out and not to feel scared. It doesn't help that so many shows with lgbt characters are being cancelled and I don't believe that's the way to go forward we are in 2022 now and the world should be acceptant to different things, however sadly we don't and I feel like a show like Gentleman Jack represents that if Anne Lister and Ann Walker can be a married couple in their times where it would of been a lot harder bearing in mind, then so can we I feel like Gentleman Jack is best at that to be honest showing people that it's okay to be who ever you want to be, as Anne Lister said in the show if we want to be happy sometimes we have to risk being hurt, this is why i was very disheartened when i felt like Gentleman Jack wasn't coming back because it's a real good positive statement on representation matters and so many people have looked up to this show including myself, and its even saved lives this show is more than a show to many people and it really matters, there should be more lgbtqia shows out there like Gentleman Jack because it really makes you feel good that a show can be so represented this is a very positive show, and has taught me a lot of things.
There has never been a woman on TV portrayed the way that Anne Lister was portrayed on Season 1 and 2 of Gentleman Jack. She was unapologetically herself, a force of nature. She commanded every room she walked into. She didn't put up with anybody's bullshit. She was a woman of intellect who had a ravenous thirst for knowledge and worldly experience during a time when women were expected to live quiet lives at home and maybe occasionally travel with a chaperone. Anne Lister was bold and direct and independent.
But the portrayal of Anne Lister was so nuanced because her character was allowed to be multidimensional unlike many female characters, particularly gay characters on TV. She was also shown with extreme vulnerability, self-doubt, and tenderness as well. She was shown to be someone who desired lifelong companionship when there wasn't even a blueprint of what that could be like with two women. Her character is multidimensional because of the incredible writing of Sally Wainwright but also because of Anne Lister's incredible, vast, and honest journals. Unlike many characters on TV or Film who are based on real stories we have so much material directly from Anne Lister herself. It's knowing this that I find the most moving.
This character who means so much to me, who has allowed me to feel almost a kinship to her. That if I had had someone like her to look up to as a child, I would have felt that my life had more possibilities as a young lesbian. Maybe I wouldn't have felt that I would never have things like love, companionship, and a beautiful wife one day. Maybe I would have felt that it was actually attainable and possible to create a life as Anne Lister so boldly did. Maybe I would have felt that I could also embody masculinity, toughness and boldness and also embody tenderness, softness, strength, resolve and femininity. That all of those things could exist within myself and there wasn't something wrong with me.
It's incredible to relate to a TV character so much and I've never in all my life had that experience. I had never seen such a complex and nuanced masculine of center woman on TV quite like Anne Lister and it has been so moving to watch her over the last two seasons and to feel that we have always been here. Representation to me means possibility, validation, and a sense of lineage and history. It means feeling connected to the women before me who had similar ways of showing up in the world, who had similar hopes and fears and were unapologetically themselves.
A WELL WORDED LETTER…
I am writing to request that you don’t cancel the Third Season, Of Gentleman Jack and here is the reason .T.V. Is for enjoyment, connection and education, Not just a time-filler like most content but for sharing information. Before Gentleman Jack hit the T.V. screens I didn’t know Anne Lister existed, I didn’t even own a T.V or License as mind numbing programmes I resisted. Three different people told me to check Gentleman Jack out, I bought the DVD of Series One to see what it was all about. It blew my mind from the very first episode. After watching the whole series was inspired to write the Anne Lister Ode. I have included a printed copy with this letter so you can see, How much I was affected and what it meant to me personally. Round breaking television at just the right time, Encouraged me to write this ‘Well Worded Letter’ in the form of a rhyme! Maybe now is the right time to change your view, About this situation and see what is true…This Anne Lister and Ann Walker Love Story is definitely so much more, Than it is really being given the credit for. A defining moment in television history, As we delve into the extensive Anne Lister Diaries no longer a mystery. Now of National and Global importance and a Literary Archive, The Anne Lister College of York University keeping the momentum alive. Your T.V. Programme started the phenomenon the Gentleman Jack Effect, People of all Cultures and Countries giving Anne Lister and Ann Walker due respect. So come on T.V. Networks get together and do your thing! Help Sally Wainwright bring the Anne Lister Diaries to life again and make our hearts sing! Give Sally the time and resources to write and direct as she knows best, The Superb Actors and Crew will all do the rest…This is a good business decision for you don’t forget, Done the right way it will be very lucrative for you and a sure bet! The impact of watching Gentleman Jack completely changed my life, I decided it was time to find my Perfect Wife. It just fell into place and She is now here with me, We watched Series One and Two together after buying a new T.V. We went to ALBW2022 and visited Anne Lister’s Ancestral Shibden Hall, Our lives took on new meaning as we answered the call…When the Community gathered together in the home town of Anne Lister to celebrate, All because of a Fabulous Love Story that we all feel is so Great! It has changed so many lives in countless ways that are good, You have the Power to continue this and you know deep inside you should…We are all very aware what you do next is your choice, Just seriously consider that the Legacy of Anne Lister and Ann Walker has truly given ALL WOMEN FOR THE FIRST TIME A VOICE…Helen Chadwick Friday 15th July 2022 💫🤗👏🌈💖💖🎩
Gentleman Jack, oh Gentleman Jack, You Walked In and Gave Me Strength…
I came out when I was 27 - to a very Italian family that remained in disbelief for quite some time but learned to “tolerate” me and “how I was.” Over the years since, my family has grown and things have gotten better, to where even after a broken heart I was able to share a walk on the beach with my Mom having her say “it’s her loss” to me. I’ll never be as they want me to be, but that’s why Gentleman Jack and Anne Lister and Ann Walker matter to so many of us. To know there were two brave women in love and living their truth in the mid-1800’s has brought so many of us validation and inspiration, because even though society has progressed, let’s face it, full equality still has a long way to go. REPRESENTATION MATTERS. Shows like Gentleman Jack - and it isn’t just a line of bullshit from a group of adoring admirers - is a phenomenal production from start to finish. It has a brilliant cast, led by the uber talented Suranne Jones (who deserves every award there is for her portrayal of Anne Lister), Sophie Rundle, Gemma Whelan, Gemma Jones, Timothy West and a treasure of other talented players, ridiculously accurate scripts that follow Anne’s own diary entries (with a few awesome dramatic license scenes thrown in for good measure), transports us to the real Shibden Hall (Anne’s home in Halifax, UK) and hits you in all the feels possible. It’s history. Lesbian history. We have always been here and our stories must be told. It’s the only way to be seen. Really seen. Let us not forget, this woman lived fearlessly while facing tons of adversity. She created her own crypt hand to detail her love for women and wrote almost 5 million words in her journals from 1816 until her untimely death in 1840. They were found in a wall. She was a highly educated and intelligent landowner, diarist, businesswoman, traveler and conversationalist. Her story was shared most excellently by Sally Wainwright through Gentleman Jack. We get two seasons and HBO cancels one of the most important shows of queer representation out there.
Don’t put Anne and our history back behind a wall. Representation is so vital to the progress of equality. Let Gentleman Jack live!
Queer History Matters
In a time when politicians drum up homophobic and transphobic sentiments and pass oppressive laws that harm LGBTQIA2S+ people, when books are being banned and burned, when teachers are being silenced on the subject of queer lives, when only 30 of 195 countries have legalized same-sex marriage, when being queer makes you a criminal in 71 countries (the punishment is death in 11 of these), when violence against queer folk is on the rise and young queers are feeling more suicidal, representation in the media matters more than ever.
Honest portrayals of queer lives counter decades of ubiquitous negative tropes in film, TV, and literature. For minority groups to see themselves on screen, to have role models, to have visibility, can be essential for mental health and survival. When the rest of the audience see realistic queer characters, this normalizes and destigmatizes queerness, which increases safety and success for queer people, integrates us into society, allows us greater freedom to express our true selves and live our lives honestly and joyfully.
The WLW audience, starved for engaging, realistic, and positive stories about lesbian lives, is eager to have Gentleman Jack, a TV series about an intriguing historical person—and her marriage to a brave woman struggling with mental health challenges—told in full. Anne Lister, a landowning nineteenth century diarist, industrialist, traveler, and mountaineer, left us over 5 million words that give us insight into lesbian lives in early nineteenth century Europe. We’ve been delighted to see Sally Wainwright’s brilliant script brought to life by a talented cast, with high quality costume and set design, cinematography, and computer graphics. We rarely get to enjoy the depiction of a lesbian historical figure in such a high-quality production.
There is so much more to the history in Anne Lister’s diaries, so much adventure and emotion to translate to the screen, that to have the series lose its funding after only two seasons, and before the history has been fully told, has been a devastating addition to the “cancel your gays” trend in the industry lately.
A butch woman or masculine-of-center person in the central role of a narrative is still rare in film and television. We see far more lipstick lesbian, femme, and bisexual characters than trans-masculine people on screen, so seeing this character at the center of a period drama is truly special. Gentleman Jack’s Anne Lister takes her presentation, her manners and attire, her striding gait and her grand gestures, her booming low voice, her general swagger and swiftness of motion, her irrepressible energy and curiosity, her business ventures and financial risk taking, her travel adventures, her subjects of inquiry and mastery, her conversational topics and command of language, her rapidity of calculation and power of intellect, her vast range and depth of knowledge, her use of loaded pistols and a cane, her wall climbing, her driving coaches and gigs rather fast, well across the line of gendered expectations for women in nineteenth century European society. Lister’s ability to achieve so many of her goals despite facing the adversity of a homophobic world, her refusal to compromise herself or bow to the pressure to remain inside the constricting box allowed to women, has been inspirational to many viewers around the world, queer and straight alike. Lister’s exhortation to “rise above it” has become a mantra to queer women who often feel the lash of homophobia as we try to live genuine lives in a world that wants us to disappear.
To see a woman in her 40s as the main character is also a delightful rarity. Networks focus on their youth market targets to maximize profits, thus their characters and stories reflect the interests of that audience demographic. Middle-aged women are marginalized in film and television, so women over 40 rejoice to see the main character of any series be a woman in her prime, living a fulfilling life in her business and personal affairs, meeting difficult challenges head on with a long-established, solid sense of self. For younger people Lister is a role model for their future, in which they can continue to be significant and relevant as they move into middle age.
There’s been a tendency to elevate Anne Lister to heroic stature, despite her occasionally less palatable intentions and behavior in her social and political life. But depictions of historical figures, who were imperfect, real people, are quite valuable, for these are characters we can relate to and identify with. Sally Wainwright, to her credit, does not gloss over the less appetizing aspects of Lister’s character, but allows Lister all her multifaceted glory. Lister could step into the handsome rogue category quite easily if she were a male character, and everyone would love her for it.
Suranne Jones considered it a gift to be given such a complex role to play, a character with flaws as well as laudable traits, and Jones was the perfect actor to cast in a role like this. There’s a certain intimidating ferocity and disarming charisma to the Lister persona as portrayed in Gentleman Jack. Jones and Wainwright’s Lister charms us as easily as she does her lady conquests and society friends, running circles around everyone with her eloquence and bravado, so that we want to see her succeed, even if we don’t identify with her wealth and class, or agree with her politics, or approve of the way she handles her relationships with her family, tenants, servants, and lovers.
Lister was enterprising, intrepid, uncompromising, confident, vulnerable, caring, and protective, as well as manipulative, self-centered, egotistical, reckless, domineering, and cruel at times. The series offers us a fully rounded portrait of a complicated personality with a strong identity, genius level intellect, manners in turn endearing and astonishing, and an intense competitive drive in everything she tackled, including mountaineering, coal mine development, canal investment, social climbing, architectural and landscape planning, estate management, international travel, self-education in myriad subjects, and the wooing of women.
Our queer history has been hidden and suppressed for centuries. Unsurprisingly, once a few narratives see the light of day, there will be a backlash. Some will try to shove our histories back into the closet and make words for and about queer people continue to be unspeakable. We must refuse to be silenced and made invisible, and champion those who tell our stories and bring our histories to the light of day for all to see.
Anne Lister is one of our queer ancestors, a scribe of our history. We fervently believe her story deserves the financial support to be completed!
September 3, 2022
My Letter to HBO
HBO Letter Continued