Weekender: The issue of queer representation in ‘My Policeman’

The cover of Bethan Roberts' "My Policeman" (2012) (left) and Harry Styles holding a pride flag (right) are pictured. Via Wikimedia Commons
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With the upcoming release of the feature film “My Policeman” (2022) set to screen in theaters nationwide starting Oct. 21, it’s only appropriate to dive into the novel the feature film is based upon, Harry Styles’ upcoming role in the production and the general dehumanization of queer characters in literature.

Originally published a decade ago in the U.K., “My Policeman” (2012) was not available for sale in the U.S. until 2021. The novel centers on three protagonists: Tom, Marion and Patrick, who are the policeman, wife and lover, respectively. The story is told in vignettes offered up by Marion and Patrick. Over the course of the story, there is no direct narration from Tom, an interesting stylistic choice by author Bethan Roberts.

It’s evident from the exposition that any love is ill-fated within “My Policeman.” As readers grow to know Marion in the first book, pity ensues for the poor woman who will soon marry a man who cannot love her back. When Patrick is introduced, there’s almost an immediate conflict as to who the true victim is. Does the reader sympathize with the poor, love-stricken wife who will never have her affections reciprocated? Or does the gay lover who will never be able to love openly garner more sympathy? What’s lost in all of this is the policeman, Tom.

Quite easily the most ignorant and selfish persona within the novel, Tom expects it all. He takes advantage of Marion’s oblivion to his sexuality and Patrick’s eagerness to share him with his wife. However, Tom is also a victim. He is but another queer man in 1950s England where he is unable to forge a path toward fulfilling his own needs for love and affection. Yet, despite all of these obstacles, Tom manages to remain the villain. The emotional abuse of Marion and Patrick highlights Tom’s sexual greed that takes precedence over fairness. Whether his intention or not, Tom is inevitably damaging Marion for security and Patrick for sex and intimacy. Despite Patrick’s accounts of Tom’s interest in his musings — since there is no room for Tom’s narration within the novel — there’s little to no proof that Tom was ever truly emotionally connected to Patrick at all. Patrick’s depictions of Tom are viewed through an optimistic lens, a somewhat idealistic version of what Patrick hopes Tom reciprocates.

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Where Roberts falls short is in her description of love within the novel. Intimacy is defined as sexual rather than emotional, and there are very few times within the novel that Marion or Patrick aren’t salivating over Tom’s broad shoulders. Though sexual intimacy plays a role in relationships, Marion and Patrick were diluted to a subclass of dynamic protagonists that barely manage to grow as individuals. Patrick’s endless devotion to Tom leaves him lonely and broken by the end of the novel, and Marion recognizes her homophobic response to the affair, although without tangible retribution or reflection. What is most concerning, however, is how queer love is painted in this piece.

While the story is told between the perspectives of Marion and Patrick, it’s undeniably Marion’s tale from the start. Patrick loses all credibility toward the end of the novel. After being arrested, Patrick continues to pine over the image of him. Marion, the woman who lost it all because of her gay husband, is allowed redemption at the end of the novel. She writes her thoughts about the affair down and force-feeds them to Tom and Patrick to reflect upon. Though she acknowledges her own role in Patrick’s arrest, Marion leaves Tom to seemingly restart whatever remainder of life she has left. Tom, though flawed, is not awarded this opportunity, and Patrick has no more than a week to live by the conclusion of the novel.

Throughout the novel, Tom is represented as a man of his own conviction who effectively manipulates and harms Marion. Patrick fares no better as the ‘other man’ who willfully allows the manipulation of Marion to take place all so that he can enjoy the pleasures of a secret relationship with Tom. The most frustrating part of the novel is — outside of the terrible abuse and bigotry Patrick faces in prison — is that it feels deserved. Patrick’s suffering, along with Tom’s, feels justified. Two queer men are painted as the villains of their own story. Queer men who face being called slurs in the street daily. Queer men who are arrested and stripped of their reputations because of whom they choose to have sex with. Queer men who have no other choice in their society but to marry a woman. Yes, Marion is a victim, but did highlighting her misfortune have to come at the expense of dehumanizing two very clearly ostracized men from society?

If matters could not get any worse, the film adaptation of “My Policeman” can only further rub salt in the wound. Harry Styles was cast as Tom in the feature film, despite claims that Styles co-opts the queer community, often known as queerbaiting. While Styles is just as valid in his identity, public knowledge or not, as anyone else, it is coincidental that the most polarizing character in the book is played by an equally polarizing figure to the queer community.

Styles did not make matters any better for himself when he described the film: “It’s not like, ‘This is a gay story about these guys being gay.’ … It’s about love and about wasted time to me.” Can a queer film not just focus on queer issues? Must it be more broadly applied to themes of love and wasted time? Styles also noted that “so much of gay sex in film is two guys going at it, and it kind of removes the tenderness from it.” Though Styles is clearly defending the intimacy for which he believes the film is aiming, it almost feels as though he is criticizing other queer media for centering too much on a “gay story about these guys being gay” or focusing on meaningless sex that lacks emotion. Of queer novels that could’ve been adapted for the silver screen, “My Policeman” is one of the worst choices.

The film has yet to be released, so there is still the opportunity for the movie to surpass expectations and better represent queer issues faced by past generations, but the prospect isn’t too promising. However, there are benefits to having queer representation on the big screen today, especially featuring major celebrities such as Styles. Whether or not the film performs well or is received warmly, it will make a queer story visible to the public. Hopefully, this will open up the space in film and media to push forward more marginalized narratives.

“My Policeman” is a story centering on three white protagonists, and the queer community cannot be appropriately represented by such narrow castings. Queer love comes in more forms than are represented in the media today, and hopefully, these narratives can be fleshed out and given their due time in the limelight. As for “My Policeman,” it is respectable of Roberts to take on the task of amplifying queer issues, but she ultimately failed at effectively evoking a greater sense of sympathy and respect for Tom, Patrick and queer people in general.

“My Policeman” will be released in theaters Oct. 21 and made available on Amazon Prime Video Nov. 4.

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