We need to talk about the sexual racism in HBO’s ‘Watchmen’
Gay male culture has an emphasized issue with sexual racism.
by Avery Ware
I sat up in his bed and glared at him through squinted eyes, “What do you mean you only sleep with Black guys? Are you a fetish queen?” Boldly he responded, “Yeah, I probably am.”
I’ll spare you the curse words that followed that statement. I was more angry with myself than him for putting myself in the predicament as I got dressed, still cursing him out, and left. Of course, this isn’t my first encounter with racist white gays and their manner of race-based fetishization. It was, however, the first time one of them so boldly professed his sexual racism while I lay unclothed in his bed.
In contemporary culture, sexual racism is primarily discussed in relation to virtual encounters. The common “no Blacks, no Asians” discourse on dating apps like Grindr and Adam4Adam that has, rightfully, inspired essays, think pieces, and academic studies. In other words, contemporary discourse primarily focuses on markers of exclusion based on race. Rarely, do we discuss, and even fewer times to see it portrayed in our media, of sexual racism in an intimate setting.
Much like my aforementioned encounter, episode six of HBO’s Watchmen provides us with another example of sexual racism in the intimate sphere. Particularly, the affair between William Reeves (Hooded Justice) and Nelson Gardner (Captain Metropolis). The episode, titled “The Extraordinary Being,” is altogether outstanding. It’s visually appealing, emotionally gut-wrenching, and stylistically pleasing. There is so much to unpack in this single hour of television that some trends and phenomenons are bound to get lost in the mix, but I want to make certain that the sexual racism, however subtle, on display does not go unexamined.
It is a commonly held American ideal that love, passion, attraction, and preference are completely void of external influence. It is deliberately disseminated that desire is apolitical and ultimately uncontrollable. However, the reality is that socialization in settler-colonial state results in rigid rules of attraction and desirability that make it impossible to extrapolate racialization from sexualization. And while these colonial scripts are global and infiltrate multiple communities and cultures, the literature suggests the US gay male culture has an emphasized issue with sexual racism.
Sexual racism comes in many forms, but at its core, there are two categorical lanes: the aversion to court based on race, or the desire to fuck based on racialized stereotypes. In Watchmen, I believe we witness the latter with William and Nelson. To the uncritical eye, the affair seems to be two men engaging in sex that just happen to be of different races. To the trained eye, while subtle, we witness Nelson fulfill his sexual fantasies while completely disregarding William’s personhood.
This is evidenced by the first time the audience is invited into an intimate setting with Willam and Nelson. Exhausted from intercourse where William aggressively tops Nelson (a common trope of the hyper-sexual, overly aggressive Black top and submissive white bottom), William and Nelson lay in bed. As Nelson carefully examines and adorns Willams’ chest, he attempts to persuade William to join the Minutemen—under the condition that they never know he’s a Black man. “Where the make-up and hood at all times,” Nelson instructs.
Shortly after, Nelson retrieves his mask from his drawer and rejoins William in the bed to again re-examine his body. He suggests, “Next time I’ll wear mine, and you wear yours.” Implying that they both wear their vigilante costumes the next time they have sex. Which seems innocuous… until you realize he’s asking a Black man to fuck him with a noose around his neck.
When sexual racism occurs in an intimate setting among gay men, it is usually a catalyst for white men to play out their racialized sexual fantasies with men of color—as evidenced in the aforementioned scene. In Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch: Essays on Race and Sexuality, author and scholar Dwight McBride, gives detailed anecdotes of his experiences with sexual racism and white gays looking to fulfill their racialized sexual fantasies with Black men. In one example, he tells of a time when he met a man at a bar who profused he and his friends were “out looking for Black guys tonight.” On another occasion, McBride shares that in the middle of a sexual encounter, the gentleman shouted, “Give me that big Black dick!”
During the course of this episode of Watchmen, and witnessing the encounters between William and Nelson, there are similar circumstances of fetishization and undervalued personhood which speak to the sexual racism witnessed in the relationship between William and Nelson. In the scene that directly follows the first sexual encounter between William and Nelson, June (William’s wife) inquires about William’s unfavorable disposition as they lay in bed: “What? You realized that Captain Blonde and his masque squad don’t care about you. They only care what you can do for them.” June is doubly accurate in her sentiment. Firstly, Nelson recruits William under the false pretense that he and The Minutemen would aid him in his fight against white supremacist violence. Secondly, Nelson only values William in what he can do for him: to fulfill his racialized sexual desires.
Later in the episode, Hooded Justice calls for the help of Captain Metropolis and the rest of the Minutemen but is promptly dismissed, only to have Captain Metropolis directly summon Hooded Justice for sex soon after. “You’ll have to fight Black unrest lonely, but I’d love to see you if you change your mind,” Captain Metropolis panders. Fundamentally, Captain Metropolis is a racist white man that only finds value in Hooded Justice by way of his dick.
Similar to my aforementioned sexual encounter, and the scenes witnessed between William and Nelson, racialized erotic objectification and fetishization is a pronounced issue in gay male culture that is often secondary to the virtual race-based sexual rejection discourse. The sexual racism in Watchmen is under-acknowledged, but I believe it is worthy of much further examination and theorization, to discuss how eroticism, racism, and desire so often find a bed together.
Avery is a recent graduate with a masters in American Studies and a focus in Black queer history. He is currently a Higher Education professional with a focus on inclusion and social justice and a freelance writer.