500 Che’s of summer

OPINION: How Che Diaz in “And Just Like That” is the textbook Manic Pixie Dream Queer

Miranda Hobbes has always been queer—at least that’s what some internet memes claim, taking stock of the Sex and the City character’s occasional overalls, short haircuts and cynical attitude. In the original series, despite being mistaken for a lesbian by her colleagues and wishing her female friends wanted to have a threesome with her, Miranda’s queerness was latent, evident only in her style and not her sexual activity. Meanwhile, off screen, actress Cynthia Nixon was living a thriving queer life.

But And Just Like That, the hotly debated SATC reboot that wraps its first season this week, confirmed everything we thought we knew about Miranda: much like her portrayer, she’s definitely queer. Over nine episodes (with the finale airing Thursday), Miranda’s already run through a robust queer checklist: lusted after a hot queer in a dark bar, stressed over an unanswered DM, had transcendent sex in a kitchen, hopped a plane to confess her love and struggled to find the perfect gender-affirming compliment, all in the course of leaving her husband for a minor queer celebrity. 

The show is trying to make amends for its past sins. In an apparent effort to course-correct for the abysmal treatment of queerness and lack of racial diversity (and sensitivity) in the original show’s run, AJLT introduced four new BIPOC characters and two non-binary characters. And those of us who make up the strange centre in the Venn diagram of queers and SATC-lovers have been waiting for a queer Miranda for a very long time. Since the first mention of an SATC reboot, we examined every moment of every trailer, every detail of every behind-the-scenes photo and every bit of casting news for some kind of gay subtext. The mere suggestion that the openly non-binary Sara Ramirez would be playing Miranda’s love interest in the reboot was so exciting I was ready to accept the loss of our beloved working-class hero Steve Brady, Miranda’s husband, as collateral damage. 

But along the way the show has managed to recreate a truly horrifying trope for the year 2022: the Manic Pixie Dream Queer. 

Anatomy of a Manic Pixie Dream Queer

In AJLT, Ramirez plays the non-binary comedian Che Diaz who awakens Miranda’s queerness. In addition to being Carrie’s boss at her podcast job, Che is pansexual and polyamorous, and wants everyone to know it. These attributes are pretty much the only basis for their comedy, which we see them perform on the podcast, at a nightclub, at Charlotte’s kids’ school fundraiser and at the most piddly little Pride rally NYC has ever seen, where they’re spotted wearing a hoodie sporting the phrase “Angels Have No Gender But Lots of Sex.” But their routine never delves any deeper into the comedies of queer life beyond the affront it is to the mainstream. It’s a little basic, and feels like something dreamt up in a right-winger’s worst yet unimaginative nightmare. Certainly the “woke moment” button Che hits with semi-regularity on their podcast would be an affront to conservative audiences, but it’s also a symbol of Che’s inherent cheesiness that has been grating on queer audiences, too. The online discourse is rife with criticism of AJLT in general, and of Che Diaz in particular; they’ve been called “the worst character on TV,” and the less harsh but still cutting “mediocre non-binary representation.” 

 

The criticism of Che Diaz has been wide and varied. But the problem with Che’s character boils down to how they’ve become a non-binary spin on a classic sexist trope, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It’s a term that was coined in 2007 by Nathan Rabin in a review of the 2005 rom-com Elizabethtown to describe the kind of quirky female character that ran through early-aughts mumblecore films, their whole purpose seemingly to show brooding, mediocre men that life is mysterious and wonderful. (Think: Summer Finn in (500) Days of Summer, Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Margot Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums.) As the podcast Queer Coded has pointed out, many of these characters are even queer themselves. But their queerness is played as titillating, underscoring their status as a male fantasy figure, and is minimized as an extension of their eccentric quirkiness that helps unlock the leading man’s potential. 

While the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is often already queer, the Manic Pixie Dream Queer—the Che Diaz—is a revival of the tired old trope for 2022 audiences. Much like how its predecessor brought a little shimmer to the otherwise lacklustre lives of male characters, the Manic Pixie Dream Queer exists purely to shake despondent straight people out of their fro-yo funks with inspiring speeches about change, and a ton of weed

Pop culture has produced the Manic Pixie Dream Queer before, but none so egregious as Che. Sure, sexy, bisexual assassin Villainelle does drum up exciting new challenges for the heretofore straight M16 agent Eve Polastri—not to mention some steamy chemistry—in BBC’s Killing Eve, and there has been criticism that the role of Toni Topaz on Riverdale shrank as soon as she coupled with Cheryl Blossom, but these characters are still far more fleshed out than Che Diaz. In 2022, with a media landscape that boasts well-rounded queer characters on shows from Sex Education to Euphoria—heck, even Brooklyn Nine-Nine—there really is no excuse for such a hollow queer character.

Che, with their relaxed attitude toward drugs, sex and gender, is meant to juxtapose Miranda’s rigidity, but instead they come off as a caricature of a fuckboi queer and, ultimately, a pretty unlikeable character—not unlike the Summers and Ramonas and Margots before them. Other critics have pointed to Che’s habit of smoking weed at inappropriate times and places, pressuring Miranda to indulge even after she says no and urging Carrie to talk about sex more explicitly when she’s clearly uncomfortable as some of their least attractive traits. 

Other than being queer, we don’t know that much about Che and neither does Miranda. The two first meet at Mr. Big’s funeral, after Che offers Miranda’s 17-year-old son Brady a hit from their ever-present pipe. Their next encounter is at Che’s curiously named “comedy concert,” a performance without jokes but plenty of emphasis on coming out and several emphatic urges to the audience to change the parts of their life that aren’t working. Miranda’s attraction to Che seems to be less about who they are—or even what they look like—and more about her own boredom with her hard-of-hearing husband, oversexed teenage son and life in general. Che’s very existence in the SATC universe is little more than a ploy to demonstrate how dull Miranda’s life has become and an opportunity for Miranda to shake things up (that is: fuck against Carrie’s kitchen counter while Carrie is forced to pee the bed). As the season passes the halfway point, it seems even Che has become cognizant of their bit part to Miranda’s main character: when Miranda confesses immediately after sex that she’s falling in love with Che, they respond, “You’re in love with you… with me.” 

Despite all the evidence, I wondered if I was being too harsh in my assessment. So, I asked cultural commentators who I knew would be watching.

Zoe Whittall has been writing queer characters in her award-winning novels for over a decade, and won a Canadian Screen Writers Award in 2018 for her writing on the Baronness von Sketch Show. When I saw her tweet, “No Hetero but Steve is the only fuckable character on AJLT,” I had to know what she thought of Che.

“Che Diaz deserves to be the meme they are,” she wrote in an email. “I think AJLT will go down in history as an example of a show that jumped on the bandwagon of having a non-binary character, but then didn’t do the work of imbuing that person with the idiosyncrasies, flaws, quirks and specificity required to bring their full humanity to life. And then [the show] asked us to believe Miranda, always the smartest and least sentimental character, would fall for them.”

But not everyone’s a critic: Rolling Stone has published a defense of Che Diaz, arguing that many of us are overlooking “the significance of a mainstream, hugely popular TV franchise depicting a non-binary character in the first place.”  

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love—a veritable expert on the show—praised Ramirez’s charismatic performance and the lightness Che has brought to an otherwise heavy season that started with a traumatic loss. 

“It’s cool for them to grapple with heavier issues like that, and they’ve done that really well in the past, but I think we’ve been missing some of the lightness that we loved—and the sex!” she told me via email. “Che and Miranda have been the only ones bringing the heat so far.”

A manic pixie retirement

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope has been frequently decried as sexist by many, many critics, who have called for the retirement of the stock character in favour of more complex female characters. The argument goes that casting women in these supporting roles also relegates them to the sidelines in reality, where they are expected to play second fiddle to men and are never allowed the space to express their full humanity. The same goes for the Manic Pixie Dream Queer. Che is a mere device to fulfill Miranda’s narrative arc of self-discovery that has resulted in the frustratingly flat queer caricature.

AJLT’s take on queerness feels written for a straight audience. Charlotte and her husband are centred in their kid’s non-binary coming-out story arc, which emphasizes how to handle such a revelation from a parental perspective. And I’m not sure which queer people would actually listen to—let alone enjoy—Che’s podcast X, Y and Me, or the aforementioned comedy concert, which both seem to revolve around the explanation of queer and non-binary identities. Che is just a mechanism to teach SATC’s straight audiences about queerness in addition to teaching Miranda about herself.

Love interests have always been accessories in the SATC universe. Late in Season 4, Carrie wrote an article for Vogue around the premise that “men are the new black,” including little quips like, “a Prada dress should always be worn with an investment banker.” The following season, she spends an episode unravelling because a reviewer of her book caught on that, in Carrie Bradshaw’s world, men are disposable. 

By refusing to see beyond what Che can offer her own story, Miranda risks going the full Tom Hansen in (500) Days of Summer: ending up devastated because she failed to see her object of desire as a full person rather than just a fantasy. Prime example: when Che admits they do have feelings for Miranda but insists they can’t give her “anything traditional,” Miranda jumps the gun, asks Steve for a divorce and hops a plane to Cleveland to surprise Che, squealing, “I’m in a rom-com, Carrie!”

But maybe there’s hope. Summer Finn seemed to be both the Manic Pixie Dream Girl’s pinnacle and last breath; in the decade since the release of (500) Days of Summer, audiences and critics have come to understand Hansen, the film’s male protagonist, as the film’s villain for expecting Summer to be his saviour. Actress Zooey Deschanel, who caught a lot of flack for reprising the trope over and over in various roles, moved to the small screen where she could cease playing someone’s girlfriend (though, in Manic Pixie fashion, remains quirky). And while I sometimes still need to have a stern talk with the Netflix algorithm about what constitutes a “strong female lead,” it seems that we as a culture have effectively shuttered this trope to the white male imaginations from which she originated. Perhaps Che Diaz will similarly be the Manic Pixie Dream Queer’s swan song.

LGBTQ2S+ SATC fans lobbied hard for a queer storyline, but I guess we should have been more specific. True, we want a queer Miranda, but we also want queer characters that speak to us, that speak like us; we want queer characters with personal lives, flaws and interests outside of their sexuality

It speaks volumes that the show’s production made Che a performer. In 2022, we want queer and trans characters that don’t just perform a role, whether it’s to educate straight audiences or emancipate bored white women. If the show is granted the grace of a second season, let’s hope its creators are taking notes.

Andi Schwartz is femme, a freelancer and a graduate student at York University. Her writing has appeared in Xtra, GUTS, Herizons, Broken Pencil and Shameless. She lives in Toronto with her fur babies, Franny and Zooey.

Keep Reading

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Season 16, Episode 15 power ranking: Losing is the new winning for one queen

Who is the champion of this season’s LaLaPaRuZa tournament?

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Season 16, Episode 15 recap: LaLaRuUnion

Our eliminated queens are back to battle it out in a lip sync tournament

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Season 16, Episode 14 power ranking: The final three

For the first time since Season 12— and the first time intentionally since Season 8—we have just three queens in the finale

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Season 16, Episode 14 recap: An open book

A “House of Hidden Meanings”-inspired memoir challenge gives us one last elimination