The Unicorn Scale: Carnival Row

By Jennie Roberson

January 04, 2020



Photo credit: Prime Video

Hello. Unicorns old and new! The uninitiated and the old hands! Step right up to get yer Scales, fresh and pretty as a summer rose!

Sorry, I never was much of a carnival barker.

You know, I can’t tell you how many discussions I’ve had with friends about what kind of queer coding bis have for each other, and what we have in common to spot each other out in the wild. Gone are the days of necessity with Hanky Codes, now that more queer people than not live out loud in the United States. But despite the fact that bis are one of the largest demographics in the LGBT community, they are still much less likely to be out due to, among other things, bi-erasure and biphobia.

So what are some aesthetics that bis tend to enjoy to spot our family and community? Well, there’s the cuffed jeans joke, of course. Then there’s the holy trifecta of the hoodie/flannel/leather jacket uniforms we like to keep in rotation. But another one is a world of Victorian browns and flexible rules: steampunk. The Venn diagram of people I know who are bis and folks who love steampunk is a circle.

All right, Roberson, what’s with this big wind-up? Reader, I’ll tell you. It has everything to do with the new series Carnival Row (2019), a Victorian noir-fantasy starring Cara Delevingne (#Bi2) and Orlando Bloom. And since I know y’all can put two and two together, I’ll bet we can figure out why I’m mentioning this new series in my column.

But before I get carried away by a dirigible, I should lay down the rules of the road. First and foremost, there will be SPOILERS for the first season (it already got renewed for a second one before its premiere). Second, I should give a content warning: disturbing images, violence and gore, and attempted sexual assault for the tale. Oh, and if this is your first time reading this column and you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about when I mention the Scale, it’d be wise to head on over here to get your wits about you.

All set? Grand. Let’s see what we can find in these dark but fantastical corners.

What I Liked:

I had seen someone mention on Twitter that this show was a great bi-murder-mystery-fantasy, and I have to say, the results did not disappoint. Delevingne’s turn as Vignette, a member of the fae (also called “Pix” as a slur in this world), is as nuanced as bi characters come. And bonus points for her being a bi character played by a bi person. Sure, she’s a soldier from the war with the Pact, but she doesn’t fall into “strong female character” stereotypes. Vignette is smart, observant, quick on her feet (and wings), and knowledgeable from her previous life as a guardian of her country’s largest sacred library. But she also displays a full emotional life. We get to see this heroine have faults, but also fears, hopes, and dimensions rarely afforded to bi characters in worlds fantastical and otherwise. Her queerness is never a source of conflict: it simply is what it is, with Vignette recognizing her attraction to her friend/former lover/current sex worker Tourmaline (Karla Crome) as well as carrying a torch for Philo (Bloom). Though there are lots of restrictive rules in this world, it doesn’t seem to extend to the faes’ sexuality.

And while Vignette can get as serious as the show can get bleak and dreary, she is not the only bi representation we have on screen. Where Delevigne’s character can be dramatic and dour, her BFF Tourmaline is witty and quick, drawing on her creative past as a poet laureate and an illustrator to help her cope with her new reality. There are smiles to be had on Carnival Row, it seems — Tourmaline doesn’t enjoy all of her male clients, but she gets her pleasure from them from time to time … even if she still can’t get Vignette out of her mind.

I also appreciated how the show focused on female sexual pleasure, often focusing on womens’ experiences. We get to see not only what a female fae orgasm looks like in this world, but also lovers who are observant enough to note when consent is given but that the visual signals of climax aren’t present, caring for their partners. This is also a world where, while fae refugees sometimes need to do survival sex work because of the system set up for them in the Burgue, their brethren do not necessarily judge them for taking that route.

There is also a monologue delivered by Philo’s character where his musings about his half-fae bloodline may resonate with bis with experiences of dismissal in the queer community. This is not to say that bis are half anything, of course. But lack of acceptance and understanding can lead to the hubris of “straight privilege” while being shunned from a community where they should find respite. Philo’s life experience — not fitting in with humans but rejection from his own kind — mirrors that narrative.

Photo/Prime Video

What I Didn't Like:

Well, I still have my typical first complaint off the bat. No one uses the term “bi” anywhere in the world of Carnival Row. Sure, some detractors could say since this is a Neo-Victorian world that the parallel concept or term would be new, but this is a world that comes up with all kinds of portmanteaus for the various creatures that inhabit it. It’s not outside of the realm of possibility for someone to note the attraction to more than one gender.

Also, while I did say there is less judgment than expected for fae who go into sex work, it’s completely judgment-free. There is a moment when Vignette thinks Tourmaline is above the work because of her past as a poetess, which is condescending as hell. Multiple sex workers are also artists as well as a horde of other professions, and these types of comments diminish the profession — which has an artistry to it as well. Sex work is work and should get recognized as such.

The Rating:

Photo/Prime Video

While I wish Carnival Row dared to use the term “bi” and is not without a few quibbles, Vignette and Tourmaline are well-formed characters with a Bechdel Test-passing friendship which is fascinating to watch. I’m looking forward to seeing what flits by in the next season.

3.5 Unicorns