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Wide awake on queer and disability representation in Samantha Lee’s Sleep With Me

queer keyword Sleep With Me
Janine Gutierrez and Lovi Poe star in Samantha Lee's Sleep With Me, which is now available to Canadian audiences. Photo courtesy of Samantha Lee.

In the liminal backdrop of the night, two girls fall in love.

Sleep With Me is a love story, and a story about lives lived on the fringe.

“Traditionally, [in] queer media in the Philippines, individuals have always been relegated to the shadows,” Samantha Lee, the director of the Filipino TV show, tells Pancouver over Zoom. “It’s always super dark, and super violent… But it was also super important to me as a creator to make sure that even if these individuals are in the margins of society, and they are relegated to these shadows, that whenever they come together, they aren’t consumed by the darkness.”

This is best captured in episode three, when Luna and Harry eat together at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Lee mentions it was inspired by Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks. “Even if we’re talking about things that are kind of sad and depressing, whenever these two characters do find each other and get together, there’s still this… lightness to them.”

Lee is known for making films advocating better representation for LGBTQ folks and women. In her first TV series, she decided to create a story that centres on the intersectionality of queerness and PWDs (people with disabilities). This is inspired by crip theory.

There are many similarities in how queer people and PWDs navigate spaces in everyday life. Often, they are at a disadvantage in societal privileges afforded to the cis-heteronormative and abled-bodied. The show itself is also shot in locations that are on the “sidelines”, as Lee puts it, reflecting the marginalization of the characters.

At the end of the day, whether queer or disabled or both, they are people who can feel desire, who fall in love and are loved in turn, just like anybody else.

queer keyword Sleep With Me
Harry and Luna find light within each other during the night. Photo courtesy of CBC Gem.

“In the Philippines, it’s not like in other parts of the world where LGBTQ+ rights are really advanced,” Lee says. Queerness and disabilities are not usually talked about. Given this cultural context, it’s quite the feat to have big names in the Philippines like Janine Gutierrez and Lovi Poe starring as the leads of a lesbian romcom.

“For me, I’m still in disbelief that this got made,” Lee laughs. “We’ve gotten so many no’s for this project, and for it to be made the way I wanted it to be made, and for these big stars to not only say yes, but to in turn be advocates for the causes that we’re trying to advocate for… It feels like a good step in the direction we want to be in.”

Harry, played by Gutierrez, is a late night DJ and a wheelchair user. Her bright personality allows her to joke around the microaggressions she has to face day to day. Luna, played by Poe, has a rare sleep condition that prevents her from sleeping at night. This may not seem like a big deal, but it also prevents her from living what we consider a “normal” life.

Luna’s invisible disability reflects many queer people’s experiences: the conundrum of “passing”. When someone allows themselves to be “identified with a race, class, or other social group to which one does not genuinely belong”, that can be considered passing. This can be intentional or not. Sometimes passing affords you the privilege of avoiding discrimination, yet on the other hand, it can also have people questioning the legitimacy of your identity.

queer keyword Samantha Lee story
Lovi Poe plays Luna, who has delayed sleep phase syndrome. Photo courtesy of Samantha Lee.

Lee also sees a connection in the way these issues are rarely spoken out loud in the Philippines. Many people choose not to disclose their queerness or disabilities. For safety, or simply because of privacy—but society is often too quick to judge based on appearances.

“Just because someone doesn’t present as queer, or someone’s disability isn’t totally visible, it doesn’t mean that they don’t go through those struggles,” Lee says.

The series has received high praise from audiences on its ability to incorporate queer characters and disabled characters while portraying them in a positive and realistic light. Luna and Harry are given the room to have a meet-cute, have deep conversations, have flaws, and have love. Their struggles, like their identity, is just one part of their lives.

“Once people are able to relate to a certain person, or find a connection to them, then it’s easier for them to become allies,” Lee says. “That’s why it was important to me to get people to root for these characters both individually and as a couple. Because I feel like that’s going to translate to real-world allyship.”

Sleep With Me creator Samantha Lee
Sleep With Me is Samantha Lee’s first TV series. Photo courtesy of Samantha Lee.

While Sleep With Me has the bonus of star power, Lee admits that it’s difficult to cast actresses in queer films. Many talents, rising or established, still hesitate to be attached to LGBTQ+ roles, afraid of how it might impact their future career. However, the landscape for queer media is changing slowly in the Philippines, and Lee is one of the major creators making this happen.

For Lee, romantic comedies are a “Trojan Horse” where she can bring together these causes she cares about, and hopefully have people around the world care about them, too. She is creating stories with real, fleshed-out characters, and giving them happy endings.

However, Lee feels it remains an uphill battle to be recognized in the international sphere of queer media. “I think it would be really nice if queer individuals in more privileged countries open themselves up to media that’s not necessarily from where they live,” she says.

If you’re tired of queer media where the lesbians are killed off for shock value, try starting with Samantha Lee’s works. Even if the cultural context is different, Lee invites Western audiences to look beyond their comfort zone and beyond the subtitles.

Sleep With Me is available to stream on CBC Gem. Follow Samantha Lee on Instagram @givemesam. Learn more about diverse communities from the Toronto Spark website. Follow the Toronto Spark on Twitter @TOSparkOfficial and on Instagram @TOSparkOfficial.

 

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becky tu

becky tu

becky (she/her) is a writer invested in telling stories that resonate with people in all corners of the world. She welcomes everyone to share their stories with Toronto Spark.

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