Feeling Seen in Sort Of: On Queer Feelings and the Company of Others
Aanchal Saraf on the Power of Art By and About Trans People of Color
In the first episode of HBO Max’s Sort Of, Sabi (Bilal Baig) is reeling from their boyfriend claiming that Sabi doesn’t “see” him. Bessy—who Sabi nannies for and who frequently patrons the queer bar where Sabi bartends—disagrees: “Sabi, you see everybody. You gotta dump his ass.”
Feeling seen is a running theme in Sort Of, and if you ask me, it’s a queer feeling. For feeling seen to be a queer feeling, it must evoke possibility but resist sentimentality. Here, I’m borrowing from Sara Ahmed, who writes that queer feelings are nontranscendent but persistent in the face of social norms that make such feelings queer in the first place.
Sort Of doesn’t transcend the machinations of transmisogyny and racial capitalism that structure our world, because its characters inhabit a world not so different from our own. Yet as Sabi’s relationships constellate the many intimacies that shape queer life—from biological family to found family to employers to lovers—they remind me that other ways of living are most easily imaginable in how we relate to one another.
At the heart of the show is Sabi, a nonbinary Pakistani Canadian who’s still figuring themselves out (and doing so with a deadpan sense of humor). Alongside Sabi’s breakup, other events set the show into motion: Sabi’s best friend 7ven announcing a move to Berlin, Sabi’s mother discovering that Sabi is nonbinary, and Bessy getting into a cycling accident that renders her comatose. Despite this pithy recounting that might suggest Sort Of is plot-driven, not much “happens,” and that’s a good thing. Baig, who co-created the show with Fab Filippo, is a playwright, and Sort Of’s more absurd scenes feel theatrical, almost like a comedy of manners. For the most part, the characters move through a series of small spaces (living rooms, kitchens, hospital rooms, the bar), listening to voicemails, cooking and dancing together.
Conversations in the car or on the phone provide the show’s most electric moments. As we continue through a global pandemic that’s drastically reduced the scope of our social worlds, Sort Of meets us at our current scale and insists that smallness is anything but insignificant.
Central to the show is Sabi’s relationship with their mother, Raffo, who we first meet outside the apartment Sabi shares with their sister Aqsa. All femmed up and surprised to see their mother, Sabi spins away. Concerned, Raffo tells Sabi to “turn around and look at your amma.” I felt my throat catch as her attention went to Sabi’s made-up face. Queer and trans people, especially people of color, know this feeling. We have felt this fear and hope entangled. (In an instance of life imitating art, Baig even wrote a letter to their parents ahead of Sort Of’s premiere and prepared their siblings in case things got messy.) Raffo is astounded that Sabi is crying, asks if they’re wearing her bangles, and hands off the two yogurt containers of chicken she has brought for the siblings. Inside, Sabi ruefully tells Aqsa that Raffo will never speak to them again.
But she does. In one of my favorite scenes, Raffo appears at the house where Sabi nannies, tired of her calls being ignored. The two chat while Sabi starts to make fish curry, but Raffo can’t bear to watch and ends up making it herself. They laugh over their meal until Paul, Bessy’s husband, stumbles in on them. The scene brims with love and invokes Raffo’s later plea to Sabi: “Don’t go away from me.” Sabi promises to stay in her orbit: “I won’t, if you don’t go away from me.”
Despite being comatose for the majority of the season, Bessy looms large over the show, appearing in flashbacks and dream sequences. In one flashback, we see Bessy interviewing Sabi for the nanny job. She asks Sabi their pronouns, and Sabi’s answer tumbles out so quickly that it can’t be taken back. It’s clear to the viewer that this is the first time Sabi has used they/them to describe themselves, and the feeling is palpable, an act of intimacy that shows us how much Bessy means to present-day Sabi. Visiting Bessy at the hospital shortly after this flashback, Sabi hopes aloud that the two can have a relationship outside of work.
With Bessy in a coma for much of the season, her husband, Paul, flounders about, upset that Sabi knows more about his family than he does and reeling from the discovery that Bessy was having an affair. Paul (who E. Alex Jung points out has the soft gloominess of a Duplass brother) both reinforces and recoils from the boundary he’s made with Sabi-as-employee. When his recklessness leads his children to call Sabi for help in the middle of the night, Paul makes the situation about him, pained that Sabi knew about Bessy’s affair. “Maybe don’t treat people like they’re an extra in your movie, Paul,” Sabi cries out in frustration. “We are all here, we are all going through shit.” Here, the show’s queer feelings abound.
So many mediocre pre-imitations of Sort Of would rely on someone “like Paul” to steer the ship of their fledgling projects, supposedly pulling in the audience with a sympathetic straight white man at the expense of every other character. In Sort Of, Paul is part of an ensemble, given a depth matched by those around him. Away from the center, he is still a person—and so, consequently, is everyone else.
Such care is a direct result of who’s behind the camera. In an interview with Now Toronto, Baig explains how filling the production room with queer, trans, and South Asian writers and consultants transformed the nature of the show. One of the consultants, trans filmmaker Chase Joynt, pointed out how many stories with trans characters feature mirrors in which the character hyperfixates on their body and perceived flaws. There are no mirrors in Sort Of (literally) but Sabi’s relationships with others reflect back their own sense of self—feeling seen, unseen, or the murky in between.
Here is where I admit how seen I feel by this show. There are so many moments that stir up my queerest feelings (Sabi calling Aqsa’s boots “totally Kalinda,” Bessy’s daughter lighting her art class painting on fire after Sabi predicted as much three episodes earlier, Sabi’s face when they see fellow trans character Olympia dancing with abandon, Raffo stress-DIYing her home to be open concept, 7ven calling Paul “an insensitive catastrophe of the patriarchy” through the bathroom door). The show’s deep care for its characters is a testament to how art by and about trans people of color can entirely reframe what is possible. In kitchens and cars and posted up at the bar, Sort Of sketches out a feeling of what it’s (sort of) like to be brown and nonbinary in this world, to reach for others and ask to be seen.