'We wanted to make a lesbian Spice World in Toronto': How web series Barbelle breaks queer barriers
Creators Karen Knox and Gwen Cumyn wanted to share narratives they felt were missing from queer representation
Four years ago, Karen Knox and Gwen Cumyn were bartending to supplement their acting work. On breaks, the friends would bond over upcoming gigs and bad auditions. They'd memorize lines while clearing off tables and encourage each other whenever there were callbacks. Working a service job while hustling for your big break can be a slog, but after months of being sent out for the same types of underwritten and overly cliché parts, the two felt frustrated.
In theatre school, Knox and Cumyn found common ground over their indifference toward the patriarchal curriculum (why was the best role on offer pining over some sad boy prince then killing yourself?) but the real world wasn't faring much better. As queer women, they weren't seeing themselves reflected in the parts they were being offered. And when they did see themselves on the stage or screen, their stories were either subplots or tragedies. It all felt pretty rotten. Counting tips in the back of their Queen West dive, they started to develop a plan.
"We wanted to make a lesbian Spice World in Toronto," says Knox. "We had talked a lot about how queer stories are coloured with deep suffering — someone who is coming out is not accepted by their family, someone gets killed for who they love, that type of thing. Those stories are important to tell, but when the only stories that get told about a community are tragic, it ignores how fun everything can be."
"We wanted to make a fun gay romp," adds Cumyn. "But we also wanted to make a series where the main element of the episodes wasn't just the characters being gay. That was a part of who the characters were, sure, but it wasn't the sole focus of the show."
Through a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck, that idea would become the web series Barbelle. To date, the show has racked up over three million views between its various distribution channels, with the show's first 10-episode arch developing a cult following across the globe — including one superfan who recently got a tattoo of Knox's character on their thigh.
The series is named after the fictional pop act played by the pair in the show and follows their characters — Veronica and Alice — as they navigate a blossoming music career with their teetering relationship. For Knox and Cumyn, Barbelle was an opportunity to satirize the fundamental flaws within the entertainment industry while also diving into the complicated nature of making art with people you feel passionately about.
"So much of what we'd seen in lesbian media was just people having sex with each other then complaining about how their hearts were broken," says Knox. "It's something that happens, but we wanted to take things a step further than that. We've really tried to exercise the balance between heartbreak and humour. We wanted to make an audience belly laugh — and then punch them in the gut."
As we open up the spectrum of sexuality, we start to understand that no one else gets to define it for us. I don't have to look one way and neither does queerness.- Karen Knox
"I was obsessed with the idea of what it is for people who hate each other to work together," says Cumyn. "That was the jumping off point for the plot. Why do you care enough about a person to hate/love them, and what happens if you're forced to do a big public thing with the last person you want to be around?"
As queer narratives evolve alongside queer identities, new modes of representation will continue to pop up. For Knox and Cumyn, Barbelle is a chance to tell their own kind of story. The creators were given the freedom to shape the series look and tone without feeling beholden to stereotypes surrounding the lesbian community. Taking advantage of that freedom while also recognizing the need to respect the people who came before them has been a balancing act — one that extends beyond the show and into their personal lives.
"I've been struggling for the past five years on how to dress," says Knox. "I've been trying to find a way to dress myself that doesn't adhere to the male gaze. So I experimented with dressing more 'butch,' in a way which one might consider more traditionally queer. But lately I've come back around to a high femme look, because I love it. The character I play in the show is also really high femme and I love her style. As we open up the spectrum of sexuality, we start to understand that no one else gets to define it for us. I don't have to look one way and neither does queerness."
"I have very conflicting feelings about it," says Cumyn. "I've sussed out many kindred spirits from uniform alone. It's a hard-won style, and in many places around the world it's, frankly, dangerous to be anything other than femme. But I'm hoping we're at the point where it no longer feels like a requirement."
Knox and Cumyn just wrapped shooting on their second season, with new episodes set to air in spring 2019. Fans of the show have been clamouring for more content, eagerly following the duo as they tease out the release date, and showering the creators with praise for their show. But for the two, the attention for Barbelle goes beyond just validation — it's affirmation that people out there are just as hungry for the type of stories they were always looking for.
Watch the first season of Barbelle here.