Love 101, Netflix Turkey, and homophobia

The teen drama Aşk 101 (Love 101), Netflix’s latest Turkish-language offering, is full of clichés but is not without a certain charm. Yet the intense controversy that preceded the show’s release on April 24 had little to do with the story.

The year: 1998. The setting: a high school in Istanbul. A motley crew of teenage misfits are brought together by fate. If they don’t ban together to hook up their favorite teacher Miss Burcu with the handsome basketball coach, their tyrannical principal will finally kick them out of school for their unruly misbehavior. As the students’ grand plan to make Burcu fall in love and stay at the school becomes increasingly complicated, the group learns important lessons about friendship and loyalty.

As this cursory summary shows, the teen drama Aşk 101 (Love 101), Netflix’s latest Turkish-language offering, is full of clichés but is not without a certain charm. Yet the intense controversy that preceded the show’s release on April 24 had little to do with the story. 

In early April, rumors began spreading that a lead character in Love 101 was gay. Outraged trolls flocked to Twitter to use homophobic slurs and urge Netflix, a company that has been heavily investing in original Turkish-language content, to “act like a man.” Ebubekir Şahin, chair of the Turkish Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), joined the fray when he issued a public warning to Netflix: “We are determined not to provide a free pass to immorality.” This statement comes as RTÜK is working to bring streaming platforms under the same rigorous censorship as network television. From the lone troll at his computer to the highest offices of the state, many Turkish conservatives are under the mistaken impression that merely watching a gay character will “turn” one gay. 

The controversy over Love 101 overlapped with another controversy regarding LGBTI+ visibility in Turkey, sparking a general homophobic storm. Schoolchildren stuck at home due to COVID-19 have been drawing pictures of rainbows with the message “Stay home!” and posting them from their apartment windows. In response, the pro-government newspaper Yeni Akit described these rainbows, intended merely to cheer passersby, as threatening the “Muslim-Turkish family structure.” In response, some school principals urged parents and teachers not to lend their support to “LGBT perverts.” 

Then on April 23, Turkey’s Children’s Day, the hashtag “LGBTI+ children exist” went viral. Many shared pictures of themselves as children. In a sermon the next day, President of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) Ali Erbaş declared lashed out at the LGBTI+ community and HIV-positive individuals, stating “Homosexuality causes diseases and decays lineage.” The bar associations of Ankara, Izmir, Diyarbakır, Van, and other cities condemned Erbaş’s statements as hate speech. In turn, the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into the Ankara bar for insulting religious values. High-profile government figures, including the president, expressed support for Erbaş. “Ali Erbaş is not alone” became a trending hashtag on Turkish Twitter. 

One step forward, two steps back. As LGBTI+ issues gain visibility, homophobes go on the offensive to marginalize and stigmatize. While the initial spark for this month’s outpouring of hate was a teen TV series, the same intolerance is always bubbling under the surface--just waiting for an excuse to emerge. 

And what about the much-debated gay character in Love 101? As Yıldız Tar wrote for Kaos GL, an LGBTI+ news portal, “We’re stuck defending sexual orientation and our sexual identities through a TV show whose content we know nothing about. Geography is a tragicomic destiny!” When the series was finally released last week, it turned out that there was no such character in Love 101 after all. The rumors were unfounded. Which is worse: that hints about there being gay character on a Netflix show led to an explosion of hate speech? Or that even the global streaming giant is afraid of upsetting local prejudices in its Turkish-language content? 

While Netflix has launched campaigns emphasizing the LGBTQ+ characters and storylines on its platform, when it comes to countries like Turkey where it seeks to expand its operations through original content, the company appears willing to abandon this talk of inclusivity. In fact, when the conversation about the possibility of a gay character on Love 101 first began on Twitter, the official Netflix Türkiye account only had this to say: “A lot of false information is spreading from fake accounts… believe only what you hear from us about the series and the characters, not the rumors.” When one compares the frank portrayal of teen sexuality in all its diversity in a British show like Sex Education with the overly cautious, offend-nobody approach of Love 101, it becomes clear that LGBTI+ inclusivity is little more than a marketing strategy to be adapted or abandoned at will as the company expands its global presence. 

Of the five teenage misfits at the heart of Love 101, two heterosexual couples emerge. In one of the final scenes, the group stands by the Bosphorus. The two happy couples cuddle and hug while Osman, the show’s only protagonist who lacks a romantic narrative, offers the camera an ambiguous grin. How much more compelling the show would be if it began where it ends, with Osman’s smile! 

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