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!
Earlier this week, the Turkish management of the clothing chain LC Waikiki banned LGBTQI+ symbols on their products and displays—or even anything that might be confused as an LGBTQI+ symbol. LC Waikiki’s memo comes as hate speech against LGBTQI+ people surges across Turkey. As LGBTQI+ issues grow more visible, the reaction is ever more vehement.
If anything, perhaps this continual updating of folk music in Turkey does prove its timelessness. This does not mean that these songs are without history, but that however much the world changes, we will always have need for songs that express the meaning of love, infatuation, mortality, and loneliness in the simplest terms possible.
Given the LGBTI+ community’s history of seeking spaces of freedom amidst the ever-tightening grip of individual and organized hate, this year’s Pride Istanbul theme is “Where am I?” The online talks, workshops, and discussions center on issues like migration, isolation, and safety.
Just because 'Naked' moves beyond certain stereotypes does not necessarily make it “Turkey’s boldest woman’s story”. If including nudity or sex scenes was a barometer of political progressiveness, then the Turkish porno craze of the 1970s or the dirty programs watched through satellite TV in the 1990s would be perfect models of feminism.
After months of staying at home and practicing distancing, it is inevitable that people will occasionally swing too far in the other direction—once given the opportunity. This is a wider social problem, one which no amount of “pandemic-shaming” (polarized along political lines like most things in Turkey nowadays) is going to solve.
Though some of the correspondences are superficial, the coincidence of the protests in the U.S. erupting just as people here are commemorating Gezi has lead to some soul searching about the similarities and differences in state violence and racism in both countries.
In Turkey today, 2.7 million people use online dating apps like Tinder, OKcupid, and Bumble. Both of the promises and the pitfalls of online dating have become more extreme as the coronavirus affects how people approach physical and emotional intimacy. A number of recent documentaries shed light on people’s experiences searching for sex, love, and/or entertainment on these platforms.
It’s a spring day in Athens. Over 120 Greek musicians and performers gather on the steps of the southern slope of the Acropolis to sing in Turkish. They gathered to express their solidarity with the Turkish protest band Grup Yorum.
Music festivals are among the many things that COVID-19 has taken away from us. There is simply no way to cram into a sweaty mass of dancing people and preserve one’s social distance. Yet event organizers are trying their best to find creative ways to keep the festival spirit alive.
Nilipek is an Istanbul-based singer and songwriter whose latest album Mektuplar (Letters) perfectly captures the emotional atmosphere of the quarantine days. Trapped between four walls, one is left alone with one’s own thoughts and memories.
One positive outcome, if we can call it that, of the pandemic is that many of us have begun learning new skills. Bread has become the classic example. Yet certain habits are more difficult to satisfy at home. For many friends I know, drinking rakı at a meyhane is one of those experiences that they have missed the most.
At a time when many of us turn to fictional narratives to make sense of the mess that is our world, the detective show Alef and the podcast series Karanlık Bölge (The Dark Zone) provide just what the doctor ordered.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures.” Recognizing that artists would also be hit hard financially by the coronavirus, countries like Germany and the UK have created emergency funds for creative workers. In Turkey, securing support for creative workers such as musicians has been an uphill battle.
The Turkish government has encouraged citizens to avoid going outside, even asking them to declare their own state of emergency. Yet many do not have this luxury. A number of recent mini-series and documentaries released online paint a picture of everyday life in the parts of Istanbul where necessity continues to drive people—especially young people—onto the streets.
Music writer Barış Akpolat spent “200 Hours with Ezhel” conducting interviews that shed light on Ezhel’s musical journey from street concerts in Ankara to sold-out stadiums, from a jail cell in Istanbul to the New York Times list of the most important emerging artists in Europe. Akpolat’s book also provides insight into Ezhel’s political beliefs.
Turkey’s usually thriving artistic and cultural scene has been brought down to a whisper amid coronavirus outbreak. For those with the luxury or necessity of self-quarantine, artists and event organizers are trying their best to bring the arts directly into people’s homes. Or more accurately, to their computer screens.
A deadly virus has struck Istanbul. Panicked people flood the streets hoping to snatch up whatever necessities they can find. They attack each other while lining up for bottles of drinking water. Now that The Protector’s third season carries undeniable resonances with the most hot-button issue of the day, contagious viruses, it seems the most we can expect from the show is this kind of accidental relevance.
Since 2015, young, female musicians who upload covers or DIY music videos on YouTube have spearheaded a new strand of Turkish pop. Amongst them is the rising star Ekin Beril who released a debut LP last week.
With such names as ELZ AND THE CULT, She Past Away and Brek, Turkey's darkwave scene is thriving. In a predominantly conservative country, the scene offers spaces of hope.
Turkey's rising rap star Murda shows that the local scene is growing. And with it comes the North American blend of rap, pop and mawkish R&B.
Can Evrenol’s latest film, Girl With No Mouth (Peri: Ağzı Olmayan Kız), cements the director’s place as one of the leading figures of genre film in Turkey. While Turkish independent cinema is experiencing something of a renaissance, the material conditions for making and selling quality films are increasingly difficult.
Despite efforts to silence him, Demirtaş has remained an active figure in Turkey’s political scene, and now its literary scene. In late 2019, Demirtaş released Leylan, his third book written from his prison cell. Amid all denunciations and counter-denunciations, the literary significance of the work itself gets lost. Its voice and structure demonstrate newfound confidence.
For the past five or six years, venues owned or run by holding companies, corporations, and other massive commercial interests are increasingly the only places where music fans can see their favorite bands. One might say music fans are damned with them and damned without them.
2019 was a good year for Turkish music and 2020 is looking even better. A number of Turkish indie bands are releasing uncompromising music that has gained them an ever-growing following across the world. While the Turkish psych trend is in full swing, other bands are building a global fan-base without having to play up their Turkishness.