Feel Good explores queer romance, addiction, and gender

Feel Good, which premiered in 2020, is a comedy series loosely based on nonbinary and bisexual comedian Mae Martin’s history with drug addiction and how it manifested in their relationships. Playing a fictional version of themself, Martin portrays a recovering addict, navigating an all-consuming relationship with a teacher named George, played by Charlotte Richie. This relationship is part of a narrative on addiction that explores its influence(s) on Mae’s life – their gender identity, and coping mechanisms.

In many interviews about the show, Martin mentions Dr Gabor Mate’s definition of addiction: Addiction is something that you crave, find relief from and can’t give up, despite knowing the negative consequences. The entire show–the writing, production and acting—envision this definition, humanising addiction and telling us that it is not entirely substance-based, but that people have addictive behaviours; achieving this with humorous dialogue that lessens the burden of difficult conversations.

The prelude to Mae and George’s relationship, in the first episode, is somewhat rapid. It halts at their first kiss and then quickly moves into a romantic montage of the first three months of the relationship, which ends with the two moving in together. This is fast and spontaneous, and one later realises that it is intentional. It establishes Mae’s intensified state of mind, in a way, alluding to their addictive personality and the high from a “substance” —which, here, is love. As the montage ends, small, subtle revelations of both characters suggest that we’re moving deeper into the complicated nature of vulnerability. Mae asks George if they can meet her friends, to which George hurriedly makes a work excuse, and on a video call with Mae’s parents—played by Lisa Kudrow and Adrian Lukis—George learns that Mae is in Narcotics Anonymous and is avoiding meetings.

Mae’s Narcotics Anonymous group, once they find one, presents a refreshing space. At its introduction, all participants are, in each meeting, discussing how they’ve moved beyond drugs and why they’re grateful for sobriety. However, Mae’s introduction to the group challenges them to review the pre-established definition of addiction, bringing us back to Dr. Gabor Mate’s definition of addiction, which argues that people with addictive personalities exhibit this behaviour in more ways than one. Mae notices addictive behaviours in the addicts around them and introduces the group to new ways of acknowledging addiction. Through all this, this group is not painted as a solution or the only solution, but an opportunity for people with similar experiences to come together and reflect.

Mae’s acceptance of their addiction and their NA group does not come easily, and undergoes a difficult journey through shame. Shame is explored throughout the show, from Mae projecting their shame around addiction onto their NA group to George’s refusal to accept the relationship. Notably, when George takes Mae to a party with her friends, the theme reaches a climactic moment. At the last minute, George lies about who Mae is to her and that lie triggers Mae. This becomes an important moment for an audience’s understanding of Mae’s addiction and an internalised shame and homophobia that trigger both Mae and George. While denying these parts of themselves, they allow this relationship to complete them. Mae sees intimate relationships as a way to fill a void—a compelling if ultimately flawed impulse.

Of course, Mae’s anxieties are not so easy to unpack. We later learn that their journey with their identity and shame has a lot to do with their gender and the way they question their gender.  Their body language—in how they don’t know where to keep their hands when they sleep—and general social anxiety are slowly revealed as elements of gender dysphoria, thus clarifying their addictive behaviours and triggers; bringing the show to an interesting impasse.

As Mae’s dysphoria worsens, it directly affects their sexual and emotional intimacy with George, exposing discrepancies in the relationship. Because dysphoria is so closely connected to intimacy, it reveals itself in many exchanges between the two, especially some of the simpler ones. Over a breakfast, the waiter calls Mae “sir,” to which George snaps back saying, “She’s a girl.” The claim regarding their gender makes Mae uncomfortable. There is also tension around Mae’s gender and George’s questioning sexuality; Mae is struggling to feel “man enough” for George. What Feel Good engages with is the reality that queerness does not begin and end at coming out and that this “visibility” demanded of queer folks is in every way complicated and overwhelming; even violent.

Ultimately, a struggle many of us try to navigate in relationships is confronting the truth that love is a process and not a destination. This truth is bitter. The process demands that we reveal ourselves in uncomfortable ways and we don’t want to associate love with discomfort. Feel Good makes space for conflict without fearing it. It allows us to sit with these realities, even those that aren’t ours, and laugh at them a little to lessen the burden. It is a lesson, even if a tough one, in relationships, and how nobody is absolved of the personal work required to sustain them.

In Season 2, we can expect a continuation of Mae’s relationship with their gender identity -hallmarked by past trauma – and some closure to the conflict between Mae and George. The show digs deeper into some of the problems surrounding affirmation within the LGBTQ+ community; commenting on the politics of pronouns and pressures that encircle those who are still discovering their sexualities and haven’t ‘arrived’ at definitions for themselves.

Feel Good can be streamed on Netflix.

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