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Why Homecoming Queens' nuanced portrayal of chronic illness is vital

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In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag writes that ‘everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick”, remarking that “sooner or later each of us is obliged … to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place’.

While Sontag’s quote speaks to the omnipresence of sickness in all our lives, ‘sooner or later’ acts as a clause that demarcates the specific experience of being young and sick, which feels anything but universal. Sure, the majority of us will pick up diseases and dysfunctions in our later decades - but when you’re living with a chronic illness as a young person, there’s little than can feel as isolating.

Going through my childhood and teen years with a muscle wasting disease, it didn’t simply feel like I didn’t belong amongst my peers. It felt like I was an alien species, masquerading as a human while earth’s strange gravity made every step leady and exhausting, watching on at a distance as my healthy friends pantomimed the carefree and energetic teen hedonism of E4’s Skins - except, you know, in Perth.

Perhaps this feeling of alienation goes some way to explain why, as I began binging SBS On Demand’s first original streaming commission Homecoming Queens, I felt an enormous sense of comfort.

It was a particular, and a familiar, kind of comfort, one that I’ve only felt in the presence of other young, ill people. The high school mate with CF who would walk slowly with me as our gang ran ahead to get shitfaced on goon in a park. The friend with a hip replacement that suggested we have a bedbound Poirot binge to recharge between seeing shows at a festival. It was the comfort of finding someone who gets you.

Representation, good representation, feels like making a friend.

Why power and agency for chronically ill people matters in our narratives

 Homecoming Queens is created by Michelle Law and Chloë Reeson, offering a semi-autobiographical snapshot at the friendship between Michelle Low, who has recently gone bald from alopecia, and Chloë Easton, who is reevaluating “normal” life after making it through a diagnosis of breast cancer, chemo and ultimately a mastectomy.

Comprising 7 episodes, with each episode weighing in somewhere around the 10-15 minute mark, the extremely bingeable series kicks off when the newly-bald Michelle (played by Law herself) runs from her Sydney-based TV job back to her hometown Brisbane, holding up with friend Chloë (played by actor Liv Hewson) while her hair grows back.

While each lead has their own romantic storyline, the core friendship of Michelle and Chloë is the driving force of the narrative. Old wounds in their relationship, namely Michelle not visiting Chloë in hospital during chemo treatment, amplify current frictions as each friend exists at a different point in accepting and owning their diagnosis/prognosis.

But even for these tensions, the shared experience of otherness connects the pair in a way that centres their perspective on illness, rather than a healthy person’s. There’s a particular framing choice that recurs throughout the series (masterfully directed by ADG award-winner Corrie Chen) that explores this gulf between healthy and chronically ill young people.

Two characters sitting on a couch watching a room in dark blue light
A scene of people partying from the tv show homecoming queens

Chloë and Michelle, together, share a distant view on a Healthy Other - a young person showcasing a free abandon inaccessible to them and what they’ve been through, a joyful lack of awareness about their dual citizenship to the land of illness.

Providing a near Attenborough-esque narration, the framing positions Michelle and Chloë as subject and the healthy young person as object in the scene, something particularly rare in representations of chronic illness and disability.

In a Meet the Filmmakers video for key funding body Screen Australia, Law speaks about how her friendship with Reeson grew because they “both felt so disconnected from people our age”, leaving parties early together and bonding over the sensation of feeling both young and old at the same time. Shots like these, which visually typify exactly the disconnect Law mentions, are smartly sewn through the series.

The two main characteres of homecoming queens sitting on a beach
Able bodied people frollicking in the sea

The importance of behind-the-scenes authenticity in the writing of this series is that Homecoming Queens can shift your view of the healthy/ill dichotomy to a position that is so rarely given power and agency in screen narratives.    

It’s an intimate invitation into their worldview, their experience, that not only offers a chance at greater empathy for non-chronically ill audiences, but true representation for one of my favourite pastimes - shit-talking with a mate about how weird healthy people are.

Authenticity in writing: the ultimate gift for an actor

For actor Liv Hewson (Santa Clarita Diet, Top of the Lake), it was a gift to have such a close working relationship with writers that had lived experience in what the show was depicting.

“It was wonderful being able to get to know both Michelle and Chloë as creatives and as people” says Hewson when I reached out for an interview. “When prepping for the role, I chose to separate between real Chloë and fictional Chloë, but I did seek Chloë's input whenever I had a question about the experiences described in the show”.

“That authenticity is really what attracted me to the project in the first place. There was no trace of any patronizing, sensationalism, or melodrama in the telling of these characters' experiences, and that's a credit to the team behind this project.”

Homecoming Queens exemplifies a broader industry movement towards uplifting diverse stories, something which was a driving force for Hewson’s passion coming onto the project.

“I'm absolutely drawn to diverse projects. For me, I think diversity is just realistic. You don't leave the house and only see people who look and think the same way as you. People that make work with absolutely no diversity confuse me at this point. There are so many different people with different experiences; why, as a storyteller, would you not want to explore that? It's counterintuitive”.

“When we talk about representation, we're talking about why we tell stories in the first place. I think human beings have always told each other stories to understand each other and ourselves. It seems to me that when we deny people representation, we communicate a message of ‘we're not interested in understanding you, we don't think it's important that people in your position feel seen.’ Opening up to representation and diverse storytelling helps undo those messages. I think that's really important.”

A hospital scene featuring one woman in a bed and the other sitting by her side

For me personally, it’s this feeling of being understood and being seen which marks Homecoming Queens out as one of the most vital screen narratives available to watch in this country at the moment. And, as important as I think it is for healthy people to watch this show, I’m glad that finally there’s a show which reflects this core part of my own identity.

I can’t help but smile thinking of all the young sick people who might flake on a party, crack open their laptops and retire to bed, now with a series to binge that makes them feel a little less alone.

Alistair Baldwin is a writer and comedian based in Naarm/Melbourne. His work has been published by SBS, Junkee, ACMI Ideas, un. Magazine, Archer, Art+Australia and more, and he is currently working as a writer on season 4 of The Weekly with Charlie Pickering. Follow him on Twitter at @baldwinalistair for content with a much smaller character count than this article.