Warehouse 13: “Elements” and Race Issues

5 08 2009
Warehouse 13: “Elements”
I started this episode with an audible “OH, NO.”  The scene opens with New Agey flute music and a generic Indian performing a generically Indian ceremony over some sort of tiny generic statuette in a generic cave under the surface of Manhatten.  Visually, this is not promising, but I really wonder what language he is speaking, and how well.  If the voiceover is relatively accurate, that’s something, at least.
Cut to present-day NYC, with someone pulling up the hood on what looks to my admittedly non-expert eyes like a generically Indian  magic cloak that enables the wearer to walk through walls (and also carries its own hip-hop soundtrack, too!).  This is not a particularly sophisticated invocation of the Lenape: they’re figured, as First Nations people usual are, as mystical Others with a unique connection to the land.
Also, Artie takes one look at a <em>feather</em> and says “Looks Native American”?!  Because only the First Nations ever use feathers?  Later he gets more specific: we’re meant to be looking at a Lenape shaman or something in that first scene (did the Lenape have shamans?).  So that gets a bit better, I suppose, in acknowledging a tribe at the very least.
I do feel like Weaver’s repetition of “It’s not meant for you” in the climactic cave scene acknowledges the imperialist creepiness of
I also still really like Leena and I wish she were given a chance to talk about anything that does not involve helping  the white people ~*~understand themselves~*~!  For the first few minutes of the scene between Leena and Claudia, I thought we were going to pass the Bechdel test.  But I think it violates the spirit of the Bechdel test to have the two women characters talk about something that isn’t a man if one of them is still falling into skeevy racial stereotypes.
A note on terminology: I interchange “Indian” with “First Nations” because those are generally the terms that I have seen people of Native descent prefer to use themselves when they don’t use tribe names.  “Native American,” as I understand, is a term that was decided on by white people.

I started this episode with an audible “OH, NO.”  The scene opens with New Agey flute music and a generic American Indian performing a generically Indian ceremony over some sort of tiny generic statuette in a generic cave under the surface of Manhatten.  Visually, this is not promising, but I really wonder what language he is speaking, and how well.  If the voiceover is relatively accurate, that’s something, at least.

Cut to present-day NYC, with someone pulling up the hood on what looks to my admittedly non-expert eyes like a generically “Indian”  magic cloak, which enables the wearer to walk through walls (and carries its own hip-hop soundtrack, too!).  This is not a particularly sophisticated invocation of the Lenape: they’re figured, as First Nations people usual are, as mystical Others with a unique connection to nature and the land.  In this case, that connection is so pure as to allow supernatural manipulation of the elements.

It all just seems so very stereotypical!  I am, of course, more than willing — excited, even — to be proven wrong.  I don’t know enough about Lenape culture to know how accurate any of the representations of Lenape art and language are.  But it all seems pretty generic to me.

Also problematic for me was when Artie takes one look at the feather and says “Looks Native American.”  Because only the First Nations ever use feathers?  Later, however, he at least acknowledges the name of the Lenape, which is one tiny step in the right direction.

I do feel like Weaver’s repetition of “It’s not meant for you” in the climactic cave scene acknowledges the imperialist creepiness of the white dudes collecting Lenape and Lenape-related artifacts in order to find the sacred cave and therefore master the elements.  We’ve had 500 years of fantasies of white domination already; without Weaver’s saying that, this episode really would feel like yet another un-self-conscious instance of it.  And yet the elements are themselves white fantasies: the Water of Eternal Life, in particular, plays into the same myth of the Fountain of Youth that Ponce de Léon kept pursuing.  In fact, the four “superpowers” bestowed by the four elements in the cave all represent what Europeans dreamed they would find in the New World, and the idea of there being a secret cave hidden underneath NYC that would provide all of those things only contributes to the notion that the Lenape and other tribes had Secret Knowledge about how to dominate the earth, but that they nobly safeguarded that knowledge (and therefore the earth) from the greedy rapaciousness of others.

It’s another aspect of the myth of the Noble Savage.  The problem is really that even though this story has an American Indian artifact at the center, the Lenape themselves don’t matter at all to the story.  The artifact is just a plot device, something to enable the white characters to work through conflict and save the day.  There’s no depth to the representations of non-white characters.

Which reminds me: I still really like Leena and I wish she were given a chance to talk about anything that does not involve helping  the white people ~*~understand themselves~*~!  I was so excited for the first few minutes of the scene between Leena and Claudia — I thought we were going to pass the Bechdel test at last!  But even though the two women only talked about Claudia, I think it violates the spirit of the Bechdel test to have the two women characters talk about something that isn’t a man if one of them is still falling into skeevy racial stereotypes.

But what do you think, friendly reader?

A note on terminology: I interchange “Indian” and “American Indian” with “First Nations” because those are generally the terms that I have seen people of Native descent prefer to use themselves when they don’t use tribe names.  “Native American,” as I understand, is a term that was decided on by white people.





The Women of Warehouse 13

1 08 2009

I have been pretty charmed by Warehouse 13. First, it’s a buddy cop show, and I have a weakness for lighthearted buddy cop shows. Second, there are three women who play important roles, and while I’m hoping they get more character depth than they currently have, I’m pleased just to see them!

First, there’s Myka, the Scully to Pete’s Mulder. … You know, I was going to say more here, but really, that pretty much sums it up. I never watched The X-Files much, but it seems like Pete is notably more obnoxious, in that frat-boy kind of way, than Mulder ever was. And Myka deals with it.

Then there’s Lena, the girl who can read auras. I appreciate that she’s there, and that she’s black/mixed race/multiracial (I use so many terms because I’m not sure how the actor prefers to identify). But unfortunately, she and the third important woman, the black Mrs. Frederick, are both Magical Negroes: Lena exists to fetch things, ask probing questions so that exposition can take place, and read auras; Mrs. Frederick has been magically alive forever and she mysteriously sets the entire plot in motion by recruiting Myka and Pete and keeping them on task.

I like the premise of the show: I’ve always loved the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, so an entire show structured around the wacky adventures of a team of artifact scavengers totally appeals to me. Its steampunk trappings are fun, too.

The show’s not going to break ground as particularly thought-provoking or innovative. It’s fluff entertainment, episodic in structure — not nearly as sophisticated as, say, LOST. Still, even though I’ve missed a few weeks, I’m looking forward to catching up on Hulu.

Up soon: I’ll be reviewing unaired episodes of Dollhouse.





Dollhouse 01×07: Echoes (SPOILERS)

28 03 2009

HERE is the Whedon I’ve been waiting for!  This episode grabbed me from the beginning.  It’s a premise that makes sense (except I kept wondering how her stockings stayed up), with emotional stakes that matter, and FINALLY we get the character conflicts that the show has been building up since the first episode.  It’s a shame that the first half of the season was so dreadful.  This is making even that part of it worthwhile.

Except — holy crap, why did it have to be the black guy who turned out to be the murderer?  Seriously?  Throughout most of the show I was so impressed that a black guy was cast as one of the grad students, and then he turned out to be less than honorable.  GAH.  They gave him a halfway decent motive — he wants to help his mother — but that doesn’t solve the problem.  And the fact that he is set up to become a new doll at the end of the show doesn’t really make it any better.  Is there a larger point here about certain experiences of black masculinity?  I’d like to think so, to see this as a condemnation of the structures that force young black men into untenable choices.  But I’m not sure that we get enough information about and sympathy for Sam’s character for that to be the best interpetation.

Still: best episode yet.





Dollhouse 01×06: “Man on the Street” (SPOILERS)

21 03 2009

… I don’t even know.

So now we’re supposed to feel empathy for the client whose fantasy involves nonconsensual sex with a woman brainwashed into believing she’s his wife, rather than nonconsensual sex with a woman brainwashed into believing she’s doing a one-night stand?  That seems even SKEEVIER, somehow.

Also: what kind of idiot is Ballard, talking specifics of his cases with his freaking neighbor? Of course she’s a Doll — I wondered about it when we first met her, then decided she wasn’t, but as soon as we discovered her apartment was bugged it was clear she’s an active — but even if she weren’t, Ballard is a PRIZE MORON to talk to her about an open case.

I also can’t figure out what we’re supposed to think of the framing device: which of the various perspectives are we supposed to agree with?  Our very first woman-on-the-street is an African-American woman — the only African-American that I recall seeing in the entire framing device — and she talks about this being slavery and nothing but.  Her blurb coming first indicates that hers is the perspective we’re meant to believe.  And yet by putting the word “slavery” in her mouth turns it into a racial thing, and I can tell you exactly what much of America will do with that statement: dismiss it because “black people are always making everything about slavery.”  (I can’t tell you how many times I heard that growing up, from people inside and outside the family.)  Also, they couldn’t do something LESS stereotypical than the Sassy Black Woman?  So while on the one hand I completely agree with that perspective and commend them for starting off with a black woman at all, on the other hand, there are still some highly suspicious racial issues going on in this show (also with Topher’s Asian-American lab assistant — have we even gotten her name yet?).

And yet the show ends with Echo apparently asking to go back to Joel Miner.  Whedon spent much of the episode showing us all the ways in which the Dollhouse is evil (and it is!).  This episode in particular focused on the issue of consent, particularly with the awful, vaguely pedophilic rape of Sienna by her handler.  But ending the episode with a close-up on Echo and Miner’s clasped hands, after that weird interchange between Echo and De Witt, ends up sanctioning Miner’s particular fantasy.  Don’t worry, that ending says, Echo wanted to go back to him!  Look, nonconsensual sex is okay in marriage because the guy will win her over with his sweetness! And… no.  Just no.





Dollhouse 01×03 and 01×04: “Stage Fright” and “Gray Hour”

7 03 2009

Questions!

  1. Why on earth would anyone hire one of the Dollhouse actives to be a midwife?  This makes no sense whatsoever.
  2. Why can’t anybody just use normal security measures?  Why use Echo as a bodyguard when all Rayna’s manager really needed to do was find the Kevin Costner to Rayna’s Whitney Houston?

I liked “Gray Hour” a lot better than “Stage Fright” — in fact, I like “Gray Hour” better than any of the episodes so far.  (SPOILERS BEHIND THE JUMP)  Read the rest of this entry »





Scrap that reading list

6 03 2009

I was away from the internet for a few days, and when I returned, it had all gone to hell.  Again.

I no longer plan to read Elizabeth Bear’s Stratford Man books because of her unconscionable behavior in this post.  Unfortunately, I can’t return those books and get my money back.  So instead, I plan to follow Avalon’s Willow’s excellent suggestion: sell them (and a few others) and donate the money to Verb Noire, a new press for writers and characters of color.

And I want to be clear about some things.  I am white and privileged; I try to be conscious of and fight against the racism that permeates my environment, but I know that I fail sometimes.  And I am sorry for that.  I hope that I learn better, but — and this is important — I don’t believe it is anybody’s responsibility but my own to teach me how not to be an asshat.  I need to learn.  I need to try.  I need to make the hard decisions, adjust the ingrained attitudes, and be an adult about how I write about POCs.

My promise here is that I will always work toward that goal.  And when I screw up, I will not do what Elizabeth Bear has done: trivialize, insult, marginalize, alienate, and try to silence POCs.

I will listen.  I will research.  I will learn.