Monday, March 9, 2009

Everything There is to Know About Elle, part 1 (Heroes)

So, it’s been over a year now I’ve been working on this Heroes fanfiction A Very Sadistic Christmas, an Elle/Claire slash from Elle’s point of view. In that time, I’ve studied the character Elle Bishop on Heroes in an attempt to get her viewpoint and dialog pattern down. I’ve discovered that my take on Elle is pretty out of character compared to the Heroes canon. And so, I have written this article studying Elle so that I may better understand her and so that I can potentially help other Elle-writers out there.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Racial Inequality on the Disney Channel

Disney has always had a turbulent relationship with the subject of racial equality. Some of their films contain truly racist material like the crow Jim of Dumbo and the ditsy black centaur servant of Fantasia, not to mention the now banned Song of the South with the kind old black slave character. In recent history, Disney has aimed to be seen as the cleanest, most wholesome provider of family entertainment that would in no way be associated with such shameful ideologies as racism. However, in their efforts to be politically correct, they have at times proved self-defeating as their attempts only emphasize racial inequality. I have noticed this occurring in two Disney Channel programs: the TV movie Alley Cats Strike and the cartoon The Proud Family.

The movie Alley Cats Strike is about a nerdy white kid named Alex who feels right at home with his misfit group of friends who love the game of bowling, but has his sense of social identity challenged when a black kid named Todd, the popular athletic school superstar, joins the school bowling team as part of a publicity thing because the two local high schools have a huge sports rivalry and bowling is the only game with which they haven’t yet competed. Although the two boys initially dislike each other, they start to get along when Alex realizes he has become popular by association and goes along with Todd’s way of doing things, which ends up hurting the feelings of his nerdy friends. After some further friction, Todd goes to Alex’s house to talk things over. During their conversation, the following bizarre exchange occurs:

Todd: “You’re not me. You’re not the same as me.”
Alex: “No.”
Todd: “You know what the big difference is?”
Alex: “Hair color?”
Todd: (chuckles) “Yeah…”

Hmm. If we’re going to make a joke about some physical comparison that’s obviously unrelated, then the skin color would be the big difference to joke about. The problem is that Disney doesn’t want to risk anyone thinking they’re racist and in doing so they deny the racial difference itself, which isn’t quite anti-racist. It could be argued that this denial of separate races is in itself racist because in pretending that racial difference doesn’t exist it disrespects the racial conflict in the real world. How are we to respect every color of human if we can’t even acknowledge the difference? Should this exchange have happened instead:

Todd: “You know what the big difference is?”
Alex: “Skin color?”
Todd: (chuckles) “Yeah…”

…then I can imagine some sensitive people getting offending and saying “Oh my God! He just said skin color is the big difference between them! Disney promotes racism! I won’t let my kids watch this!” and causing negative ratings, so I can understand their hesitation. However, should the exchange have gone this way, I believe it would have been a positive message in the promotion of racial equality. I mean, skin color varies. This is a known fact of the world anyone who’s not colorblind can tell instantly. For two kids to laugh about it simply as a physical difference entirely unrelated to discrimination issues would be a depiction devoid of racism. Obviously racism is not absent in the real world and Disney should recognize it, but that’s what movies like The Color of Friendship are for. Alley Cats Strike is not about challenging racism, and this joke is inane.

The other issue I have is with a line in an episode of The Proud Family. The Proud Family is an attempt by Disney to appeal to the black community as a marketing technique through use of various references to hip-hop music and other pop-culture. In the episode I Had a Dream, Penny Proud hits her head and, like Dorothy Gale in the Land of Oz, she winds up stuck in a 1955 version of her life, complete with all the racism of the time (and a certain lack of technological convenience). At one point while with her 1955 family, she makes a reference to them as “black”. As this name has yet to be considered politically correct, her family is quite offended and her parents tell her never to use that word.

It is, however, never stated what word she should use. I believe “negro” was appropriate at the time. If Disney is being historically accurate to the point of Penny’s parents being offended at the word “black”, it would make sense that they would instead use the term “negro” as it was used at the time, which is without the stigma the word holds today. Of course, Disney plays it safe and ignores this, leaving it completely a mystery what to call them.

Again, I can understand them not wanting to endanger their ratings. If some parent not paying attention to the plot were to hear the word thrown around, Disney could be cast as racist by well-intentioned people who won’t look at the context. The whole point of the episode is about recognizing that racism was widespread in the 50s and to honor the civil rights activists. By letting “black” be an ethnic slur as it was at the time, they help to illustrate the racist atmosphere of the era; however, they ultimately yield to modern day political correctness standards even to deny the historical context. With neither “black” nor an offered alternative to describe the Proud family’s ethnicity, one is left feeling that there is no politically correct term at all. Frankly, this seems a self-defeating tactic for Disney’s attempt at inspiring respect for all races.

Both of these incidents strike me as taking the concept of political correctness so far that it goes past the reason for which the political correctness is called in the first place, making the final product too clean to be a suitable stance against racism. I will acknowledge that as I am white myself, I am not the best person for determining the best ways for combating racism in relation to the black-white conflict. However, based on my own viewpoints, I conclude that these attempts to be politically correct wind up hurting Disney’s record of proper portrayal. I am open to criticism should flaws in my arguments be recognized, and I invite refutations.

Spare the Homophobia, Save the World (Heroes)

Heroes is one of the more popular fantasy dramas on television. Aired on the NBC network, it has been going on for three seasons now in the primetime. The show is generally progressive in its message, depicting numerous interracial relationships, challenging the Patriot Act, and retaining the X-Men themes of challenging prejudice and accepting people no matter how different they may be. It is unfortunate, then, that their history with the depiction of homosexuality has been so flaky.

The creators of Heroes originally planned to tackle the subject head on in the first season. After discovering her invincibility, cheerleader Claire depends on her old friend, unpopular kid Zach, for emotional support. Zach teaches her to accept herself and to ignore what other people may think of her, and she becomes better for it. Zach was originally supposed to be gay.

This, however, was a role that actor Thomas Dekker didn’t want to play. Apparently due to some miscommunication involving him getting an old version of the pilot’s script, he signed on to do the role of Zach without realizing the character was homosexual. As he wanted instead to play a straight guy attracted to Claire, he had the writers change him into a straight character.

What resulted was a strange, ambiguous half-gay sort of character. Although there was no explicit statement of what was his sexual orientation, there was a lot of stuff left in like a snotty popular girl asking him if it was true he got an erection in the boys’ locker room – could easily just be gay-baiting, but still – and his character’s MySpace page listing his sexual orientation as “Not Sure”. With the knowledge of what his sexual orientation was originally supposed to be, Zach’s words about accepting and liking who he is kind of take on a new meaning. It’s like he’s a gay character played as straight. As far as NBC is concerned, though, Zach is completely heterosexual.

So, in the second season they planned to have an explicitly gay character. In Claire’s new school, there would be a lesbian cheerleader named April. However, April’s actress Lyndsy Fonseca accepted a role on ABC’s Desperate Housewives and the character never appeared in more than one episode, in which her sexual orientation was never referenced. The writers abandoned the idea of a gay character at the school and this time had West, basically an all-straight Zach with Peter Pan’s flight, with whom Claire could actually have a romantic relationship.

In the third season, they finally have a gay character – a couple, in fact. Two lesbian bakers living in India, one of whom is saved by Hiro and Ando from entering into an arranged marriage against her will. However, the gay relationship is not explicit, relegated into subtext. Despite being mentioned in the casting call as part of the role, the only reference to character Annapurna’s love life is her sharing a smile with her partner while talking about how she wants to pursue her own passions – something that could easily be interpreted simply as her desire to build up her business.

Heroes has had several opportunities to illustrate its positive message about accepting minorities through a decent representation of homosexual characters. It is indeed disappointing that they have not been able to do so as of yet. With any luck, the show’s creators and the producers can get their act together and pull off a decent gay character before the show comes to a conclusion.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Olive Drab Is for Wimps (Halo)

The Covenant have a set of military aesthetics quite alien to us. The UNSC is the main faction with which the player identifies, and so represents what is essentially our (or at least American) perception of how a strong military force should look. The UNSC has the standard set of aesthetics familiar to us: olive drab camouflage, tight quarters, everything existing for the sole purpose of functionality without room for much else. The Covenant, on the other hand, make room for spiritual aesthetics and comfortable empty space, in addition using a wide variety of colors we would tend to consider inferior or silly due to their association with femininity or childishness – definitely not considered cool in our sexist and ageist culture. Because the Halo series depicts these underused colors being used by the powerful Covenant, for a rare moment the colors achieve a status of coolness not often seen.

The Chief peered down the corridor. The bulkheads were violet. Or was that lavender? Strange patterns marbled the material, like the oily sheen of a beetle’s carapace. Whatever it was, he didn’t care for it, especially on a military vessel, but who knew? Maybe the Covenant thought olive drab was for wimps.

First of all, it’s important to note that a big part of overall human culture is governed by our anatomy. Humans come in many colors, but we all share the color red when it comes to our blood. Red is the danger color; it’s something to be concerned about. It is also the color of bloodlust, of those eager to spill blood on the battlefield. This is a human cultural norm.

However, the Covenant are a different matter. While made up of several species, the lead warriors have been the Sangheili for a very long time. As Sangheili bleed purple, this gives potential insight to the Covenant characteristic of coloring military items purple as well. Like the humans who would mark deadly or important things with the color red, a universal message among humans, so can the Covenant mark things with the color of the blood of their most socially powerful warrior-class species. The standard color of the exterior of Covenant ships is solid violet, a fine color for their warships to use to display their hostility.

The reasons for their use of other colors are not clear, although their pinks may result from an evolution of shades of blue to shades of red. The interiors of Covenant ships often have patterns of different shades of purple put together with dark blue, as well as the bright blue that shines from designs interlaid in the walls and floor, such as in the Phantom troop bay. While most Covenant vessels and vehicles have the exterior colored purple, the Halo 2 Scarab and the Spectre make notable exceptions, being colored blue and magenta respectively. It should be noted that the Scarab later had a makeover and appeared in Halo 3 as a blue-purple blend more reminiscent of the usual Covenant aesthetics, and appears entirely purple in Halo Wars. Further transition toward the color red is not seen in architecture or vehicular design, but is seen in Sangheili armor.

The as-of-yet uniquely seen claret-colored armor of Sangheili warrior Usze 'Taham marks a transitionary shade between the bright magenta of the Spectre and the more muted red of the Sangheili Major armor, commonly seen throughout the games. However, while Covenant architecture displays a clearly patterned theme in its aesthetics, the Sangheili armor colors appear wildly different in contrast. The main set consists of solid colors blue, red, grey, white, and gold, with a few other variations occasionally seen. These armor variants with their stark contrasts serve as blatant indicators of rank or particular area of talent (e.g. stealth). In our culture these colors are not associated with the feminine as are the purple/pink variety but are rather loud and unusual, evoking the simplistic and vibrant colors of children’s toys.

The colors primarily used by the Covenant are associated by our culture with weakness, not to be taken seriously. It is therefore quite a twist on the usual way of things when the course of the Halo games leads us to regard these colors as not inherently representative of weakness, in fact turning the cultural meme on its head as we come to associate them with images of strength. The sight of Phantom and Spirit dropships, both royal purple, comes with apprehension on the more fierce difficulty levels, as can the pink Spectre loaded with Jiralhanae.

Even some of the weapons themselves are colored the way we generally associate with weakness. The carbine, for instance, has a bright purple stock. Because this part of the gun is the highest and farthest back, it is also most of what the player sees while wielding it. It’s not a half-bad weapon either, often something one would intentionally pick up due to its usefulness in a fight. In addition, the Covenant energy sword, arguably the most powerful melee weapon, also has a bit of pink visible in the inner blade area.

For the first time, pink is not a “sissy color” but rather a color of strength. A Covenant warrior can look mighty cool wielding a weapon adorned with a color generally associated with femininity and thus weakness. I find it liberating to mow down Unggoy with such weapons, taking the stigma away from their colors, and bringing their worth purely to a matter of how useful they can be in a given situation, which is how any item should be judged.

This said, it is worth noting that the manner in which the stigma is removed does not touch the sexism at the heart of the matter. Covenant society is fiercely sexist, after all. What Bungie has really done is caused colors generally associated with femininity to become associated instead with masculinity. There are no female Sangheili characters present, so the characters to wield the weapons are strong Sangheili males. It takes a completely alien culture to allow the colors to become associated with strength, and even then the alien culture has to be like ours enough for the perception of strength to remain intact.

With the advent of the “changing of the guard” and the Sangheili alliance with humanity, much of the aesthetics we have come to associate with the Covenant and Sangheili have changed. The Sangheili show their separatism by using banned armor and their allegiance to the UNSC by painting their Phantoms the green color humanity expects from its warriors, though not quite olive drab. Meanwhile, the Covenant have adopted the Jiralhanae as their primary warriors along with their brutal sense of aesthetics.

Jiralhanae aesthetics are far more of what we associate with traditional masculine strength. Their colors consist mainly of grays and browns. Instead of the smooth and sleek designs of the Sangheili-style weapons and vehicles, the Jiralhanae like everything really rough, bulky, and with spikes. While their armor shares a similarity with Sangheili armor in both physical design and use of the same vivid colors to indicate rank, they are otherwise depicted as powerful savages with a love of brute strength (no pun intended) and quite different from the Sangheili.

In conclusion, through the creation of an alien culture Bungie has managed to take a set of colors imbued with the ideological perception of inherent weakness and turned it around to carry an ideological perception of strength. They accomplished this through keeping the fictional culture similar enough to our own that they were able to effectively portray the concept of strong warriors, with whom the colors sequentially become associated. This effect has diminished after the release of Halo 3, when the aesthetics changed significantly, although it has been somewhat brought back with the pinkish purple Covenant of Halo Wars.