Friday, September 4, 2015

The Problematic Portrayal of Race on Defiance

One of the hardest parts of reviewing and recapping at Fangs is that you have to be critical even when you want to jump up and down and cheer and wave great big “Team Stahma” banners. Alas, we have to remember that even on shows and in books we love and fanpoodle, there are problems

And when it comes to Defiance and race, we have a very severe problem that has not improved over the last 3 seasons.

The most obvious initial problem is the relative lack of POC - yes we can have several different alien species but POC are relatively few and far between. This is especially troublesome when we consider that Defiance is St. Louis - a city that is only 43% non-hispanic White and 47% Black - yes, this cast of predominantly White (or alien) people is happening in a city where White people are a minority. It looks like we have another dystopian future where marginalised people die in the first wave.

It is not just a lack of numbers, but also screen presence - many of the POC we have seen have not played large roles. This is another prevalent problem we’ve seen on many of our shows where, going by simple numbers, there are several POC but when you look at actual screen time and meaningful presence we find them to be grossly neglected. Certainly the largest roles - Amanda, Nolan, Irisa, the Tarrs and Yewl are held by White humans or aliens (pale aliens at that). Rafe McCawley was the most prominent (and his portrayal came with its own set of problems) - and after him it’s a long drop to the rest of his family, Tommy, Samir and briefly appearing guest roles. All of these have had severe problems

Tommy was one of the most cringeworthy. From the very beginning Tommy’s primary role has been to be wrong. He is nearly constantly in conflict with Nolan, a conflict he is never intended to win. From the very beginning when he was passed over for Lawkeeper in favour of the apparently more experienced Nolan (despite his lack of any kind of law enforcement experience and that pesky slaughtering of Votans past) to Tommy supporting the E-Rep as opposed to Nolan opposition, Tommy has existed to be wrong to contrast with Nolan’s right. He is less a character and more a character tool for Nolan’s development and even his relationships with Irisa and Berlin seemed to be part of that (Irisa to generate more conflict with her father and Berlin as part of him siding with E-Rep over independence). It was sadly unsurprising when Tommy died but even then his death was less about him and more to develop Irisa and her terrible guilt.

With Tommy dead, the writers clearly felt the need for another tool to make Nolan shine in the spot light - enter Samir. Rescued by Nolan he disappeared into the plot box, only occasionally allowed out to provide a convenient target for Yewl’s excellent snark before disappearing… until the end of the season when he got to be rescued by Nolan. Again. All the while holding up Nolan almost as some kind of super hero. What are the character notes for this man “Nolan worshipping vet?” That’s pretty much the sum total of his character.

And we have the McCawleys at which point we have to bring up the obvious - death. So much death. Tommy is dead (for Irisa’s development and she and Berlin are really the only ones who remember). The entire McCawley family (including Pilar) were slaughtered largely to define Rahm as a bad guy and to set up Alak and Stahma’s conflict. The rest of the cast could hardly remember their deaths for more than an episodes. Rafe was one of the most important men in the town - only Amanda and Datak managed to compete with him for influence and he was the town’s main employer but he disappears with hardly a mention.

There have been other POC actors playing regular roles on Defiance but this is also less than ideal. Alak is played by Jesse Rath whose mother is Indian - but he is playing a Castithan and wearing so much white make up that we only know this by googling.

T’evgin and Kindzi are played by Black people and they are not covered in White make up - Omec are definitely dark skinned and every Omec we’ve seen has been played by a Black person. However, here we have to remember what the Omec are - savage, animalistic, predatory cannibals (in the sense of eating sentient creatures), slavers and rapists preying on others. In particular, they prey on the Castithan - the oh-so-elaborately-civilised, super-duper pale people; with Stahma being a prime target/asset. Savage Black raping cannibals hunting down super pale people? This goes beyond unfortunate implications and you have to wonder if the writers intended this obvious comparison - and if so, what in the name of Yewl’s snark were they thinking?!

On top of this, Defiance also has a terrible habit of appropriating issues that have affected POC and applying them to aliens. To make this appropriation even more inexcusable, the McCawleys, the prominent POC family on this show, are repeatedly used as the oppressors in this narrative. The most horrendous example was when Rafe, a Native American character, is found to have illegally stole an Irathient’s land. Yes, a Native American stole land from an alien coloniser… again, I turn to the writers and boggle that they were unable to see what was wrong with that. Especially on a show where the pilot contained the line Earth has no Natives.

Then we had Christie indulging in Castithan-face. Yes, the WOC wore make up to make her look like an alien, dressed up as a Castithan and appropriated their culture while play acting. This wasn’t even subtle, it was a direct invocation of Blackface and was handled in a staggeringly ignorant and clumsy way.. The whole narrative was completely lacking in anything resembling nuance, analysis or acknowledge of the real damage such appropriation does - all made all the worst by the offence being committed by a woman of colour against the whitest of white aliens and making some truly horrendous excuses to justify what she was doing (referring to it as a “kink” and even as a way to study another culture - by play acting).

Even Rafe’s disapproval of Alak and Christie’s marriage had more than a hint of parallels to a bigoted parent objecting to an interracial marriage.

This clumsiness means other issues using the Votans as oppressed group (like Cultural assimilation or Internment camps) seem much more dubious and intolerably appropriative. The writers of this show are happy to draw upon the history of POC for storytelling without acknowledging the POC themselves - it’s disrespectful and exploitative.

It’s also usually done in a very shallow fashion - these issues are raised but often only last for an episode or two before the internment camps are closed, “white face” is discarded, cultural assimilation fades into the background or the “land theft” is forgotten as an issue. This is another level of disregard - these vital issues are raised for brief plot points, sometimes literally just as a story of the week topic, but there’s no effort to analyse the full scope of the problem. If you’re going to invoke these literal life-and-death issues and terrible atrocities against marginalised people then treat them as the important topics they are, not like an issues version of a monster-of-the-week episode.

In addition to all these huge issues, Defiance just doesn’t handle even minor-interractions when it comes to race well. A good example is when Rahm - and other Castithan - use an anti-human slur “pink skin.” The vast majority of the humans on this planet do not, in fact, have pink skin. Nor would it particularly make sense for the Votan’s to use this as an anti-human insult since we have seen Irathients and Liberata with a very human range of skin tones - including caucasian. One little phrase - but there’s so much wrong with it that it shows zero thought (that is all the more glaring in a show whose world building is so elaborate)

Defiance does a lot of things that we love - it’s a show we’ve enjoyed since it first began and we’ve been firm fanpoodles for a long time. We positively worship some of the characters and we are desperate for it to be renewed - but again we have to remember that just because we love something doesn’t mean it isn’t problematic. Even when it pains us to do so, it’s important not to be lost in the in the fanpoodling