Sunday, November 26, 2006

Heroes, Race and Gender

I've been simply shocked by this series.

While “Grey's Anatomy” has spent most of the season wallowing in the main character's plot line of "Whom should I date today and what superficial reason should I use to justify that?" “Heroes” has emerged as the best show on TV for the growing minority of us not petrified by three-dimensional minority characters.

That's not to say that non-racialized casting is the main reason to watch the show. It's actually a synergy between the thoughtful casting and brilliant writing that neither insults the viewer's intelligence nor falls into stereotyping and caricaturization of the principals.

Masi Oka is utterly brilliant as Hiro, the courageous, implacable hero of space and time, as he must portray both Otaku Hiro and Future Hiro, the sword wielding “hindsight is 20/20” guide of the expedition to save the world.

Sendhil Ramamurthy plays steamy narrator Mohinder Suresh, who tries to bring the Heroes together by following his father’s eccentric path that led to his eventual death.

Heroes’ only flaw is its weak female representation. The main female characters sound like a roll call of Hollywood stereotypes: the stripper, the cheerleader, mysterious drug addict or stripper turned bad actress, the cheating wife, and the handicapped wife being cheated upon. The only bright lights have been the development of the cheerleader, who thankfully is not played by a twenty-five year old with big tits, and the most well developed female role, the dreaming waitress, who after being developed more in her first twenty minutes onscreen than all of the other women combined was summarily executed by the serial killer.

Well, despite some notable exceptions, comics are not known for their good gender portrayals. For an utterly amazing, analytical look at this issue, please stop reading my blog and read “Women in Refrigerators”; an very thoughtful critique of gender in comic books that also tries to give artists the opportunity to respond to the analysis.

This blog entry approaches a much wider issue of how we tailor our perspective on existing trends to serve our own racial stereotypes and fabricate biological explanations to suit them:

This is fascinating to me because of two things:
1) Writers must balance their own politics with their audience’s tastes and agenda.
2) Many writers totally suck at assessing their audience’s tastes and agenda.

Looking at Heroes, the weakest actors, with the exception of Adrian Pasdar, tend to be the Caucasian American ones. Milo Ventimiglia is just dreadfully casted as his smirkiness is completely out of character for the bashful little brother character, and Ali Lartner manages to command BOTH of the worst two performances on the show as “Nikki” and her sister “Jessica”.

But was this a good call?

People magazine has Ventimiglia polling as the “most sexy” character far outpacing the minority stars.

Overall, I think this just illustrates how complex the issues of race and gender in media are. The public accepts a show that studio execs promised us they would not: one with minority male leads and non-English language dialogue. But their definitions of “sexy” still tend to be narrowly confined by the stereotypical conceptions of race and gender.

As MLK said, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, except in terms of ‘sexiness’ in which case, color of skin is absolutely vital!”

Wow, this post ended somewhere entirely different from where I intended, but I do think in a good place. Let me leave you with this quote from Joan Hilty's response to "Women in Refrigerators" which sums up not only the issues of gender in hero mythology, but also the greater cultural war of so-called "anti-PC-ness" and the fight to restore white male supremacy:

Really, the larger reality is that American mainstream comics, built by guys for guys on the crumbling foundations of superhero fantasy, remain intensely hostile to women, consciously and subconsciously. As political and cultural landscapes shift and evolve worldwide and it gets harder and harder for white guys to retain their perceived right to run the world, you can see the frustration act itself out in various forms of hideous backlash -- everything from "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?" to Katma Tui.

Anyway, check out “Heroes”—the writing is incredible, and the plot twists are not the usual Hollywood, “I just made some shit up that doesn’t make any sense, but you didn’t see it coming!” variety.
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