Unbound writers Gemma Webster and Jon Horwitz-White love to watch bad shows and text commentary to one another. This week, they share a selection of lightly edited text messages about issues of representation in Stranger Things and Penny Dreadful. Gem and Jon found both shows highly entertaining, but the shows got some issues. Beware, there are plenty of spoilers
Gemma Webster: Popaganda, a podcast from Bitch Media, did a great episode in August about Stranger Things … They liked the show too but they were the first people I heard asking questions about representation in Stranger Things. Everyone else had given the show an utterly free pass.
Jon Horwitz-White: I love when Amy Lam questions why can't there be any people of color in fictional small towns? These stories are about monsters, aliens, and the supernatural, but it's not realistic to have more people of color represented in a small town?
GW: Yes exactly! I’m watching Penny Dreadful right now. It seems like the only character/plot complication is to make people bisexual.
JHW: Right?!!! Have you seen the episode when Dorian meets Angelique? It’s outrageous.
GW: I’m there. At least Angelique is a beautiful, captivating person, ten times more interesting than Dorian.
JHW: True, but I have reservations about the use of characters from marginalized communities as vehicles for white characters’ transcendence, or worst, their adventures. We’re used as plot devices to showcase white characters’ benevolence or as self-sacrificing supports that help whites realize their greatness.
GW: We’re in an era filled with storytellers who think inclusivity means inserting people of color and/or LGBTQ people as debatably important characters into stories whose main characters and plot lines are those of white heterosexuals!
JHW: And in many of those stories, women’s experiences rely upon and are shaped by the male characters.
GW: Women, people of color, LBGTQ people, these stories present limited autonomy for all of us.
JHW: I like your use of the word “autonomy.” Frankly, Eleven is one of those insertions. Yes, she’s one of the main characters of the show, but she is a female character that’s punted around the story by groups of guys who want to make use of her for their own purposes. Worst, the writers weave in a desire to be regarded as pretty to deepen her character!
GW: I know!!!!! Her character supposedly has grown up without knowledge of the outside world, outside of our value system, but she has a concept of "pretty"?!
JHW: In the episode where the boys dress her up in makeup, a blond wig, and a pink dress. It’s supposed to be ridiculous, but the worst part of the scene is Eleven looking at herself in a mirror, Mike also in the reflection, and she's repeating his appraisal of her, “Pretty. Good.”
GW: I get that an adolescent girl who enters mid 1980’s America is going to be pressured into female performance, but the major shortcoming of this story is that Eleven doesn’t seem to have any misgivings about the role being pushed off on her; she doesn’t regard it as strange.
JHW: There’s no resistance, no autonomy in identify formation! Rather the writers render her as this malformed thing that preternaturally understands she’s a girl and that she should seek the approval of the boys around her.
GW: Eesh. And they keep her in the basement and feed her frozen waffles and candy. It’s like she’s their pet. We’re supposed to believe that she is better off this way than if the boys had found a trusted authority figure (like their parents or the town sheriff who is on their side) than living beneath a workbench in the basement?
JHW: There are parallels in Penny Dreadful with Vanessa Ives and Brona/Lily. Both are powerful women who are kept by men who vacillate between wanting to exploit them or benevolently care for them.
GW: Monstrous women! They need to be caged or contained in one way or another. Eleven is caged in the facility and then the basement. Lily is contained by Victor, then transitions to Dorian (a monstrous man) who benevolently accepts her as his equal until she runs amok (out monstering him because, women are the worst of the worst), unleashing murderous sex workers upon London whereupon she is caged again.
JHW: Vanessa Ives is an interesting example because she is quite literally being kept by Sir Malcolm, but she has internalized the need for a cage by policing her sexuality. Of course, Penny Dreadful employs the tired trope that frames women’s sexuality as a vehicle for men’s pleasure, a commodity, and/or something evil.
GW: In Vanessa’s case, it’s evil.
JHW: Exactly! So she polices her sexuality so as not to release evil upon the world. In the final season, she gives herself over to it to become pure evil, and the only resolution is for Ethan to kill her, to euthanize her. Come on!!!
It makes me think of the excellent critiques leveled against Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby by people who are differently-abled. The only option for the female boxer who became paraplegic was to pursue assisted suicide. Come on, storytellers!!!
GW: Vanessa can’t even kill her own self?! The thing that bugs me about both shows is that they’re ostensibly about outcasts. But the people who are truly on the outside are insertions, props, side stories.
JHW: Sembene! Angelique! Dr. Jekyll! Ethan Chandler’s adopted American Indian father!
GW: I keep thinking about our love of stories about the underdog, and yet, the underdogs in these stories are typically people with privilege in the most powerful nations on Earth. Couldn’t we leverage that underdog love for some actual underdog protagonists?
JHW: Preferably underdog protagonists who are not being traumatized in some way. This makes me think of an excellent Buzzfeed article by Jenny Zhang, in which she writes, “White Supremacy tries to reduce people of color to traumas… One quick perusal through the shelves of world literature in any bookstore confirms just what the literary world wants to see from writers of color and writers from developing nations: trauma.”
Can you think of the last main character who was a person of color and was just a regular person, not being victimized in any way, not being forced through some ungodly suffering because of their sexuality, color, ethnicity? There are a dearth of stories in which that is the case, and I have to give Stranger Things some accolades for creating a black main character whose blackness is not the raison d’etre of his character.
GW: We need more Lucas in the story. They also deserve kudos for Dustin's character because they do the same thing with his portrayal of disability (one which the actor actually has and was written into the script because of him). That is a decent model for inclusion.
JHW: I think we should leave our readers with some tips. What do you think?
GW: I agree!
The following are a few considerations to help propagate new inclusive stories that represent the complexity and diversity of our world (and all the parallel, alternate realities we can imagine):
- Increase representation of diverse communities in stories by inverting the assumed whiteness of protagonists
- Write women characters that have their own aspirations and are striving for self actualization independent of the stories' men
- Show how diverse characters, supporting or main, have their own aspirations and are striving for self actualization independent of their white heterosexual friends
- Ensure that those women and diverse characters resist the narratives others project onto them
- Imagine all the baggage we normally project onto women and people of color simply because they’re women and/or people of color, now write some scenes where these characters do not carry any of that assumed baggage
Still perplexed? Here are a few shows that we think are doing representation well:
Sense8 - The show is pretty great in terms of representation. We even get to see non Western cities as thriving, modern metropolises. The show, however, relies on some serious typecasting of the cast i.e. Sun - Korean woman who is a martial artist, or Kala - the pious, family oriented Indian women, etc.
Jessica Jones - Finally a show based in New York City that has a cast that actually looks more like New York City than other NYC based offerings. We love that the show is about a community of peers who are coping with abuses of power and overcoming trauma. (We haven’t made it through Netflix’s new Luke Cage show yet).
Merlin - This show addresses Amy Lam’s critique about “realistic” fictional universes: a more multicultural cultural cast set in 5th century Britain.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - This show includes wonderful marginalized characters who are in a social context where they are completely disempowered, but all of them resist the narratives that are projected upon them. Unbound Writer Danyelle Overbo is working on a upcoming post comparing the book and show; we’re excited to read it!
P.S. re you watching a show that's doing representation right? Leave us a note in the comments!