Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Airbrushing Uhura

Weeks after everyone else, I decided to get some Star Trek glasses from Burger King. And because I was weeks after everyone else, they only had Uhura and Nero left - so I got both.

Why this is worth mentioning, though, is because I barely recognized Zoe Saldana as Uhura. Bizarrely, she's been so excessively Photoshopped that her black hair looks golden-blonde. And her skin? Well, I'll put an image from the Star Trek site of Eric Bana's Nero glass beside the Uhura glass - can you tell that one actor is white and other's black? (And if you knew nothing more than this distinction, would you misapply those labels?)

edit: And there's probably a common sensical (and so incredibly problematic) reason that their skin colors seem to have been swapped - Nero is 'evil' (his glass is darker and the ship must absorb ambient light, it's such a deep green-black) and Uhura is 'good' (and much like her skin and hair, the ship and its background glow unnaturally). Because good is bright and evil is dark, of course.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The ongoing battle for Canadian identity: Ignatieff and the Tory commercials

With a federal election certain to be called in the next few months, the Conservatives have taken to launching pre-emptive attack ads at Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, a public intellectual probably best known in North America for his work in Security Studies - work that he did, the Tories point out, almost exclusively outside Canada, in the UK and USA.

The Liberals contend that attacks, based on a 34-year absence from the country, are simultaneously an attack on all expat Canadians (Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella lists Wayne Gretzky, Neil Young, and Celine Dion as figures who must then be equally problematic) and naturalized immigrants, who may have also spent the majority of their lives outside the country. Tory strategist Tim Powers counters that it's not that he left, or necessarily the length of time, but rather "it's what he said when he was outside the country" - referring to his explicitly identifying as an American and a Brit while residing in those countries.

Kinsella's analogies are hardly perfect; neither is Powers' response convincing. Kinsella's examples include people who represent Canada in an official capacity at international events (Gretzky) and keep a Canadian residence (Dion), and all three actively and repeatedly assert their Canadianness - none of which could be said of Ignatieff during those three and a half decades. As for Powers' argument, it doesn't escape the latter charge made by the Liberals, as a huge number of Canadian immigrants (and, as has been my experience, even many 2nd and 3rd generation Canadians) likewise don't identify themselves primarily "Canadian".

That Ignatieff (and Gretzky, Young, Dion, I'm sure, if they were challenged in a similar fashion) can convincingly, if not unproblematically, liken himself to both the celebrity expats and the marginalized (and presumably non-white) immigrant is no small feat and has everything to do with which of those two groups he more closely resembles. Those same immigrants couldn't look to Gretzky and Dion in order to legitimate their own tenuous hold on Canadian identity - they were, after all, born Canadian ("natural" Canadians vs. "naturalized" Canadians) and, tellingly, are all white. Ignatieff can invoke an analogy of oppression but the reverse, an analogy of privilege that should theoretically be open to non-white immigrants, seems somehow a harder sell.

Consider, too, that Ignatieff is able to reinforce his own claim to Canadianness (though not without a certain element of danger, as I'll explain) by way of an appeal to people who are considered provisionally Canadian without reciprocal increase in their Canadianness. But were a non-white Canadian lobby group to attempt to increase their access to Canadianness by way of appeal to white Canadian figures like Ignatieff, I suspect that a) the simile wouldn't be as convincing, b) they would do little to advance their own cause, and c) that they would actually damage Ignatieff's own status as Canadian. Rather than improve their own standing relative to hegemonic ideas of Canadian identity, they would problematize his.

There's an analogy to be made here to American racial politics - the "one drop" rule of racial blood - which Canada has regrettably absorbed: Ignatieff's whiteness can't whiten the immigrants' non-whiteness, but the reverse - the loss of Ignatieff's Canadianness (which is bound to his whiteness) - remains an ever-present risk. And it's precisely that danger that the Conservatives are invoking - and that Ignatieff, in drawing out what the Tories themselves could not say explicitly, is inadvertantly reinforcing.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Because there can't be a blockbuster newstory without an appropriately explosive ending...

In the latest iteration of the Missing White Girl media phenomenon*, Southern Ontario's media has been equal parts hysterical and manic for the past month and a half while reporting on the kidnapping of an 8 year old. So, of course, when two arrests were made just yesterday the TV personality who reported it on Canada AM made some appropriately asinine comments, noting that the arresting officers were comparing the case to that of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka - but that we "shouldn't make any assumptions."

Oh, right. That makes sense - because we don't know why she was kidnapped or what happened, even if we assume that these people kidnapped her. Because you know what will keep people from making crazy assumptions? Comparing the arrested to Canada's most infamous rapist/murderers. Certainly, I would never jump to any conclusions upon learning that the police are reminded of the serial killers that kidnapped and raped as many 30 teenage girls between the two of them.

That is some fine and responsible journalism, right there.

*Just to be clear: I don't use the expression or link to the Onion in order to disparage the victim; I do it only to mock the absurdity of the media's tunnel-vision and their obsession with wringing these stories for all the pathos they're worth.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The LOST season finale, and Season 5 in general...

Over on Geoff's blog, he writes that the show will pull through in Season 6 because it always puts the characters first and the mythology second. But I think that this season is among LOST's weakest precisely because that wasn't true.

The Jack-Kate relationship would serve as Exhibit A, I think. Jack became thoroughly unlikable and his skepticism transformed into a cynicism that bordered on nihilism; Kate was present but virtually inaccessible with respect to her feelings and motivation. The two interacted so little on the island that it wasn't until the finale that I realized they still had feelings for each other and we were supposed to be rooting for them.

Conversely, Sawyer and Juliet was pulled off in a surprisingly convincing manner. Still, given that their relationship arrived fully-formed, a flashback covering the previous three years on the island and giving us a reason to feel invested in them as a couple would've been nice. We're supposed to sympathize with Juliet, I think, when she's made to feel anxious by Kate's arrival, but instead I felt a sense of inevitability - that Juliet would be become jealous and do something dumb, that Sawyer would give her a reason, that the Jack-Kate-Sawyer triangle would reassert itself.

For all the character work that didn't happen, then, it's also surprising that so little of the mythology seems to have been developed or resolved. The trip into the past added surprisingly little to our understanding of the Island and its inhabitants, while the much more interesting stuff happening in the present was barely given any time to breathe. When you toss in the introduction of some timeless battle between Jacob and his adversary (now known to the internet as Esau) and a whole new group of survivors, it's enough to make one suspect that there will be little more effort put on the characters next year.

This is not to say that I think the show went all wrong. Some individual episodes around the middle of the season were fantastic - Locke's, in particular - and the season really picked up when it seemed they realized that it should have started with Jack waking up on the island and not spun its wheels for several episodes trying to explain how he would get there. And the inversion of Ben and Locke's roles - the evil schemer and naive follower - was damn clever and fiendishly executed. (These two are probably my favorite characters, and no less so now that Ben is emotionally crushed and Locke is no longer Locke.) And while Sawyer's turn as leader and thinker was far too short lived (again, this development would have benefited from a flashback), I liked what they did with him, even if they pissed it away with a predictable reversion in the last couple episodes.

Finally, I like that I have absolutely no idea where this next season will start. (I guessed that Season Four would start where, it turns out, Season Five began, and that Five would open with them back on the Island.) Having them landing in LA in 2004 would be a ballsy move, but I'm not sure where they would go from there; picking up in 2007 with the characters having landed in LA three years earlier would at least fit the timeline that the show has established, but would seem to make equally little sense. Really, though, nothing to this point suggests that Daniel was right in thinking that the past could be changed, and so I wouldn't be surprised to see the Losties from 1977 end up in 2007, as little sense as that might make. (The white flash did, after all, share a certain resemblance with the white flashes that sent them flying through time earlier in the season. In which case we have no reason to think that Juliet's necessarily dead.)

But that would just be a really cheap way to get them back, wouldn't it? And make it seem as if they were in the 70s for no good reason, except maybe to explain... no, they didn't even really explain or show us anything that we didn't already know or suspect we knew. (Radzinsky was more intriguing as a stain, and DHARMA more interesting when everything we knew about them was gleaned from old film and a pile of corpses in the jungle. And we discovered absolutely nothing new about The Others, except that Ellie and Charles have some sort of 'complicated' relationship, both romantically and with respect to the leadership of the group. Though we don't know what that complication is. Still.)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Problems in applying the Prime Directive

From an article on Star Trek's Prime Directive, from the Toronto Star:

[Queen's University's Kim Richard] Nossal warns, however, against adhering too closely to anything like the Prime Directive. Taken to its extreme, he says, it can be a justification for both isolationism and ignoring the needs of other countries under the guise of respecting their territorial integrity.

That kind of thinking, he says, is what allowed the genocide in Rwanda to go unheeded, an outcome now roundly seen as a failure by the international community to act when needed.

I'm sure that Nossal is a fine and rigorous academic, but it's this sort of sloppy work on pop culture that reflects poorly on all of the rest.

The first problem, and one that Nossal seems keenly aware of, is that the Prime Directive is an ideal that isn't at all applicable to any inter-cultural meetings or exchanges in the 21st century - colonialism and globalization have seen to it that there no society can exist without some awareness of and relationship with the West/Global North. (But maybe he was pressed to try anyway...)

The second, and more egregious problem, is that his example of Rwanda is a hideously inappropriate one. We could maybe cite examples retrospectively, and maybe even try applying the directive to contexts where the exposure to Euro-American influence has not already been disastrous. The problem with the Rwandan Genocide example, though, is that the situation was itself created by colonialism and overdetermined by it. The Tutsi and Hutu populations which constituted the opposing sides in the civil war, for example, were only 100 years ago class-distinctions that became hard-and-fast ethnic classifications when Germany and then Belgium took control. (The Belgians and Roman Catholic church went so far as to invent socio-scientific definitions and give out cards.) While the UN's non-interference in 1993/94 was a problem, it's useless, and dangerous, to discuss it - much less use it in a discussion of Star Trek's Prime Directive - without acknowledging that it couldn't have happened in the first place without European interference.

Really, though, I'm quite confident Nossal knows all of this. So what is it about pop culture applications of theory and politics that seems to cause writers to lose their critical edge?