Thursday, May 23, 2013

White male privilege in Star Trek: no single person's responsibility, but everyone's problem

I haven't seen Star Trek: Into Darkness - I plan to, eventually - but this article about Star Trek's failure to live up to its credo of diversity and tolerance (if not acceptance) makes some broader points that, I suspect, apply equally well to the new film. The money quote:
"The reality is that, at best, Star Trek is like a well-meaning but misguided friend who thinks that they are far more progressive than they actually are. Depending on the topic and franchise, Star Trek’s track record varies from 'mediocre but still better than most other shows of its era' to 'fucking hypocritical bullshit that makes me swear at the TV.'"

I wrote a short blog about this a few years ago, when I was commenting on both the remarkable racism - at least, in light of its purported progressive values - of The Next Generation and, yet, its oddly satisfying conclusion, where the producers argue that the progress narrative is deeply hypocritical and masks a root savagery that we'll never fully shake. (Deep Space Nine would pick this idea up and really run with it, positing that the more civilized the exterior appears, the more rotten it is at its core. Which, funny enough, seems to be exactly the argument that George R.R. Martin is putting forward with A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones.)

Actual shot from the most embarrassingly racist episode of TNG.

But the part of that article that I wanted to respond to, specifically, is where the author makes reference to the absence of gay characters and the explanations offered by current and former writers/producers Ronald D. Moore and J.J. Abrams. And we can add one from former show-runner Brannon Braga, too:

“The truth is it was not really a priority for any of us on the staff so it wasn’t really something that was strong on anybody’s radar.... Somebody has to decide that it’s important before you do it.” (Moore)

"I think it was, not so much a young man’s [issue], it was a syndicated family show, showing at six o’clock, you know, in Salt Lake City, so you had to deal with each separate affiliate rather than one network. And things like that. It was not a forward thinking decision. Knowing the players involved, knowing the decision makers, knowing it was that they felt reluctant about, you know, we’re not saying 'yes,' we’re not saying 'no,' we’re not just not going to touch that right now." (Braga)

"I just wouldn’t want the agenda to be-- whether it’s a heterosexual relationship or a homosexual relationship, to tell a story that was, that felt distracting from part of the purpose of the story is. ...this was not in the list of my priorities to try to figure out how to make this movie in the best possible way. But it will now be in the hopper. And it’s one of those things I’ll bring up with the writers next time we meet." (Abrams

So, each comment amounts to "we didn't really think about it", though with varying degrees of self-awareness and self-reflexivity. Braga seems to recognize, at least tacitly, that straight male privilege was preventing them from even considering it. Abrams, on the other hand, doesn't seem to realize how problematic it is to situate gay relationships as "distractions" when straight relationships wouldn't be similarly interrogated.

Anyway, this reminded me of the critiques of Girls and Game of Thrones, when each of those shows debuted. People complained (fairly) that Girls manages to almost completely whitewash one of the most racially-diverse cities in the world. People complained (fairly) that Game of Thrones reduces ethnic Others to almost comically barbaric stereotypes. These shows, the critics said, need to be more inclusive.

The defenders of these shows replied (again, fairly) that it is not their responsibility to be inclusive - they're telling a story, and telling it the best way they know how. And this is where I see the overlap with the Star Trek quotes above. Presumably, if someone were to push particularly hard - and I think you can actually see this if you read the full Abrams interview - they would fall into a sort of rhetoric of 'it's not my/our job to be everything to everyone', and making media for straight white dudes is a relatively easy sell. And, again, on an individual basis, they would be right.

The problem is, no one thinks it's their job to make a multicultural Girls, a racially-sensitive Game of Thrones, or a gay Star Trek character. Well, not "no one", but certainly very few people - and certainly not anyone with mainstream prominence. And while it may not be any single person's responsibility, it is our collective responsibility to ensure that real people see their lives reflected in real representations.

And that's the catch-22 - there's a collective obligation and need, here, but you can't force a J.J. Abrams or George R.R. Martin to be more inclusive, individually. (Well, maybe you can argue that Star Trek requires that the guy at the helm prove that it deserves its reputation. Maybe.) Yet, it's obvious that individual action - and accompanying monetary success - is the only thing that can lead to change among the wider entertainment industry. But while something needs to change, no one person is required to be the person who does it. So, no one does.

And that's why we just keep complaining.


Melissa said...

Hi Neil,

Love your blog! Just wondering if you'd be willing to make a blog post about Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey - I read your article about superheroes and am very interested in what you think about the book.



Mardus said...

So, essentially, it was Stargate Universe as the first space-based science fiction show to feature an openly out LGBT character in its primary cast.

My comment eventually became long enough that I wrote a separate blog post here.