Genre and Culture in the Modern Golden Age of Television Pt. 1
A Grand Proclamation
Television is exploding in new programming, and networks want a cut of the profits in what many call the “modern golden age of TV.” Much has been written and discussed about this period. Whether or not TV is golden, silver, or magenta, we can’t deny the massive growth in the medium. With this growth in programming comes dozens of shows about superheroes, monsters, and witches. TV networks want in on the genre popularity that’s made Comic-Con and other staples of nerd culture mainstream. TV networks are filling their new slots with science fiction, fantasy and horror shows. Instead of waiting until the summer for a comic book blockbuster, you can tune in each week to shows like Arrow on the CW or the upcoming Gotham on ABC.
But how exciting are these new sci-fi-oriented shows? Sure they have stunning visuals and budget-breaking action sequences, but do they truly push the limits of what is possible on TV and what are imaginations can dream up? In some senses, the answer is no. Take a look at three examples: Teen Wolf, American Horror Story, and Game of Thrones. Each is very different, but each comes from the (straight) white, male gaze. In these shows I see much of the same-old, same-old in regard too depiction of women and minorities.
Jeepers Creepers: American Horror Story
American Horror Story is one of the few shows on television with a cast of mostly women, and it’s Bechdel test score is probably off the charts. It’s so rare to see wonderful cast of sassy, wonderfully bitchy ladies. The storylines are fucked up so much that you have to just appreciate it for the art that it is. It’s pure camp, and I love it.
The show pushes me away when it’s tone switches so conspicuously between fun and seriousness. Instea of being nuanced, it comes off like an afterschool special. In the first season, the PSA was about female agency and self-fulfillment. That on it’s own isn’t a bad idea, especially for a horror show. A woman trapped in her unfaithful marriage and physically trapped in a haunted house is an interesting analogy that could play out well. But the setup wasn’t enough for the show’s writers. They had to pull a Game of Thrones and have the lead actress, Vivien, raped by a ghost and impregnated with a demon baby that other ghosts and her crazy next-door neighbor plotted to kidnap. Though they were antagonists, they twisted the main question: How do you survive a marriage? This was forgotten all together, and at the end husband, wife, and daughter happy but dead. Together but dead. A better ending would have been the wife and daughter chilling a new house with the cheating husband now dead and stuck with the other annoying ghosts.
The ensuing seasons followed suit with the issues of sexual freedom and racism, and often at times fell flat when got preachy. I often waited for a Keenan Ivory Wayans to walk through scene and yell “Message!” It seems to me as if the writers want to talk about important things, which is admirable, but they do so in such a heavy-handed way, which is the style of the showrunner Ryan Murphy. If you’re familiar at all with his other shows Glee, Nip/Tuck, and The New Normal, you know his style.
Heroes Among Us: Teen Wolf
If you’re not familiar with the show, Teen Wolf is set in the fictional, rural North Carolina town of Beacon Hills there is an ensemble cast of brooding teens dealing with angst and werewolf-grade testosterone. Why such an ordinary town has become so populated by angst-ridden wereteens is not exactly explained. Like traditional soap operas, the show’s characters can go a whole episode without making a decision or taking action,, and the episode ends on one character, typically a female, wide-eyed with the realization that they’ll have to spend another episode contemplating nothing.
These wide-eyed female characters are a curious bunch. On one hand you have the badass Allison (RIP), the female heir to the Argent (It’s French for silver, get it!) hunting dynasty. She knows how to wield swords and shoot a bow and arrow. Her father’s trained her since she could walk. Yet despite her fierceness as a fighter, the show cuts her toughness down to size to remind us she’s still a girl. Allison had an on-again-off-again relationship with the the eponymous teen wolf Scott, which forced her to chose between her duty to family and her love of her werewolf friends. This ends up with her spending a lot of time brooding over young love instead of kicking serious werewolf ass. Her friend Lydia has her own problems. A couple seasons in Lydia gets bitten by one of the evil werewolves, and she alternates between fugue states and hallucinations. She recovers and then begins to live her life to the fullest. She sleeps with and dumps boys without blinking and connected with her inner bitch. She was pretty awesome for a while, to be honest. Yet in the TV world teen girls who have sex without feeling guilty must be punished some how, whether consciously or unconsciously. Lydia’s visions return and she starts to hear voices in her head. She blacks out frequently and wakes up screaming as horrible premonitions fill her head. This is because Lydia is a banshee. Not as in the stereotypical “She was nagging my ear off like a freaking banshee” sense but, seriously, she’s a banshee. It seems as if the mostly white and male writing staff couldn’t come up with a more compelling storyline for Lydia then she’s just crazy and annoying.
The show is also weak in the area of race and representation of people of color. When Scott and his friends need help, they often turn to the town’s veterinarian, a black man, Dr. Alan Deaton (aka Carver from The Wire). In addition to his job as a vet, Deaton is one of the Druid emissaries sent to guide the werewolves along with the school counselor Marin Morrell, also black. They are literally Magical Negroes. They often provide last-minute answers and saving for Scott and his friends, advice they give in unemotional tones from impassive faces. Much of their personal life is unknown. They are just there to serve the protagonists because I guess that’s what black people do. I probably missed the black people group meeting where we discussed this job description. But then again, I’m clearly not the target demographic for this show.
A Faraway Land: Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones is one of my favorite shows, and yet I know it’s imperfect and deeply problematic.
Whether or not the women of the show are oppressed or powerful has been discussed a lot. I tend to agree with the former argument. Arya Stark, aka The Littlest Serial Killer, is just as much a hostage to the whims of men as her older, damsel-in-distress sister Sansa. The show’s use of rape as a plot point bores me. In the case of both Daenerys and Cersei’s rapes, I find it lazy that the writers continued the trope that violence is a major part of the female character arc. It implies that male acts of violence make women more resilient and interesting. It’s lazy, and in a world where real women constantly receive rape threats, on-screen portrayals of the act are manipulative instead of edgy and provocative.
But what hasn’t been discussed much is how these oppressed women become the oppressors in the circle of privilege (no Lion King). Their wealthy, able-bodied, whiteness exonerates them from guilt. Cersei is proudly bigoted against her younger brother, the sardonic and stunted Tyrion Lannister, and Daenerys is blindly deluded in her role as white savior. Hers is a new reading of the White Man’s Burden. She assumes that all of the slaves will accept her forced freedom and come running to kiss her feet. It’s an odd feat of storytelling that a woman who had to fight for her own agency wouldn’t think to give others the same option. It took until the most recent season for two black characters to even speak to each other on screen. When Missandei, Daenerys’ lady-in-waiting and Grey Worm finally spoke to each other, I paused my HBO GO, raised my right fist in solidarity, and rewound. It was a brief feeling of joy. Missandei and Grey Worm bonded, but they couldn’t reach full physical intimacy. Grey Worm is castrated, which harks back to the sexless, black male servants in such cinematic dregs like Songs of the South and Driving Miss Daisy.
I don’t think the writers of the show intended to be offensive, but I’m going to assume that their white experience never informed them that this is a sensitive subject. For many white people, blacks and other people of color are just background props in their daily struggles. It’s not an accusation but an observation of how our experience, or lack there of, influences us as writers for better and for worse. In the case of these shows, many times it’s the latter.
This is especially true considering most of the people creating the source material and writing genre shows are white men. I’ll touch on this homogeneity in writing as I explore the factors affecting the quality of genre television.