Buried beneath the page long Tumblr rants and angry tweets over the current ship war, one will find a small but devoted group of fans gushing over the recent Martian arc on Supergirl. I am one of those fans, if you can’t tell from my and Elizabeth’s reviews. I could talk about my Martian babies for hours, and since I happen to write for a living, I can share my love with you. So excuse me while I happily word vomit a bit about J’onn J’onzz and M’gann M’orzz, because they’re everything and this subplot is one of the most compelling stories to grace my screen in a long while.
The Martian Story
Before I dive in, let’s talk backstories and Martian history. According to show canon, Mars was home to two sentient races, the war-like, aggressive White Martians and the peaceful Green Martians. Both races are shape-shifters with remarkable psychic powers including mind reading and the ability to telepathically link to each other. Several centuries prior to the start of the show, the subterranean White Martians surfaced and set about systematically wiping out the entire Green Martian race for no reason other than bigoted hatred and a belief in White Martian superiority. They rounded up the Greens in internment camps, brutalized them, and killed them. Many were burned in ovens. If it sounds like the Holocaust, it should. I’ll come back to this later when I talk about J’onn, but the Semitic coding underscores much of this arc, so it’s worth pointing out now.
J’onn, therefore, is the sole survivor of a genocide perpetrated by the White Martians that wiped out every other member of his race. M’gann, on the other hand, is a member of the very race that killed J’onn’s. Both fled for the lives and found refuge on Earth, but on opposite sides of the conflict. He fled being a victim of the massacre; she broke ranks by refusing a kill order. And this is the context within which these two characters exist. Perfect recipe for a revenge arc, right?
Wrong. It’s not even really a redemption arc. This, my friends, is a healing arc that stubbornly defies the temptation to oversimplify or justify any of its aspects.
Genocide and Culpability
Supergirl never shies away from describing what the White Martians did to the Greens, nor the implications for M’gann. The few flashbacks we get are enough for the audience to fill in details of just how awful the White were to the Greens. It’s genocide, pure and simple. It’s never justified or explained away, nor is it whitewashed into something less starkly horrid. Other shows might prefer to sweep similar events under the rug, but Supergirl never does. We’re never allowed to forget exactly what the Whites did and how awful it was.
Nor does M’gann escape from the personal ramifications of being a White Martian. We know little about her past prior to the day she broke ranks, but this was unlikely the first kill order she’d been given. She professes to have been placed at the worst of the internment camps.
“Prisoners penned up like animals. Barely enough space to move. Sometimes the guards would just kill someone at random. To set off a panic. And then watch as green bodies trampled over each other.”— M’gann M’orzz, 2.04 “Survivors”
Chances are, she’d been faced with other opportunities to act violently against the Greens and hadn’t balked. Her race is not known to show mercy, after all. Yet even if she herself never did anything directly against the Greens, she benefited from their brutalization. She participated in the system, even if it were as a nonviolent guard.
Survival and Shame
However tempted we, the audience, might be to exonerate her of any association with the Whites because she’s a protagonist, such a move is unwarranted by the narrative. Her centuries-old guilt tells us as much. She’s not entirely responsible, of course. She is but one member and not solely to blame for what all of her race does. But she does bear some shared responsibility, and spends centuries attempting to absolve herself. She lives as a Green to carry on their name and legacy. She fights to survive and also to remember. As long as she lives, she will not let what her race did be forgotten, even if she is the only one to feel shame and regret.
J’onn, on the other hand, struggles more intensely with his memory. He cannot forget his loss and refuses to forget his family. Until he meets Jeremiah Danvers, he lived in constant fear for his life, a refugee on the run with a target on his back and a clock in his head ticking down the time until the Whites found him. Jeremiah gives him his personhood back with his act of kindness and protection. Jeremiah’s presumed death gave J’onn an added weight of survivor’s guilt, but also a purpose. He could carry on his family’s legacy by protecting the Danvers and by trying to make National City a better place and a safer one for refugees like himself.
Yet, even after all these years J’onn still carries a burden of survivor’s guilt.
“I swore no matter what, I would protect my family. We would survive… I escaped. I survived, to my great shame. I will hear my family’s screams until the day I die.”—J’onn J’onzz, 1.11, “Strange Visitor From Another Planet”
He blames himself for not being able to save his family, and his shame is so profound he borders on suicidal during parts of S1. He’ll do anything to make his survival meaningful, even if he dies in the process. Thankfully, Supergirl is there to talk him out of it, which he then uses to reach out to M’gann.
When J’onn and M’gann first meet in 2.04 “Survivors”, they’re in a tense situation that only M’gann fully appreciates at the time. She, a White who had been living as a Green, is once again charged with killing a Green, but this time for entertainment. (And we know M’gann had chosen never to kill in the arena.) J’onn’s pointed reminder “Our choices are all we have” had to have been triggering for her, as her choices are what led her to her current life. Specifically, her choice not to kill a Green. “And now you’ll be a killer” only throws more salt in her wounds, which he rubs in by directly addressing her shame.
“You don’t fight for money. You do it because you think you deserve it. For surviving. But you don’t have to punish yourself anymore, M’gann. You’re forgiven. We both are.”—J’onn J’onzz, 2.04 “Survivors”
It’s almost a verbatim repetition of what Kara had said to him in 1.11. There is no shame in surviving. Only M’gann’s shame doesn’t mean what he thinks it does. She’s ashamed of surviving, but because she believed all the Greens dead. She punishes herself for participating in the massacre. Nevertheless, their shared sense of shame and survival, even though it stems from different sources, becomes the foundation of a tentative friendship as season 2 progresses.
Hatred and Healing
Prior to the discovery of M’gann’s true heritage, the locus of J’onn’s hatred for the Whites had been subsumed into his profound sense of guilt. As much as he hated the ones who had destroyed his family, the distance from Mars and the very real memory of his family’s death had haunted him far more. All that changes when M’gann reluctantly saves his life, and he begins to transform into a White.
Let me say first that M’gann had every reason to hesitate helping J’onn. She knows her blood will turn him into a White Martian, thereby revealing her own heritage. She also knows how much he will hate the transformation, and her for inflicting it on him. Yet, without the blood transfusion, he will die. Her choices are to condemn the last Green to death or condemn the last Green to become a White. Death or transformation. And once again, she chooses to save a life even if it means risking her own. Even if it means J’onn may not survive as the same person, she’d rather save him than kill him.
“When I needed her, when you needed her, she opened up a vein for you. She had to know that there was a chance saving you would reveal her as a White Martian. She did it anyway. She said she tried to help your kind.”—Alex Danvers, 2.10 “We Can Be Heroes”
All of J’onn’s bottled up hatred for the Whites now has an outlet. He believes she was sent there to kill him or rat him out, and refuses to believe her confession that she was the guard who released the Greens from the Galle Crater internment camp. Only her heritage matters: she’s a White, his enemy. Finally, he can avenge his family by killing her, or at the very least locking her up indefinitely. Doing the latter allows J’onn to both assuage his sense of guilt and have an escape valve for his hate without stooping to the Whites’ level by murdering M’gann.
Oh my heart. At this point in the arc, we see two hurting people carrying both their scars and still-festering wounds after centuries believing themselves alone. Neither can, as yet, see how similar they are and how they are both in need of healing. M’gann rejected her culture’s hatred of the Greens and replaced it with a healthy dose of self-hatred and shame. J’onn still carries his for the Whites and lashes out at a convenient, and docile, target. Her acceptance of death at his hands is not so different from his guilt induced self-destructive tendencies in S1.
This is where Supergirl veers hard left when other media would (and do) go right. Revenge and shame will not help the Martians, only healing. And that means facing themselves and each other.
Forgiveness and Friendship
Something more is at work in J’onn than hate. He claims to be tied to M’gann because of their shared origin on Mars, but he did not sense M’gann earlier in the season. He had no idea another Martian had been living in National City for who knows how long. This may be a honeypot to explain inconsistencies in the writing, but I think the blood transfusion bonded them and is the source of his strong awareness of and connection to her. More than that, he displays real concern for her safety when she comes under psychic attack. Just look at his face, that’s more than a desire for punishment. Even before he forgives her, he’s already started to change his opinion of her.
He resists, which is one of the most honest expressions of his situation the show could have chosen. I’ve been in a similar situation before, when I was working through my experience of abuse. I didn’t want to see my abuser as a person, much less forgive them. Forgiveness felt cheap, a way for them to excuse themselves and get off without repercussions. Hating the person who hurt me had become part of my identity, and I did not know myself without it. That’s why I felt J’onn’s reticence to see the good in her because it might lead to him forgiving her as such a visceral, truthful reaction. I saw myself in him.
It’s also why Alex’s reminder that forgiveness was something given to self, not the one who hurt you kicked me in the gut. Because it’s exactly what J’onn needed. Forgiveness wouldn’t absolve M’gann, but it would heal J’onn. You can see the truth of that afterward; J’onn’s energy is lighter, more open. Even the gesture of complimenting Winn for his work with the Guardian reveals how much his choice to forgive M’gann has settled him. He’s not ‘fixed’ but he’s taken an important step on the road of healing.
And, like M’gann on his behalf, he was willing to face painful things in order to save her. He knew the Bond would bring up traumatic memories, ones he hadn’t fully faced in a long time. Yet he willingly put himself back into the worst time of his life to help her. By doing so, his predictions come true: he sees M’gann for who she is, both her traumas and her courage. He sees the goodness in her, the personal strength required to make the choice she did to break the cycle of violence. And he sees her heart. He comes face to face with her deepest desire.
M’gann: “I wanted…”
J’onn: “Tell me.”
M’gann: “To be your friend. I couldn’t bring your people back to life, but I could make you feel less alone.”
And it breaks down the rest of his walls. Her vulnerability allows him to see her not as Other, but as Same. She is no longer his enemy.
“I’m here with you. I see you. You are my friend, M’gann M’orzz. You are forgiven.”—J’onn J’onzz
Full confession, I’m crying while writing this part because I identify with M’gann as much as I identify with J’onn. I didn’t participate in genocide, but the rest of her story feels like mine. I, too, broke the cycle of violence and abuse and lived with shame for decades. Like M’gann, I wanted to be seen, loved, and befriended. I felt so alone and was desperate to reach out to others, but didn’t always know how.
The Martian story showcases power of being seen and acknowledged as Same. Telling her she is forgiven is but the beginning of what J’onn offers her; he’s confessing that he no longer hates her, which is itself a significant gift to one who never expected it. But J’onn also gives M’gann the gift of found family and friendship, of belonging. Hate had kept them both isolated from each other, these two lonely and hurting people, and now, through forgiveness and healing, they are finding a new place with each other.
Loving Your Enemies
If this were the end, I would have been completely satisfied. But Supergirl saw fit to tug on my heartstrings even more with the most recent episode, “The Martian Chronicles”. And it isn’t just how protective of M’gann J’onn suddenly becomes, though I appreciate that too. Being willing to protect your former enemy from those that seek to hurt her is no small thing. He’s backing up his profession of friendship and forgiveness with a tangible change in behavior. He extends to her the same trust Jeremiah once gave him, which brings her into not just his circle, but the Team Super family. He’s giving her a new family she can rely on to stand by her when her old family quite literally is hunting her down to kill her.
But it’s more even than that. He can’t stop telling her how much he admires her and thinks well of her. It’s kind of Mr. Darcy-like (Pride & Prejudice) and cute to see him gushing about her. J’onn all but admits that he loves M’gann.
“You’ve become dear to me in a way no one has been since…I’ve just had this huge hole in my heart for so long I never thought, dreamed anybody would be able to fill it. When I realized that you were a White Martian, I never thought that that person would be…you. But I was wrong. Your spirit is so beautiful and brave, not that I’m able to see that, I can’t imagine my life without you.”—J’onn J’onzz, 2.11 “The Martian Chronicles”
Look at that last line. He uses almost the very same words about M’gann as Maggie does for Alex: “I can’t imagine my life without you”. Just think about that and what it means for him to say that. He has taken Kara’s words from 2.07 to heart and accepted that he has room in his life for both the memory of his family and someone new: “Having M’Gann in your life doesn’t mean losing your family. It means feeling whole again.” And for a man like J’onn, who held onto every scrap of memory of his family like a shield, this marks a huge step forward. And to say that to a White Martian no less.
No less of a step forward is M’gann’s reciprocation of his feelings. She grew up in a culture that did not prioritize tender emotions or know how to express them well. Her bond with Armek was arranged rather than stemming from love. Nevertheless, despite her fear and lack of experience with expressing her emotions, she opens her heart to him as well.
“I feel it too. I have for a while I just didn’t…know what it was. I just had one of the hardest nights of my life and I’m heading into something I probably won’t survive, but standing here with you, I feel like everything’s going to be okay. You have changed me forever.”—M’gann M’orzz, 2.11 “The Martian Chronicles”
She’s come far enough in her own journey of self acceptance and healing that not only can she accept his love and admiration of her, she can reach out in love to him in return. It’s an experience she never expected to have, much less from someone with every right to hate her and wish her dead.
Inspiration and Courage
Once again, Supergirl isn’t done with the Martians. They’ve come full circle from misunderstood commonality to hatred to friendship to love. J’onn inspired M’gann to take pride in her choice to break the cycle rather than fixate on her culture’s history of violence and her shame in being a part of it. He emboldens her to live and love, to accept herself for who she is now rather than live in fear and the past. She’s on the brink of a happy life with a man who sees her and knows her. She has a place, a family, a home. And, like any hero, she cannot rest until the rest of her kind is given the same choice.
As sad as it makes me to see her leave the show (at least for now), the scope of her journey ought not to be overshadowed by that loss. M’gann makes the difficult, and potentially deadly, choice to return to Mars and inspire others the way J’onn inspired her. When we first met her, she was living in fear, fighting to survive and allowing herself to get beaten to assuage her guilt over her past. She had broken ranks, but not fully healed.
At the end of “The Martian Chronicles” she stands tall in her choices, not fixed, but ready to extend the same offer and help to others that she was given. She chooses compassion and empathy for those who tried to kill her. She chooses to try to find the good in the rest of her race the way J’onn chose to see the good in her. J’onn’s courage in reaching out to her becomes the basis for her courage to reach out to the rest of the White Martians. This is how a cycle of healing and reconciliation begins, with one person deciding to end the violence and choose the light instead.
A Sci-Fi Story of Hope, Healing, and Love
If you can’t guess, this is my favorite subplot of the season. Scratch that, it’s my favorite plot, period. Aliens from different races overcome hatred, bigotry, and trauma to find love and a new purpose? What’s not to love? It’s a compelling science fiction drama that reaches out of the screen and punches me over and over again in my feels. It’s just so good.
These two have zero reason to change when we first meet them. Nor does their change stem from romantic attraction or a desire to gain the other’s attention (unlike some other plots on the show). No, they change because they choose to, for themselves. There is an element of helping others to their choices, no doubt. J’onn wishes to help M’gann and she wishes to help her people. That does not negate that they also want healing for its own sake.
There’s such power in their story of seeing and accepting the Other as Same. J’onn willingly helps and forgives a member of the race that massacred his own. He even loves her. I would go so far as to say he would now acknowledge her Green form as her ‘true’ form rather than her White one, though that doesn’t happen in canon. M’gann purposefully aligns herself with the Greens after rejecting the Whites’ violence. Moreover, she willingly dons the Green Martian form in front of other White Martians, including her former mate. She fights alongside J’onn as a Green, even when the White form might give her more physical power and put her on even footing with Armek. When Armek insults her and the Greens, she calls the Green skin, her skin, beautiful.
Which brings me to another thing I love about this: all the layers of coding that make their story even more powerful. Both of them are black-coded characters (and played by black actors, accordingly). M’gann’s expression of self-love for her skin has an added element of acknowledging the beauty of non-white skin. This rarely happens on television, especially not from the mouth of the female character herself. As both black-coded and refugees, they understand marginalization and prejudice on multiple levels. J’onn’s experience of racial holocaust is coded with Jewish overtones, and his experience as a superhero has queer coding. M’gann is also coded as an escaped survivor of domestic abuse. Both experience trauma and PTSD as well.
These layers of coding mean that multiple different groups of people can see themselves reflected in their story. It’s a hugely complex intersectionality of representation and none of the coded narratives feel shoe-horned in. This isn’t an attempt to win representation points or fill a diversity quota. Such layered representation requires planning, consulting with various groups of people, and intentionality. In other words, it doesn’t happen by accident. You have to try to tell a story this good, and it shows.
The Martians deserve much more recognition than I’ve seen them getting on social media sites like Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. Geeky media sites seemed to have picked up on the power of this story, but not certain subsets of the fandom. It’s a travesty, because this narrative is so powerful, raw, and honest. It doesn’t shy away from the lived experience of their situation. It asks tough questions without flinching and without avoiding or oversimplifying the process of healing and forgiveness. The show never glosses over or over or justifies the White Martians’ crimes in order to ‘redeem’ M’gann. It lets the story, and the audience, sit with the godawful truth of what she and her race did. And then proves she is different by her behavior and choices.
Every beat in the arc feels earned. Even when I want more, it isn’t because the story is lacking. Just the opposite. I want more because of how well done it is. It never relies on cheap tricks or melodramatic moments to create tension. Rather, it’s true to life. The raw emotion, Alex’s advice to J’onn, and the therapeutic beats to J’onn reliving M’gann’s memory clearly draw on someone’s lived experience. I know it felt real to mine.
It also avoids the other pitfall of becoming preachy and prescriptive, implying that theirs is the only ‘true’ way to ‘properly’ react to this situation. Supergirl never dictates how survivors ought to respond, but it does give us compelling glimpses of the beauty and power of what it looks like for people to respond with compassion, empathy, hope and healing.
And that’s why I love the Martians. You can pry my babies from my cold, dead hands, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I’ll probably come back from the dead and snatch them right back.
Images Courtesy of The CW
The Unattainable Beauties of BioWare
Happy week after Valentine’s Day! For those of you in a relationship, I hope you were able to spend time with your loved ones and maybe have a little romance. For those of you who are single, I hope that it wasn’t a terribly bitter or frustrating day. In honor of both these states, I’m going to be writing about Bioware characters. But not romanceable characters, oh no. Enough ink has been spilled about them. No, today, we are going to be talking about the ones who for whatever reason are non-romanceable. In fact, it’s going to be a list of who I consider to be the best non-romanceable characters in Bioware games.
A few ground rules first though. First, this list is completely and totally subjective. If you feel like I’ve missed a character, let me know in the comments. Most of these characters are either from the Mass Effect Series or the Dragon Age series. Those are the games I know the best have have played the most. Finally, I’m only going to list five male and five female characters. I could go on all day if allowed.
So, with that out of the way, let’s start with the guys. And first on that list is…
Right off the bat we get a character who seems to contraindicate my first two points. He’s from Jade Empire and isn’t normally the type of character I’d enjoy. But let me justify his place on my list. First off, he’s just a fun character. Pretty much his entire character is dedicated to fighting things with his axes, drinking, and drinking while fighting with his axes. Second of all, given what we do see of his backstory, he’s fairly sympathetic. He was abused by his father until he was finally to defend himself and killed his father, and then was tossed out by his mother. He fought in the arena until he thought he killed his brother. And finally, his voice. Victor Brandt voices him in the game, and that man could read from the stock exchange and make it sound like he was trying to seduce you.
I can understand why they chose not to have any love interests in Awakening. A lot of the companions are missable and even if they aren’t, there’s better than 50-50 odds that they would die at the end of the expansion. That doesn’t excuse them from making Nathaniel Howe though. He has a compelling and sympathetic backstory, an interesting perspective on the location and events, and a sardonic sense of humor that lets him either play the straight man or the funny man in conversations. And! He got an easter egg quest in Dragon Age 2. I just wish they had followed through and included him in Dragon Age Inquisition (and gave us the chance to smooch him.)
Bann Teagan gets a bit of a bad rap now, particularly after Trespasser. Time (and the switch to a new engine) were not kind to him, but I remember a different Teagan. A Teagan that stood up to Loghain. A Teagan that risked his life to defend Redcliffe, and then walked straight into a demon’s clutches to buy your party sometime. From a story perspective, having a female human warden marry (or at least be involved with) an up and coming Bann would make just as much sense politically as marrying her to the new king. And from a purely personal standpoint, I would have loved for him to respond to the “Who is dis women Tegan?” quote by saying “My future wife.”
Jeff ‘Joker’ Moreau
Ever since Mass Effect 1, Joker’s presence at the front of the Normandy has been very welcome. Snarky, quick with a quip and a comment about any of your companions, the only fault I have with him was that he was far too quick to abandon the Alliance and hook up with a bunch of racist, human supremacist terrorists in Mass Effect 2. But the fact that he’s loyal specifically to Shepard always melts my heart. I was hoping that in Mass Effect 3 he finally would be a romance option, but alas he was infatuated with EDI. It took a great deal of self control not to sabotage that relationship.
And here we come to my favorite non-romanceable male character: Ser Derin Barris of the Templar Order. Dude has it all. Good voice and one of the few male PoCs in the series. In addition, he’s everything that a Templar is supposed to be: brave, intelligent, loyal, and willing to defend the weak and the innocent. And yet, after the quest to recruit the Templars, you only see ever see him one more time. The cutscene where he is promoted to Knight-Commander. (A promotion he deserves.) I can only hope that he reappears in Dragon Age 4 as a full romanceable companion.
That covers my five favorite non-romanceable male characters. But what about the ladies? Let’s start with…
Gianna Parasini was one of those characters I didn’t expect to find myself liking as much as I did. When you first meet her in Mass Effect 1, she’s working (undercover) for Novaria’s Internal Affairs. She quickly shows herself not to be completely amoral. Just overworked, overstressed, and tired of being a Yes-Woman to a corrupt executive. When you see her again in Mass Effect 2, she’s much less stressed, and much more willing to joke with Shepard. She leaves far too soon, leaving a male Shepard with a kiss and a promise to see him around. A promise, unfortunately, left unfulfilled.
Dr. Karin Chakwas
Dr. Chakwas is an interesting addition to this list. She is much older then Shepard. She seems at first to be a poor match. But much like Joker, she offers Shepard a sense of continuity aboard the Normandy. She even mentions that as one of the reasons why she stays aboard the Normandy in all its various incarnations. And, unlike some returning squadmates or even Joker himself at times, her presence aboard the ship never seems forced. Of course Dr. Chakwas will be in the medical bay. Of course she’ll be happy to see you. And of course she’ll be waiting to share a drink with you.
Dr. Lexi T’Perro
Unlike Dr. Chakwas, Dr. Lexi doesn’t really provide much in the way of continuity between different versions of the ship. Instead, she almost provides a mirror for Ryder to see himself and his actions. When she’s first brought aboard as your team’s doctor, she’s nervous. And she channels this nervous energy into annoying practically everyone else on the ship. But as she gets more comfortable with the ship and how things work, she starts to relax a little. Not much, but a little. Add to that her backstory in addition to the fact that she seems to care for the team’s mental health as much as their physical health and you get a character who would be perfect to romance. Shame she’s not an option.
Emily Wong is one of the most frustrating examples on this list. In Mass Effect 1, she filled the ‘plucky reporter’ archetype so well that I missed being able to speak with her or give her an interview in Mass Effect 2. As the release date for Mass Effect 3 drew closer and rumors of a romanceable reporter on board the Normandy began to swirl, I had hope that it would be Emily. I was bitterly disappointed. The reporter character on the Normandy was quite weak compared to the strong impression Emily gave in Mass Effect 1. And Emily Wong herself? Unceremoniously killed off in a marketing ploy before the game was released. She deserved better.
Vivienne is a ‘love her or hate her’ type of character. As you can tell by her inclusion on this list, I am in the former camp. Aside from being one of the few women of color companions in the game, Vivienne brings to the table a unique perspective: A mage who fully supports a return to the Circles. Not only that, but she has clear, eloquent arguments to back her up. In addition to that, she has a very striking character design and a wonderful voice actress. Most important of all though is that if her approval of the Inquisitor is high, she seems to genuinely care about them and their well being. I just wish that she didn’t politely shoot you down every time you flirted with her.
So there you have it. My five favorite male and female non-romanceable NPCs from Bioware games. However, there is one person that I have thus far neglected to mention. Or rather, one group of people. That’s right, I’m talking about…
EVERY SINGLE DWARF FROM DRAGON AGE
In Dragon Age: Origins, it was just a bit of trivia. “Hey, did you know that you can’t romance Qunari and dwarf characters?” When Dragon Age 2 came out and we were introduced to Varric, it became a joke. But at least the dwarf fans could still console themselves by remembering that there hadn’t been any Qunari romanceable companions either. By the time of Dragon Age Inquisition and the introduction of Iron Bull and Lead Scout Lace Harding, it’s become one of my main problems with the series.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Why wouldn’t Bioware let us romance Scout Harding, or any other dwarf for that matter? Is it because the animation would look awkward? Too much work? In the end, I can only repeat the refrain so many others have, pining after characters who they couldn’t romance: “Maybe next game.”
Images courtesy of Bioware
Kingdom Come, Representation, And Layers Of Privilege
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a brand new Czech video game that just came out last week. And ever since its development started, there has been one big controversy connected to it: its almost complete lack of characters of colour.
It isn’t exactly helped by the fact that the chief mind behind the game, Dan Vávra, is right-leaning, and also a bit of an asshole when it comes to responding to these complaints. He doesn’t go far for an insult and refuses to listen to any kind of criticism. Not exactly the kind of person that makes one want to defend him.
So…this is where this article should end, right? A jerk makes a racist game, news at seven.
Well. It’s a bit more complicated than that.
Vávra isn’t the only person working in the development. And the most important thing to know about the game in this context is that it’s not a generalized medieval setting. Instead, it takes place in a particular set of villages and towns and the surrounding forests, villages, and towns that exist until today and that aren’t and never have been big or cosmopolitan in any way. A number of events in the game are based on historical events. It isn’t just a story, it the story of Česká Skalice just before the Hussite wars.
In this context, the usual arguments of “there were plenty of people of colour in Europe in the Middle Ages” fall kind of flat. The usual argument of historicity that is pulled for this is frequently false because Western history is whitewashed and contained markedly more people of colour that we like to pretend. But it’s not always false. There actually were parts of the world where only white people lived. And not only are there no particular historical marks of black, brown or Asian people being present in the particular time and place where Kingdom Come takes place, it would also be very unlikely.
Honestly, the most likely place to find a person of colour in the time period would be Sigismund’s armies, and since those play more the role of the antagonist in the game, that’s not exactly ideal. So this is not, in fact, a case of ignoring the real historical presence of black and Middle-Eastern people.
Instead, the first question to ask here is: is it ever legitimate to create all-white media? If we’re depicting a situation where there realistically wouldn’t be any people of colour – not just history, there are still plenty of towns in the world a non-white person has never set foot in – is it all right to make it whiter than new house paint?
On the face of it, the answer should be yes. As long as we’re depicting an actual situation, we’re depicting. And yet. It may be “accurate,” but it might at the same time be unwise in the current climate, where every all-white piece of media contributes to a narrative that is far from inclusive to people of colour.
So the second question: does it even matter? That is, is historical realism such an important goal to achieve?
Most media that supposedly take place in the past play hard and fast with history to make things more convenient for the narrative, so why should the amount of diversity, of all things, be what is kept realistic? It shouldn’t, that is the answer. As long as other things are changed freely, the argument of historicity is irrelevant one way or another.
Kingdom Come, however, is a game that takes great care to be as realistic as possible. The most frequent complaint from players at the moment is the insane difficulty of lockpicking because that isn’t easy in real life either. So does this change anything? Is the argument of historicity valid in such a case? In other words, even in those media that do their best to stay historically faithful, is such an ambition a worthy goal? Is it more important to have something fit history perfectly than to provide representation?
Accusations of rewriting history would naturally follow a negative answer. First, it’s important to point out that it’s no more rewriting than the constant whitewashing, and with a much better intention. But it is true that with a game that boasts of its realism, it presents a problem. It would discredit their claims of historicity if they simply ignored these kinds of facts. You cannot painstakingly reconstruct medieval Skalice and then add random representation from all over the world without becoming a laughing stock. Not the least because this sort of rewriting of history would play down the racism of the past, and that is not an excuse we should be making for ourselves.
Unless we say that media has to abandon goals of high historical realism, then, we have to admit that in certain setting an all-white cast is appropriate. So that brings forth another question: is it legitimate to choose such settings?
And this brings us to the more complicated power dynamics at play when it comes to Kingdom Come.
As I’ve said, Kingdom Come is a Czech game, dealing with events from Czech history. My history. We, as a country, have always played the lovely game of being both oppressors (towards Slovaks, the Jewish and the Romani people, and even Germans after WWII) and oppressed (by the Austrian empire, Nazi Germany, USSR). In the global world of today, we’re far from being the ones in the most desperate situation, but we’re also hardly the top dogs. On the global scale, we’re a minority.
And both our history and our present are mostly white.
Just to be perfectly clear, this is not a good thing. I’m not saying it as a good thing. It massively contributes to the widespread xenophobia in the Czech Republic. But it is what it is. The fact remains that our by far biggest minority are the Romani people, who form about 3% of the population. So every time you tell a Czech story, it is going to be overwhelmingly white.
So should we be allowed to tell our own stories?
Kingdom Come, of course, is not made for the Czech market. It’s distributed globally, and it means it has a global effect, on people who know nothing of our particular context. As an all-white medieval game – which is all most people will take out of it – it perpetuates exactly the image of whitewashed history that we need to rid ourselves of. It becomes part of the problem.
So does this mean, then, that when we want global money, we have to change the image of our own history to avoid exacerbating the global problem of racism? That is problematic as well, especially as making the game for Czech audience only is not a real option. Our ten million people total don’t make for a big enough audience to pay for a game with this kind of budget. It’s another kind of disadvantage global minorities have. It shouldn’t be necessary to pay for it by adjusting our stories.
And even disregarding that, what if we want to show our stories and our world to the rest of the planet? What if we want to share ourselves? We should be able to do that.
Yet…what if what we want to share turns into a white fantasy in others’ hands?
It seems it shouldn’t be such a big deal. Who cares if we change the skin colour of some characters in the story? It’s still going to be a Czech story. But the problem is, it doesn’t quite work that way. After all, that is the “I don’t see colour” argument, only in reverse.
What I’m about to say will sound insanely racist to anyone from a more cosmopolitan country, but when I was little, I didn’t like watching Sesame Street because the multi-ethnic children there were making it so very foreign to me. I saw them and instantly knew it wasn’t my world. Outside of my travel abroad, I spoke to one non-white person total before adulthood. And I live in the capital, the most multicultural part of the country. Whatever it says about us, the truth is that if we populate historical Czech stories with black people, most Czechs will not regard it as their story.
But there is a reason I was specific in this last sentence. There are truly very few black people living in this country even now. You know who is living here, though? The aforementioned Romani. The presence of Romani people in the game would not make any Czech person feel like it was not our story. It would make them angry — because the racism the Romani face in the Czech Republic is something incredibly ugly — but it would not make the game feel foreign. The Romani minority has been here since the Middle Ages, and there are definitely historical records of them being here in large numbers shortly after Kingdom Come takes place. In fact, there are even complaints of there being “more and more” Romani people in our records because of course our racism would be traditional.
We don’t know, of course, if there were any Romani around Skalice, but it was a way to include people of colour that wouldn’t break with general Czech history. It wouldn’t have gone against our own understanding of who has lived here for a long time. And yet they were never mentioned in any of the diversity complaints I have seen. There are also Cumans included in the game, and no one seems to care much either. And that brings me to my last point.
Demanding diversity in Kingdom Come with a particular idea of diversity in mind, the idea that is based on the ethnic composition of the US, is not only American-centric but also offensive to the oppressed minorities of the Czech Republic. And complaining about such lack of diversity truly does not come across in a way that would endear the author of the complaint to anyone Czech. Especially if the person complaining is white. If a person of colour is offended by so much mayo in their game and would like to feel represented, I can understand that.
But when a white privileged American talks about what sorts of representation a Czech game should contain – particularly with arguments like that Czechia is “just north of Italy” and Italy is by the sea so obviously there’d be plenty of people of colour in here, which is an actual argument someone presented – it suddenly gains whole another tone. Because whiteness is not the only privilege in the world, and while we certainly benefit from it, we do not benefit from the privilege of being American, and anyone from the US telling us how to tell our own stories without knowing anything about us is always, always going to ring a very uncomfortable bell with us.
So yes, making all-white games should be avoided when possible, because it reinforces an uncomfortable narrative. And representation is a good thing, especially representation of those who hardly ever find themselves on screen. Whenever at least a little possible, diversity should be supported. Warhorse Studios really should have included Romani people in their game, just as Czech filmmakers should try casting some in their films. But not all representation fits one muster and demanding medieval Skalice should look like medieval London only makes stories more identical to each other and less interesting. There is more than one kind of diversity.
Images courtesy of Warhorse Studios
Barbara Kean From Housewife to Mobster
Gotham had a tall order ahead of it at its inception. It had to take some the most iconic characters from the comic page and meld them in a story that takes place before they were iconic. Any prequel adaptation has to grapple with this in one way or another. But Gotham had the unique challenge with Batman’s famous rouges. The origins of so many of his opponents are intertwined with his. Gotham would have to reinvent these characters and their origins. The series has made these characters its own by allowing their development to move away from their comic book counterparts. There is no character with which this is more prevalent in than Barbara Kean.
In the comics, she’s anything but a rival to Batman. She’s the wife of one of Bruce’s closest allies and the mother of one of his sidekicks. Yet she herself plays but a small role in the narrative. Gotham’s Barbara Kean has made herself a part of the narrative in ways that have seem to have completely change the character we first meet. Gotham has taken a woman destined to be the mother and wife of heroes and made her one of the most prolific members of the Gotham City’s underworld.
We meet Barbara in the pilot engaged to James Gordon, the perfect place to lead to her becoming her comic book counterpart: married to James Gordon and the mother of his children. They’re in a good place in their relationship. As James finds himself confronted with the corruption of Gotham, Barbara becomes a pillar of support for him. She reaffirms his values when he doubts himself. But this can only last for so long. With James fighting against so much of the darkness in Gotham, it was only a matter of time before it got back to Barbara.
Even with the first bit of tension seeping into their relationship, Barbara’s still willing to stand by James. When she learns James’s life is at stake she goes to Carmine Falcone, the king of Gotham’s underground, to beg for his life. But after she’s terrorized by Falcone’s men, her own faith in James is shaken. She’s seen the true dangers in the mission he’s tasked himself with. She can’t share the burden he’s willing to take on.
At first, she falls back into old habits for the comfort and familiarity, drugs, and her ex-girlfriend, Renee Montoya. It doesn’t last with Montoya, and Barbara finds herself in a state of flux. During this time she meets Selina Kyle, who later becomes a close companion. She also meets Jason Skolimski. He becomes an inciting figure of change for her. A serial killer and psychopath, he takes Barbara captive and she almost doesn’t make it out alive.
Her time with him drives her to edge of sanity. Under his influence she kills her parents. She almost kills Lee Thompkins, James’s new girlfriend. The love she has for James becomes an obsession. It doesn’t end well for her with James stopping her. She’s arrested and sentenced to Arkham Asylum. But it ends up putting her in the perfect position for the next wave of her development.
Her stay in the Asylum is short lived. She’s broken out by Theo and Tabitha Galvan, the latter of whom she enters into a romantic relationship with. It’s through them she’s truly indoctrinated to Gotham’s underground. Barbara’s sanity at this point is shaky at best. Having a girlfriend willing to kidnap her ex-boyfriend and his current girlfriend doesn’t help the situation either. Though even when the last remains of her sanity seem all but gone, the compassion she held for James still comes through. Her kidnapping attempt unravels and her escape ends with her falling out a second story window. Before that happens she helps James, giving him the information he needs to take down Theo.
After some time in a coma, she’s released back onto Gotham streets. Though her love for James still borders on unhealthy obsession her pursuits become more personally motivated. She opens a nightclub with Tabitha. It’s successful but she’s gunning for more, namely to get out from under Oswald Cobblepot’s thumb. She’s openly contentious of the Penguin when he all but runs Gotham at this point. Only a few people could have gotten away with this without fatal consequences.
She gathers some powerful allies with the intention of overthrowing Penguin. And it works. She becomes the queen of Gotham, taking over the city’s underground. Unfortunately, it’s a short-lived reign when conflict brews among the very allies who helped her take down Penguin, and she ends up dead.
In the true fashion of comic books and their adaptations, Barbara doesn’t say dead for long. After she’s brought back to life she returns ready to take on the city again. Reaching out to Selina and Tabitha, they work together running a weapons racket to rebuild their status. Death seems to have tamed Barbara, she’s more rational with her return. She’s even willing to work under Penguin. If only for a short time until a better opportunity presents itself for her, Tabitha and Selina.
At this point, I think it’s important to note Barbara could have easily fallen into the old stereotypes of the ‘crazy bisexual ex-lover’ or even the ‘villainous queer’. But similar to the way the Carmilla series defies its negative tropes, Gotham’s exploration of these narrative tropes doesn’t feel like it steers into the negative aspects. Gotham also avoids these tropes in a way few other series could. The villains make up a huge portion of series. They are the lungs that breathe life into the series. As much as this series is about Bruce and James growing into the heroes we know they’ll become, it’s also about watching the other characters grow into the villains we know they’ll become.
Barbara earns her place among the villainous elite in Gotham. She’s gone from a mild-mannered Gotham socialite to one of its most conniving criminals.
She’s still a woman capable of deeply caring for someone. But now her way of showing she cares for someone involves fewer words of empathy and more shooting their enemies in the head. She learnt to thrive in a city where so few can even survive. She adapted in ways that not even James has been able to. Her place in the story going forward is still uncertain. The possibility of her and James come back to each other is small but stranger things have happened in this city. Though at this point it seems more likely one of the many colourful adversaries Bruce will face when he truly dons the cowl.
Regardless of where she’s going, watching her get where she is has been a wild and entertaining ride.