Sometimes being a feminist who spends a good deal of time thinking about storytelling in media can really suck. It’s a rare show in which I can truly lose myself these days, because too often some line is spoken or action occurs, and all I see is a trope. I had to take a week off Agents of Shield after Coulson encouraged Mallack to tap into his Manpain over his Fridged daughter as Revenge Fuel. Even shows I love and will heartily defend aren’t free of issues, such as the Madonna-Whore Complex implications found within Avatar the Last Airbender.
The Office is a show near and dear to my heart. I am a huge sucker for mockumentaries, to the point where I’m actively sad the genre fell out of popularity despite it being a thoroughly beaten a dead horse at this point. (Though weirdly I’ve never liked Modern Family). It’s something about the combination of the mundane and the broken fourth walls that I can’t get enough of. More so, The Office at its best (I’d argue it peaked with “The Dinner Party”) is almost unparalleled. I find there to be high rewatchability, partly because doing so actually relaxes me somehow, and partly because this is one of the easiest shows to reference in existence. In fact, I still can’t receive a performance review at work without cracking a smile thinking of Angela’s.
However, each rewatch, I’m finding myself liking Jim Halpert less and less.
This is rather alarming. After all, he’s arguably the “main character,” or certainly the one we’re meant to sympathize with the most. It’s his pranks we laugh at and his glances into the camera lens we relate to. And my first time watching this show, I viewed Jim as something of an unproblematic fave.
I also certainly shipped him with Pam Beesly, which I’m pretty sure was the show’s intent. The lead up to their relationship served, in many ways, as the driving force of the first three seasons. Heck, their first kiss was the Season 2 cliffhanger. And, with the exception of the last season, their relationship was presented to us as idyllic.
Now, I’m extremely happy that was picked apart a bit, which led to what I would consider one of the most emotionally affecting moments in modern television.
Even there though, tensions quickly resolved themselves. “Jam” was still that paragonal relationship to strive for, with Jim himself being framed as the “ideal” boyfriend/husband. The first time around, I think it’d be very difficult for anyone to not want a Jim Halpert in their life.
But now… Dudes, I don’t know. I mean, I still find him to be funny. He’d be great friend material, though he does spend an inordinate amount of time pulling pranks for someone in his thirties. Heck, even his bedroom screams “man-child.” Or “trying to re-live college glory days.”
Sure he may be a bit too complacent in his career choice for 90% of the show, but that’s relatable enough too.
No, it’s his relationship with Pam that makes me want to throw things.
I believe we’ve talked before about “Good Guys™” (sometimes called “Nice Guys™” for those who don’t care quite so much about alliteration). But simply put, this storytelling conversion assumes that good guys, who we know are Good™ because like…they wouldn’t treat a woman like that jerk does, are entitled to the affections of women. That they deserve them, in fact, by virtue of being…Nice™. “Dogged Nice Guy” is perhaps the most common way this plays out, and certainly how Jim was presented on The Office. Here, the premise is that the good guy will always, patiently be there for the woman until she sees his worth.
In fact, the “low-key yearning” scenario that the TVTropes page lists is basically a plot summary of Seasons 1-3:
Bob will likely begin by saying that he has his hopes for a more serious relationship, and he hopes Alice will eventually feel the same. He’s content to be Platonic Life Partners until that time comes. From here, he may remind her of his unrequited love every time he sees her, or he may never mention it again. Alice might refuse the Relationship Upgrade because she doesn’t want to ruin this friendship, or else believe that Bob just has a schoolboy crush he’ll get over. If Alice is in a relationship, Bob might try to accept it for Alice’s sake. If Bob dates someone else in the interim, this may make Alice have a Green-Eyed Epiphany and create a Unrequited Love Switcheroo.
In traditional straight examples, as long as Bob is honestly a Nice Guy, or at least a decent guy, both of these two attitudes are usually expected to result in success. Due to the Rule of Romantic, Alice will always realize over time, that she really happens to love him back.
Now, for clarification, I’m not in any way trying to say that nice guys don’t deserve happiness. But the damage of this school of thought is that it completely undermines a woman’s agency and feelings. What she wants becomes secondary, because she “should” see the value in Good Guys™, unlike those bad boys she always goes for. It’s a trope that plays right into and endorses male entitlement, something which—and I hate to alarm anyone—is rather pervasive in our society. This is what gives rise to the dreaded “Friend Zone,” which in its most common usage, is a concept that serves to shame women for saying “no.” If they say “yes,” however, we have slutshaming!
With Jam, I do feel like I’m doing Pam a disservice by implying her feelings are undermined here. It is pretty clear to the viewer that she holds a degree of romantic interest in Jim. We see it when she gets a little bit jealous of the attention he gives Amy Adam’s character in Season 1, and how she’s relieved when said character seems too vapid to be a “real threat” in Season 2. By Season 3, she’s clearly in awareness of her feelings for him, giving him every signal that she is interested, and once more, shown as upset by his relationship with Karen.
So…what’s the problem with telling the story of a slow-burn between two friends? One is a “nice” guy so therefore it’s a sexist trope?
The thing is, men can have unrequited crushes for women without a Friend Zone element creeping in. But where it crosses the line, at least for me, is in Jim’s treatment of other women as well as his bizarre sense of entitlement regarding Pam’s feelings.
To be perfectly fair, neither one was a huge issue in the first season. Jim does get touchy with Pam in one episode, but it wasn’t an issue until her fiancé came in and threw a shit-fit. It’s important to keep in mind that Roy is presented to us as a toxically male jerk. He makes homophobic jokes, takes little to no interest in Pam’s ambitions, and though he tries to clean himself up for a few episodes later on, that abruptly ends when he snaps, screams at Pam, trashes a bar, and then goes to beat up Jim for a kiss Pam told him was mutual that happened nearly a year prior. So we’re meant to view his reaction in “The Alliance” as a douchey overreaction.
Continuing with Jam, in the second season, we do see Jim sometimes crossing the line when it comes to Pam’s physical boundaries, but the show also gives us the impression that’s more due to her discomfort with the social feedback than with him:
And really, it’s that last gif that shows what starts to be my main issue here. It’s about his hurt, and we’re later shown Jim scrapping a half-written sopping email along the lines of “sorry if that was weird”, because he’s the focal point. Not how she felt with her shirt lifted half up in front of her coworkers.
In fact, any time she gets visibly uncomfortable by him being too close, the narrative wants us to be frustrated with her, like on the “Booze Cruise” when she walks away because he’s creepily staring at her.
Not that Pam had a much better showing in that episode when she made fun of Jim’s girlfriend with him in front of her.
And I guess, like, if that’s Jim’s flirting style, then okay, whatever. Can’t blame him for trying, right? But where the main issue comes in is with his bizarre sense of entitlement surrounding her feelings for him and how he’ll punish her for behaving in a perfectly acceptable way that a friend would.
For instance, in “Halloween”. there’s a job opening for a paper salesman in Maryland with double the salary than what Jim makes at Dunder Mifflin, and probably a better location than Scranton Pennsylvania. Pam suggests that Jim applies to it because like, that’d be a good thing for him. He gets immediately pissed off, and even though she basically falls over herself to demonstrate that she cares about him (literally clinging onto his arm when she’s worried he might have been canned), he doesn’t forgive her until she says (hyperbolically) that she would “blow her brains out” if he left.
In “The Client,” Jim makes possibly the creepiest joke anyone could make to an engaged friend ever, and then takes a pissy shot at her relationship when she just tries to diffuse it:
Jim: Some might even say we had our first date last night.
Pam: Oh really? Why might some say that?
Jim: Cause there was dinner, by candlelight, dinner. and a show, if you include Michael’s movie. And there was dancing and fireworks. Pretty good date.
Pam: We didn’t dance.
Jim: You’re right, we didn’t dance. It was more like swaying. But, still romantic.
Pam: Swaying isn’t dancing.
Jim: At least I didn’t leave you at a high school hockey game [like Roy had done on his first date with Pam].
Thankfully she snaps at him for this, but the episode ends with his baleful look into the camera saying, “Okay, we didn’t dance. And I was totally joking, anyway. it’s not really a date if the girl goes home to her fiance. Right?” Awwwww you hang in there, buddy.
I’ll skip Jim reporting Pam to HR for planning a few details of her wedding in the office because I guess that could have reasonably slipped out, but then let’s talk about Jim’s love confession to her. Now, it should be noted that he decided to transfer branches because it was so hard for him to be around Pam.
Which…okay, I guess? But he needs to tell her how he feels “just once.” That’s fine. So when they’re alone together during the events of “Casino Night” he tells her that he’s in love with her. She basically answers, point-blank (no hesitation): “I can’t. Your friendship means so much to me though.” He cries and walks away and she runs upstairs to tell her mom, because she clearly has feelings for him. Then he finds her, she says “listen, Jim,” and he kisses her. Cliffhanger!
We find out later in a flashback that the rest of that interaction went like this:
Jim: You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that.
Pam: Me too. I think we’re just drunk.
Jim: No, I’m not drunk. Are you drunk?
Pam: No. [Jim goes to kiss her again] Jim.
Jim: You’re really gonna marry him? Okay.
Then he walks away and goes to his new job at his new branch. Pam, meanwhile, calls off her wedding, clearly a direct result of this. However, when Michael meets up with Jim in “The Convention” and tells him that, Jim says, “It’s just, I kind of put it all on the line. Twice, actually. And she said no. Twice.” I’m sorry, did she not blow up her eight-year relationship/upcoming wedding and turn her entire life upside-down for you fast enough?
This attitude is only made worse when the two begin reconnecting on the phone, showing Jim on very friendly terms with her. Yet he can’t bear to work in Scranton again (the branches merge), unless he gets himself a security blanket girlfriend that he doesn’t really care about, who he convinces to move there despite, by his own admission, New York City being nearby and full of better opportunities for her.
Aaaaand that’s when Jim really falls off the table for me: his treatment of other women.
First there was his relationship with Amy Adams. It’s clear she’s not going to be his future wife (she’s presented to us as dumb, and I guess we’re supposed to find it funny?), and he ends up rather cruelly dumping her on the booze cruise (after making fun of her with Pam) because he’s so upset Pam and Roy finally set a date for their wedding. That wasn’t exactly framed as a positive, and I guess it’s fine…these things kind of happen.
But then there’s Karen Filippelli, Jim’s coworker in the Stamford branch. They begin dating just as the branch closes, supposedly when he tells her “Scranton isn’t that bad, you should come too.” Then once in Scranton, Pam makes it super, duper clear that she’d be open to being with him, but Jim kind of clings to Karen, presumably out of fear of being hurt by her again. However, his entire relationship with Karen is characterized by him treating her with indifference, outright flirting with Pam at Phyllis’s wedding and saying she’s “cute” when she dances, and then telling the camera crew that “hypothetically, if Pam was interested…” HEY JIM. YOUR DATE IS RIGHT THERE.
But don’t worry, when Pam has the nerve to go have comfort sex with Roy, he’s REALLY glad he’s with Karen now. Because it’s not like Pam might just be having a tough time, especially given that Phyllis basically made a carbon-copy of her planned wedding that never happened, and especially when she has no reason to assume Jim would ever be considering a hypothetical relationship with her.
Jim’s less glad when Karen has the audacity to suggest that she actually finds a house in Scranton and moves out of her shitty motel, because the house that was available is only a couple of streets away from him and it’d be like “moving in together.” Pam of all people had to be the one to tell him he was being unfair.
When Karen finally learns of Jim’s
former feelings for Pam and asks him about it, he tries to ignore her legitimate concerns:
Karen: Did you ever have a thing for Pam?
Jim: Pam? Did I ever have a thing for her? No Why, did she say something?
Karen: …I moved here from Connecticut.
Later, when Jim outright admits that he still has feelings for Pam, Karen insists on talking through it, the jerk. So we’re treated to lots of sympathetic shots of sleepy Jim, because his girlfriend who moved for him was a wee bit upset.
All this comes to a head when both Karen and Jim apply for a job with corporate in New York, and Karen broaches the subject of their future (after what could be read as a public confession of feelings from Pam the episode prior):
Karen: Well, if you get the job then I’d move here with you. Would you move with me? I’m not stupid, okay? I was at the beach. We won’t have a future in Scranton. There’s one too many people there.
Jim: You mean Kevin?
Karen: Exactly. But you get it, right? Can’t stay there.
Jim: Yeah, I do.
That’s nice, Jim. Make a joke about it. It’s almost as nice as the fact that you abandon her in New York City because you want to go grab dinner with Pam.
No literally; he was Karen’s ride. And I’m also pretty sure she was passed up for the job in favor of Ryan because of Dunder Mifflin’s sexist culture, though that’s an issue for another day.
But that’s the saga of Karen! A girlfriend Jim used to hide behind and drag along because he was still determined to punish another woman for not immediately jumping at the chance to be with him after one kiss. Honestly, the only good of it that came was Karen telling Jim off in Season 4:
Yes, Jim and Pam loved each other. But all of this was portrayed as not only acceptable behavior (which it’s not), but the behavior we were supposed to root for! Jim turning up in Scranton at the end of “The Job” was presented to us as a great, romantic moment.
There’s also the fact that Jim gets rewarded by the narrative over and over. Pam’s incredibly truncated art program is hard for him? Oh well, she’s going to just drop out of it because she heard the strain in his voice on the phone after she made friends. That’s healthy! And truthfully the timing of his proposal was just shy of pissing on her to mark her.
Then, while I do praise the final season for “going there” and giving them actual friction with their relationship, it was Pam who had been working overtime to allow Jim to go skipping off to Philly half the time to follow his dreams, something he initially hid from her. For a second I think the show wanted us on her side? But then in the finale she agreed to uproot their family to support him, saying “I just needed time.” As if she had been unreasonable through all of this.
Really, what it comes down to is that The Office gave us the utter prioritization of Jim’s feelings at about every turn, and given that this was the foundation on which “Jam” was built, it leaves an incredibly bad taste in my mouth.
There is officially one plotline where this doesn’t happen: the Michael Scott Paper Company. And it’s everything. Mostly because Jim’s not involved at all, and his own subplot is him finally getting negative feedback from someone, even if it’s presented to us as totally unreasonable.
Though like…shouldn’t someone who’s been at this job for years know what a “rundown of clients” means?
Look, I like slowburns. And “not actually unrequited” love. But what I don’t like is when one side has a sense of entitlement that not only goes unchallenged, but is endorsed. Especially given the genders at play, because women’s desires are totally never ignored, right?
Images courtesy of NBC
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.