This article contains mild spoilers for the third season of ‘Orphan Black’ and the most recent seasons of ‘The 100,’ ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘The Walking Dead,’ ‘The Vampire Diaries,’ ‘The Magicians,’ and ‘Jane the Virgin.’
So, I’m not exactly sure what’s in the drinking water, but for some reason, it feels as though media creators met up and decided that this would be the year that they’d kill off all marginalized persons from their shows. And they’d do so in ways that were so baldly unmotivated, it borders on lazy. Bonus points if the character’s death had nothing to do with the character themselves!
This seems to be especially true for lesbian/bisexual characters. So far in 2016, we’ve had something like fourteen deaths in this department? Maybe fifteen? I’m actually losing track. This list includes Kira (The Magicians), Lexa (The 100), Nora & Mary Louise (The Vampire Diaries), Rose (Jane the Virgin), and Denise (The Walking Dead). Of course backing out of this year, dead lesbians and bisexual women for our viewing pleasure is nothing new, though the recent onslaught is finally holding a candle up to the use of the damaging trope, “Bury Your Gays.”
I’ve articulated my own thoughts about the harm that can come with its careless employ. However, where does this leave media creators? “LGBT fans deserve better.” Okay, but…what do we actually deserve? Living representation, right? So are we instructing media creators to keep every lesbian they write alive? Their gays should be kept in a special little untouchable box?
I have a lot of discomfort with this. Because it pushes into another problematic storytelling convention, that of “Gays so Special.”
I guess what I’m really talking about is some sort of amalgamation of two tropes: Men are Generic, Women are Special (just replace with “straights are generic”), and “Closer to Earth.” The former is what gives rise to stuff like Smurfettes, where the individual who is “special” (i.e. “not the norm”) for whatever reason—a woman, a bisexual, someone non-white—sort of becomes stripped down to nothing but that difference. If a woman ruler messes up, then it’s a commentary on women rulers; a man can do the same, but it’s not a universal condemnation. The latter trope refers to the tendency of media creators to portray marginalized characters in a more positive light, because they don’t want to pile on. The perfect example of this is how Game of Thrones’s Tyrion Lannister is basically the TvTropes definition of a “Mary Sue,” despite his book counterpart being a dark, dark grey character.
And yes, queer characters are not immune from this treatment. You can often see “Gays So Special” at play when gay relationships are presented as infallible. If two characters of the same gender fall in love, that’s it! There’s no breaking them up because they’re perfect! (Until one of them dies, of course.) Many times, the only queer representation comes from characters already in established relationships for this reason; there’s the lesbian moms of the side-character, and they’re really, really good moms with fights that are instantly resolved.
Even more, Gays So Special is something that’s often lived. Without getting too personal, the first relationship I was in with another woman had some pretty clear red flags. But none of my friends said a word against it, because they were Supportive™. Pro-tip: that is not how to be a good ally.
I know it comes from a good place, this form of positive discrimination. But it’s still discrimination. And the “X so special” trope…it’s infantilizing. I don’t want to be kept in a special little narrative box where nothing bad ever happens (and here’s a pat on the head!) simply because of my sexuality, because guess what?
Yet, how am I supposed to see what’s happening on our
laptop television screens this year without feeling like my sexuality is being targeted? That marginalized individuals in general are being targeted? And that can’t happen unless we are Special™, right? My head hurts.
What’s interesting is that most media creators who employ the Bury Your Gays trope seem to be aware of this “Gays So Special” criticism. In fact, that was the stock-defense out of Jason Rothenberg’s (of The 100) mouth about his decision to kill off Lexa: that she was a badass character who happened to date women, because her sexuality was not the totality of her character. And it’s now the defense we’re seeing from Tatiany Maslany, the star of Orphan Black, regarding their decision to kill off a bisexual character at the end of last season:
“There’s a bizarre focus on the fact that she’s bisexual or a lesbian and has been killed off, and that really reduces her to one thing in representing something, as opposed to being an individual. I find that to be a problematic complaint. She’s so much more than her sexuality and to make it about, ‘well, we killed off a lesbian character,’ that’s really reductive.”
Maslany is not wrong. And it’s also not wrong to acknowledge a difference between killing someone for being X and killing someone who happens to be X.
But I don’t think she’s entirely right either. For one, you really can’t ignore the cultural context, which to her credit, she tried to acknowledge:
“I understand because there’s such a lack of representation and 3D representation and you’re protective of those characters. There’s a trope too, a predictable storyline, which is that the LGBTQ characters get victimized somehow. But Delphine is only a victim because she made herself a hero. She was ultimately doing right by people.”
Again, it’s the defense, “oh yeah, we know about Bury Your Gays, but we had reasons X,Y, and Z to kill her, all of which were separate from her sexuality.” So case closed? If this is the attitude of the writers, then it becomes Okay™ to kill off their marginalized characters? I mean…sometimes. Not always. Seriously, get me Tylenol, because splitting this hair is so complex.
When a gay character dies, yes, it is an example of Bury Your Gays. Because all a trope refers to is a pattern found within media; it is not inherently negative. However, whether the use of the trope is justified in the context of narrative…there’s no hard and fast rule.
Frankly, I think a large part of the problem is the increase in Shock™ Deaths as a storytelling convention within our shows and movies today. There’s a certain [mystifyingly] popular, award-winning show that banks its entire success on it, so yeah, it makes sense that media creators might want to follow suit. However, to quote my main man George R.R. Martin:
“It’s easy to do things that are shocking or unexpected, but they have to grow out of characters. They have to grow out of situations.”
Sadly for him, the adapters of his books didn’t get the memo, and from what I can tell, neither did most storytellers seeking to emulate the Game of Thrones formula. I mean, yes, I personally don’t find Shock™ Deaths particularly deep or interesting in the first place, so perhaps that’s why I’m more critical of them. But I would argue that when the target of this Shock™ is a marginalized character—that is, a character belonging to a group that faces societal oppression and typically has limited representation on our screens—the unmotivated nature of these deaths become far less acceptable. Or at the least, its utter cheapness stands out more.
Ew, am I arguing that Gays So Special now? I’m just trying to point out that many of us cling to these characters because our own representation is not so great. Gays are “special” in the sense that it is still, literally, special to see them on our screens. So when they’re yoinked away from us, yeah, we’re going to be seriously analyzing the necessity of it.
It kind of sounds like I’m back around the circle, saying that we can’t kill off minorities, but I think there’s a more nuanced point to be made. Yes, if your show relies on Shock™ Deaths, I’m probably going to roll my eyes at it. Yet that doesn’t mean that I think death can’t be a consequence of a narrative. Plus, John Fawcett, the Orphan Black showrunner, also brought up a good point, even if the entire interview was a touch tone-deaf:
“If you did everything that the fans wanted, it wouldn’t be a drama anymore.”
Characters kind of have to suffer. The degree of it, and certainly the demographic spread of that suffering… Well, that’s the real trick, isn’t it? But without struggle, there is not a story.
The way I see it, though, there should be certain criteria showrunners think about before killing off any character, marginalized or not:
- Is this born out of the narrative? This goes back to Martin’s quote, but really, is it logical? Were there any in-verse rules defied to make this happen? Bonus points: was it seeded?
- Does it play out with respect to characterization/the character’s agency? Does this character have to suddenly act against their usual nature to bring about these events? If so, it’s probably not good storytelling. Perhaps more importantly, is this character’s death about them, or is it going to be used to further someone else’s story? Because seriously, if this is Manpain fuel…stahp it. Just stahp.
- Is there a story with this character’s death worth telling beyond ‘Character Y will now have to deal with it!’? To figure this out, you might want to think about the themes of your work. What is the point of this character’s death? Hint: “drama” is not a particularly wise answer.
- Is this character’s death depicted in a way that keeps audience sensitivities in mind? Could anything be triggering? Is it overly graphic? Did you just lure your audience into a false sense of security? Because the thing is, if you’ve put a good amount of energy into writing a character, the audience is still gonna be shocked at their death, even without cheap tricks.
- Are there any unfortunate implications with this death? Could the audience take away a really problematic message, like say…the character died because of their sexuality? Is this your only X character?
The last two points are particularly important to consider in the case of marginalized characters. It’s not that a straight, cisgendered, white man’s death can’t be triggering, nor that it can’t come with problematic implications. But understanding those implications becomes more difficult for media creators the more intersectional a character is. Add to that the lack of representation and how this is a character many marginalized individuals cling to for comfort, and you really have to start giving this death critical thought.
Now, it’s obviously quite subjective when a death is “done right,” and it’s often hard to articulate why. I hate the cop-out of “it just doesn’t feel exploitative” in these cases but…yeah. That’s how it is. In my view, the importance is in having this discussion at all.
Bringing it back to Orphan Black, though I have seen many argue that Delphine’s death at the end of last season was unacceptable (which is not made better by Maslany’s rather dismissive comments), I would say the opposite.
If we go through the criteria:
- It was most certainly born out of the narrative. It makes complete sense that actions would result in her death giving the institutions at play. Further, I don’t see Delphine behaving in any other way based on what we know of her.
- There was a clear focus on character agency, especially after she was threatened. She chose how she would leave things with Cosima, and her refusal to ask for help or explain what was happening was important in her own arc.
- “Is there a story to be told?” unfortunately is a wait-and-see situation, but given that the show centers around a complicated cloning trial that raises issues of intellectual property, eugenics, and control of this technology, the nefarious actions of these organizations involved is rather crucial to the story. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that there were strong parallels between her death and Paul’s death, the straight, white man who was involved on the military side of things. There’s moral ambiguity, and it plays to one of the central themes of the series: trust.
- Was its depiction with respect to audience sensitivities? This is certainly the most subjective point, but we were outright told by another character that her death was coming so it was hardly a “pull the rug out” kind of moment, and in my opinion, it was not overly graphic. Especially considering that Orphan Black does not shy away from gore (look no further than Paul’s death). Perhaps it’s a small consolation, but it’s not like she happily climbed out of bed, searched for her phone charger, and was hit with a Bullet of Plot Convenience.
- Lastly, the implications. Perhaps I’m being overly generous, but I am just not seeing any takeaway linked to Delphine’s sexuality. I guess her actions were fueled by her love for Cosima in some ways? That certainly wasn’t the focus in the last episode though, and again, the near perfect parallel with Paul (who outright told Sarah he loved her in the same episode he died to save her) rather mitigates this claim.
I am not saying Orphan Black did it perfectly, but you can certainly see the respect they allotted their character as opposed to, say, Lexa from The 100:
- Lexa was hit by a Stray Bullet of Plot Convenience. There was even never a reason that she wasn’t in the room in the first place, before she wanted into the crosshairs. Additionally, her death happened within two minutes despite a nonfatal wound location, despite other characters surviving far worse injuries, and despite a medic immediately applying pressure.
- Respect to character agency? This was a total badass fighter who survived multiple assassination attempts, and she died from a Stray Bullet of Plot Convenience. Does this really require an explanation?
- To The 100’s credit, there does seem to be a story to be told in her death, given the resurrection-esque thing established. Snaps for JRoth.
- There was no respect to audience sensitivities. The timing of the death (and utter random nature of it) was clearly done to provide the biggest Shock™, as it happened within five minutes of her and Clarke finally having sex. This is also on a show whose target demographic seems to be teenage and young adult viewers, many of whom are questioning. How was this remotely validating or constructive for them, especially in light of those on the show playing up their “strong LGBT representation” in their marketing materials?
- And then there’s the implications. Again, it was within minutes of her first on-screen love scene. That’s almost a Bury Your Gays record. Also, the guy who pulled the trigger had frequently spoken about how her feelings for Clarke were a mistake, and was actually trying to kill Clarke because their relationship was such a liability.
I mean, granted, Orphan Black is not really a “no one’s safe” story, or at least not to the degree The 100 seems to be. But how about we take another example from within the same show: Game of Thrones. Let’s consider the treatment of Renly vs. Loras. I should point out, Loras is not buried (yet), but he is certainly suffering in the story, and based on the second Season 6 trailer, brutalized by the Sparrows.
I won’t go through the criteria again, but back during Season 2, it was Renly’s ambition and pride that was his downfall. He refused to join his brother’s cause, which perhaps there was a point to be made for Stannis’s lack of charisma, but that choice played into one of the central themes of A Song of Ice and Fire (which in Season 2, Game of Thrones still seemed to be vaguely adapting): the intersection of the personal and the political. On the show, Renly’s sexuality may have been played for lols before his death (kissing Margaery is gross), but his death was completely unrelated. In fact, consummation issues or no, the fact that Renly secured such a strong alliance was one of the reasons Stannis felt he had to go to extremes to defeat his brother.
Yes, there’s a point to be made that Renly died from a Shadow Baby of Plot Convenience, but at least that was acknowledged in-verse as a “wtf” moment, and implications of Mel’s magical abilities were explored. And again, his sexuality was still entirely incidental to the manner of his death, as well as the context of and motivation for it.
Then we’ve got Loras. Loras, who since Renly’s death, has been stripped down to nothing but his sexuality. He likes fashion, guys! He can’t even be minimally polite when talking to the person who may be his future bride in a politically important match. Actually, all of his interactions with women have an air of bored obligation, because why would you want to talk to anyone unless sex is on the table? Loras is just so gay that he’ll hop into bed and start spilling family secrets to Olyver before Renly’s body is cold.
Season 5 upped this reduction of his character ten-fold with the decision to make the Sparrow movement seem primarily concerned about eradicating homosexuality, in stark contrast to the source material. Yet we’re supposed to accept that this strawman movement is a logical result of this setting, while also accepting that Loras is just so gay that he can’t bother being discrete with Olyver?
It’s ridiculously cheap and lazy, and yeah, the implications are off the charts. Though Loras has only been shown as being with two men, the ease and haste with which he jumped into bed with Olvyer (and how receptive he was to Oberyn’s flirting) plays right into the “Promiscuous Gay” stereotype. Then there’s the fact that Loras is explicitly being harmed because of his sexuality, and it was his gayness that landed his sister in jail, for her to suffer. Literally, she lied to try and keep him safe, and was immediately punished for it.
I guess the little solace we have is that Loras is still alive on the show, so Benioff and Weiss have yet to employ “Bury Your Gays” in his case. But their approach is a wonderful case study in what media creators shouldn’t do when it comes to the portrayal of marginalized characters. The worst part? We’re clearly supposed to hate the cartoonish Sparrows, so there’s actually people arguing that this is a progressive narrative.
Look. It’s not easy to write for marginalized characters, nor is it even realistic to tell a story that can be universally considered “unproblematic.” But I think we can all at least agree that having a basic self-awareness, as well as willingness to think through the decision to kill a character, goes a long way.
I’m not expecting the rest of 2016 to be free of lesbian deaths. Frankly, I don’t want a world where lesbians can’t die in media, because that’s hardly constructive. But with this outcry—with more and more media creators joining in on this Bury Your Gays dialogue—all I’m looking for is critical thought. For writers to ask themselves whether this death is truly the most interesting or necessary thing they can dream up. I’m willing to bet that a majority of the time, it’s not.
Images courtesy of Disney, BBC America, CBS Corporation, Warner Bros., and HBO.
The Expanse Season Two Still Fares Well As An Adaptation
The Expanse has had the seventh book in the series released this month, while its third season (meant to adapt the second half of the second book) is scheduled to come out some time next year. In other words, both the authors of the source material and of the adaptation are keeping busy, making it a very current show. So allow me to continue in my attempt to assess how it fared as an adaptation.
The second season works with the second half of Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the series, and the first half of Caliban’s War, the second installment. It continued its similarity to Game of Thrones as an adaptation by diverging from the source material significantly more than in the first year it was on air. The good news, however, is that the changes are not so dramatically for the worse as is usual, and in some cases are even for the better.
Warning: the following contains spoilers for both the show and the books.
Some problems remain from season one. Chiefly, two of them. One is the scope of the world as it is depicted on the show. The other are the universally dark and gritty visuals. Ganymede is supposed to have corridors carved in ice. Wouldn’t it have been awesome to see that? But now, just more indistinguishable black and grey.
The most significant difference between the books and the show in season two is, without a doubt, all the added drama. It’s everywhere. Every little thing that is routine in the books becomes exceedingly tense on the show. Starting with the Somnambulist, which is not taken by force – or near enough to force – in book!verse, but is simply a ship at OPA’s disposal that Holden is given by Fred. Continuing through Bobbie’s escape from her rooms in the UN compound; she simply walks away in the book and that’s it. And ending with the escape from Gynemedes, which, int he books, is not so much of an escape as simply, you know, leaving. I could keep listing other instances, but this serves as a good example of the sort of tension added for television.
Related to this is also the complete secrecy that surrounds everything on the show. The books work much better with the reality of modern technology where things are streamed immediately. Billions of people watch Eros crash into Venus live, for example, and the data available from what happens there is available to everyone. Or there is the whole thing with the zombie terminator attacking on Ganymede. On the show, it’s a huge secret Chrisjen has to exert extreme energy to ferret out. In the books, everyone knows and there is footage of the attack available. One of my favourite little moments is when Holden tries to hide his identity behind a scruffy beard as he comes to Ganymede, and you end his chapter feeling that he succeeded. Only to open Chrisjen’s chapter and find out that he really, really did not.
Secrecy adds drama, so it is understandable why the show decided to go this way. The need to keep viewers hooked is evident, too. And ending the season in a middle of a book, they needed a suitably dramatic bang to end with. So while all of these things make me roll my eyes, I do not truly blame the show for them. I feel the missed character beats much more keenly.
Captain James Holden
Holden is one character whose arc from the first half of Caliban’s War was adapted truly well. There was the inevitable added drama, as everywhere, but his essential story arc remained.
With regards to the end of Leviathan Wakes, however, the issues from season one continue, and Holden is treated as more of a boy scout by the show than he is by the book. One fantastic moment (though one that could hardly be adapted) was seeing inside Holden’s head when the Head Human Experimenter tried to convince him to join forces before Miller shot him. The reader can see, with intimate certainty, that Holden is this close to giving in when Miller pulls the trigger. We know for certain that it was done at just the right time. Yet Holden condemns Miller for it without the slightest trace of self-awareness, confident he would have resisted. It’s no doubt intentional, and it’s perfection. It should have been replaced by a similar scene suitable for the visual medium that would have conveyed the same. It wasn’t, and Holden’s character suffered for it.
On the other hand, I very much appreciate the change made to Holden’s dynamics with Naomi. In the books, when they start their romantic relationship, it turns out that not only has Naomi been in love with him for ages, so had pretty much every female on the Canterburry, because he is obviously God’s gift to womankind. It’s something to be thankful for that we don’t have to deal with that on our screens, even though I admit that the way book!Naomi handles Holden after that is exquisite.
I’m also very much in favour of the open communication that happens between them before they have sex in the books, as opposed to the “thick erotic tension” kind of deal the show went with. It would be easier to teach people about affirmative consent if there were actual examples of it in the media. There was a scene like that in the book, and guess what? It didn’t get adapted. Let’s all pretend at astonishment.
Dr. Praxidike Meng
I must admit that I was surprised when I saw he was one of the point of view characters. I neither knew nor expected it, and that in itself sums up the biggest problem with his show adaptation. He was very much pushed into the background. I understand why, I suppose – it might have been felt that there were too many new characters – but he lost a lot of his appeal when his role was cut. He is there to represent a valuable civilian point of view among all the trained soldiers and expert politicians. And his expertise adds a crucial dimension to the catastrophe of Gynamede.
Though if someone had to be cut short, I’m glad it was Dr. Meng. I understand they could hardly reduce Hodlen’s role, as much as I’d appreciate it, and both of the ladies are more interesting than Dr. Meng.
Still, I remember lamenting the sharp division between the first and second half of season 2 and pointing out that had Dr. Meng been included in some of the earlier episodes, it would have helped to make the transition more seamless. Now that I know he is one of the point of view characters, I feel this even more strongly.
Assistant Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala
I cannot quite decide whether Chrisjen is an adaptational success or failure. Because she is perfection on the show…but she is also quite different from the books. If I should compare book!Chrisjen to someone, it would probably be Miranda from Devil Wears Prada, or characters of that sort. She is not likable in any straightforward way, but at the same time, she has a charm to her that is oddly irresistible as much as you want to punch her in the fact at the same time.
Show!Chrisjen, on the other hand, is much softer on the surface, not showing her hard lines so obviously. Even when she swears, she does it with a kind of disarming smile that takes the edge off it. Book!Chrisjen is nothing but edges.
I don’t want to complain, because show!Chrisjen is one of the best things that ever happened to me, and there is nothing intrinsically better or worse about either of their characterisations. But I cannot help but wonder how far gender stereotyping played a part in making Chrisjen less obviously hard. And it becomes especially problematic when paired with her stupidity in season 2, which takes the form of that oh-so-very-feminine failing of trusting too much in her friends, or ex-friends.
I wrote out my thoughts about that elsewhere in detail.To summarise, it was a subplot that prioritized a male character over a female one, and made Chrisjen look naive. But it was also an excellently done one. So while it troubles me, I cannot with a clear conscience say I wish it didn’t happen. I just hope it won’t again.
Additionally, one change I definitely appreciated was Chrisjen not being Errinwright’s subordinate on the show. It changed the dynamic significantly, and very much for the better. It also made this whole added subplot in season two possible.
Gunnery Sergeant Roberta Draper
Bobbie has a similar problem as Chrisjen: she, too, is made to look markedly more stupid on the show. Only as Chrisjen is effectively a genius, she ends up being just a little incompetent. Bobbie sometimes ends up looking downright stupid.
To be fair, her character is exceedingly hard to adapt. She has that in common with Dr. Meng. While Jim and Chrisjen constantly talk to people around them and even the things that are part of their inner monologue are easy to change to a personal conversation with someone close, Bobbie doesn’t have that option. She doesn’t have anyone close to her left. For a long time, the only person she talks to at all is the chaplain, whom she just dismisses in many different ways when he tries to ‘help’. There is no way to naturally have her talk about what she thinks and feels, because being alone is an important part of her character arc. But not everything can be shown with images.
But that is not the biggest problem with her character. No, that is reserved for the mysterious decision to make Bobbie into a fanatical war-monger at the beginning. I have been complaining about lack of proper representation for Mars in the first season, and so was very happy to see Bobby in nr. 2. And it’s not like seeing her slowly change her approach when confronted with new facts was worthless. But it also made her into a very flat and irritating character for the first two thirds of the season.
It’s not like book!Bobbie goes through no character development after she sees Earth with her own eyes. It’s not like she’s not patriotic or proud to be a marine. But she can be all this and still retain some nuance, and some brain cells. The showrunners seem to have forgotten that. Bobbie on the show frequently comes off as a brat, something her book self never does.
There are other characters worth a mention, naturally. Fred Johnson is probably the most significant. His role was changed significantly as well, and much more tension withing the OPA was included. It adds to the problematic depiction of OPA as uncultured and wild space terrorists, but on the other hand it’s masterfully done. One can understand the sources of tension and where the different branches and wings are coming from. Much like with Errinwright, here again one is willing to forgive the problematic nature of the added material for a large part, because it forms such excellent additions.
In the end, the only thing I truly blame the second season for is the assassination of Bobbie’s character. While changes to Chrisjen upset me, they were compensated for by the excellent quality of Errinwright’s subplot. Yes, it is telling that the two female protagonists were undercut by the adaptation, making them look less smart than they are in the source material. But Chrisjen still comes out of it pretty impressive. The changes to Bobbie, on the other hand, are much more destructive, and they held no compensation, no hidden bonus. She is simply depicted as unlikable, to such an extent that even when we finally get legitimate reasons for sympathy, it’s long in coming.
Season 3 should fix that, and fast. Hopefully, Bobbie is here to stay. She shouldn’t have to carry the weird season 2 baggage with her throughout the show.
Images courtesy of SyFy
The Legend Of Korra Is A Perfect Deconstruction Of Superman
Superman is arguably the single most recognized fictional character in human history. He’s right up there with Batman and Mickey Mouse. His ‘S’ is, at times, even more widely known. “Truth, Justice and the American Way”. “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” We know that these phrases are attributed to Superman, even if we don’t know the specific origin or, in most cases, how in the world we even learned them in the first place.
For 80 years, Superman has served as a beacon of hope and change for anyone and everyone. His origin, that of the immigrant whose home and culture were lost the day of his birth (an identity he can never fully regain), is a tragic yet resonant one that has, and will continue to, stand the test of time. Even if it has been re-appropriated into that of a pseudo-messianic myth, the immovable Jewish foundation of Superman’s internal struggle between assimilation (Clark Kent) and refusing to do so (Kal-El) isn’t something anyone has any intention of erasing.
Superman is the bedrock on which all modern heroes are based. Every divergence and every variation, no matter how big or how small, starts with Superman. He is the source, so, naturally, that means he’s the most prone to deconstruction and revisionism.
There have been so many attempts to deconstruct Superman as a concept, as well as his character, that it’s become almost a cliche to even consider it. Nearly every run at it ends in failure, most often due to a fundamental misunderstanding of what Superman even is. What he means, why he is who he is, etc. Off the top of my head, I can name two stories that actually succeed in deconstruction, as they have something worth saying: Superman: American Alien and Superman: Red Son. Wait, no, three examples.
The Legend of Korra. And it does it in a way that is embarrassingly similar to what Zack Snyder’s vision of Superman failed to be.
Xenophobia, A Modern Take
The narrative of Superman is one that is eternally relevant. Immigration as part of the American Dream, let alone an aspect of the nation’s entire identity (“Give us your poor, your wounded, your huddled masses…), has always been a hot button issue. In the new millennium, however, with the onset of the age of instant communication and social media, as well as the events of 9/11, it has ballooned into a political issue based almost entirely on fear. Fear of the “other”, to put it simply. And who is more “other” than Superman himself? He looks like us, and talks like us, but if you’re you and Superman just showed up one day in the real world…you’d have no idea where he came from and what his intentions are.
The only thing you, and everyone else, would know is that he’s different, and possesses abilities that effectively make him a living God. And that is terrifying. Even if the first thing he does is save a plane from falling out of the sky, he’s still going to be looked at with suspicion and fear. At any moment, he could decide to burn the world to the ground. And that’s exactly how Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice treats Superman.
Something to fear, because he isn’t like us. Because he’s too powerful. Because nobody asked for his help, no matter how altruistic his intentions may appear to be on the surface.
It’s a fantastic opening premise for a deconstruction of Superman, as it makes it necessary for him to prove he’s on our side. To do so much good in a world that resents him out of instinctual fear drilled into their heads by the era that they’re eventually forced to give him the benefit of the doubt. That, as far as the public is concerned, it isn’t any more complicated than a man who is just trying to do the right thing. Except that never happened in those movies.
We never saw Superman be Superman. We saw him save people, yes. We saw him do the thankless job. We saw the world resent him. But we never saw him inspire. We never saw him do anything to make us want to trust him at all. To challenge our preconceived notions of who Superman is.
Until General Zod and company arrived, he only operated in secret, using his powers when it was convenient for him. And even when he was forced to face Zod, he brought untold destruction and and collateral damage to his adopted world…completely invalidating the point of the post 9/11 narrative in the first place. How can the world trust a man who destroys the very city he is trying to protect? They don’t need or want Superman, especially since the only reason Zod attacked at all was because he had been “hiding” on Earth.
When Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice rolled around, Superman is stuck in an inconsistent guilt spiral from the destruction of Metropolis. Except he doesn’t actually do anything to address that, and the movie doesn’t really either. The first thing Superman does is intervene in a fictional African nation to take down a warlord for the sole purpose of saving Lois Lane. Which, if the film wanted take the very-often-overlooked implications of Superman being an American icon, thus leading to him acting as a sort of unintentional symbol for American interventionism, would have been extremely interesting. Except it doesn’t do that either. Superman is there because he wants to save Lois, and that’s it.
Batman acts as a sort of audience surrogate for the fear that Superman inflicted on the world during his battle with Zod, which might have worked had that gone anywhere aside from Batman trying to kill Superman. He never tries to talk to him or understand him; not even after the infamous Martha scene. If he’s supposed to represent our combined terror of what Superman could be capable of, we should probably be able to agree with his rationale (or even understand it) for not stabbing the man who he saw as a monster two seconds ago in the face.
And then Superman dies, only to return in Justice League to a world that, for reasons that aren’t in evidence and also directly contradict everything that came before it, loves and adores him. A world that was on the verge of eating itself because of his death, despite no one wanting or needing him in every other instance.
None of it is earned. None of it really makes any sense, and the whole production, over multiple films, is only half of what is necessary to convey the narrative Zack Snyder clearly tried to tell.
Avatar Korra, Sequence Breaker
As Kylie so eloquently laid out last week, The Legend of Korra is one hell of a transgressive narrative due mostly in part to its titular protagonist. Korra is brash, overeager, and immeasurably powerful. Her series arc is one of self discovery and self acceptance in a world that actively rejects her existence every chance it gets. She wants to be, essentially, Superman, in a world that has no need nor desire for one. The similarities don’t stop there.
She holds ultimate, untold power and uses it with reckless abandon at the start of the series. In her first few hours in Republic City, she undertakes vigilante justice and violently destroys several storefronts. Because that’s the kind of person she is.
People don’t trust her the moment she announces herself, they wonder why they need her, even though previous incarnations of her have almost always been treated like spiritual leaders and authorities. No matter how many times she saves the world, people still hate her. They are suspicious and cynical of the stranger, since she is inherently an outsider due to her birthright and connection to a world (the Spirit World) few can even comprehend or understand.
This set-up is supposed to make us question and consider what being the Avatar actually means when the assumed role is no longer relevant or necessary. What can Korra reasonably do when the geopolitical climate isn’t as simple as “stop evil”? When every action she takes is looked at with intense scrutiny from a far more connected public. That is to say, the show asked us to consider Korra in relation to her previous incarnations to explicate the disparity just as Snyder’s Superman did by contrasting him the with the multitude of other versions of Superman across every form of media imaginable.
Zack Snyder’s Superman begins his journey in much the same place Korra did. He has powers he doesn’t know how to control, and hides them until the world is ready, just as the White Lotus hid Korra. Of course, this is where the deconstruction of Superman falls apart: it doesn’t actually go anywhere. He starts where Korra starts, and doesn’t progress at all. He does the thankless job, sure, but he doesn’t learn from any of his choices or mistakes. He intervenes without thinking about it, and chooses to brood instead of facing his issues and trauma.
At the end of Man of Steel, Clark faces off against General Zod and causes devastating damage to Metropolis. Zod has the same abilities as Superman, as they are both Kryptonian, meaning that he’s basically supposed to serve as an evil mirror. This is far from dissimilar to the finale of Book 2, where Korra fights Unalaq after he becomes the Dark Avatar and starts destroying Republic City. She even kills him in the end, as there was no other way to save the world.
Even Superman’s death at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — as well as his subsequent resurrection in Justice League — is paralleled and unintentionally blown out of the water. Korra did something very similar with the end of Book 3, sacrificing herself at the hands of the Red Lotus to save the Airbenders. Though she is not killed, she vanishes from the public eye as she heals…just as the world enters a state of actually, truly needing her intervention with the chaos spreading throughout the Earth Kingdom like wildfire.
Superman and Korra are both on isolating journeys of self discovery. Korra’s takes place before and during the final season where she learns to cope with her PTSD, and how to better approach her role even though it is so undefined and volatile. She can be the kind of person she wants to be without constantly fighting for relevance, and even if the world resists her she can pick and choose her battles.
Korra learns how to be happy as Korra, rather than her title and all of the baggage she had stripped from her in the finale of Book 2. Previous Avatar cycles (much like previous incarnations of Superman) operated in a traditional way, but that’s not how the world works anymore and that’s okay! She can still find happiness and purpose in whatever she chooses to do, even if it’s not what her childhood self believed it would become due to the White Lotus jamming that into her head. Not unlike Jor-El did to Superman in Man of Steel.
Superman’s journey takes a confusing amount of years throughout Man of Steel, given that he wanders the world as a bum with a depression beard. The entire sequence doesn’t seem to serve a purpose, since he discovers who he is from the Fortress of Solitude. He doesn’t learn anything about himself as an outsider living in a foreign land, nor does he have a wound that requires isolation and introspection to heal or understand. This is the kind of thing that would have made more sense to happen after killing Zod.
But since it doesn’t, we’re left with an angry, brooding Superman with no redeeming qualities or justification to treat him as Superman. He’s just a superhuman guy in a cape who does things that are kinda nice sometimes.
Korra, meanwhile, justifies her own existence and acts as the hero people grew to mostly tolerate, and occasionally love. She gave them every reason to trust her, and a good amount of people do by the end of the series. Unlike Snyder’s Superman, it was something she earned by deconstructing her own legacy.
Images courtesy of DC Comics and Nickelodeon
Why You Need To Be More Excited About Bisexual Rosa Diaz
Television has been a mixed bag for bisexuals. Even as gay and lesbian representation become more and more common (though not as fast as it should), characters within other parts of the acronym are few and far between. For bisexuals, who often suffer from confusion not just without but within the LGBT community, proper, outright representation means quite a lot. Not hints, not little flirts after a female character breaks up with her boyfriend. And especially not characters that just hook up with the same gender as fanservice. We want characters who can say “I’m bisexual.” We’ve been lucky to have characters like Sarah Lance or Daryl Whitefeather in recent years, but as a whole, television seems reluctant to acknowledge bisexuality.
But we finally have another name for that criminally short list: Detective Rosa Diaz of Fox’s Brooklyn 99. And not only is she bisexual, but she’s also a bisexual Latina woman played by a bisexual Latina woman. Let me say that one more time to help it sink in. We have, on a major network, a Latina woman coming out as bisexual who is played by a Latina bisexual woman.
— Brooklyn Nine-Nine (@Brooklyn99FOX) December 6, 2017
Brooklyn 99 has been a success since day one thanks to its character, heart, and style of comedy that refuses to punch down. It has also become well known for its handling of social issues, best represented by the character of Captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher); a black, gay man whose sexuality is merely a part of his character, not his entire identity. The handling of Holt, who stands out in a sea of shallow stereotypes and tokenism, has led the show’s fans to hope another character to come out as a member of the LGBT community. When it turned out that it was Detective Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) would be coming out as bi in the show’s ninety-ninth episode, appropriately titled “99,” the people rejoiced.
— G. N. Ellis (@gnelliswriter) December 6, 2017
The episode itself did a good job of keeping her coming out low key. She only comes out to her friend, Detective Boyle, and only after he’d spent the episode bugging her about her new paramour. Interestingly, the show played with ideas of heteronormativity as Boyle pesters her about who “he” is, about her “boyfriend.” Rosa’s frustration seems not to be with Boyle’s prodding into her well guarded personal life (though that is part of it), but instead with his assumption that she was only dating a man. This episode restrains the result of this coming out to Boyle and Rosa bonding, letting the coming out stand alone. It is in this week’s follow up episode, “Game Night,” where the show’s dedication to Rosa and her coming out becomes more obvious.
— Rachel (@BendItLikeTobin) December 6, 2017
The conflict in this episode, for Rosa, is in coming out to her parents and co-workers. Rather than let it just be played off as something she can sweat like so many other things, it instead very realistically captures the fears an LGBT+ child, particularly an adult one, might face when coming out.
Rosa’s first act is to come out to her co-workers during a meeting. She uses the term “bisexual,” and allows “one minute and zero questions” of seconds. We learn that she, like many other lovers of the same sex, discovered her sexuality while taking in media, in Rosa’s case Saved By The Bell. The show makes a conscious decision here not to make it some “phase” or something she’s just now discovering. Rosa Diaz has been bi since she was in 7th grade. She has been bi for all five seasons of the show.
I can’t even begin to express how nervous I was about tonight’s episode. I was so excited to share Rosa’s coming out to her parents, but felt really terrified I wouldn’t do it justice. maybe that’s because there is so little bi visibility in television. #Brooklyn99
— Stephanie Beatriz (@iamstephbeatz) December 13, 2017
Coming out to her parents has an entirely different set of emotions. Rosa fears that her coming out will change something with them, that somehow they won’t love her or they won’t want to be around her (Of course, in Rosa’s usual fashion, their bonding time consists of silent dinners). With Jake’s help (who gives an impassioned and curiously personal coming out speech to Rosa to help prepare her for her parents), she makes an attempt over dinner. Here, Rosa’s fear rapidly turns to anger when she learns that her parents were worried she was going to come out at dinner and were relieved that she was, thanks to a misunderstanding with Jake, just a mistress. The show pulls no punches here, capturing not just how angry she is at her parents’ ignorance but also heartbreak at being burned due to her vulnerability. In true sitcom fashion, this conflict wraps up cleanly by the end of the half hour. But the power and authenticity of it remain.
— Stephanie Beatriz (@iamstephbeatz) December 12, 2017
Stephanie Beatriz, herself a bisexual woman, has not been quiet in her desire for Rosa to reflect her own sexuality and has been effusive in her support of the storyline. She’s worked hard to make sure that the story reflects the bisexual experience, and has personally validated many fans in their own journeys. She does all this while still portraying Rosa as the stone-cold bad ass she’s always been. The emotions we see in Rosa as she comes out are real, they are powerful, and they are beautiful. But they are all 100% still Rosa’s.
And I’m super proud of eps 100 and 101, the ones you saw tonight. #bechdeltest passed and bi and proud. This is in incredible show to be a part of. Thank you to the cast and crew of the Nine-Nine. #Brooklyn99
— Stephanie Beatriz (@iamstephbeatz) December 13, 2017
As a final and personal note, this is a huge moment for me as a bisexual man being able to see the representation of some of my experiences on the screen. But I can only capture a small part of why this matters. I can’t even fathom how much this matters to bisexual women, let alone our POC brothers and sisters who are even less represented. Rosa Diaz’s coming out is their story as much as it is anyone’s, and I hope that I was able to capture a small measure of the joy this news has caused.