Survivors need their foils

I’m taking a minor break from steampunk at the moment, and getting into zombie stuff as well (more on this to come one of these days on my new research blog). I’ve been delighted to discover The Walking Dead, which I had not even heard about before coming to Canada. Eleven episodes into the storyline, it’s a great show, and quite thought-provoking when you consider the questions it asks about survival and ethics in general. In many ways, it reminds me of Lost, especially in its reflections on power dynamics and tensions inside a small group of survivors. I wouldn’t use it as a textbook on how to act during an actual apocalypse (and I really, really hope it doesn’t end with some inept twist about everybody being led to heaven by a guy called Super Duper Christian Patriarch or something like that), but it’s getting me thinking. Also, like Lost, it’s getting me thoroughly riled about the characters, for the exact same reason.

I loved Lost. I was just extremely pissed off that after playing at turning stereotypes on their heads for a couple of episodes, the producers just decided to get on board with every possible prejudice audiences may hold about any possible group. Thus the Iraqi communications officer became a torturer, the badass female criminal became a crying mess incapable of acting without the male lead’s go-ahead, the black guy… conveniently disappeared off the island, if I remember correctly, and everybody started to agree that since a leader was needed, why not just pick the straight white able-bodied upper-middle-class man of the group, because of course they would. And that left me with about five seasons and a half to enjoy the story while simultaneously facepalming every two seconds at the utter lack of imagination of the authors when it came to stereotyped social roles.

So when I watched the first episode from The Walking Dead, I didn’t even bother getting my hopes up. Of course the straight white male cop who has just joined the group is going to be elected ‘natural leader’, and everybody’s role is going to be permanently defined by their social category: Woman, Black, Redneck, Elderly and what the hell. Stuff realism, this is TV.

What saddens me with both Lost and The Walking Dead and countless other shows and movies is how slow authors are when it comes to understanding what makes a narrative stereotyped. People get bored with on-screen sexism? No problem! Let’s get them some Strong Female Characters! They get bored with the misrepresentation of people of colour? Let’s get more characters of colour, and let them do stuff! Problem solved! Yay! Now the ladies have guns and black people get to talk, what do you have left to complain about? We might even imply that one of the secondary characters has had same-sex experiences some time in their youth! We’re perfect!

Except that giving the ladies guns and making them stamp their foot and throw a tantrum about being allowed to play with the boys cannot possibly solve anything. Because the representation of women, and to a lesser extent, other categories of marginalised people, is not the problem anymore. Producers and authors have finally caught up with the difficult notions that everybody can hold a gun and use their heads from time to time. But they’re one category nobody is questionning their stereotypes about, and as long as they won’t, they will be unable to move forward. This category is straight white able-bodied middle-class men.

What are the stereotypes about straight white guys, then? Well, for one thing, they’re supposed to be dominant. They’re complex, they have plenty of feelings, they have personal problems to solve. They don’t let anyone step on their feet. They care for their own. They have stories. Big, important, complex stories often involving father/son relationships because let’s not forget to reinforce patriarchy in the least subtle way we can.

Now, all of those stereotypes have something in common: they’re really cumbersome. See, when you stereotype a woman as a shrinking violet, it only affects her. When the only personality you can imagine for a black man is that he’s angry and obsessed with racism for no reason, it’s crappy, but it does not affect other characters. When you want a stereotypical straight white guy, however, you need the cooperation of everyone else around. A man cannot be dominant if no one is submissive. He can’t be in charge if there isn’t anyone around to screw up from time to time and give him pieces to pick up. He can’t turn out to be a natural leader if nobody is lousy at leadership. He can’t protect his people if his people are perfectly able to protect themselves without help. It can’t be his story if other characters are not there to be used as props and discarded when he needs emotional motivation. In other words, if you leave one single stereotyped SWABMCM in the group (sorry about the acronym, just getting tired of the run-on sentences), it’s a bit like letting your cat sleep on the sofa, or letting a macho guy sit down in public transport: he’s going to stretch and take all the available room until nobody else can be comfortable in the same space. Just let one of them into your story, and you might as well not bother at all with working on stereotypes. The girl may have a gun, she will still need to be saved at some point, otherwise the hero couldn’t be a hero. The Arab guy may have a complex backstory and personality, he’ll still need to behave like a savage, so the hero can be calm and composed and civilised. The redneck may have feelings, he will have to spew out some bigoted rubbish every now and then, so we can see that the hero won’t stand for it. The black person may have their own personal relationship to racism, they won’t be able to stand up for themselves, because it has to be the hero who rescues them from oppression.

I don’t care that ‘audiences want a sympathetic hero they can identify with’. Give me Lost without Jack Shepard and The Walking Dead without Rick Grimes, and I promise you I’ll be happy to identify with anyone else in the cast. It won’t be hard, you know. When you remove the one stiffling story of the compulsory stereotyped white hero, you discover a good dozen fascinating stories that were waiting right there for a little space to bloom. Try it, I assure you. It can only make it better.

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