Category Archives: Television and Movies

“Anthropologists” in the 24th Century

Star Trek doesn’t know what anthropologists do. That, or the discipline undergoes a radical transformation between now and when TNG is set, in the 24th century.

A few days ago, I watched a season three episode entitled “Who Watches the Watchers.” The crew of the Enterprise is called to assist a team of “anthropologists” who have been secretly observing a species of “Bronze Age” humanoids (Mintakans) on another planet.

Pause. Two things.

One, that’s not what anthropologists do. Anthropologists don’t conduct long-term studies of people without their knowledge, consent, or cooperation. That’s unethical, to say the least. The ethnographic methodology is called participant-observation. Not hide-in-a-cave-hidden-by-a-hologram-and-catalog-the-behaviors-of-people-as-if-they-were-an-exotic-species-of-bird. Star Trek seems to think that anthropologists are naturalists, but for humans. (Or, in this case, humanoid aliens.)

This leads to point number two: the whole “Bronze Age” thing, which casts the Mintakans as primitive human Others who are imagined to be from a different time, as opposed to coexisting in the very same century as our technologically advanced “heroes.”* Star Trek‘s (misguided) idea of social evolution gets at the very heart of its most cherished guiding principle: The Prime Directive.

The Prime Directive stipulates that Star Fleet must not interfere with the “natural development” of any alien societies it encounters. This assumes that all societies follow the same trajectory of change over time, passing predetermined stages of (particularly technological) development. These stages seem predicated on a (simplified, Western) notion of human social development on earth. Here Star Trek assumes humanity is a monolithic entity, rather than a complex collection of interconnected cultures that yes, change over time, but not by following a path of predetermined developmental stages. The fictional universe has this problem in general, assuming that each species of alien Star Fleet encounters has but a singular culture.

Furthermore, Star Fleet personnel are forbidden from making their presence known to species or societies that have yet to develop space travel. What if an alien society simply doesn’t value pursuing that area of science and technology? To my (limited) knowledge, that possibility is not considered.

Star Trek‘s vision of the future, like all science fiction, is constrained by its creators’ understandings of the past and present. As Gene Roddenberry and the writers and other folks who worked on the show were embedded in U.S. culture, the show has a particularly Western pop-understanding of multiculturalism, liberalism, and social dynamics. Although it takes pains to present the different species and societies Star Fleet encounters without judgment, Star Trek‘s lack of understanding of how culture operates seriously hinders their ability to do so convincingly. At least for this 21st century anthropologist.

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*Here it is crucial to cite Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s seminal 2003 essay, Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness.

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Filed under Historical, Television and Movies

Watching Mel Brooks in 2016

On November 9, I sent myself an email. The world breaks, again and again, read the subject line. Maya Angelou supplied the body of the message with her poem “Still I Rise.” I don’t care if that’s a cliche.

Yesterday I wrote myself a note: “The culture comes into consciousness and is repeatedly repressed. Constant vigilance!”

The dangerous myth of progress is that it’s cumulative and linear. But progress isn’t set-it-and-forget-it. Progress toward social justice, toward a world in which everyone has access to basic resources and can exercise their human rights, requires constant maintenance. People in power are loath to cede any of it, never more so when their positions have become reified to the point that they believe any questioning of who occupies positions of power is an encroachment upon their occupation of said positions. One group’s gain is another’s loss in the zero-sum paradigm that governs our society.

Backlash is never not a possibility. People are never not at risk.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with my family to an enjoy a diversion: Mel Brook’s History of the World, Part I. We chuckled a few times, but it was not as funny as I remembered. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is that we’re living in the aftermath of November 8.

Somehow, the sequence where a caveman assaults a cavewoman with a stone club, thereby enacting the first marriage, did not inspire laughter, nor did bearing witness to a monarch’s serial sexual assault of his ladies in waiting. Watching an enslaved black man repeatedly argue for his life, never mind his freedom, was distinctly uncomfortable. The abuse of power was rampant, and played for laughs.

The movie, which came out in 1981, had a particular temporal relationship to tragedy. A perceived–discursive, at least–distance from assault on marginalized bodies. Times were relatively good; collective suffering was a distant memory. There was space to skewer that which had plagued previous generations.

Today, we’ve come too close to these realities, too near the precipice of the possibility that our material circumstances are about to get worse, our rights may be called into question, our environment–and by extension, humanity’s future–may be laid waste in sacrifice to the altar of extraction capitalism.

The discomfort that came from watching History of the World, Part I made me think of Brook’s other comedies that wouldn’t play as well today, chiefly To Be or Not to Be and The Producers. Both rely heavily on lampooning Hitler for their comedy. “Springtime for Hitler” was a hilarious showstopper in 1968–and again in the late 1990’s. But today, in a country where we can no longer agree that Nazis are bad, that premise becomes less humorous and more tone-deaf. Sinister, even.

“Never again,” we keep declaring. Except it’s already happened.

When I was a teenager, I thought there was nothing left to fight for. Then the U.S. declared war in Iraq. The more years that pass, the more intractable achieving social justice seems to become. There is always something to fight for. And that means that sometimes, laughter has to wait.

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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Contemporary, Gender Trouble, Historical, Power, Racism, Television and Movies

Forcible Consent: (in)Humanity & Submission on Star Trek

About a month ago, I sat through a season four episode of Star Trek: Voyager that left me feeling deeply uncomfortable. No, not the one where B’Elanna succumbs to oxygen deprivation and declares her misguided love for Paris. As troubling as that installment was, it was an arc in the first few episodes of season four, culminating in “The Gift,” that had my jaw on the floor.

A brief background on the episode before we wade into the (un)ethical subspace of the Delta Quadrant:

After striking a tenuous alliance with the Borg to defeat a common enemy, our wayward crew finds itself playing host to Seven of Nine, a member of the Borg whose connection to the Collective has been severed for the standard techno-magical reasons. A few other Borg henchmen are unceremoniously dispatched from Voyager after they betray the crew’s trust, leaving Seven of Nine to advocate for itself. (It should be noted here that the Voyager crew think of Seven of Nine as female, although at this point the Borg probably considers such gendered designations Irrelevant.) The crew digs into their effective captive’s history, discovering that Seven of Nine was once a little girl who was abducted and assimilated by the Borg. At that point, Captain Janeway makes it her mission to bring Seven of Nine back into humanity’s fold.

7 of 9 borg

Seven of Nine, badass Borg

This is not the first time Janeway’s leadership has made me uncomfortable. I’m not sure I’d follow her home, especially if the option of joining Holo(hottie)-Chakotay in his coup were to worm its way out of its interactive fictional exercise and into reality. The point is, Seven of Nine wants to return to the Collective, or, barring that, be dropped onto the nearest hospitable world. Both of these requests are denied, as is her more basic request to maintain her personal (or species?) agency.

A crucial aspect of “The Gift’s” plot revolves around the ethical question of whether to return Seven of Nine to her original human state. Because she is no longer connected to other Borg, the Doctor determines that the human parts of her body are rejecting the Borg technology. Captain Janeway seizes upon Seven of Nine’s biological history as proof positive that she is fundamentally human and must, deep down, wish to become so again biologically. Janeway denies Seven of Nine the choice of whether to undergo what amounts to both major invasive surgery and a change in biological identity, instead claiming this as her prerogative, citing Noble Human Reasons.

In doing so, Janeway denies the Borg as a species the dignity of personal agency. And since what little humanity is left within Seven of Nine doesn’t readily (or recognizably) asset itself, Janeway takes it upon herself to speak on its behalf and give it more weight than the (very loud) assertions of the Borg part of Seven of Nine. Thus Janeway leverages her power as captain to declare Seven of Nine’s Borg identity invalid, clinging to the idea that what was once human must still be fundamentally so. She orders the Doctor to medically extract and enhance Seven of Nine’s available human biology, enabling it to completely eject her Borg DNA and technology. The Doctor, for his part, enables Janeway, and Seven of Nine is forced to become human against her will through a process that amounts to medical torture.

Why the Doctor doesn’t invoke his Hippocratic oath, as he did when Tuvix expressed his desire not to die (season 2, episode 24), is a major unanswered question. The Tuvix episode did a much better job of representing the complexity of the ethical dilemma at hand. There’s little such nuance here. Viewers are made aware of the opposing arguments [read: Seven of Nine’s position about her own body] only so they can be shut down by the characters who occupy the positions of power in the Federation hierarchy and along the moral axis of the cast.

One of the most maddening weaknesses of Star Trek‘s otherwise inclusive philosophy is its insistence that humanity is the pinnacle of existence. The episode is SO SURE of Janeway’s moral high-ground that it’s disturbing, which points to Star Trek‘s occasional failure to achieve the progressiveness it prides itself on espousing. Janeway’s position amounts to one of human species supremacy, echoing centuries of colonial white supremacy, and she imposes it on a being who is already in a disadvantaged position and has little recourse. Janeways repeatedly ignores Seven of Nine’s clearly stated desires and staunch refusals to grant consent. But in a heartbreaking irony, resistance for this Borg is indeed futile.

7 of 9 human

Seven of Nine, reluctant human

Once again, the female body is stripped of its agency and remade into society’s image. This time literally. Viewers are meant to side with Janeway’s view of the situation and cheer when humanity triumphs and they are able to count Seven of Nine (see what I did there?) as one of their own.

Perhaps contemporary discourse surrounding consent and identity politics is what’s causing me to react so negatively to this plot and character developments. I don’t doubt that the episode’s moral stance was better received when it aired in 1997. But today, these blatant denials of someone’s personal agency simply do not fly (puns are always intended).

In the Delta Quadrant, the perception of humanity eclipses even the Prime Directive.

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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Gender Trouble, Power, Television and Movies

Ode to Alan Rickman

“…the late Alan Rickman,” said the host of The Frame.

Hope is one of denial’s most powerful allies. Upon hearing these words on the radio, I was seized with the impulse to stop the car and fact-check, much as I had initially doubted the veracity of Monday’s news that David Bowie had passed away. But this passing was more personal. Or, to be more accurate, I’m a bigger fan of Alan Rickman. He first caught my notice in Galaxy Quest as my preferred type of comedy relief–self-effacing and intellectual–and quickly morphed into one of my secret celebrity crushes. Hearing, unexpectedly, that he had died actually made me feel something.

This past summer, I wrote an ode to Alan Rickman in the style of The Toast’s delightful “If X were you Y” series. Like most of my inexplicable infatuations with older actors, admitting to the depth of my fandom was embarrassing. But in light of Rickman’s passing, I’d like to share it as a sort of tribute.

If Alan Rickman were your boyfriend…

If Alan Rickman were your boyfriend, he would join you and your friends at karaoke, thrilling you all with renditions of 90’s hits sung two octaves lower than originally intended, inciting gales of giggles. After each number, he’d collapse beside you on the sticky bench and high-five whoever was up next.

If Alan Rickman were your boyfriend, at least once a month he’d indulge in some top notch Hans-Gruber-from-Die Hard role play, delighting you with his sensual German accent. Sometimes he would even speak in German. Try as you might to control yourself, you would swoon. Repeatedly.

If Alan Rickman were your boyfriend, he would let his hair go grey for keeps and encourage you to do the same…if that were what you wanted. Some days you would pretend you were living in the 70’s, spend an hour feathering each other’s silvery manes, and go out looking for a drum circle at a park or beach. You would be anachronistically dressed, because you’ve already spent a whole hour on your hairstyles, and really, how far can you be expected to take this whole personal grooming thing, anyway?

If Alan Rickman were your boyfriend, he would never deign to open a car door for you because he knows you are perfectly capable of operating them yourself. Unless of course your arms were full of groceries. But he would never let you carry all the groceries. Unless you had insisted.

If Alan Rickman were your boyfriend, he would not expect you to praise his interpretation of Snape, because you would have made it clear from the get-go that your imagination’s interpretation of the book version of the character is sacrosanct, and to bring up the topic at all would be touching the third rail of your relationship, straining it to such a degree that it would be nigh impossible to recover. Impossible, you’d say! He would be whispering to you in a soothing voice right now to help bring you down from the act of thinking about the dire consequences of such a fraught discourse. Breathe. Breathe…

If Alan Rickman were your boyfriend, you would address each other formally over supper at your favorite greasy spoon (i.e., Mr. Rickman, Ms./Mr. [Your Last Name Here]), and chuckle at the absurdity of it all. You would do this quietly, so as not to distract the other diners from their meals.

If Alan Rickman were your boyfriend, he would graciously accept your offer to pick up the check. You would return the favor, triggering an endless spiral of good-natured reciprocity. Neither of you would tire of this ritual. Because that’s how things work in a fantasy.

If Alan Rickman were your boyfriend, he would understand and respect your need to not see him for several days at a time. You have many things to attend to and important people in your life, not all of whom are him.

If Alan Rickman were your boyfriend, you would never have to ask to reenact the pillow talk scene from Snow Cake. He would always, always offer.

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Filed under Contemporary, Nostalgia, Television and Movies

This Downton Abbey recap is not about Downton Abbey

As devotees of this PBS Masterpiece series know, Downton Abbey is preceded by a parade of obligatory sponsors. The line-up invariable, I am not here to deconstruct the “story” Ralph Lauren never tires of reminding us he’s telling, but the sumptuous & escapist European visions offered up by Viking River Cruises.

The sweeping aerial vistas we’re treated to as we ready our wine and popcorn for the main event are ones we would never get on a river cruise. We can tell even with one eye on the microwave that what Viking River Cruises promises is at best an exaggeration and at worst a lie. Their weekly commercial promises what cannot be delivered, because as their company name suggests, they are not  in fact selling helicopter rides.

At the same time, their ad does little to reveal the views that one would experience lounging on the deck of a modest sized vessel on the Rhein: the views from below. Views from below arguably offer up their own type of grandeur and majesty, the awe-inspiring sense of being utterly dwarfed by surrounding history, unfamiliar culture, and landscape.

So why does the ad privilege a vantage point it cannot reproduce? Surely they’re not in the business of giggling and smirking “gotcha!” after tucking us into our cabins at night. Do they think shooting landscape from above shows more? Are we all just a helicopter ride away from being inspired to drop thousands on dollars on a river cruise?

Something the ad does get right is the vague sense of cross-cultural adventure. The Vikings were a society of traders, after all, exchanging goods with many different peoples in northern Europe (http://www.schloss-gottorf.de/haithabu/das-museum/viking-museum-haithabu).  And it’s entirely possible that patrons of these river cruises discover new horizons to expand along with the inevitable swag and deluge of digital photos.

But would it be so hard to be upfront, instead of up top? We are intelligent viewers of the best soap opera on television–show us what you actually got!

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Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Television and Movies