Huh – It turns out, based on the number of Google hits that I am getting, that a great number of you have “crazy colleagues.” At least one of you seems to have a colleague with a spider in hir hair. Who knew?
Of course, the new semester is upon us. This can mean only one thing: the end of the television summer season.
Longtime readers know that GayProf has two, sometimes overlapping, criteria for watching a television show: a) Does it have camp value and/or b) Does it have a hunky male lead. Usually “b” is the prime mover for me. What can I say? I am shallow, but pretty.
Longtime readers also know that I tend write volumes on television shows. Today is no different. Come to think of it, I am surprised that I have any longtime readers at all.
Given that “b” decides most of my viewing habits, you might imagine that my television selections are often quite low brow. You might also imagine that I watch these shows while in my underwear. You really shouldn’t have such dirty fantasies about GayProf.
More than any other, the basic cable network "USA" has cornered the market on summer-fluff. To borrow Kate Jackson’s comments about Charlie’s Angels, the scripts at USA are so thin that if you tossed one in the air, it would take a week to hit the floor. Something about one of its most popular shows, Burn Notice, seems to bother me.
For those who have higher standards than I do, let me give you Burn Notice’s basic premise. Michael Westen, the lead character played by the hunky Jeffrey Donovan (Remember: “b”), once worked as a spy until he was “burned” (essentially framed for a variety of crimes he did not commit – Or did commit, but it was okay because he committed those crimes on behalf of the good ol’ USA (the nation, not the network – I think)). The show’s major narrative focuses on Michael’s efforts to restore his good name and thus return to the spy world. Until he can do that, he takes on odd jobs of fighting crime within a colorful Miami locale.
The show’s appeal depends upon some fairly standard fantasies about power and heroics. Westen possesses a seemingly unending array of secret talents and abilities. He easily defeats whole armies of gunmen with well-timed punches and carefully crafted verbal zingers. Within fifty minutes, you have a guaranteed serving of [largely vigilante] justice.
So, what’s my problem with Burn Notice? The show veers into some problematic realms in terms of race and gender. Mostly it has to do with its valorization of white-straight men as the best and only hope for the future of the nation. Michael Westen’s heroism can only be construed through the vulnerability of his “clients.” Who are those clients? Disproportionately, they are women and racial minorities (and even especially women of color).
Am I arguing that real white-straight-men never fight on behalf of social justice or that we should never see such a representation? No, obviously not. Nor am I suggesting that executives and producers at USA network are participating in an intentional conspiracy to assure the dominance of the white race. I really have no idea if they are members of the Republican party.
We aren’t talking about real life. We are talking about representations. Who ends up as the main “hero” and who best fits the role of “victim” are entirely shaped by gender and race. And for the USA network, white heterosexuality rules. Let me give you another example. Even though USA’s show In Plain Sight is set in New Mexico, a non-white majority state, the lead character is still a remarkably blond Euro American. Indeed, that show has no Latino characters who are actually from the area (One Latino character does appear, but his origins are clearly not from NM).
Minority roles, when cast at all in USA shows, are most often relegated to side characters who need a good, white character to either save or defeat them (Though it is interesting to note that USA seems to like to cast minority actors to play white characters. Real-life Arab-American Tony Shalhoub plays the titular Monk and Latino James Roday (né James Rodríguez) stars in Psych. More could probably be written about those instances at some later point).
GLBTQ folk basically don’t exist at all on USA. According to the most recent GLAAD report, USA ranked 7 out of 10 in terms of cable networks. Although I will at least grant that Burn Notice mostly avoids the passive-aggressive homophobia found in its sister show Psych.
By making the white-straight-male lead an almost invincible hero in an all-white pantheon, Burn Notice and similar USA shows uphold the notion that white-straight-men are not at all the beneficiaries of institutionalized inequities. Nor is white straight manhood ever figured as a direct exercise of privilege and power. Rather, white-straight-male heroes make “noble sacrifices” to save minorities, women, or weaker white men from less scrupulous (most often foreign in the case of Burn Notice) foes. Being a white-straight-man is a type of burden because only they have the necessarily abilities to solve all the nation’s problems, including those created by other white men.
A typical Burn Notice episode will open with Michael’s newest client describing hir problems. If a woman character, she often does it through tears and with a quaking voice. Michael reassures hir; his mother (played by the seemingly downgraded Sharon Gless) offers them a place to stay; and Michael snaps to work with his team. His clients frequently report that they have been trying to solve their problem for years, but Michael usually has everything tied up over the period of a long weekend. Once the bad guys are secured in jail (or dead), Westen shows his beneficence by never accepting any actual payment for his work. It’s just the cost of being a white-male straight hero.
One typical episode focused on a Latina character, let’s call her “Marta,” who solicited Westen’s help to defeat the evil “South-American” Rufino Cortez. The bad-man Cortez evicted poor Marta’s entire family in order to sell their property to a greedy U.S. corporation. With the team emotionally invested in weak Marta’s problem, Westen devised a plan to defeat Cortez.
After a hard year of dispossessing peasants, Latin-American wannabe dictators apparently like to do nothing better than vacation in Miami. This proves to be a real time saver for Westen. The show, of course, ends with Rufino’s death and, apparently, a swift reordering of the entire political structure of the nameless Latin-American country in question. Marta and similar characters, beyond having a problem that Michael can solve, only appear when the audience needs more exposition. They are otherwise totally powerless in their own lives.
Even women and minorities who one might expect to be Michael’s peers, such as a Latina police officer (“Sophia”) who appeared in the second season, end up being fairly useless. Sophia was so inept at her job that she actually became a stalking victim of the man that she apparently spent years trying to arrest (!). She then had to appeal to Westen to not only help her arrest the drug dealer, retain her job, but also secure her own personal safety. Always chivalrous, Westen even allows her to take credit for the arrest.
Some might suggest that the main character Fiona Glenanne offers a woman character who is potentially Michael’s equal. Fiona, we are told, is an Irish national originally trained by the IRA. She does therefore have elements that push against some traditional gendered stereotypes. Fiona’s expertise on guns and explosives can even surpass Michael Westen’s. She also frequently holds her own in regular fist fights and, on a rare occasion, has rescued the male characters in the show.
Yet, her character’s basic premise is still mired in some pretty traditional gender ideas. Michael’s motives are rooted in lofty ideals and a sense of U.S. patriotism. In contrast, Fiona’s greatest ambitions center on building a romantic relationship with Michael. She actually finds it impossibly difficult to understand his noble aspirations to serve his country. Indeed, we are informed that she only joined the IRA to avenge the death of her sister, not out of any deeper political or nationalist ideology. So, while Michael and Fiona complete the same jobs, her motives are still rooted in traditionally feminine ideals: emotion, family, and an ultimate desire for heterosexual marriage. Michael uses his skills for justice. Fiona uses her skills to help her man. Oh, and by the way, Fiona herself became one of Michael’s “clients” in the end of this past season.
In this way, producers of Burn Notice get to have it both ways. On one hand, they can handle serious social issues like domestic abuse, human trafficking, and the drug trade. On the other hand, they get to divorce those problems from the bigger social structures that keep inequalities in place or from thorny questions about racism, sexism, or U.S. imperialism. They are treated as case-by-case problems that can be solved through the timely intervention of the right white-straight man. In this way, the show ignores the seriously hard work that goes into fighting for social justice. Far from being the work of individuals, it takes entire communities to fight for change.
Burn Notice is hardly unique in this formulation. All sorts of shows have been built around the good white guy who helps the Other. Maybe no other show took this premise to its greatest extreme than the eighties sci-fi clunker Quantum Leap. In that instance, the white-straight-male hero literally coopted the bodies of [white] women, men of color, and (in one memorable episode) a quasi-gay naval cadet. Quantum Leap often literally rewrote the history of civil rights in this nation. Rather than being a product of the hard work of minorities against a disinterested white straight majority, Quantum Leap proposed that white straight men even created the first impetuses for social justice. What minorities really needed was to get a little white-straight man in them before they could really improve their lives. Without white straight men to help them, women, minorities, and gays would have been forever degraded.
It is quite something to be living in a moment when the nation is willing to elect an African American man to lead the nation, but television networks are still frightened about casting a minority to lead an hour-long drama. Perhaps USA should change its slogan to“White Characters Welcome, All Others Enter Through the Back."