Saturday, September 05, 2009

Burning and Itching

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."


pacalaga said...

My love, why are you watching USA? If you'd stop, they'd go under and you'd have to start dissecting CSI: Miami.
And it isn't the straight white maleness of Quantum Leap that made everything better - everyone is better with Scott Bakula in hir.

Mel said...

Dear GayProf: If we're not supposed to have dirty fantasies, what sort of fantasies should we be having about you?

Corollary: If we're not supposed to have dirty fantasies, then what's the point, really?

Chad said...

To be fair, USA is far from the only network that does this. I can think of several comedies from this decade that have had ethnic minority stars or casts (half of which have been made in Tyler Perry's name), but almost nothing from any other genre.

And it is interesting how often showrunners seem to feel that problems facing minorities, especially minorities in an urban setting, have to be filtered through a white POV. It reminds me of how nearly every Hollywood movie about Africa has a white character still taking center or very-near-center stage.

susurro said...

wow. I've been trying to figure out why I dislike Burn Notice so much, when there is so much in it I should love, and you just nailed it down in a post. Women's issues (DSV, trafficking, etc.) are all vehicles for Weston and crew to save the world & Fiona's transformation from Republican badass to insipid love interest has been . . . well you said it already. I'm sure you noted that the only Latino was barely there, to weak and uncaring to do anything, and first killed at season end as well.

As for in Plain Sight what was it you were saying about (b) again . . . ? I am curious about your thoughts on the episode where Mary is assigned to protect a Mexicana union activist (whose is taller than she is, and white by L.Am. standards) & how the show mobilizes race around her: her affinity to Marys PR fiance & the intro of the first brown neighborhood in the show, peopled w/ drug running rapists.

(PS I have a dorky treat for you on my blog scroll to the bottom of the 1st post)

GayProf said...

Pacalaga: USA seems to be the network that many people watch, but few people admit to it.

Mel: I would like fantasies about me to be good, wholesome fun.

Chad: You are right -- USA is hardly unique in their programming. Indeed, Burn Notice could appear on any network. I can't even think of an hour drama that started with a minority lead in the last five years.

Susurro: I suppose I should add "c": If a t.v. show is set in New Mexico. I haven't seen many episodes of the second season of In Plain Sight because it became a bit unbearable. Somewhere I do have the "Latina activist" episode recorded, but I am not sure that I have the stomach for it.

susurro said...

yes there is always (c).

Maybe I'll write something on it espec. since in order to have a Latin@ focused episode, they actually centered a Mexicana in Mexico forced to immigrate to be safe rather than just writing a story about brown folk in NM ...

shame on you for making me turn on my academic brain for USA Network. Next will be talking arranged marriages and homosociality on Royal Pains. argh.

Peter Maria said...

Don't forget the homophobia in "In Plain Sight"; I've lost count of the times the lead put down her male counterpart by alluding to the fact that he might be gay (e.g. "what's his name?" when he mentions a date). To me, that's not "passive-aggressive"; that's just plain "aggressive". And it hurts even more because the actor that plays the male counterpart has "played" gay before (e.g. Stonewall).

shaz said...

Well said.

Add to the Quantum Leap camp all the movies/TV where men turn out to make better women than women: Mrs. Doubtfire, Tootsie, a young Tom Hanks in that dumb TV show (what was that called?).

GayProf said...

Susurro2: Don't get me started on the greed orgy that is Royal Pains.

Brent: Good point about the homophobia in In Plain Sight -- Comparably in the show Psych, the male lead characters feel compelled to react with disgust or horror whenever their friendship might be construed as erotic. At least Burn Notice mostly avoids such scenes between Sam and Westen.

Shaz: It is much the same thing -- Apparently white straight men are magically able to assume any role and do it better than the Other. They are, after all, the original universal subject.

tornwordo said...

I think it's cute how you go on (and on) about fluffy tv shows. I don't get USA so I doubt I'll ever have to sit through an episode.

Robin said...

Hello. Popping over from Hathor Legacy to read your insightful post about my fluffy spy show.

I have to admit, I'd never given much thought to the racial issues in Burn Notice. [Full disclosure: I am a straight white woman.] The gender issues have bothered me on occasion, particularly over the past season with the dainty-fying of Fiona. I'll certainly notice both more in the future now that they've been pointed out so clearly. What has been seen cannot be unseen!

Anonymous said...

Hi! Came over from the Angry Black Woman. I was actually thinking that Burn Notice wasn't too bad... There were at least people of color in it, and the POC weren't any more foolish than the white people, and usually less foolish. Like, there was the black guy who went and yelled at the evil dude after Westen wouldn't help; and the hispanic store owner looking to clean up his neighborhood in the first season.

But the basic idea of the show does have issues... The single white guy saving everything. That part gets a little annoying.

I think the writing on the show isn't good enough to raise it from the cliche. The characters aren't deep enough to be anything more than caricatures... Why does Michael want back in? Why does Fiona want Michael? Why does Sam hang around? After all these seasons, we should have had some movement on those.

Elusis said...

I came over from ABW too. Great post.

I still enjoy Burn Notice (for Sharon Gless and Bruce Campbell as much as anything), but I had to give up on Psych after quasi-enjoying it for a season and a half. The "OMG we're totally not gay!" stuff was one nail in the coffin.

Realizing how much of (the awesome, and totally hot) Dule Hill's character was really kind of serving as an updated black stereotype - a sort of mixture of the superstition and fearfulness of the "coon" with the unwavering loyalty of the "Uncle Tom." The character violates the old stereotypes in some ways, but props them right back up again in others. (And he falls right into the horror movie "spook" stereotype - they might as well have him say "Feets don't fail me now!") When the penny dropped, I couldn't watch any more.

goblinbox said...

1. You're right.

2. Good point.



Snuze said...

Tsk. Tsk. So much anger over a tv show. It is escapism, sugar. If we want real, we'd watch CNN.

If we want our escapist fantasy vehicles to be gender-, colour- and sexuality-correct, does MTV escape your rant? Last I saw, near all the music videos on play on a daily basis seems to perpetuate the idea that all men are straight, butt-grabbing hound dogs with little to redeem them (except for rippling six packs) and all women are dying to subserve themselves to men sexually.

Mileage will vary.

Roy said...

I don't disagree with your analysis, but want to say that "Far from being the work of individuals, it takes entire communities to fight for change." is the opposite of TV land and will never happen on a weekly drama. It's like asking why CSI never has people who die from environmental pollution-caused cancers or why American Idol never does a season with mute performers.

Kolohe said...

I can't even think of an hour drama that started with a minority lead in the last five years.

The Unit. Ugly Betty. The Wire*.

But everyone watches reality TV these days. So you have that one dude from American Idol (the most watched recurring show of the last decade) a first runner up that was gay. And the other one. The one that won that was African American.

*unless you going to consider McNulty the lead, to which I would say 'ensemble cast that accurately reflects the ethnic makeup of its mileu with the primary characters largely being non-white.'

duncan said...

I usually rationalize Burn Notice's erasure of racism, sexism, or U.S. imperialism by deciding that Michael would probably not want to be a spy if he was aware of such problems, thus removing an important source of conflict for the plot.

Jeremy H. Boob, Ph.D. said...

Came over via link from Jim Henley. I enjoy Burn Notice, mostly because I grew up watching spy movies in the 80s. I remember enjoying The Equalizer back then, too.

I see the problems with Burn Notice that you point out, but I interpret them through the critique of hard boiled detective stories that I read in the '90s in college, for my Women's Studies 101 class (the critique, not the detective stories). There is no way for the lone, marginal hero, surrounded by other weirdoes, to take on the system. Our hero/heroine can only do battle with corrupt individuals. To take on the system in fiction would mean writing a different kind of story, i.e. The Wire.

And I say all of this as a person of color who grew up with internalized racism (including self-hatred).

Jeremy H. Boob, Ph.D. said...

Oh, and doesn't Gabrielle Anwar count as a person of color in some sense? Her father is Tariq Anwar. She's Anglo-Indian like me.