Heroic roles

My previous entry was, for the most part, meant as a parody/satire/joke. It is, in fact, a comment I hung over in a Heroes thread on some other blog... Unqualified Offerings, I think. As always, the blogger there, and his usual posse, ignored the comment utterly, but, still, I thought it was cool enough to transplant over here.

While the comment was meant to be unserious, it also, I think, raises some interesting points. So, mostly for my own amusement, I'm going to take a somewhat more in depth look at Heroes, specifically from the point of view of what the character design there seems to be saying about how gender and race roles are perceived by our society in general.

Mind you, I don't think there's any deliberate 'agenda' being presented in Heroes. What I do think is that the creators and designers of the show are immersed in our culture to the extent that they simply never questioned certain preconceived social stereotypes. They take for granted, on an emotional, preconscious level, that certain specific cultural myths about gender and race behavior are truthful. And I think this is evident in how the characters and the plotlines of the show are shaped and presented to us.

First, let's take a look at the female characters on the show. How many do we have? Well, there's Nikki, the schitzo ex-alkie stripper; Claire, the indestructible cheerleader: Eden, the petite brunette with the irresistible voice; Simone, the hot black chick who sleeps with two different guys; and Charlie, the perky redheaded waitress with the photographic memory. Those are the major female players we've seen to date. Minor women -- Claire's mom; Heidi Petrelli, the crippled wife of Nathan, the flying politician; Mohinder's mom, who only exists to provide expository dialogue; Mohinder's ex girlfriend, who exists for the same purpose; Matt's FBI partner, Matt's wife, and Ma Petrelli, Nathan and Peter's mom.

Is that it? I think so.

Okay. Looking over all of these fictional chicks, what is the one thing they all have in common? Well, other than their femininity, really, nothing. But every one of them except for Nikki and Eden do share at least one particular trait -- their roles in this show are completely subordinate to that of at least one other male character. They do not act; they are acted upon. They do not initiate, they respond -- always to something a male character has done. Their roles are entirely supportive, or obstructive, but always entirely dependent on and accessory to, the men.

No, really, take a sec and think about it. Claire does nothing except respond to things that the male characters around her do. Her father grounds her; she goes to her room and stays there until a male friend comes and breaks her out. This is the same male friend who, prior to this, has arranged for Claire to win a local popularity contest.

Now, Claire does break this otherwise invariable routine when she actually initiates retaliatory action against the local football jock who sexually assaulted her, and whom she has since found out is a serial rapist. However, unfortunately, even in this single, anomolous act, Claire is ultimately ineffective -- the guy is taken out of action for a while, but it's clear he's unrepentent and will continue his creepy sex offending just as soon as he gets his casts off. The person who eventually stops him, resolving the actual issue for Claire, and all those other female helpless victims, is Claire's father, who is, of course, A Powerful White Man. So, even on not just the rare, but the only occasion that a sane female character does initiate a plan of action, she fails to achieve her objective, and has to have her mess cleaned up for her by someone with an actual penis... which, of course, is typical Claire, something that eventually culminates when she has to be rescued from Sylar by Peter, despite the fact that Peter actually has no super powers.

In summation, Claire takes NO action that isn't a response to something some guy has already done or suggested to her; her actions are entirely subordinate to those of the men around her. In fact, Claire's entire purpose in the story so far has been as a plot device -- 'Save the cheerleader, save the world'. Her very visual identity is linked to her role as cheerleader, which is, in and of itself, an entirely subordinate, support position to traditionally male athletes. Finally, her super power is an entirely passive and non threatening one... a dynamic that is familiar to any fan of Silver Age superhero comics.

Simone -- honestly, I have no idea what purpose she serves in this plot, except to provide another minority character and serve as a romantic interest/sexual receptacle for two of the guys. By definition, her role is entirely subordinate to, supportive of, and responsive to various male characters. About the only significant thing she has done to date is provide Peter with a necessary photograph, and she only had to do that because Nathan destroyed the original piece of art that the photo had been taken of. She is, at best, a female enabler for a stronger, more active and aggressive male character. At worst, she's a handy sperm bank for the same male characters. She's also portrayed as being somewhat promiscuous and completely baffled about her emotional preferences, which helps to underscore how powerless and inept she is. And of course, she has no super powers.

Charlie -- sweet, helpful, kind, straightforward, earnest, and, ultimately, just the latest in a string of Sylar victims and a plot device to help Hiro's character development. Like Claire, her super power is/was entirely passive and non threatening, and now, she's dead... one of two main characters from the show who have been murdered by the central villain since its inception, neither of whom possessed a penis. Bummer for them.

The other female characters I've listed are all supporting characters, which is fine, but without exception, they all support male characters. There isn't a single one of these female supporting characters who is defined by her own persona or actions or even by her relationship to another female character. They are all defined as accessories to male characters. As just one example, let's look at the female FBI agent who is partnered with telepathic cop Matt. Her only apparent purpose for existing at all is so she can facilitate Matt's successes. She gets him into difficult situations, makes a mess out of resolving them, and he bails her out. And that's ALL she does.

Oh, but wait... there's another female supporting character I've left out... Claire's cheerleader 'friend'. She was bitchy, nasty, mean, aggressive, and defined by her relationship to a female rather than a male character... and... gee... she's dead now. But that's probably just a coincidence.

There are, of course, two female characters on the show who are (or were) exceptions to all this; who are (or were) anything but passive, subordinate, and/or relegated to support roles. These are (or were) characters who were very much defined by their own personalities and actions, who have powers, and whose super powers are/were aggressive, impressive, and confrontational.

I'm talking, of course, about Eden and Nikki. Certainly, these are characters that completely disrupt my central thesis regarding universal feminine portraits in submissive male accessorization. And yes, that's absolutely true. But let's look more closely at both of them.

First, Eden was, indeed, perhaps the most powerful character on the show, with the ability to mentally dominate pretty much anyone who could hear her voice. Yet from the start, she's played subordinate, enabling roles to male characters -- first Mohinder, then later it was revealed she was pretty much a lackey to Claire's dad, and at his bidding, she played enabler to the guy who paints the future, even though she expressly didn't want to do it. As we saw in the flashback episode, when she was off doing her own thing, she was a complete mess -- out of control, self destructive, and frankly scary; she clearly needed a firm, guiding hand to help her get her act together, and of course, it was a male character who provided it.

And, of course, her last decision as a non-corpse was the disastrous one to go up against perhaps the most powerful male character on the show, which she did completely on her own, without permission from any guy. What a silly little girl. Honestly, she should have known better.

As to Nikki, well, she's a complete head case. Yeah, the last thing she is is subordinate to any man anywhere, and she's certainly not passive or non-threatening. Her super power is aggressive and powerful and violent and domineering; she kicks ASS! However, she's also completely deranged, and it's important to remember, the sane Nikki is not only passive, non-threatening, and subordinate to another male character, she actually takes her clothes off for men on the Internet for a living.

Taken all together, ALL the women on this show make a powerful, persuasive statement about feminine behavior, which can be boiled down as follows: a decent, sane, proper woman is deferential to and supportive of men, and is never, ever aggressive, empowered, or threatening in any way. When women act out their own agendas on this show, when women behave in an aggressive fashion, when women exert themselves, when women attempt to directly effect their surrounding environments rather than acting through a more powerful man, they are inevitably shown as being crazy, out of control, menaces to themselves and others... and, they are almost immediately punished for it, too. Or, at the very least, they make a horrible botch of it and need some man to come along and clean up after them, the poor dears.

As a thought experiment, try this -- take any of the male characters and try to visualize what the show would be like if those characters were female, instead. Suppose, for example, that instead of Claire's father owning his own business and secretly running a covert program tracking and studying and recruiting metahumans, Claire's mother was running all that stuff instead. (Imagine her dad spends all his time clucking over Mr. Muggles and making cupcakes with his daughter.) How does that feel? It doesn't seem comfortable or natural to us, because, well, in our culture, that's an aggressive, dominant, powerful role, and those roles go to men.

Things become similarly uncomfortable when we try to reimagine any of the male characters this way. Suppose Nathan and Peter were older and younger sisters instead of brothers. Visualize a powerful female politician driving her car home from a family function, her husband in the passenger seat. They're forced off the road and the husband is crippled while the female politician discovers that apparently she has the power to fly. How would that play to us? The younger sister rushing over to the hospital, where the older sister's husband is being operated on? The older sister responding angrily when the doctor advises that her husband will be in a wheelchair for life? Seems... wrong, somehow, doesn't it? Why? Because men aren't supposed to get crippled? Because women aren't supposed to drive when there's a guy available to do it for them? Because only single dyke chicks are supposed to run for office in the first place?

Again -- women on Heroes are supportive of, and subordinate to, their men. Or they're violent psychotic lunatics. Or they're dead. There's no other option for them.

That's gender. Now, let's take a look at how race is portrayed on Heroes -

We have (had) sixteen main characters (more or less) on the show -- Mohinder, Eden, Nikki, Micah, D.L., Claire, Claire's dad, Peter, Nathan, Isaac, Simone, Matt, Hiro, Endo, the Mysterious Haitian... and Sylar. Mohinder is Indian, Simone, D.L., Micah and the Mysterious Haitian are to normal American perceptions black, Hiro and Endo are Japanese, Isaac is... I don't know what he is, but he seems vaguely Semitic, at least... the rest are pretty much white.

That's 7 white people, 8 non-white. Now let's look at them in terms of behavior and characterization.

Mohinder is essentially ineffectual and powerless. He opens and closes each episode with narrative, presumably from his father's book. We keep being told he's extremely intelligent, but everything he's done to date has been based on something his father did before him. He hasn't actually managed to accomplish anything at all on his own yet. Mostly, he seems to be more of a narrative device than a character. And, oddly, while the Japanese guys get to speak in Japanese with English subtitles, Mohinder and all the Indian supporting characters always speak in English with British accents, like they've all escaped from a Harry Potter movie. Even when they're in India.

The black characters -- Micah is little more than something to motivate his mother and father. D.L. and the Mysterious Haitian are scary, violent, criminal black men. Their powers are extremely threatening and unsavory -- D.L. can walk through walls (a black man who can COME RIGHT THROUGH YOUR WALL! Lock up the silver, Maw!), while the Mysterious Haitian can shut down your super powers and steal your memories. And despite being subconsciously menacing, D.L. is also overtly ineffective and wimpy -- his criminal plan gets hijacked by his crazy wife, and all we ever see him do is either run away, hide, or get his ass kicked.

The Mysterious Haitian, on the other hand, has never been anything except a silent lackey to a white guy.

Simone is, like Micah, little more than a plot device, has no powers, and as she's a woman, is entirely subordinate to the more powerful men all around her, in every conceivable way up to and including sexually.

The Japanese guys -- Hiro seems to be everyone's favorite character so far, and he's enormously powerful, I grant you. And he's very brave and very dedicated to the whole heroic ideal thing. Plus he's an ubergeek, and who wouldn't love that? But despite his likability and enthusiasm, he's been largely ineffective and, for the most part, a failure at nearly everything he has set out to do. The most effective thing he has done to date he hasn't actually done yet -- come back in time from the future and warn Peter to 'save the cheerleader'. And that one victory for Hiro involved him enabling another character's actions -- a Caucasian character.

Endo is entirely defined by his relationship with Hiro, and barely counts as anything but a plot device. He has no super powers and no reason to exist whatsoever except to provide expository dialogue.

Isaac is, straight up, just another plot device. That's all he's ever been. I admit, the writers have used him and his powers in consistently clever ways, but to date he hasn't done anything except get high, paint pictures, get kidnapped, paint pictures, escape, paint pictures... and whine a lot.

Now, the white folks on the show are rather different. Take Nathan, for example. He's got a very cool power, one that probably a majority of humans alive on the planet have fantasized about at one time or another -- flying. In one of the most memorable sequences on this show, we saw him fly at supersonic speeds. Who wouldn't want to do that? Nothing menacing or scary or threatening there. And, yeah, he's kind of a sleazy, manipulative politician who sleeps around on his wife, but at least he's a powerful man who can get things done.

Peter apparently has the ability to temporarily absorb the superpowers of other metahumans who are nearby. Potentially, this is the most powerful single ability we've seen yet. Peter is also the most actively heroic of all the characters; even knowing he's likely going to die, he still sets out to rescue Claire from Sylar. What a guy! Of course, he's white.

Claire -- well, she's female, so of course she herself and her power are both passive and non threatening, but still, what a cool power! And she's a pretty pleasant person; not at all scary or menacing or criminal or like that.

Matt doesn't seem to be all that powerful, but, well, despite the fact that he's constantly surrounded by women who outrank him, or women who supposedly love him and who are trying to make him happy, nonetheless, it always turns out that he's right and they're wrong and that's just the way that is. The only time some chick makes him do anything he doesn't want to do, it's Eden, and we saw what happened to her, and it serves her right for being a bossy bitch and having the balls to go up against a man anyway... at least, without orders from another man.

Nikki kicks the ass off of everyone -- her dad, her husband, her husband's gangbanger buddies, bad ass poker players, creepy thugs who work for Mr. Linderman -- you get in her way, she'll rip your spine out and tie her hair back with it. Of course, since she's a woman, this kind of behavior means she must be dangerously insane, but still, she's definitely a powerful, aggressive character who makes things happen all around her. She must be white.

Claire's dad is the ultimate power player in this heroic fantasy. He's the guy behind every scene who's running everything. No powers of his own, but the black guy who can erase memories and the white chick who can control minds do whatever he says. Did I say he had no powers of his own? Nay, True Believer, he has the ultimate power... he's white, and has a penis. None can withstand him!

Eden... sadly, she's dead now, and that's what you get, when you make the mistake of being a powerful woman on Heroes and trying to do something without direct orders from someone with a penis. Oh sure, she could have lived long and prospered in her subordinate role to a non-super powered but very dominant white guy, but as soon as she decided to get all pro-active and take care of business on her own, she was doomed. What a silly, silly bitch. Well, that's what girls get, when they don't have a man around to tell them what to do. Even the indestructible Claire needed to be rescued by a guy with no powers of his own, let's remember.

And then there's Sylar. Without a doubt, the most powerful single character on the show. Yeah, he's crazy, yeah, he's murderous, yeah, he's clearly the work of a writer who has read Watchmen a few dozen more times than is actually healthy, but, still... when it comes to being effective, dominant, and working your will on your surrounding environment, Sylar is... well... he's The Man, baby. And more than that, he's a white man, of course.

Here's another thought experiment -- try to imagine how different the show would be if Claire, for example, was black. This would mean (probably) that her dad would be black as well (although, as she's adopted, this wouldn't be absolutely necessary). Still, try to imagine how different the show would feel if Claire and her father were black rather than white. Or if Nathan and Peter were black. Or if any of them were Asian. How about making the Matt character Hispanic? Think how differently you'd feel about him, if he was a Latino cop who could read your mind.

Of course, I'm perfectly aware that if Sylar were anything but white, someone out there would be screaming about that, too. Still, the fact remains -- just as the female characters on Heroes are all subordinate to male characters, or punished for not being that way, so too are the non-white characters on Heroes all either scary, or inept, or subordinate to white characters, or some combination of all three.

Of course, in the latest episode, we find the Mysterious Haitian getting uppity. I'll bet Sylar saws his head open pretty skippy for that.

Whatever the case, while I don't believe that there is any actual conscious agenda on the part of the show's writers to actively promote these themes or subtexts, I do believe that the show powerfully reinforces certain stereotypes nonetheless... most likely because the creators, producers, and writers simply accept such things blindly and unthinkingly, with no more heed to the milieu they believe they are accurately reflecting than a fish is of the water all around it.

But it's a pity, because on this particular level, it's crappy writing leading to poor fiction . Heroes is, or should be, excellent science/speculative fiction; it is, literally, a fictional construct that speculates on what the social and cultural fall out might be if superhumans were to appear among us, due to some mysterious evolutionary leap. Such a show shouldn't reinforce our stereotypes, it should smash them; it should be iconoclastic rather than conservative. It should take the standard cultural ideas of gender or ethnic role behavior and turn them on their head; these are extraordinary people whose very existence will change the world as we know it, and there's really no excuse for such a show to be woven out of the same old hackneyed fabric of dominant white guy/subordinate chick and non-white person cliches we can see everywhere else in our popular entertainments.

If any show should be subversive, should explore new ideas and original paradigms and completely explode or discredit the standard nonsense we get everywhere else, it really should be this one. We should have a black guy who can fly faster than the speed of sound while running for Senate; a powerful Indian woman who can manipulate time and space and who can set out to change history and accomplish it, too; an Asian female telepath who routinely makes fools of her male partners and superiors, a mysterious woman with powerful male subordinates who runs a covert operation for studying and recruiting metahumans while trying to protect her adopted son from his own destiny. Why not? It's actually good writing to go against stereotype like this; when we are uneasy and uncomfortable as an audience without knowing why, when the cliches we subconsciously take for granted are challenged and inverted, we are stimulated and engaged and on the edge of our seats because we don't know what's going to happen next.

It's not that Heroes is a bad show, not by any means. And certainly, it excels in many areas -- characterization, and keeping its audience guessing from one week to the next, being primary among them. And I suppose it's somewhat to someone's credit that such a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic cast of characters was created in the first place. It's just a pity that so much of it seems to be so (consciously or otherwise) designed to subtly reassure all the white guys in the audience that they really are still the dominant force in the universe.

Still, I can't help but think that this show could have been a great deal more than it is, if only someone had just taken a look at the list of characters and asked themselves "well, why can't this character be female instead of male? Or black instead of white? Or why can't the Asian guy actually manage to do something, instead of having the white guy make the rescue?"

It's a decent show. As a white guy myself, I find I enjoy it quite a lot. But it really could have been a great deal more. And it's a pity it won't be.

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