Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Playing Humanity Straight: The Essentialist Philosophy of Star Trek

When James T. Kirk encounters the man who would forever be known as his greatest villain, Khan Noonien Singh, we learn something about Earth history. In the late 20th century, humanity attempted to go beyond its physical limitations via genetic manipulation. The result was a breed of super-intelligent, super-strong people who had commensurate aggression and arrogance. The war between unaltered humans and these augments was the Eugenics War and it either caused or was a contributing factor to the world war that would send humanity into a post-apocalyptic dark age, only brought out by the work of Zefram Cochran. This caused all genetic manipulation to be banned in the Federation.

Fast forward a century or so and we learn that that ban has been slightly lifted. Genetic engineering is now acceptable as a corrective tool for people born with genetic defects. Enhancement beyond that is illegal and people who have been enhanced are second-class citizens at best and locked away at worst.

Consider also technological enhancement. Jean-Luc Picard has an artificial heart. Geordi LaForge has a visor that corrects his blindness. Yet we never see a single instance of a human who has used technology to augment their body in such a way that surpasses the limitations of a fully abled human. In fact, we have the Borg in stark contrast. More machine than biological, their individual abilities have surpassed any individual human but at the cost of individuality and freedom, rendering them nearly-unstoppable monsters.

Cloning is also questioned as being outside of the natural order of humanity. When the Enterprise-D encounters a lost colony who survived being wiped out via repeated cloning and the abandonment of sexual reproduction altogether, little effort is made to preserve their new entirely asexual culture. They are simply told to reproduce as per the biologically mandated norm in order to survive.

There's a common thread to all of these cautionary tales: there is a 'correct' humanity that needs to be preserved. Star Trek has often been hailed as an optimistic counterpoint to the tendency of sci-fi to pick holes in future tech and create doomsday scenario- but the show is actually quite clear in that it's only optimistic because humanity doesn't try to change essential aspects of its physiology. Indeed, there is an ideal human and technology is only there to 'raise' differently abled people to that standard and no further. Deviation from the biological norm is heavily discouraged.

With this in mind, it suddenly becomes even more dire that LGBTQ+ representation is practically non-existent on Star Trek and 100% non-existent among humans in Star Trek. The lack of representation takes a darker turn: perhaps it is this very basic essentialist view of humanity that precludes the existence of LGBTQ+ people. It's clear that the writers of Star Trek generally held this view- after all they wrote all of the cautionary tales of deviating from the norm. It doesn't take too much of a stretch to assume that this is also how they viewed LGBTQ+ people- a deviation to be discouraged and not represented. It seems as though, to the writers, this lack of representation in humanity is not a bug- it's a feature.

Consider the cultures in Trek that exist outside of a cis hetero gender binary. The aforementioned clone colony from "Unnatural Selection", the agender species in "The Outcast", the three-sex species in "Cogenitor". They all have something in common: they're antagonists and their antagonism is directly related to the fact that Federation humans have a moral complaint related to what makes them different. In general, this complaint stems from the fact that these cultures engage in patriarchal actions, but twisted to fit the mold of their different sexuality. Is this a flipping of the narrative of the damage of the patriarchy or is this a defense of the correct cis hetero patriarchy? If there were an example of such a culture that was presented sympathetically, perhaps that question would be easier to answer.

But there lies the greatest disservice the Trek writers did to the show. They simply didn't present those stories. They didn't allow themselves to explore those margins of the human experience in a positive way. They took an essentialist stance- one that knew what 'humanity' was without question and treated everything else as inhuman- even if those features were something already found within humanity.

Picture mildly related.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Necessary Whiteness of Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen

There are precious few superheroes whose whiteness I feel is an important aspect of their character. For the vast, vast majority, they are white as default and created and drawn in an era when the idea of making them anything but white would've been unthinkable- literally, no comic creators would think of it. Holding onto them as white is basically saying that we accept that enduring legacy of racism in our popular culture. That's because they have always been white, and obviously they must continue to be so- it's our heritage.

However, there are two men whose whiteness says something about them and about their roles as superheroes.

Bruce Wayne is a man who grew up with every single possible privilege afforded to him. His childhood was spent comfortably in the blanket of invulnerability that created for him. When that was shattered by the death of his parents, he turned to rage and vengeance. He looked at a world that damaged his own privileged perspective and demanded 'justice' for that crime.

Bruce Wayne, ladies and gentlemen.
It's notable that Bruce's initial quest was not to be a crimefighter- he merely wanted to punish the man who killed his parents, Joe Chill. Generally, he doesn't get this revenge- other people tend to kill Chill before Bruce has a chance, frustrating his quest and redirecting his rage. He no longer has a clear target, but someone needs to be held accountable.

As a result, he uses his vast wealth to be the Batman. Batman is a force of fear and legend. The intent is that the possible consequence of brutal violence at the hands of a masked vigilante will cure the city of its criminals. These people who commit crimes need to be punished swiftly and without question. It is inherently the logic of the white male who thinks society itself has wronged him by allowing these people to exist. Bruce Wayne is a man who faced tragedy and instead of asking how and why it happened, demanded that other people suffer for him. He asks society how it can rebuild his fortress of privilege.

In contrast, take the other essentially white man in question: Oliver Queen. Again, his whiteness is intrinsically tied to his privilege and how that informs his personality and his goals. Like Bruce, he comes from a whole dang lot of money. After being stranded on a desert island and forced to survive on nothing but himself, he developed skills by necessity (not anger, unlike Bruce)- skills he would have to use to destroy criminal organizations based on the island.

He returns to Star City to fight crime as an adventurer, the Green Arrow, but the more he explores the criminal side of his city, the less he sees it as adventure- he starts to understand the real core problems. He starts to empathize with those who are truly oppressed. He starts to see the systems of power keeping them that way and endeavors (with varying degrees of success) to fix them, both through his connections and money as Oliver Queen and by the point of an arrow as the Green Arrow. He's not acting out of rage- he's acting out of concern. Where Bruce asks society "How can you help repair my fragile feelings of privilege and masculinity?" Oliver asks "How can I help you repair yourselves with my privilege?" The (fantastic) Arrow TV show goes a step further- he returns from the island understanding that not only was he blinded by privilege, his privilege was actually quite directly causing the oppression of others. His family's wealth was built on the backs of other people and the systems that allowed that to happen, the people who caused it, were the things that needed to change- not the petty criminals who were created in that system. 

There's a lot put upon Bruce Wayne's psyche in that really, even when he's being Bruce, he thinks of himself as Batman. He's only in danger when he's Batman, when criminals and supervillains are aiming to kill him, when society shuns him as a vigilante. So it's telling that he chooses to internalize those feelings even when he's not wearing the suit- when he's actually just the richest whitest dude in Gotham and no one could possibly be a threat to him. In contrast, Oliver Queen adopts the Arrow persona, but is still essentially Ollie. He doesn't internalize that oppression and danger- he willingly takes it on to help people when he has to. He's a great contrast in every way.

It's not like I'll get up in arms if such a day ever passes that either is cast with a person of color. I'll actually be fine with it. But I do think there's something important said about both of them via the fact that they're white. It doesn't happen often with superheroes, but in these two particular cases, it actually works. 

Here's a picture of Stephen Amell shirtless.