Thus revealed, the creature buried its nose in the tire-tilled soil...
March 11, 2016
Legends of Tomorrow and racism
Category: Serious … TV, Film, & DVDs

So last night's episode of Legends of Tomorrow was actually encouraging.

My main problem with the show is that it's essentially a live-action children's cartoon. Now, in principle, there's nothing wrong with that -- with such a large cast of characters, it's arguably the "natural" tone for such a show -- but the show's premise (and much of the content) is dark enough that the style clash -- in one scene the characters will be having a heated argument about some exceedingly trivial matter (often a perceived slight); in another someone is being beaten bloody in a Russian gulag -- just doesn't work for me. It might be a better show if the characters were committed to simply "stopping" Vandal Savage from finally conquering the world in 2166; instead their express goal is to use their ability to travel in time to corner and execute Savage at some prior date. Also, like a cartoon, characters consistently abandon feasible approaches because they didn't work in a single instance. In the opening episode, for example, the heroes learn that Savage must be injured in a particular way (and by a specific character) in order to be killed, so they reason that the best course of action will be to defeat him as a team and then have that character deal the final blow when Savage is incapacitated. Good plan, though it fails (badly) in that particular outing. Yet in a later episode, one character (who has previously been shown to be a capable yet not superior combatant) manages to single-handedly defeat Savage and plunge a knife into Savage's throat -- an incapacitating blow to say the least, following which they might have done anything to neutralize his threat -- yet the heroes just walk away, leaving Savage there gushing blood and swearing bloody vengeance.

Since the show involves time travel -- and since the show does so much so badly -- I'd been dreading the inevitable episode in which the characters travel to a less-enlightened America and find themselves faced with overt and untempered racism. (I would never argue that racism doesn't exist today, but it is certainly less tolerated and encouraged than it was in our recent past.) And indeed that was last night's episode (which also touched on past -- and sadly still present -- attitudes towards homosexuals). But what I failed to account for is that children's cartoons in particular have very effective treatments of racism. (There are numerous other examples, but Teen Titans and My Little Pony immediately spring to mind.) When a children's cartoon spotlights racism, it does so only in order to explicitly and unequivocally *reject* racism -- which is sadly a response lacking from media that, in whatever respect, considers itself more mature. Legends of Tomorrow, however, is "mature" only in content: its tone and heart are very much that of a children's cartoon. And that, I think, is why it succeeded in this particular episode where so many other shows fail. In every single instance in which a character evinced bias against black characters, no character sadly looked away or excused the racism by taking into account the attitudes of the time period -- they repeatedly stood up for themselves and were supported by their white associates. Perhaps this would not *really* have been the most prudent course of action in 1958 (though, admittedly, that itself is probably a safer and more tolerant time than earlier decades) -- but the importance of positively rejecting racism outweighs whatever sense of historical accuracy is lost in doing so. And considering that this is a show in which a character in a clunky knockoff Iron Man suit shrinks to the size of an atom, realism was never really the primary concern anyway.

The treatment of racism, by the way, is a topic where Doctor Who failed miserably. As another time travel show, the Doctor has ventured to many periods in which black people would have been treated as inferior to their white counterparts. In the classic episodes, the show simply didn't deal with the issue at all -- either the episodes would have no black characters, or the black characters would be treated more/less the same as the whites -- which is just as well insofar as a writer, for whatever reason, doesn't feel up to engaging with racism in a story. But 2007's "Human Nature"/"Family of Blood" two-parter -- which notably took place during the season in which the Doctor traveled with a black female companion, Martha Jones -- had the Doctor travel to 1913 England and featured several instances during which other characters respond poorly to Martha because of the color of her skin. We understand that this is wrong, of course, but there is no triumphant rejection of these moments (even though she is consoled by a white character in one instance). Moreover, one of the most pronounced instances of racism toward Martha came from one of the ostensible "heroes" and a character that the Doctor, in his human guise, professes to love. Accordingly, the Doctor too -- the decidedly heroic 900-year-old alien who's interacted with so many different alien races and knows so much of the universe -- notably fails to stand up for Martha and reject the racism to which she is subjected. Moreover, while the serial itself only consists of two 45-minute episodes, we learn that she has endured this treatment for several months and so that -- as the episode states -- the Doctor could show "mercy" to an alien species committed to murdering innocents and possessing their bodies. Of course, this is one of the most celebrated episodes of Tennant's tenure as the Doctor, because it contains a love story about the Doctor and his choice to reclaim his Time Lord status costs him his chance at romantic bliss. The racism in it is condoned because the story takes place in 1913 and that is perhaps realistically in line with how blacks might have been treated a century ago. But that is not the treatment of the subject that belongs in a hero drama about a time-traveling alien.

Bravo, Legends of Tomorrow, for getting this one right.

-posted by Wes | 8:37 pm | Comments (0)
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