by guest contributor Harrison Chute
If you’ve seen The Knick on Cinemax, you’ve met Dr. Algernon Edwards, the genius surgeon with the skill to match our hero Dr. John Thackery. You’ve also noticed his blackness, and his story, in which he faces discrimination and outright hatred in this series set in the year 1900. He opens a clinic in the hospital basement in order to treat black patients, an early demonstration of his struggle. It is unfair, harrowing, and he becomes heroic, but where Thackery goes forward with issues of drug abuse and sociopathy, Edwards stays behind in that basement, still working up to that starting level of modern television protagonist. Before he’s deconstructed, he must be constructed in the first place, but hey — you had to give him something.
Almost every decade of the American 20th century, from 1900 to the 1990s, has been covered by a major cable drama, and given television’s recent trend toward diversity, where in the case of ABC comedies it seems like a mandate, we have characters like Edwards who represent stories that must be told, but are spoken with arcane vocabulary. Period dramas, for all their varied success otherwise, keep minority narratives in the past. These stories about black men and women in corsets, their struggles for equal place in society, are positive but essentially limited spheres of character and theme. Even still, they’ve become a crutch.
Take the element of homosexuality in Mad Men. The art director Salvatore Romano was an early favorite for viewers, because Weiner always lensed him sympathetically, and intimately. We understood him, and could then begin to understand his plight.
The story of Mad Men worked in whispers and subtle movements, such that Sal could maintain some agency as a character while still, though indirectly, supporting our understanding of the show’s focus, Don Draper. Sal is a wonderful character, and only becomes troubling with the introduction of his echo in Bob Benson.
Lest we conflate individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, the question that must be answered, is what does Bob offer us that Sal does not? Bob is the mystery character, again, a shade of Don Draper. He’s intriguing, and about as well-written and well-acted as anyone on the great drama, but he nevertheless finds himself a gay man in the 1960s — his primary definition, and a repeated idea. An idea that is so important, maybe, that to focus on another area of his character would dilute the message.
In the racially-charged second season of Masters of Sex, protagonist Bill Master’s wife Libby is particularly abusive toward a black nanny and shampoos the girl’s hair against her will. It’s a disturbing moment amidst suburban mise-en-scen, a credit to acting and directing, and it’s only the premise of this moment that’s in question. Of course, this is a moment apart from Edwards or Bob, because this nanny is not the subject of the scene, and we’re only meant to consider our understanding of Libby here, that an exercise of her frustration is psychological violence, which will later be answered by interrogation of racist behavior.
Beyond any debate of agency or the delicateness with which the writers are demonstrating a point, with this depiction of victimhood we are dwelling on outdated imagery. The show is unquestionably indicting it (as if there’s an alternative), but within the context of greater television, this is a contribution to an ongoing, subconscious message regarding oppression: being so prevalent, victimhood is normalized, even as an instrument of criticism. We’re stalled out, dwelling on weakness and vulnerability. Black people are victims – well, of course. Again, there’s value there, but audience-members who might identify with this black nanny on grounds of gender or race shouldn’t be made to think there’s nothing else, while the rest of the cast gets to have all the fun.
The screen is political by nature, and its image has a normalizing power. This is so pressing because television right now, so character-focused, can have a powerful effect, bad or good. There are a number of revenge movies in which a normal guy becomes a monster, but it’s in the minutiae of Walter White that we find him as he’s remembered. We have an expanded temporal real estate here, and in this space, we can weave complex characterizations that at once define a character away from generic (as is traditional for the purpose of identification) and fulfill them as individuals.
On BBC America’s Orphan Black, we have Alison Hendrix, and while she may look like an ‘average soccer mom,’ an early mark of her character is that such a thing is mythology. A superficial read comes up with feisty, anxious suburbanite, but throughout the first season, layers are peeled away, and even she’s surprised to discover her destructive, true inner nature.
In a sense, Alison Hendrix is fighting the same fight as these period heroes/heroines, but in a way that normalizes a new archetype: the strong woman, rather than reiterating the old victim. It’s no longer: this woman is strong. No women in chains, no medieval prostitution, no rape.
Orphan Black is science-fiction, and so it projects into the future, asking ‘what if?’ in a number of ways. While that speculative nature of scifi is theoretically geared to this transcendent archetype, our period problem can be solved within its own paradigm. We’ve see these two genres share some common ground, such that our own past can be just as surprising as what’s to come.
Elsewhere on television, there are female Vikings, complex ad women, and revolutionary sex researchers, spanning eras in history. What matters is the choice of stories that are televised, because even though each decade might be covered by all of TV, there’s still some history left unseen.
However consolatory these settings of character might feel, they represent a step in the right direction. From here, to truly charge the imagination of the viewer, we must take a singular individual out of their limited surroundings and eclipse them in a world of possibility, which shouldn’t be so challenging, given the nature of fiction. We need to go beyond, and ally these old stories with new ones.