‘Under the Dome,’ Representation, and Scary Boyfriends

Earlier this week, the pilot for the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome aired. Ever since learning that Brian K. Vaughan was developing the series, I’ve been looking forward to it. I’ve never read any of King’s novels, but because I exist in this universe, I’ve seen plenty of the numerous adaptations of his work. In general, I’ve enjoyed them, though there is certainly a wide range of quality. While the better adaptations have showcased the qualities that have made King’s work classic popular fiction, I have always noticed that white men tend to be at the center of his stories. While female characters are often fairly well-developed, they are usually secondary characters, commenting on the action rather than advancing it. And I really can’t think of any significant people of color in any of (the adaptations of) his work, which I’m sure is at least partly due to King’s penchant for stories about rural Maine.

With that in mind, I was curious to see what Vaughan would do with these predominately white, male primary characters. As the writer for critically-acclaimed comics that also have an good track record with gender and racial representation, I was pretty sure that Under the Dome wouldn’t end up being a totally whitewashed show where only the men are active. In interviews, Vaughan expresses a thoughtfulness in his writing decisions, which is always an admirable trait in a writer.  (He also wrote for Lost, which, for all its failings, did a decent job with representation.)

So far, it seems that my suspicions have been correct. While our Chiseled Brooding Antihero, who seems thus far at the center of the story, is as white as can be, other casting decisions have been pretty impressive. So far, we have a Latina cop, who, though she seems pretty tough in her own way, isn’t a Fiery Sassy Latina. We have an alternative radio station operated by a black man and an Asian woman (who is also fat, which is so so great. I have no idea when I last saw a fat woman on TV). We have an interracial lesbian couple with a teenage daughter. We have all this truly diverse representation, with every character so far seeming three-dimensional rather than defined by their race, gender, or sexuality, AND it’s all happening in a rural town. With the exception of the couple with the daughter, all of these people are from Chester’s Mill. Often TV shows think of “rural” as code for “white,” which is both factually inaccurate and just an excuse to keep casting only white people.  (Shout out to my home state, North Carolina, for acting as the filming location. I’m going to just imagine this as Chester’s Mill, NC and no one can stop me.)

Ok, so I’ve established that the quality of representation is good. But what about the actual story? you might be asking. The pilot did an commendable job establishing both the premise of the show (in short: an invisible dome falls over part of a town), and the personalities, situations, and proclivities of the characters. After 45 minutes, I feel like I know some of these characters better than I knew most of the characters after two seasons of The Walking Dead.

While there is a certain hokeyness that is nearly impossible to avoid when the show takes place in Small Town America, I’m hoping that the hints of conspiracy and corruption will manifest in a way that complicates the diners-and-sheriffs vibe of the town. Already, we have been exposed to the idea that not all parts of town are created equal, especially because of the lack of medical care in one section of the town. I’m hoping that, in the future, the show makes more attempts to subtly expose the dangerous, structural inequalities of American life that the show’s premise could easily consider.

The huge black mark on the pilot was the subplot with Junior. (Arr, here be spoilers.) When we first meet Angie and her boyfriend Junior, it seems as though they are two happy young lovers. As the scene progresses, we see that that is clearly not the case. Angie is uninterested in a serious relationship with Junior, who says he loves her and is dropping out of college to stay in Chester’s Mill. He says he has loved her since the third grade and that she’s the only one who knows the real him. She responds, “and that’s why I can’t be with you,” suggesting that Junior is not the sweet romantic he appears to be.

Then come a few moments that are hard to watch. As Angie is walking away from him, Junior grabs her arm, trying to forcibly pull her back to him. She cries out in pain, and hits him. It’s unclear, though seems likely, that this is the first time something like this has happened. Later, Junior sees Angie talking outside of the hospital to our Chiseled Brooding Antihero named Barbie and decides, as all normal boyfriends in healthy relationships tend to, that he should kidnap her and lock her in his father’s underground bunker.

The violence between Angie and Junior was, for me, the most disturbing part of the pilot. It’s the only truly questionable part of the story so far, and, given Vaughan’s thoughtfulness as a writer, I’m hoping that Angie’s kidnapping becomes more than voyeuristic titillation or an opportunity to fridge a female character. I’m also a little worried that the show’s viewers will misread Junior as some kind of misunderstood bad boy, while somehow blaming Angie for her own kidnapping. I’ve already seen reviews that describe Junior as “troubled.” From where I’m standing, he’s an abusive boyfriend.

Uncomfortable subplot aside, I look forward to seeing whether the show lives up to its casting choices and explores structural inequality and corruption through its premise. I’m also hoping for some more snappy, BKV dialogue like this:

Joe: “You think the government built this thing?”

Barbie: “Doubt it.”

Joe: “Why?”

Barbie: “It works.”

-Joanna

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Mara and Our Toxic Future

In the criminally under-discussed miniseries Mara, writer Brian Wood and artist Ming Doyle tell a superhero origin story that explores the consequences of celebrity culture, militarization, and the effects of a world that runs on both.

There is so much I love, that is perfect about this book. I’m an unashamed Ming Doyle fangirl, and am beginning to love Brian Wood as well. The fifth issue (of six) came out this week, and it did not disappoint. Every month I’ve wondered where this brilliant story was going, with its understated tone and thoughtful pacing. How would Mara choose to use her newly-discovered superpowers?

Unlike the superheroes of the Big Two, Mara Prince exists in a stark, realistic version of Earth’s future. When the story begins, Mara is a superstar volleyball player, in a future where athletes armed with billion-dollar endorsements play each other for the glory of their countries.

The first game we see Mara playing is sponsored by Uninational Oil and Gas, the Army, “and with platinum sponsorship by the Grand Colonial Heritage fund, and the Pax Organization for Excellence in Physical Fitness.” These sponsors are an interesting collection of organizations, and their involvement speaks volumes about Mara’s world. The book makes a telling connection between sports culture and the military, one that reflects the realities of our world.

The narration in the first issue sets up the link between corporations, the military, sports, and celebrity culture: “When Mara Prince was a toddler the world was consumed with endless wars, crumbling economies, and destructive racial divides. The nation compensated with an almost hyper-exaggeration on sports and physical prowess… Corporations flourished as advertising and merchandising took off. Enlistment in the armed forces similarly benefitted…”

The world of Mara is one I can easily picture as a future version of our own. There is a lot of dystopian fiction in film and literature right now, and not all of it explores the unpleasant realities of our present through the suggestion of our future (which is kind of the point of dystopias, but I digress). Mara is unafraid to force us to think about how our world might be creating that of Mara Prince, how we ourselves might be implicated in this future. Furthermore, this future seems thoroughly possible, given the way that athletes, militarism, corporations, and the actions of all three seem almost sacred in our world.

Perhaps the most unthinkable aspect of this sports culture is that it includes women. Mara is not simply a superstar in her marginalized women’s league. Mara is the most famous, the most beloved, the most sought-after athlete in the world. Despite how terrifying this sports culture is, I love that Brian Wood envisioned a future where women’s athleticism is valued. And I love that, despite this, this world and its sports and celebrity cultures are still toxic. Worshiping female athletes isn’t necessarily better than worshiping male athletes.

In many ways, the amount of control that corporations and governments (and their militaries) have over their celebrities is best criticized and explored through the usage of a female protagonist. While male celebrities also are forced into a constant spotlight, female celebrities are scrutinized at a more exacting level. This scrutiny is exaggerated in Mara’s world; Mara is trained from the age of 2, and, once she begins showing signs of her superpowers, is coerced into being studied as a weapon for the military.

Eventually, rejecting the commodification and weaponization of her self and image, Mara goes rogue (I’ll leave out the details for anyone who hasn’t read the most recent issue). In a brilliant, chilling monologue, Mara condemns this world for treating her like a “threat,” and for trying to take from her “my body, my soul, and my freedom.” Having a woman assert her physical and psychological autonomy in such a powerful and, frankly, quietly angry way is exciting and refreshing.

In conclusion, pick up this book! It’s a fresh, interesting, beautifully rendered meditation on our world and what it may become.

-Joanna

Fantasy’s Race Problem and Racism IRL

Hiya, everyone! I hope you’re liking our new look, and if you’re so inclined, feel free to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr. As you can see, we’re planning a full-on takeover of the interwebs. Without further ado, here is our return post!


A problem I’ve always had with high fantasy is the way that entire races of sentient creatures apparently share character traits. I can accept that it’s possible to generalize about people who live in a particular region, because cultures shape our attitudes and behaviors. (As long as those generalizations stop at comments like, “Germans really like being punctual” or “Chinese culture is more collectivist than the US’s individualist culture.” Obviously people can also make pretty harmful generalizations, that dance along or outright cross the border of racism.) These aren’t rules that are set in stone, but rather observations that aren’t necessarily meant to be applied to every single individual within a culture.

However, high fantasy’s racial attributes tend to transcend geographic or cultural location and, perhaps more dangerously, reflect the moral and ethical outlook of an individual within this race. This means that, within fantasy worlds, the goodness or evil of an individual is predetermined by her or his race. Within the context of these fantasy worlds, we accept this, because the rules have been laid out for us. When reading fantasy novels, watching fantasy movies and TV shows, or playing fantasy RPGs, there is a certain level of trust required on our part; we prefer fantasy worlds where things “make sense” given their internal logic. This means that all of us have, at some level, internalized the fact that in some worlds it is possible, even logical, for race to predestine an individual’s morality.

And I have to say, that’s really messed up. As I mentioned in my previous post, I didn’t really start to think about the implications of this until the out-of-character casual racism of certain D&D party members was juxtaposed with the in-game comments NPCs made about specific races. My party encountered a Rakshasa (essentially a tiger person), who was running an orphanage where everyone seemed suspiciously happy. As the DM and various NPCs made clear, the peculiarity of the orphanage was emphasized by the fact it was being run by a Rakshasa, who are typically evil. Despite this apparent racial red flag, I tried my best to have my character ignore the fact that the orphanage owner is a Rakshasa, because I’m pretty tired of racism getting a free pass in fantasy worlds. (That part of the story hasn’t been concluded yet, and I’m hoping that this character turns out to be good.)

Of course, the major race that isn’t associated with rigid moral attributes, that is allowed ethical ambiguity and individual alignment, is human. And human, in most fantasy worlds, isn’t much more than shorthand for “white.” White is seen as the default in storytelling, but it is especially typical of fantasy to create various nations of diverse white people, including other humans and their countries and cultures as background noise or obstacles for the white protagonists to overcome. The attribution of rigid racial characteristics is especially problematic given the freedom humans have to be good, evil, or neutral as they will.

If we allow ourselves to settle for fantasy worlds that dictate behaviors and morality by race, are we settling for a real world that is unconcerned with allowing any individual of any race the opportunity to be as good or as evil as they wish to be? Are we suggesting that race can determine a person’s ethical core? It seems that way. While race, like gender, certainly influences the way that we as individuals see the world, it’s not because it’s encoded that way through our melanin count. It’s because, living in the society we live in, race is still important. Racism and white privilege are constants. But while race may affect our perceptions of the world, it does not provide us with the ethical blueprints that high fantasy provides for its non-human races.

The two casually racist members of my D&D group think they can get away with saying offensive things about Martin Luther King Boulevards and Latinas wearing lipliner, because within the internal logic of their world, that’s fine. It’s not racism if you aren’t wearing a white hood or throwing a brick through someone’s window. While my boyfriend and I use our characters to stop NPCs from making casual comments that reinforce this fantasy world’s racist logic, we are also getting better at trying to get those players to understand that we aren’t going to tolerate out-of-game racism either. We refuse to allow the racism of fantasy worlds to reinforce the racism of real life.

Perhaps it doesn’t seem important, given the pervasiveness and dangerousness of real-life racism. Perhaps it seems frivolous to suggest these instances of RPG racism have lasting consequences in our lives. But I can’t help noticing that my D&D party is equally indifferent to NPCs asking my character “what’s a Kalashtar doing here?” and to someone suggesting that black people are dangerous. The logic of fantasy worlds does not create racism or sexism, but rather reflects the mindset of the society in which it is made. In a society so mired with racism, it is no wonder that our fantasy worlds, the ones we escape to, the ones we dream in, would maintain even stricter racial laws than are possible in real life.

-Joanna

Geekalitarian is back!

This time, with 100% more snark and incisive commentary!

I suppose I should begin by apologizing on behalf of myself and Bat Cat for disappearing for so long without notice. Finishing my thesis on top of, well, trying to get in some sleep and live a normal life and what not, made it nearly impossible to find the time not just to write for the blog, but also to do the required things that give me topics and issues to write about.

I’ve missed the blog. I’d gotten used to having a mouthpiece for my frustrations, a place to articulate and formulate my stances on social issues and more frivolous geeky problems. Although geekalitarian is still a pretty small mouthpiece, writing here has made me feel braver (even as I hide behind only my first name) and more useful. I feel more comfortable calling out problematic things in real life, without worrying about alienating people. The experiences I’ve gained here have helped me to remember that people who are upset or offended when I call out sexism and racism probably aren’t people whose opinions of me should matter very much.

This brings me to the teaser for our first, post-hiatus post: how the attribution of rigid racial characteristics in high fantasy helps to normalize racism in real life. A few months ago, my D&D group started playing with a couple who I now define by their casual racism. At the same time, (presumably by coincidence) our DM has been ascribing more moral/immoral racial traits to NPCs. It’s become common for an NPC to say something like, “Never trust a [member of some ‘evil’ race].” By responding, in character, with a joking-but-not-joking “That’s racist!” I feel (perhaps absurdly) more able to confront the IRL racism of people I’m supposed to like. But more on that in the coming week or so!

We’re in the process of giving the site a makeover. (And I may even sort through the daunting mess that is the blog’s tags, with the intention of making them actually useful.) Once we’re done with that, expect regular weekly updates!

So, to long-time readers: It’s great to be back! And to new readers: Welcome, and enjoy your stay!

-Joanna