TELEVISION IS A PLACE where we work through our cultural anxieties and project idealized versions of our selves. Even if no one really believed that Father Knows Best, it was comforting to imagine a benevolent patriarchal authority. As male series leads became more complex, viewers nonetheless inevitably sympathized with protagonists, seeing the good heart beneath the gruff surface of characters like All in the Family’s Archie Bunker. The recent era of “quality tv” has tested the limits of our belief in righteous masculine authority, compelling us to identify with compromised figures such as Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, and Walter White. Such male anti-heroes are championed despite acts of violence and morally compromised decisions, it seems, because they espouse a love of family that they claim as their only motivation. Recent (semi)-ironic performances of grief over the death of Walter White, for example, suggest how much we still want to believe that father really does know best, even though Vince Gilligan did all anyone could do to show us how Walt destroyed rather than protected his family, and did so solely to feed his own ego. So why do we continue to love male protagonists no matter what they do?
None of the heroes of current sf television could properly be described as anti-heroes in this mode, but male protagonists dominate even in ensemble shows. Agent Coulson is definitely “the dad” for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and this week he really did know best in trusting that one of his wayward children/agents didn’t go rogue as everyone else believed. It remains to be seen how much this series will continue to privilege traditional masculine agency, but I’m encouraged by the ongoing hints of an arc about a sinister side to Coulson’s return from the dead, and also by the fact that they avoided criminalizing their one African American character, guest star, Pascale Armand as a former agent Akela Amador. All the same, I’d like to see greater casting diversity on the show for characters who get to stick around – instead of be sent to institutions at the end of the episode, a fate Amador shares with J. August Richards’s Mike Peterson from the pilot episode. (As an aside, it was nice to see that the episode was directed by Roxann Dawson, known to sf fans as B’Elanna Torres on Star Trek: Voyager). Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is ambivalent about membership in a military organization, a discomfort that seems to be expressed largely through humor at the expense of Agent Ward, the most conventional character. I hope we’ll see the return of more of Whedon’s anti-establishment sensibilities as the series progresses, perhaps even a rejection of the patriarchal and hierarchal values of S.H.I.E.L.D, along the lines of Buffy’s reversal of the hierarchy between herself and the Watcher’s Council in season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Arrow explores a similar discomfort with the premises of its character, inherited from the comic book, expressed in tension about the gap between Oliver’s identity as a rich CEO and his role defending the poor as the vigilante. The series is promising in its focus on economic crimes and this season’s emphasis on The Glades, the impoverished neighborhood destroyed at the end of last season. This week Oliver faces off against Sebastian Blood, played by Kevin Alejandro of Southland fame: Blood is an Alderman speaking, he says, for the 99% who are forgotten by the city’s powerful, for the former residents of The Glades now without homes or workplaces. He challenges Oliver, in the guise of billionaire CEO of Queen Industries, to do more than pay lip service to the problems of the poor, and Blood capitalizes on Oliver’s absence from a charity event. Yet viewers know that Oliver fails to attend not because he doesn’t really care about the poor, as Blood claims, but because he is stopping criminals China White and Bronze Tiger from hijacking a FEMA truck of narcotics on its way to the hospital serving The Glades population. Arrow thus worries me in its representation of heroic white masculinity: like the fan reading of anti-heroes such as Walter White, Oliver is merely “misunderstood.” In his role as CEO, which he tellingly refers to as his “secret identity” while his crime-fighting alter-ego is his “real” one, Queen appears indifferent to those hurt by his family, but viewers know he really fights on the side of the poor. Yet, although the poor of The Glades feature frequently in Arrow as symbol, the only character from this socio-economic group to get any screen time is white Roy Harper, who it seems will give up his own vigilante activities.
Oliver in his role as masked hero, then, remains the only voice of the disenfranchised, unjustly criticized by the Latino Blood (who, I suspect, will be revealed to have a selfish agenda in later episodes, if the character returns), and fighting against further exploitation of the poor by Asian China White, played by Kelly Hu, and African American Bronze Tiger, played by Michael Jai White. The series seems to acknowledge the problems of its focus on heroic white masculinity in an argument between Oliver and his crime-fighting companions, computer-expert Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Richards) and former bodyguard John Diggle (David Ramsey). Oliver insists that they all need new “secret identities” as part of Queen Industries to facilitate their real work as crime fighters. Felicity vociferously objects to her demotion from the IT department to Oliver’s personal secretary, but he demurs that he has many reasons as CEO to speak to his secretary but not enough pretexts to consult IT. John merely wryly observes that he, too, has a less-than-heroic “secret” identity as Oliver’s “black driver.” Arrow thus recognizes the pitfalls of a show organized around a white, male, affluent lead speaking on behalf of the disenfranchised, but doesn’t know how to solve this problem. The fact that the other “secret identities” are defined in response to Oliver’s dominant one as CEO embodies the hierarchies they see but do not transcend.
Revolution is more promising in its gender politics because both Rachel and Charlie remain as central to the plot as male leads Miles and Aaron, and it was particularly encouraging this week that Rachel saves herself rather than requires rescue by Miles (and even more, last week she saved him, albeit with help). I’m all-the-more impressed by these strong female characters given the notoriety of creator Eric Kripke’s previous series, Supernatural, famed for killing its female characters at an unprecedented rate. Indeed, Supernatural’s misogyny is so blatant that actor Misha Collins, who plays recurring character Castiel, has criticized it. Revolution refrains from calling women bitches as frequently and so far the body count has been fairly gender balanced. One of this season’s ongoing story arcs, however, involves the redemption of last year’s main antagonist, Sebastian Monroe (David Lyons), who is poised to take on the beloved anti-hero mantle with his talk of family. Monroe rescues Charlie from that ever-potent patriarchal threat of rape in the most recent episode – she does get her own shots in, and needs help only because she is drugged, but still – and thus the show’s gender politics remain uncertain. And while its casting is not quite as concerning as Arrow’s, it still loses points for killing off the sheriff played by Native actor Adam Beach without even trying to develop the role.
Perhaps the most intriguing show to think about in this framework is Sleepy Hollow. It is a show I continue to enjoy but also the one whose conservative reinvention of American imperialism as innocent – more, as on the side of God – is deeply troubling. The conclusion I’ve reached is that the series’ appeal has everything to do with the charisma of Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane, whose charming British accent is especially charming in this week’s episode, about the lost Roanoke colony, which requires him to speak Middle English. Mison’s Crane is a skilled fighter, keen analyst, and powerful orator. In short, he is nothing at all like Washington Irving’s Crane, who was a timid schoolteacher, excessively concerned with superstition, who longed for but never got the girl. Crane was already reinvented as a more heroic figure in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), where he was played by Johnny Depp, although that Crane remains in the 18th century. Television’s reinvention of Crane from mild-mannered victim to dashing hero whose personal appeal makes Sleepy Hollow worth watching suggests that we still have a long way to go, baby, when it comes to our desire for charismatic patriarchal authority. Will our desire to sympathize with the male hero compel us to forgive the sins of American history as much as we forgive those of Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, or Walter White?