Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Institutionalized Racism and My Very Favorite Show

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As I have probably mentioned before and almost certainly will mention again, sometimes being a feminist cultural critic means recognizing the sexism/racism/classism/agism/ethnocentrism/etc in the things that you love. I guess I couldn't do what I do if I didn't love popular culture as much as I sometimes hate it.

The X-Files has been my favorite show since I was in seventh grade. I was a devoted fan right until then end. Every so often I have a renaissance and I spend a few weeks re-watching them all. I love the show so much that I have never really been critical of it because it is my private guilty pleasure. I watch it when I am sad or lonely or sick or just procrastinating and I don't want any pesky analysis to get in the way of that pleasure.

All of that being said, I have noticed something very upsetting about the portrayal of non-white people on the show. First of all, most of the characters and certainly all of the main characters are white. When we do see non-white people they are almost always men and they are almost always perpetrators of violence. Most disturbing though is the eerie pan flute music that always seems to be playing when non-white people are on the screen. It is most obvious in episodes about Native Americans but is very clear (at least in the first few seasons) every time a black man is the perpetrator. What is most disturbing about this is that in the episodes "Fearful Symmetry" and "Shapes" (and others I am sure) the same music is played when wild animals, especially dangerous ones like cougars and wolves (or werewolves), are on screen.

Now I am no ethnomusicologist (maybe someday...) but the racism implicit in this portrayal is palatable. This is pretty much the definition of institutionalized racism and dehumanization. It isn't immediately obvious and many media consumers wouldn't think twice about this very clear correlation because it isn't as obvious as a "coloreds only" sign. But it is just as dangerous, if not more so, because it doesn't evoke the passionate response that overt racism does.

Also, OMFG!, in the process of researching this I discovered that an additional X-Files film is in production. I am so there on opening day!


whatsername said...

Ah, you didn't know about the movie??

It's going to be glorious!!

That said, on a recent rewatch I too noticed how unbelievably white the show was, as well as the tangible Othering of the rare black or native american characters.

That said, how much can you really expect (social commentary wise) from a show on Fox?

For myself, I have a post in the works pondering my relationship to Fox Mulder and how it influenced my self-identity and definitions, and consequently my feminism.

Also, ever notice HOW MUCH Scully got the crap beaten out of her on that show? I mean Mulder got some of it too, but especially in the early seasons, wow, ALWAYS Scully being attacked. That has to reflect something too.

GottabeMe said...

Ooooh, I'm an X Phile too! BUT I've always been angry and disgusted by the episode called "Modern Day Prometheus", where the mutant basically drugs women and rapes them, and they don't get angry about it, but love the little mutant babies that they give birth to. Sickening. It didn't seem to upset anyone!

Cortney said...

You know I am familiar with that episode and I never thought about that either! Thanks for reminding me!

Richard said...

I notice you say that The X-files is your favourite show, and you seem to make some points about racism, however this is not what confuses me.

What actually baffles me is that you haven't made any mention of the seemingly sexist attitude towards women in this show. I mean how many times per season does poor old scully get Kidnapped/Abducted/Held hostage, only to be saved by the strong male character?

Added to that, the fact that scully is always wrong. her rational scientific answers are met with an almost patronising smile from Mulder as he goes on to prove that he, as a man was right all along. How many times can you remember was scully right about the events of an episode?

Cortney said...

You are so right Richard. I have definitely noticed that. I didn't choose to focus this post on that but when I get a bit more time this summer (and I re-watch a bunch of episodes before the new movie!) I'll definitely post more on that. Sorry for the confusion! I love the show but that doesn't mean it isn't riddled with sexist assumptions!

whatsername said...

How many times can you remember was scully right about the events of an episode?

Any time she went beyond the purely scientific, and into her own intuitive knowledge (often faith).

While I agree there is sexism present on that show, I don't think this is it.

Clearly the show was biased towards intuitive versus proven logic, which is an interesting topic on it's own, but making the woman the logical thinker (even if it meant she was often "wrong", which could also be argued, because she was also often right and Mulder was often naive and ridiculously optimistic) was very much not in keeping with female stereotypes, and I appreciate that.