Saturday, April 08, 2006


For the most part, major broadcast network television is Wonderbread instead of focaccia or baguette or even ol' fashioned whole wheat. It is kraft dinner instead of my partner's grandma's sinfully delicious macaroni and cheese. It is the peck on the lips to wish a friend good-bye instead of the passionate buss with someone you have the hots for. It is reading the best you could find in a pinch at the mall bookstore instead of what you'd buy if you weren't three hundred miles from Toronto Women's Bookstore.

I feel this way about Lost. It's not awful, and in fact I enjoyed it at times, but it is a product of a media meat grinder that is massified, filled with gatekeepers with dominant/elite sensibilities, and largely run by managers or committees. Therefore, Lost is pretty bland and shows only realities (or imaginaries) that those gatekeepers deem to be acceptable and perceive to be as widely acceptable as possible to the audience they wish to deliver to advertisers.

The show's presmise is that an airliner flying from Sydney to Los Angeles is blown a thousand miles off course and crashes on a mysterious, perhaps malevolent, tropical island. Many passengers survive, but it soon becomes evident they ain't getting rescued. They must learn to live together and to navigate the strangeness and the violence of their new home.

I recently completed viewing the first sesason on DVD. It started strong -- it had a good lead, in writing parlance, and when you start with a plane crash how can you not? The overall arc of the season was reasonable. It did a good job of walking the line between showing the island as creepy and other-than-normal, while not committing to any particular explanation (conspiratorial, supernatural, or otherwise) for this. Individual episodes consist of both stories on the island and flashbacks to provide backstory for the major characters, and episodes varied a lot in the quality of their writing. At the level of scenes and dialogue, the writing was generally competent but uninspiring, and sometimes contrived. All of which may sound harsher than I intend -- I did watch the whole season, after all, and may indeed continue to watch.

The thing is, after a few episodes, "This could be cool" was replaced with, "Right. Of course. Sigh."

The first thing is that, despite pretending to be about forty people stranded on a tropical island, it is really about the boys -- about masculinities. Sure, yes, there are entire episodes that focus on the experiences/backstories of particular female characters. But, well, I once read about this simple test to apply to a movie or TV show to get at least a surface sense of how it deals with gender: 1) Is there more than one female character? 2) Do they talk to each other? 3) Do they talk to each other about things other than the men in the movie/show? I didn't really start paying attention to that until a good way through the season, but I think that though every episode passes (1), only a few pass all three. The relationships among men are central, the relationships between men and women (generally existing or potential pair-bonds) are included, but relationships among the women are mostly invisible.

There's nothing wrong with a show focusing on masculinities. Despite its weak writing and uneven acting, I like Queer As Folk, and one of the main reasons is precisely because it tells stories about masculinities and about homosocial relationships that are outside of dominant narratives in some ways. But many of the masculinities in Lost are very canned, and none of them are particularly challenging or sources of learning. Nor do any of the relationships among the men particularly encourage the viewer to think about masculinities or men or relationships in ways beyond the narrow range of the mainstream.

You have the All American Boy (a doctor with unresolved father issues who ends up the unofficial leader of the crew). You have the Southern Redneck Conman (roguishly charming, with a particularly contrived backstory). You have the Liverpudlian Rockstar Junky (a la some Gallagher or other, who seems to get increasingly sexist as the season progresses). You have the Token Black Man (works hard, just reconnected to his eleven year-old son from whom he was estranged for reasons not his fault). You have the Token East Asian Man and the Token Latino Man (who is an entertaining character, if not a particularly interesting one, and who also has a very contrived backstory). The only woman consistently present in every episode is the Girl Next Door Gone Bad (yet more contrived backstory), and she is so present because she is part of a strange triangle of -- well, not really "love" or "lust," which I'll talk about below, but at least "interest" between her and All American and her and Redneck, and of course hostility between the two men. The only remotely interesting-to-me masculinities are the character who is called "John Locke" -- haven't read enough liberal theory to really get the reference -- and who who seems to be modelled rather explicitly on Kurz in Apocalypse Now, and the Iraqi man, "Sayid," who I'll have more to say about below.

There is a certain simple but genuine realism to some of it -- penis waving contests over leadership, over status, would inevitably happen in such a situation. But relationship formation would also happen, in related but separate ways, among the women, and that is mostly not shown. It was epitomized for me in the season finale when they were doing one of those trite but sometimes effective TV things where, in a tense moment, various characters were shown saying things of Deep and Philosophical Import to one another. For various plot reasons, the boys plus Girl Next Door Gone Bad were out being adventurous, so if you didn't want to ignore the other women completely they had to be talking to each other. When it was the turn of the men, you could feel the statements resonate through relationships constructed by the writers with lots of effort over an entire season. When it came to the women safe back at camp, I couldn't remember some of them ever being shown speaking to each other before, so the interaction completely lacked emotional depth.

And no one in the show is presented as queer in any way. Not that a simplistic, liberal approach to representation necessarily makes good sense or good stories. But you know that even if some writer at an early brainstorming session were to suggest, "Hey, let's have four older, butch-ish lesbian feminists coming back to San Francisco from a sexualities conference in Canberra on the plane!" that it wouldn't get past the network gatekeepers and would therefore probably be self-censored by the writers. And there's a whole realm of storytelling out the window -- one element of the processing into blandness, dominant preconceptions of the world, and conformity that is inherent to dominant mass media. And let's face it, wouldn't it be entertaining to watch (Queer As Folk reference) Brian Kinney absolutely loathing everyone around him but somehow managing to seduce a few of his fellow castaways anyway, not to mention the ways in which his hypermasculinity would play into the inevitable boy status contests as the group of strangers started to cohere?

And even in the het realm, as per necessities of broadcast media, sex is largely erased. Yes, there are some romantic tensions -- the quasi triangle I mentioned, a marriage that crumbles, one obvious attempt to establish a new liason that fails just at the point of success, and another seemingly asexual pair bond that forms. In fact, the season finale went out of its way to highlite the status of all of the heteronormative pair bonds deemed to be important, more so than any other class of relationship. But on the whole, the realities of sexuality and romantic relationships were glossed over. Not that everything has to be about sex, of course, but from what I know about how human beings interact, once it was clear that rescue was not imanent, sex would be a profoundly powerful force in bringing people in this intense, life threatening situation together, and in tearing them apart. Even if only a few indulged in new partnerships, it would be guaranteed to rock the group dynamic in ways more and different than what was shown.

I would've come to all of that eventually, I think, but the factor that initially and dramatically pierced my charity towards the show was the handling of "Sayid." Initially, I was interested in what the writers would do with him. The actor, Naveen Andrews, is talented and extremely charming. The idea of what could be done with a three dimensional Iraqi character in a U.S. show at this point in history intrigued me. This was reinforced in the first or second episode when they made it clear that they wanted to humanize him but also make him a potentially challening presence. This exchange occurred before anyone knew much of anything about him:

American character: So you were a soldier, huh?
Sayid: That's right.
American character: Where did you serve?
Sayid: Iraq.
American character: Cool. I had a buddy in the 83rd Airborne who fought there. What unit were you in?
Sayid: The Republican Guard.
American character: [Horrified raised eyebrows]

What a great opening to show something about war and nation and humanity, right?

Except not, of course. Soon enough it became clear that really "Sayid" was intended as a vessel for everything white North Americans think we know about Iraq. He remained compelling as an actor and humanized as a character, but the content to do with his identity as Iraqi or Arab was kept firmly within the bounds of stereotype. Not that I am particularly knowledgeable about those identities, those realities, either, but precisely because nothing about his character stood out as being a challenge to white North American preconceptions, which tend to be shallow and oppressive, shows something about the thinking that went into writing him.

For example, "soldier" and "Republican Guard" got fleshed out to include that he is from Tikrit (Saddam's home town), that he was a torturer during his stay in the military (and therefore managed to be both in military intelligence and in an elite combat unit), and later we find out that his old college roommate became a terrorist and the CIA recruited "Sayid" to infiltrate his old friend's cell. Leaving no stereotype unturned, eh? I wonder why his main element of backstory didn't get to be his troubled relationship with his father or his cursed lottery winnings? And neither the episode that involved flashbacks to his days as a torturer nor the one that used flashbacks to his more recent attempt to infiltrate a terrorist cell showed any particular political insight or nuance, and seemed to be written to be consistent with what little we in North America really know about such things, as opposed to educating and challenging. For example, in the infiltration flashbacks, he gets credibility with this cell by spotting a bug in their house that the CIA has put there specifically for him to find, and in that moment his friend endorses him to the others in the cell by saying, "He's okay. He was a Republican Guard." Again, I too am ignorant of such things, but I'm not so sure that being a member of an elite fighting unit in a secular nationalist regime would bring automatic acceptance and respect in what is presumably a Wahhabist or similar group, at least without some further explanation.

But what really got me was the way the issue of his engagement in torture was handled. In the present-day story on the island he is shown to deeply regret that part of his past. Yet it seemed to take relatively little to get him (through some extremely contrived twists of plot, and at the urging of All American Boy) to torture someone on the island in the present. He is shown as regretting it afterwards, but not with the kind of wrenching depth of self-loathing I would expect from someone who has purged such a horrible practice from his being and then somehow been dragged back to engaging in it, and he gets over his regret extremely quickly. To be even remotely plausible, it should have been written as much harder to make happen, and utterly devastating to him for a prolonged period of time if it did, I think. Or is the fact that he is Arab enough to allow it to be plausible for the writers to dispense with a psychologically realistic portrayal of what it means to engage in torturing fellow human beings? Of course, it may also be a product of the ways in which torture as a practice has crept into a kind of (revolting) sterilized acceptability in North American culture, if the circumstances are seen as sufficiently extenuating.

And while we're on the topic of racism, I didn't quite get why being a woman from an owning-class Korean family makes it completely natural, with no further explanation or backstory or mention of training in the field that I saw, for one character to automatically know how to turn plants into herbal remedies on a strange island 2000 km from her homeland. Would it be accepted as plausible by writers or viewers, with no need for further backstory, for a young woman from the McCain family (which owns most of Nova Scotia) to be dropped onto an uncharted island in the south Atlantic and to start churning out home remedies? Again, this could be ignorance on my part, but it did make me wonder.

So there you go. It's an interesting premise and a beautiful setting, and it isn't a bad show in many ways. But the realities of being produced by/for a dominant institution in a massified medium means that certain assumptions are made about who are the viewers that matter, about what can and cannot be talked about, and about where detail and nuance are necessary and when they are not. I don't actually expect otherwise, to be honest. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to write about it, and it doesn't mean I'm going to stop desiring more from the media I consume.

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