Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Summer of the Caricature?

It will take a moment to explain what this has to do with sexuality and science fiction, but I've been struck by the extent to which new work in sf and fantasy media looks like caricature. First there was the strange caricature that is the new 'original' Star Trek film. I've no problem with using an alternative universe to get away from some of the canonical details of the original show. My problem comes when things like characterization become something sufficiently different from the original as to look like ... yes, a caricature. It's not even smart enough to be satire, which might have been more interesting.

Take the character of James Kirk, for example. On the original show, yes, he was a womanizer. The dead girlfriend of the week was an absolute cliche. But his attitude towards women, while still sexist (we're talking the 60s after all) was considerably less obnoxious and generally down market than this new Kirk. What's with the totally sexist come-ons to Uhura? Of course, that's a rhetorical question. Like Star Trek: Enterprise this new film is being made by people whose ideologies are light years removed from Gene Rodenberry's. Even Enterprise's credits were regressive and sexist. Instead of leading the pack, this film gives us a deeply conservative view of gender and sex. Uhura's completely inexplicable passion for Spock is a good example; even more so, his apparent -- but also entirely unexplained -- return of her affections. Is it so important to heterosexualize these characters that they must be rendered into mere caricatures of themselves?

Here's another example. The tv show Merlin is such an appalling caricature of anything to do with the legend of King Arthur that it's unrecognizable. Why even bother to use these names? We have fifth century characters (who may or may not have had any historical reality) transplanted to something that looks vaguely like the 12th century (judging by the use of stirrups and the type of armour and weapons). But then, even that has to be fudged because, apparently, we would be unable to admire our male heroes if they were not wearing pants. Merlin looks like he's wearing jeans under his tunic, as does Arthur. I guess real men don't wear skirts.

Sad, sad, sad. The Merlin thing could have been quite a fun show if they'd simply set it in a fantasy universe and not stolen names associated with a long tradition of myth and legend. And the Star Trek could have been great if the characters had been treated with respect and not played for cheap (and heterosexist) laughs.


Wendy Gay Pearson


  1. I loved Star Trek: The Reboot. There again, I knew it would be a boys-only movie going in and just sort of stepped to one side. (Just like reading SF when I was little: the girls are props, not real people. Sad that I can still do that. Sigh.) Merlin, on the other hand, is rubbish (and that haircut...).

    But as to why reuse and reboot, eh, that's easy. Name recognition makes the producers feel safe. In all entertainment these days, the money people need to be reassured that the marketing will work. So films and tv (and books, sigh) are, more and more often, based on existing property. The spec script market, for example, has all but vanished. Books are getting snapped up by premium cable.

    Did you hear that Middlesex was just optioned by HBO?

  2. What I don't understand, though, is why, even as a boys-only movie, it couldn't have had a cleaner plot, better characterization and the occasional redeeming value. The original Star Trek series was fairly boys-only (which is only about attitude, never about who actually watches it), but it was better than this.

    It reminds me of a line in a Dorothy Sayer's novel (I think it was Gaudy Night), where someone complains about the effect of religious fanaticism on people's grammar. Is there a causal relationship between a heterosexist attitude toward character and story and an inability to tell a tale that makes sense and is even vaguely scientifically credible?

    The idea of HBO filming Middlesex is simply scary...