Saturday, April 25, 2009

Mysterious Asians on Bones: “The Girl in the Mask”

This week's episode of Bones featured a storyline guest-starring a friend of Agent Booth’s and this friend’s sister, the siblings were Japanese and it is explained Booth met them during a law enforcement exchange program.

After watching this episode I found myself wondering why it is that USian media has such a difficult time divorcing actual elements of Japanese culture from this Orientalist mystique we love to put on representations of Japanese people. One particular shot that I keep coming back to is at the end of the episode, where the brother is observing some sort of ritual for the dead. Incense was lit over the last place his sister's skull was stored in the lab and he appeared to be in prayer. As he begins his ritual the door shuts on us (the audience and camera). As a result his rite stays mysterious instead of humanizing, exotic instead of different but familiar. This is fairly emblematic of the other moments I noticed, it's like bits of culture are just thrown in to remind us how mysterious the Japanese are, which serves to reinforce “their” difference from “us.”

The gender element that came into play struck me as related to the racial one, too. The brother brings a doctor who is very highly thought of in the field to assist Dr. Brennen with her work. This doctor is rather androgynous looking, with a slightly deep voice for a woman, and non-gender defining clothing. As a result the team spends half the episode riveted to wondering if this doctor is “really” a man or a woman.

When one of the team goes digging for biographical information about this character, she finds that ze's gender is mentioned nowhere, and that ze subscribes to a gender/sexual philosophy that strives for androgyny, cue the team chuckling at how successful ze has clearly been. Eventually the debate is settled when one of the team goes up to the doctor and hugs hir, ze moves hir hips back so as not to make contact with the female team member's hips. This apparently settles that ze is biologically male, because this is “a guy hug.” Seemingly it never occurs to them that the piece of information they so desperately want to know, this person’s assigned sex at birth, is none of their business anyway.

This just seems like plain ol’ terrible writing to me. You're honestly going to tell me that people this bright and this cutting edge will have never heard of a gender neutral pronoun (one of the reasons they are so fixated on the doctor’s “real gender” is "what do we call hir")? You want your viewers to believe that instead, two of these scientists would find it perfectly OK to refer to hir as "he/she" and not know how offensive that is.

It just doesn’t make any sense, but then, without their “mystery” Asian characters are apparently uninteresting to USian audiences (or at least casting directors and producers seem to think so).

I really hope this sort of thing is a fluke, because I found these racial/gender elements incredibly distracting from the plot, apparently as distracting as the team found their Japanese Doctor's gender!