Friday, June 15, 2012

Imagining Social Justice Through Sci-Fi TV: From "Trek" to "Torchwood" (Part Two: Reviewing the Literature)

See part one of this series: HERE


“We need to imagine living elsewhere 
before we can live there” (Gordon 4).

Science fiction (across its various articulations in literature, film, television, etc.) has long been about imagining potential futures or alternate presents, and as such sci-fi offers a framework of imagination within which ideas of social justice are potentially able to flourish.  For example, many writers have envisioned their own utopias, or warned their home societies against foreseeable dystopias.  In doing so, these writers do the work of imagining how people of their current age might build better (or more terrible) worlds.  Fandom then takes these stories and reworks/repurposes them, engaging with and stretching the ideas contained within into something that applies to and/or interrogates our lived realities.  I have been a part of this process in some way for most of my life, and the personal and intellectual work I have done within those arenas has been both rewarding and trying.  I extend that work now into the academic realm, hoping to make a worthwhile contribution to studies of television, science fiction, social justice, gender, race and sexuality.
There are three principal fields of inquiry with which this project is engaged: Television Studies, Science Fiction Studies and a nexus of Women/Gender Studies, Ethnic Studies and Queer/LGBT Studies (where my analysis falls into the liminal spaces/overlap between these last three academic disciplines).  My academic background primarily consists of the literature of Women and Gender Studies with an emphasis on the work of Women of Color (particularly Chicana) feminists, a foundation I do not see shared by the literature on science fiction TV I have read.  Disciplines such as history, literature, critical race studies, queer theory and feminist theory have all contributed something to my research, theoretical framework and/or argument.  Popular engagement with the television shows also comprise elements of this critical archive, as I am not solely interested in the interpretation of these shows by academic scholars but by activists and fans outside of the academy as well.  Further, at times I also draw from other popular culture sources that engage with ideas similar to my own. 
The intervention I most hope to make through this project is one that allows fan-scholars like myself to take these stories into academic spaces as a popular source of social justice, and/or to take the knowledge produced in women’s studies and ethnic studies into normative geek discourse.  It is within the give and take of both communities that I live, and that I hope others might learn from.  My positionality makes this project rather unique, but it also means mapping the placement of my work within the massive network that is the scholarship on television and science fiction is, frankly, daunting.  However, I attempt it here to the best of my ability.  The two over-arching frameworks of my project deal with the imagination as a social/political practice and the ambivalence of television (both in the narrative and in the watching of it).  For ease of reading these will also be the dividing categories of this chapter.  In truth, there are sources that could overlap the borders between sections, and the sources discussed are not the only ones to influence my thinking or writing.  However, they are, as I look over the work I have done, the most important or influential, and/or contain or explicate the ideas and themes which I return to again and again, or help place my work within a larger context.  

Imagination as a Social/Political Practice

I take seriously both Roderick Ferguson’s idea of “the imagination as a social practice” (Hong 108) and the claim that “the political pulse of a culture is not to be found in the depths of a single work but rather in a mobile and discontinuous constellation of texts as they play off, influence and contradict each other” (Felski 512).  Ferguson inspired me to consider the very act of imagining as a social act, and further, drove me to think about the imagining done by both producer of cultural work and the collective/interactive imaginings of fandom as social practices that can vitally and importantly inform the social justice practices of activists.  Felski similarly inspired me to think of science fiction television shows as a constellation that makes meaning through, alongside and in opposition to each other.  Thus I do not think of them as in a linear trajectory (with Star Trek and its framework leading inevitably to the work of Russell T. Davies on the “new” Doctor Who) but as a part of the discontinuous web of knowledge, programs, books, etc. that is a significant but partial foundation of sci-fi geek culture.  Each program alters the conditions of possibility for work that comes after it and new shows are able to choose to accept or reject the methodologies of their forebears (constrained, always, by their particular social, political, historical, and/or economic context).
Television programs, like all cultural products, emerge from their own unique context.  The work of examining these contexts is a worthwhile endeavor comprising an entire “wing” of Television Studies scholarship: roughly, that of political economy (T. Miller 23).  This is not the work I do here, not because I do not believe it to be vitally important work, but because it is not what I am best equipped to discuss at the time of writing.  In a project larger than this one is, I would surely attempt to engage at some length with these elements of the television programs under scrutiny.  I do offer up the all-to-brief acknowledgement that the shows I examine here are from the United Kingdom and the United States, two countries that, for better or worse, often set the standard for media around the world.  This is especially true for the United States which is said to be “the horizon towards which all television seems to progress” (Bignell and Fickers 4).  The programs airing in the US and UK are distributed around the world and often serve as a sort of template for indigenous programming in other areas of the world, thus the reach and influence of the television shows I discuss are magnified by their placement in these countries.  Importantly, my own context in analyzing these programs is as an audience member within the borders of the United States.  It is from that location and onto that location that my analysis does its primary work. 
To return to Ferguson’s quote, I have come to understand television as within the concept of “imagination as a social practice.”  Television is a highly prolific media that has spread around the world, and continues to gain popularity despite various death knells from journalists and scholars (T. Miller 19).  As such, television is subject to a significant amount of daily viewing by an increasingly large audience (T. Miller 16-19).  In addition, educators have traced the ways in which people utilize popular culture, such as television (as well as movies, video games, etc.) to understand the world around them, applying these imaginaries to real world discussions (L. A. Hall) and through doing so, developing “their opinion forming skills” (Knippelsab, Severiensa and Klopa).  A case study of this is contained in the Introduction to this project around my personal use of television narrative and character as a child to construct my identity and understand my place in the world, a very personal examination that serves to ground this more theoretical text in material experience (something post-structuralists and “television studies 2.0 scholars” such as those cited below have been criticized for lacking (Miller and Philo) (T. Miller)). 
This amalgamation, of one highly prolific medium of the imagination (television) with the large viewership and engaged audience utilizing that imaginaries’ messages for their own understandings, combines to create the social practice of television: equal parts producer (writers, producers, etc.) and audience.  The work on the interaction of audience and text to create meaning is vast, perhaps most cited through the philosophers Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, cultural studies scholars Stuart Hall, Tania Modleski and Janice Radway and sociologist David Morley.  I take seriously this “active-audience model” as an important indicator of precisely how imaginaries like popular television can serve as spaces of social practice (through fandom’s taking up and critically working with/against texts) and why the textual analysis I am engaged in here matters (because such analysis examines and articulates the messaging of the original imaginary, aka the television programs I scrutinize).  It is this foundational imaginary that the active audience then takes up and (re)creates or makes meaning of/with, whether in making meaning for their own lives or in extensions of the fictional universe of their show of choice through fandom activities like volunteerism (Can't Stop the Serenity and The HP Alliance), fan fiction and conventions (Bacon-Smith), or often both (Bernardi).
An obvious next step of this project would be to examine precisely how the fandoms of Star Trek and Doctor Who make sense of these messages, and what they do with their understanding.  Other authors have already taken up similar projects, such as Robin Wright’s work on using television shows like 24Torchwood and Doctor Who in her adult education classroom to aid her in teaching difficult concepts such as hegemony and to develop the critical media literacy of her students, or Cymene Howe’s work on the “televisionary activism” (“a mediated form of social justice messaging that attempts to transform culture” (73)) of public television show/explicit social justice project Sexto Sentido in Nicaragua.  Both authors contribute significantly to my work here by helping me to imagine/grapple with what comes after/is implicated in my own primarily discursive analysis.  But before I could feel confident doing such a project myself, I would first need to grasp and explicate the political/social/cultural messaging of this original imaginary, processing it through my own understanding and interactions with it; and that is the heart of this project. 
               A significant part of tackling the heart of my project lies in examinations of representation.  For this I turn not only to television studies scholars like Toby Miller, or cultural studies academics like Stuart Hall, but to queer, critical race and feminist theory-makers. The work of Patricia Hill Collins around the “controlling images” of Black womanhood, that of Maythee Rojas on the stereotyping of women of color, and that of critical Whiteness scholars like Noel Ignatiev also contributes significantly to this understanding.  Each of these authors points to the ways in which representations are constructed through specific and historical flows of power.  Particularly central, however, is a triumvirate of scholars who have done work on understandings of “the gaze” within cinema and other visual performance: Laura Mulvey, bell hooks, and José Muñoz.  While Mulvey’s work has been heavily criticized for its lack of an intersectional analysis (by, among others, bell hooks), many film studies scholars still continue to find her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” useful, and it has been an important part of the framework through which I analyze the visual language of television and the way in which women are “gazed at” in the series I scrutinize. 
Where Mulvey helps me think about the gaze of production, bell hooks points to the way in which those who watch can interfere with and reject representations that are harmful or recoup representations that are racist and/or sexist (or classist, ableist, transphobic, etc.) such as in the way some Black women viewers reclaimed the character Sapphire.  Finally, José Muñoz looks to queer, avant garde performance art and examines ways in which queer people of color are able to remake and refashion dominant images and discourses into something more relevant to their own lived experiences.  This is “disidentification:” a space of push and pull, of identification with and resistance to representations, or the lack thereof.  In some ways this trio of texts might be seen as similar to David Morley’s construction of the reading of texts as “dominant,” “oppositional” or “negotiated” in his “Study of the Nationwide Audience” (Chandler), however, disidentification points not just to the acceptance or rejection of dominant themes/narratives but the way in which (often through parody) the engaged audience can and does refashion dominant ideology, pulling us again towards a consideration of what audiences (or a fandom) will do with their texts.  The work of disidentification strikes me as a particularly ambivalent kind of space, an ambivalence I find also in Chéla Sandoval’s theorization of “mestizaje as method,” a theory rooted in the work of US Third World radical women of color feminists, in particular, Gloría Anzaldúa’s conciencia de la mestiza (1998).  It is this messy, “complicated,” “gray,” “disidentificatory,” mestiza space that I embrace and attempt to work from in this project. 

The Ambivalence of Television

Television is space of ambivalence in that it is extremely reductionist to condense it to either “good” or “bad,” as some schools of thought have done (T. Miller).  Instead, television is both good and bad, and what is good, what is bad, varies greatly depending on the context and conversation one is attempting to have.  However, the representations contained within the storylines on television have sometimes been portrayed as strictly one or the other.   For instance, 20th century television and film utilized tropes such as black hats for villains and white hats for heroes (in the Western genre) to visually distinguish the two character categories from each other (Porter).  These visual signifiers demonstrated that the two categories (villain and hero) did not overlap in any way; heroes were morally pure and villains their exact opposite.  This method of representation shifted dramatically around the turn of the 21st century, to a more “gray” set of representations where these formally black and white categories and storylines are now blurred, particularly within science fiction television (Porter).  The borders between the two categories are, Lynette Porter argues, quite simply breaking down, leaving messier and more morally ambiguous stories in their wake.  Extending her argument, these stories are thus becoming much more “human” – we too are rarely either “good” or “evil.” 
I accept and build on this understanding of “grayness,” and also attempt to approach my subject from a “gray” position, keeping in mind the complicated theoretical frameworks of Gloría Anzaldúa’s border theory, Avery Gordon’s ghost-hunting and Muñoz’ disidentifications.  Porter’s work directly complicates that of educators like Robin Wright, who divide their frameworks into binary categories such as “narrative” and “counter narrative” to delineate whether themes/characters either reinforce or contradict hegemonic messages. In contrast, Porter (like Anzaldúa, Gordon and Muñoz) pushes me towards an approach that is not either/or, but either/and.  However, the either/or, good/bad approach is one I have traced in much of the science fiction TV scholarship (on Star Trek in particular).  Roughly speaking, authors of work in science fiction television either uncritically celebrate or harshly disparage the shows they examine, as well as the cultural narratives, fan activities and discourse surrounding them.  For example, Sherry Ginn reads Star Trek: The Next Generation in an overly sympathetic way, in my view, making claims about the portrayal of Doctor Crusher and Counselor Troi as heroes in instances that are reaching, at best (112).  Ginn does this as part of an argument about the agency women are afforded on Next Generation, and while I agree that some critics have been particularly harsh towards TNG and its treatment of women, I cannot view the show through the rose colored glasses Ginn seems to.
Where Ginn gives too much credit, Robin Roberts often reads Trek in a way that I find needlessly harsh when not outright incorrect.  For instance, when discussing the racialization of Klingons, Roberts states that Klingons on The Original Series were “European-American actors wearing black face, their features unaltered, minstrel style” (130).  In fact, Klingons on the original Star Trek were represented as “a thinly veiled representation of the Soviet Union” and “the storyline…for almost twenty years ran parallel to the Cold War” (Anijar 146).  It is as though Roberts has utterly forgotten about the context of the show she is examining; when Star Trek was on the air the Cold War was a major cultural anxiety, of course the enemy of the Federation would be fashioned after the enemy of the nation-state of Trek’s creator!  It is like making an argument that 24’s preoccupation with terrorism and torture in the post-9/11 United States is just a coincidence (it’s not).  The transition on Trek from this Soviet allegory to the much more “alien” aesthetic of forehead ridges and exaggerated teeth embodied primarily by African-American actor Michael Dorn re-racialized Klingons as Black in a deeply troubling way.  But to re-read the original Klingons as Black in light of this is sloppy and unnecessary for the desired critique.
Sometimes, however, the harsh critique is certainly warranted, as in Lee Heller’s work on “the heterosexual paradigm imagined by TNG” (224) or Daniel Bernardi’s exposition of white supremacy at the heart of much of Star Trek’s discourse (1998).[1]  However, I maintain that this binary approach is simply not the most productive method of cultural criticism.  As pointed out earlier, human beings are never solely “good” or “bad,” and the imaginaries we produce are similar.  Our identities, imaginaries and the work we create are always produced through our social context and the structures of power we grew up and currently exist within.  An either/or dichotomy like that displayed within this field forces the audience to choose one “side,” to either defend a loved cultural production or to consider those who love that production thoughtless and uncritical.  Certainly, such a binary leaves no room for the self-critical fan-scholar.  So instead, I attempt a disidentificatory gaze that combines both the celebratory love of work like Ginn’s and the warranted critical eye of Heller and Bernardi (while rejecting those that seem unnecessarily harsh, like Roberts).  It is by meshing these two ways of seeing together that I hope to bring fresh eyes to these discussions, and it is only through maintaining such a messy, balanced approach that we can truly uncover all the messages contained within prolific cultural productions such as these highly popular science fiction television shows.
Finally, I argue in this work that within this space of ambivalence there is room for narratives of social justice, whether they are explicitly intentional (such as in Star Trek) or only vaguely so (such as with Doctor Who and Torchwood).  My designation of “social justice television” is conceived of along similar lines to what was previously referred to as “televisionary activism” (Howe 73).  There are key differences between my work and Cymene Howe’s, but this basic reference point of stories told on television in an effort to intervene in normative/mainstream culture is the same.  Importantly, neither Howe, nor myself, claim by designating a show as performing “social justice television” or “televisionary activism” indicates that the narrative of said show never reproduces problematic attitudes, beliefs, or standards of the society from which it emerges.  In fact, as we will see in the following chapters (and as Howe documented in her work as well), often the opposite is true.
What this designation does indicate is that those working on the show are attempting to do something they believe is positive in some area of social-political life.  Whether that “something” is assimilationist or radical in form is irrelevant to the designation, although how effective the intervention being made actually is can certainly be debated.  Throughout the following chapters we will find that most often, positive interventions also participated in the reification of problematic social conventions and structures of power.  While it is my personal hope that we will see more radical deconstructions of these power structures and less assimilationist tendencies in our science fiction television in the 21st century, I also firmly believe that even small reformist moves often open the door for more radical work.
Let me be very clear here: I do not believe that there is any sort of “perfect” resistance to kyriarchy, through televisionary activism, or any other kind of activism.  In particular, with any choice in representation there will be flaws, and should be room for critique.  As Laura Hyun Yi Kang has said: “the most well intentioned representations are also forcefully partial and disciplinarily situated” (165).  In the very act of representing a person, in this case on a television show, the writers/producers actively choose what will and will not exist in that character.  Choosing to present a character in a particular way forecloses on at least some of the other options that could be explored and represented through that character, and risks reinforcing the stereotypes surrounding the person represented.  Similarly, the constraints on (disciplining of) writers/producers from the production company or network or even time-slot in which their creation will be shown will limit their ability to exemplify all possible expressions of a character.  In awareness of this dynamic what I am striving for in this work is a somewhat comprehensive look at the full range of political messages made by these media producers, in the hope that it will encourage fans/scholars to engage with these series in complex ways that both celebrate and critique them.  All of the series I examine have done good and important work.  And all the series I examine have fallen short in some way(s).  But they are a part of our social fabric, and it is important that we assess the work they do there.

[1] And to be fair to Bernardi, he claims to be a fan of the Star Trek universe he critiques (141).  However, he stakes this position almost as a disclaimer: reading his book, his status of fan is otherwise easy to miss.