Birth of the Dragon Review

Disappointing as a Bruce Lee biopic, but still leaves audiences with rare insights on kungfu, personal growth, and the benefits of defeat | DVD release: November 21



Historical Premise

Characters and Story: Steve McKeeBruce LeeWong Jack ManMinor characters

Thematic Development: Ethnicity and interethnic loveBruce Lee’s growthThe nature of kungfuVictory and defeat

Thematic Analysis


I went to watch Birth of the Dragon mainly to be completionist, since I’ve been doing a lot of research on Bruce Lee for my dissertation. Appraisals were lukewarm or negative all across the spectrum, from activists concerned about a message of cultural appropriation to general audiences who realized that half the film wasn’t even about Bruce Lee.

Still, Birth of the Dragon does try to innovate upon what we know of the period in Bruce Lee’s life and introduce different stances on the definition of kungfu. Partly because it deals with kungfu, themes such winning and losing, and finding oneself, are handled in a refreshingly different way than straight-up Hollywood films about sports; at the same time, because the setting is the modern US and Lee is a pop culture icon, it also differentiates itself from wuxia films that are ancient, arthouse-y, and enigmatic.

The first few sections are more like a conventional film review about how well the elements of the film come together; the last Thematic Analysis section is where I will give more of a social critique regarding how the messages in the film may impact society.

Historical Premise

In the early 1960s Bruce Lee was teaching kungfu in Seattle and the Bay area, before developing Jeet Kune Do and before his television and film career. In 1964, Wong Jack Man and Bruce Lee had a private match with only a few witnesses; because it was private, there are different accounts of what motivated the match and what happened. Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Caldwell, claims that Wong Jack Man and other kungfu masters in San Francisco’s Chinatown didn’t approve of Lee’s decision to take students of all ethnicities (her account is in I Am Bruce Lee). Wong’s account states that Lee claimed in public he could defeat any kungfu master in the region, so Wong took him up on the challenge. In addition, while some witnesses claim that the match took 3 minutes and that Lee won decisively, others claim that it lasted for over 20 minutes, and the fight was broken up bystanders who didn’t want a death on their hands.

Motivations are unclear and historical details are vague, but its impact on Lee’s later career seemed important – which makes it a good juncture of Lee’s life to elaborate on. While his death was sensational and might make a good film in 50 years, precisely because it is sensational and scandalous, it does less justice to his legacy and also disrespects members of his family who are still alive. What seems to be true regarding the Lee vs Wong match is that Lee was unsatisfied with his own performance, as he believed that an effective fighter would have ended the fight sooner (discussed by Caldwell in the clip); it also seems to be the case that this idea lead to the development of Jeet Kune Do.

Characters and Plot

Steve McKee

Birth of the Dragon added the entirely the fictional kungfu student, Steve McKee. In an early sparring scene, Lee consistently exploits his weaknesses, causing him to be more and more frustrated until he forgets his technique. Lee observe that he has anger / father issues. Steve sees from a newspaper that Wong is arriving and goes to meet him, hoping to learn from him also, but Wong observes that kungfu requires inner cultivation and a spiritual necessity, but Steve is directionless.

Steve finds something to fight for in Xiulan, an indentured waitress in Chinatown, working to pay back the Tong (Chinese mafia) who trafficked her to the US. The Tong forbids her and other indentured girls from learning English, as a means of ensuring their dependence. McKee thinks this is unfair and smuggles her an English textbook. Because the Tong catches her meeting with Steve and teaching English to other girls, they threaten to send her to the brothel and to punish the other girls. The Tong agree to free her on the condition that Steve can arrange a match between Lee and Wong; by running bets on the match, they could earn the money they would lose with freeing Xiulan.

Steve’s story is how the filmmakers elaborate on the murky motivations for the Lee vs Wong match. His function is to bring Lee and Wong together, and to provide an audience-insert character who is in awe of two martial arts masters, and to whom the masters can explain themselves. Another function is that it provides some romance to a plot that is otherwise about fighting (more in the next section about how well this worked). Unfortunately, Billy Magnussen plays Steve McKee’s part in a way that combines hammy and wooden. I’ve only seen him briefly in The People v. OJ Simpson and Into the Woods, and it seems that he does better as characters who are kind of hammy or full of themselves, as opposed to an impulsive but genuine kid that I think Steve McKee was supposed to be.

Bruce Lee

Unlike Steve, Bruce Lee was performed better, and I could tell (as someone who has tried to watch as much Bruce Lee interview footage as I could find) that Philip Ng studied up on the role. Birth of the Dragon included a segment where Lee attends a regional competition / demonstration where he demonstrates to the public his famous one-inch punch. This actual demonstration didn’t take place til a few years later and was in Long Beach, but footage of it exists; in addition, there is Lee’s audition footage for The Green Hornet, where he demonstrates the efficiency of kungfu. Philip Ng’s performance clearly draws from Lee’s showmanship in these kinds of footage.

The drawback, however, is that Lee in Birth of the Dragon always came across like a celebrity who knew he was being filmed, and his lines were declarative, like someone giving an interview, rather than conversational. Granted, Lee was larger than life and was attentive to his image, but in rare fictional portrayal of him early in his career as a local instructor, I would expect that there would be some more vulnerability and intimacy to his character.

That said, why don’t we see him as anything other than a kungfu instructor? Especially since Steve’s subplot has to do with interethnic romance, it would be nice to see Linda Lee in the film (more on this later). It would make his character more three-dimensional if audiences could see how he behaved in a wider range of contexts – though there is a segment where Chinatown filmmakers help Lee shoot a demo reel, and he expresses his aspirations to make films.

Finally, the general problem with using Steve and his romance subplot to motivate the match is that  Lee is reduced to reactive character who gets pulled into the situation that Steve and the Tong set up. The one time that Lee is active – challenging Wong to a match when Wong wanders into the regional competition – Wong declines and walks away. This makes sense for the kind of character that Wong is, but deflates Lee. Even before delving into how the film fails to represent his philosophical journey to Jeet Kune Do, relegating him to a passive role fails to do justice to the enormously active and proactive life that Lee actually lead.

Wong Jack Man

Historically, Wong Jack Man seemed to have arrived in the US shortly before the match, but stayed in the US and taught kungfu in the Bay area until his death (source), making him an American national. In the film, Wong was portrayed as a Chinese national who returned to China soon after the match. In addition, while historically Wong was Cantonese / Southern Chinese who practiced the Northern Shaolin style, the film made him actually a monk of Shaolin. The point of this seems to have been to accentuate the character as a guardian of traditional practice, associated with the old country, whereas Lee is forging the future of kungfu in America.

The film actually starts with Wong; we see him in Shaolin beginning a demonstration match with a visiting taichi master and his pupils. The taichi master gains the upper hand, but Wong retaliates with a lethal kick that was disallowed. The film cuts away to Bruce Lee and Steve at this point. Next we see Wong having exchanged monks’ robes for a fedora and a suit, alighting alone and unrecognized at the pier in San Francisco. Steve only read a snippet about his arrival in a Chinese newspaper and had goes to greet him, but is surprised that a kungfu master arrived with so little fanfare. Since no one else has come to pick Wong up, Steve offers him a lift to Chinatown. Steve later finds out that he came to San Francisco to work as a restaurant dishwasher, which mystifies him.

When Steve tells Lee about his arrival, Lee is convinced that the dishwashing job is a cover and that Wong really came to shut down his school. Wong keeps explaining that this isn’t true, and that his objective is to humble himself after his error. Even when Lee preemptively challenges him after his public demonstration / competition, he just repeats the same explanation and leaves the arena.

Personally, I find Wong the best-acted character in the film. Yu Xia, the actor, is a Chinese national. I had seen him a few years ago in Mandarin-language television and film where his roles tended to be optimistic, pure, and righteous young men. He brings a serenity and restraint to Wong that works well for the character, and also provides a foil for the flashiness and of Ng’s Bruce Lee.

Minor character threads

Other than Steve, the film also focuses on another student of Lee’s, Vinnie Wei, whose family runs a laundromat. It is through his family business that we see the brutality of the Tong, as they trash the place and beat him up, since he has gambling debts and can’t pay their protection fee. He also provides some comic relief. The blandness of Steve McKee, though, makes me wonder if the film would have worked better with Vinnie and Steve’s characters combined.

Xiulan is represented with warmth and purity, which fulfils the character’s function. She is a fairly bland character as well, but still more multi-faceted than Steve and even Lee – we see her as a restaurant worker, as a partner to Steve, and as a ringleader for the rest of the indentured girls who genuinely cares about their well-beingwhen Steve asks her to run away she refuses to leave them behind, the implication being that they might be punished on her behalf. She also seems to be observant and cool-headed, which comes through when the Tong mistress, Auntie Blossom, threatens to send her to the brothel. Xiulan coolly reminds Auntie Blossom that she was likewise trafficked and is now in a guilded cage and doesn’t have true freedom either.

From the look on Auntie Blossom’s face, you can tell that Xiulan is right. Speaking of Auntie Blossom – I haven’t seen the actress before but she put on a formidable yet nuanced performance. She combines the standard brothel madam type with a keeness and commanding presence that strongly suggests a back story of have toughened up while climbing to the top of a man’s world (or underworld). Although their characters are slightly different, I was reminded of Cheng Peipei’s performance of Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: clip here, with spoilers.

Thematic Development

Ethnicity and interethnic love

I have heard some complaints that Steve’s character is unnecessary, either because he distracts from Bruce Lee, who is supposed to be the main character, or because he repeats the White saviour trope. I suppose that he needed to be non-Asian to further the theme that cross-cultural exchange is a good thing – if there’s a debate around whether cultural practices need gatekeepers, there’s no debate that the human traffickers are even more wrong for denying indentured servants access to cultural knowledge that would help them survive in the US.

Unfortunately, the love-at-first-sight trope is too worn be convincing, especially when it multitasks as a love-transcends-cultural-barriers trope. It’s not that this trope is inherently offensive, it’s that the film would need to focus on relationship development for audiences to see more evidence of love. Unfortunately, because the relationship is meant to provide the reason for the Lee vs. Wong match, the relationship subplot has no time to develop specifics and remains a trope.

It’s also not helped by Bruce Lee stating that his wife is a White American, but then we never see Linda Lee at all. Bruce and Linda Lee would have been a story of interethnic love that has  the details to be convincing. I remember reading that their personalities complemented each other (In The Tao of Bruce Lee, the author mentions that filmmaker George Tan joked that Bruce and Linda Lee were like Popeye and Olive Oyl), and Linda saying that they’d run home right after kungfu class to catch their favourite TV shows. They also faced opposition from Linda’s parents but managed to convince them. If it was a problem of representing Linda Lee, who is still alive (though I don’t see why it would), even some more reminiscence from Lee about her would have helped.

(Bruce Lee’s) personal and professional growth

Overall, I understand the arc that the film was trying to establish for Bruce Lee – someone who is rather self-centred and arrogant to begin with, but due to the match with Wong, is able to see flaws to his character and his practice. By some accounts, while Bruce Lee was charismatic, he was not necessarily nice; I remember reading an account by Danny Inosanto who said that once Lee surprised him with a punch as a way of saying “happy birthday.”  I understand that Bruce Lee’s daughter and manager of his legacy, Shannon Lee, criticized the film for not reflecting her father’s life and philosophies, and is making another film (source). Her appraisal is true, but I also don’t necessarily wish to see a film that sanitizes and deifies him either. His legacy and fandom already does that. A film would be an opportunity to show him from the point of view of those close to him, which would show him as human.

In addition to limited view of Lee as an instructor, the film didn’t even flesh this role out very well. It’s hard even to tell what he thinks about using his kungfu to help Steve and Xiulan. At first, Lee believes it is not his fight, and mentions that the Tong don’t collect a bogus protection fee from his establishment because he reached a deal where they steer clear of each other. However, the film seemed to be trying to get at some personal or philosophical reason, because the deal would still be in effect after fighting Wong, but Lee changed his mind anyways. Perhaps the film was trying to say that the match with Wong made him less self-absorbed, and he does make a statement to this effect, but it’s still not clear how the match with Wong taught him this lesson specifically, and how it could have come out of Wong’s philosophy.

Finally, it is true that the film’s events in no way logically lead to him developing Jeet Kune Do. Bruce Lee diverged from other kungfu masters in that he repudiated the mysticism that went into kungfu. Jeet Kune literally means “intercepting fist,” which describes the objective point of self-defense, not something abstract and philosophical like “eternal spring” (Wing Chun). In the match with Wong, there is a scene where Wong floats down from a 2-story height based on powers from cultivating his chi. This was meant to be a point where Bruce recognized the limitations of his own practice, but due to willpower (or something), he also floats down to join Wong. Instead of further pushing him to develop a new practical style, the scene seems to show that Lee was convinced that mysticism was right, which isn’t true to his later philosophies.

The nature of kungfu

Cultural appropriation of kungfu by non-Chinese ended up being a red herring. The film actually takes both Wong and Lee’s historical accounts into account, which is quite an achievement since they directly contradict each other. In the film, Wong is true to his word and does not challenge Lee’s right to teach non-Chinese, but he also doesn’t let the matter slide. Steve asks why anyone would want to guard the knowledge of kungfu, and Wong replies, “Would you give away your nuclear codes?” Steve is taken aback.

Wong has two main misgivings about Lee’s practice, the first of which is that Lee’s kungfu has little spirituality involved. From Wong’s perspective as a monk of Shaolin, kungfu has a deeply spiritual element that cannot be reduced to technique.  Steve is initially a kungfu practitioner who doesn’t seem to have any cause for learning kungfu in particular, and doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing with his life; Bruce Lee teaches people simply to deliver the maximum amount of pain in the minimum amount of time.

The second misgiving is that and Lee teaches whoever wants to pay for his instruction, as long as they are interested. This is very different than a master and disciple relationship, where in theory the master assesses the student’s need to learn, and after taking on a student, teaches the discipline comprehensively regardless of whether the student pays or not (Wong doesn’t actually say this, but since he’s from Shaolin, I’m speculating this is what he would have in mind). Wong specifically asks Lee if he’s aware of his similarity to the Tong, who do not see a sanctity in human beings and traffic them for profit. This comparison and the nuclear weapons one seem out of proportion, but we also need to keep in mind that in the contemporary moment, most martial arts practice is devoid of spirituality and instruction has become a service in the market economy.

When Lee challenges Wong at the regional competition / demonstration, one of his parting shots is “I am the future of kungfu.”  Later, Wong meditates that Lee is right, but also believes that he should make clear to Lee that Lee’s technique and perspective on kungfu has shortcomings. Yet how to convince Lee of this remains a problem – knowing Lee’s personality, beating him would humiliate and anger him, which may actually prevent him from seeing his limits. And so onto the final theme.


Victory and defeat

In the last section I covered the film like an imdb summary that doesn’t give away the ending, but a discussion of this theme requires knowing how the film ends.

When I went into the theatre, I did not actually know that some witnesses had reported that the match ended in a draw, and it was a surprise that the film showed the match in this way. The last scene of the match shows Wong and Lee facing one another and positioned like how the match started, both exhausted, but seem to have reached some kind of unspoken agreement about what the match meant.

The second surprise was that the match wasn’t the end of the film. The Tong want their money, and without a clear winner the bets they ran mean nothing. They put extra pressure on Steve to convince both masters, since he would have vested interest in Xiulan’s freedom. In separate conversations with Steve, both Wong and Lee express an aversion to saying they themselves lost, but they are also uncomfortable with releasing an independent statement that the other lost. Frustrated, Steve goes to the restaurant to try and rescue Xiulan by himself, which results him being beaten up and thrown out.

Lee and Wong decide to team up to save him since their it was partially their indecision that led to this predicament, and they both feel some obligation to Steve as their student. They prop Steve up in the alley and fight their way up through the restaurant building to the Tong’s offices (most likely referencing the pagoda in Game of Death). Having just had most of their muscle decimated, the Tong agree to strike a new deal with Lee and Wong, which is that in return for a winner and loser, all the trafficked women in Chinatown go free. Under these circumstances, Wong tells the Tong that he lost and Lee says that he is satisfied with this statement.

This caps off every character trajectory. Xiulan is free and she and Steve are reunited, and all the other girls are free. Steve witnesses and understands what kungfu can truly do and what is at stake. Vinnie, the other student with gambling debts, earns it back from betting on Lee. As for Lee, he tells Steve that at one point during the match, Wong had him in a headlock, during which Wong actually asked him a question: “Do you understand?” The technique where Wong floated from a 2-storey height, the effort it took Lee during the match, and using kungfu to help Steve has made Lee understand that he still has a lot of room to grow and a lot to think about regarding what kungfu means.

The significance of the (essentially fabricated) match results is the most interesting for Wong though. Since he knows that defeating Lee would teach Lee nothing, and a draw puts other lives at stake, the only choice is to lose. It is not spelled out in so many words in the film, but actually physically losing the match would also not teach Lee anything about his limits, since victory would confirm that he was the best. Thus, the only option is for the match to end in a draw, and for Wong to say that he lost. The generosity of this gesture would be an added bonus to demonstrate to Lee that the discipline of kungfu is about inner character and not just technique. Finally, saying that he lost also rounds off Wong’s mission of humbling himself. In the beginning of the film, Wong’s desire to win outweighed his respect for his opponent and for the rules of the match, but by the end he is able to put his ego aside and prioritize contributing to the future of kungfu and saving the women from exploitation.

The film portraying the match between Lee and Wong as a draw, and how the two characters handle this, makes it very unique and different from Hollywood sports films. I can’t think of a feature film where a draw or losing is productive and desirable. The closest would be war films where soldiers sacrifice themselves for fellow soldiers, but the thematic point of that is teamwork between people on the same side, which doesn’t apply here.

Thematic Analysis

Here I’ll get political – I think the film’s message is important for American audiences to understand. First, as numerous commentators and media personalities have observed, both sides of the political spectrum try to vilify the other and shout them down. This approach may not convince the other side of their shortcomings, but only makes them more trenchant in their beliefs. Birth of the Dragon suggests that by having some humility, or making concessions on some personal matters, we may be more convincing in others. Second, Wong takes Lee’s pride into account when he is pondering a means to change Lee’s mind. This demonstrates something I mentioned in a previous post: when trying to create change, progressives often insist conservatives should know better, without actually taking ignorance and human foibles into account when strategizing. Wong is someone who adopts both humility and strategic thinking, which is lacking in current approaches to social change.

Regarding interethnic romance, there’s still the question of if not Bruce and Linda Lee, whether it could have been another Chinese man and another White woman. After all, it’s not only women who are trafficked and in need of help. While I was distracted instead of offended by the representation of Steve and Xiulan, and I understand other reasons that the filmmakers decided Steve to be White, it certainly does nothing to refute charges that the US is still uncomfortable with seeing men of colour with White women, and overuses White audience-insert characters because it assumes that the audience is White and needs / wants to see themselves.

Finally, even though cultural appropriation didn’t end up being a source of conflict in the film, it still presents a good opportunity to consider how Wong’s perspective fits into this argument. Wong’s lines indicate that the main issue is that he has high and very specific standards for kungfu that he does not think Bruce Lee and his non-Chinese students are meeting. The issue of kungfu as a property of a specific community is secondary, and the nuclear armaments comment is the only thing Wong says about this.

To tackle the secondary issues first: Those who know the history of Shaolin would know that it has been attacked across history by bandits, warlords, and the government. The kungfu practiced in Shaolin is rooted in spiritual cultivation, and has been developed to defend a community’s way of life. If we accept for a moment that kungfu could allow practitioners to use their chi to accomplish superhuman feats such as levitation or kill in a single strike (which Wong of the film could do), then it is not much different from superior technology rooted in scientific cultivation used to defend communities at the scale of a nation-state.

Seeing it in these terms also helps to unpack the primary issue of standards. When it comes to cultural or artistic matters, because standards are often immeasurable and subjective, appealing to standards can seem to be a means of evading objective mass deliberation and thus hoarding the power to assign value. This is not always false. However, if we accept for a moment that spiritual cultivation adds a unique component to cultural practices, the lack of spirituality would result in an incomplete art. Although Wong does not explain it in these terms, if kungfu becomes simply a set of physical techniques that can be bought and sold, there are less checks on the kind of people practitioners are, consequently kungfu could more likely be used to hurt others. Going further with his nuclear power comparison, no scientist in their right minds would think of teaching nuclear science without teaching how to safely use it. Kungfu, like any other system, needs to have an internally coherent set of checks and balances.

Wong is a master of kungfu who has devoted his life to it, and his concerns for the future of his life practice cannot be reduced to a fear of cultural appropriation. However, cultural boundaries may play a part in his misgivings, and an explanation of why they can be legitimate would also clear up criteria in cultural appropriation in general. From Wong’s perspective as a Chinese person in the 1960s (either the real Wong Jack Man or the character), how would non-Chinese access the spiritual dimensions of kungfu if most Chinese masters can’t speak English, if non-Chinese students don’t read Chinese, if these materials have not been translated, and if they live an urban American life that is out of touch with Chinese philosophy and spirituality? In other words, if other social structures are not conducive to sharing the full meaning of a cultural practice, some may legitimately elect not to share it.

In addition, the historical context between the cultural in-group and out-group matters as well. I have already mentioned the history of Shaolin having an impact on what kungfu means to practitioners there. There are also events like the Boxer Rebellion, where allied Western powers decimated Chinese country folk who were trying to use kungfu to stave off an invasion. Not that the Boxers were interested in cultivating spirituality in the same way, but it makes sense that a few generations later, Chinese kungfu masters would still hesitate to teach foreigners.  Thus the burden isn’t on these masters to share cultural practices, but on interested members of the out-group to demonstrate that they and their society have changed. These two examples of cultural boundaries also point to the implications in resistance to cultural appropriation – masters are not saying that cultural practices can never be shared, but that contemporary factors are not conducive for sharing to be genuine, or for what is genuine to be shared.

From the themes presented in the film to the discussions it generated, I think Birth of the Dragon is worth watching, even if it is incredibly uneven. DVD release is on November 21.


3 Points Toward a More Receptive and Conciliatory Left, Part I

1) Is objectivity really impossible, and what are some pitfalls in valuing subjectivity?
2) Have we placed an undue emphasis on cultural and linguistic factors when considering inequality?
3) When should we commit to ideological positions, and when should we compromise?

Trump is now president, and the Republicans have gained majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In the post-election analysis, blame has been laid on 3rd party candidates, the media for covering Trump and giving him free publicity, Clinton’s past indiscretions, unreliable projections, and the electoral college system. One possible factor that the Democrats have identified is that they hadn’t reached out enough to white working-class voters.

I can’t speak to campaign strategies and their miscalculations; however, as a graduate student in a leftist interdisciplinary department, I have been frustrated for years at my fellow scholars’ ideological purity. I believe that a deterioration of civil society is scary, but I also fear that Trump being elected has vindicated a belief on the left that the right is so far gone that we have nothing to work with, while believing ourselves morally and intellectually superior. The use of “social justice warriors” and “feminazi” in dismissive and derogatory ways certainly speaks to resistance on the part of conservatives, however the sheer frequency of these labels makes me believe that the fault does not lie entirely with them.  Finally, the fact that many college-educated men backed Trump, and that even great numbers of White women voted for him, says that there is something we’re missing in the work we do in liberal arts research and higher education, even as we are trying to educate the electorate.

This is a part of a series of 3 posts that will try to answer the 3 questions above. Each of the 3 questions tries to interrogate a concept that, as I see it, has become common sense to thinkers on the left to the extent that we cannot apply it with nuance or communicate its value to non-believers. Each post will explain and give examples of one concept and its goals, then a response discussing its shortcomings and misapplication.

Progressive Concept #1: Objectivity is a fallacy, but the personal is political.

We are taught that it is impossible to hold a belief that is uncoloured by attributes historically deemed to be personal, such as race, class, gender, and sexuality. Following from this, absolute impartiality and apositionality is impossible.  This critique has been leveled the most often at ideas received from straight, Euro-American men of middle and upper classes who have assumed that their ideas are universally applicable and objective. For example, Enlightenment Humanism in Europe established that autonomy and rationality should be recognized as universal human attributes that justified freedom from religious and feudal tyranny, instigating the development of the middle class and the early modern society; however, the rise of a core middle class that came about due to denigrating Black Africans as non-human and profiting from their slave labour (ie in Sylvia Wynter’s scholarship). In the 3/5th Compromise of the US, the Northern, predominantly anti-slavery states did not want to count slaves as human for taxation and representation, because this would give Southern states more power; actual costs and benefits overrode principle. Thus, supposedly universal and objective concepts like humanism cannot be assumed to really be truly universal, because they are contradictory and have been applied selectively to benefit certain groups.

If nothing is absolutely objective or universal, then nothing is absolutely personal either; personal background are informed by forces outside of oneself and have effects outside of oneself. If middle-class White men have failed to generate and apply truly objective or universal principles, then we must ensure that all backgrounds are represented so a diversity of subjective perspectives have the opportunity to reflect upon public matters together. These theories have influenced and are influenced by postmodernism in general, which insists on relativity rather than absolutes.

Finally, because nothing is absolutely private and personal, there is also no such thing as absolutely personal achievements, nor absolutely personal failure. Failures get pinned on people who have been the most directly involved, however there tends to be a lack of awareness of how they have been constrained. One example is attributing healthy dietary habits and weight management to personal effort, and a backlash against obesity being counted as a disability that people could claim benefits for. I have lived in South Central LA for 5 years and seen 2 supermarkets shut down in my neighbourhood, while there are multiple fast food restaurants and liquor stores on every block. Juvenile diabetes is also rampant in my area, as evidenced by multiple PSA posters at bus stops. Even I have difficulty maintaining a healthy diet when busy and stressed, so it would be unreasonable to expect a single mother working multiple part-time and low-paying jobs to provide and teach her children about healthy diets all on her own personal effort. This is a fundamental issue in the disagreement between proponents of more public spending and proponents of less public spending – the former criticizes the latter of mistaking structural benefits for personal attributes and effort when it conveniences them to do so.

Response #1: The personal is not always political, and the personal does not have desired political effects without contextualization and connections to political aspirations.

I should make clear that, as per the first half of this post, I take no issue with explaining personal achievements and failures through structural factors. What concerns me is that valuing subjectivity has been reduced to personal expression, which has been emphasized through consumer culture and mass media. The constant valorization of personal expression leads to:

a) individuals of historically disenfranchised or under-represented groups presenting a personal opinion as representative of their whole group without contextualization

b) disenfranchised groups emphasizing evidence that support their ideological commitments while ignoring evidence that does not, or use the impossibility of being perfectly objective as an excuse to not try to be.

I am also not saying that groups in power have avoided these pitfalls (from the first half of this post, I definitely don’t think they have) but I don’t think that progressives can change things by fighting fire with fire.

That we attribute so much power to personal expression has to do with a system of adversarial democracy and an adversarial justice system (more in Part III). These civic systems lead to a cultural practice of representing one’s own argument, such as in the argumentative essay. However, to me these are not the most significant factors; it is consumer culture and social media that has made the last couple of generations predisposed to broadcasting personal expression with the assumption that the act in of itself is political.

Consumer culture is a significant force in the West: with industrial standardization, most of our jobs are specialized roles that does not allow us to express ourselves, so the only means of expressing ourselves through our personal lives. However, most of what we need in life comes in commodities that someone outside of our society as made. Thus, we create our own sense of self through buying things and paying for services. Marketers take advantage of this through market segmentation, where consumers are divided into smaller subgroups based on different needs; thus, when we buy something, we feel like it is tailored to us, and that we can express ourselves through it, and even become better through it. Car commercials, for example, tell us that the specific car would make us into an urbane professional or a rugged outdoorsman. L’oreal’s famous tagline is “Because you’re worth it.”

More recently, social media can also be seen as a way of marketing ourselves (and also as an extremely specialized way of marketing to us). Self-expression on social media garners positive feedback often not on the content being shared, but the act of sharing. For example, selfies will almost always garner positive feedback about how confident the person is in showing their face / body and sharing it with everyone. This cycles into people posting things online for the positive feedback they get on the act of expressing themselves, rather than deliberating on whether the content of what they are posting actually moves discussion on a topic forwards or achieves any material effects.

Feminist popularized the statement “the personal is political,” however it has been corrupted in recent generations of both men and women. However, I am more critical towards contemporary liberal feminism, partly because I think the burden of doing better should be on the actors who claim they can do better than the status quo, and partly because of negative personal experiences with individuals claiming to be feminists. Two articles about gender representation in videogames each illustrate the 2 pitfalls of emphasizing subjectivity.*

The first is an article about the update to Lara Croft’s representation in the Tomb Raider franchise. Peacock, the author, expresses disappointment that the realism of recent games reminds her too much that Lara is a frightened and vulnerable young woman as opposed to a badass tomb raider on par with men, citing examples such as Lara saying she’s cold, or Lara being assaulted, a scene which evokes rape. It is not that Peacock’s points are invalid, and I appreciate that she describes these conclusions as her own opinion. However, for the Women’s section of a mainstream and prominent outlet such as the Telegraph, I believe that Peacock could have better contextualized her opinion among other divergent feminist perspectives, even if this was an editorial. The new Lara Croft facing realistic obstacles that women face and giving realistic responses for a young woman most likely comes out of ideas that to be equal to men does not mean to be the same as men, and that the capacity for women to show vulnerability means that they have not been brainwashed by patriarchal society to believe that masculine toughness is the only valid state of mind. Giving Lara these traits makes her more of a complex and evolving character rather than the sex symbol of before, and more relatable for female players.  Feminists writing articles based on personal experiences is not invalid in of itself; however, I do think that this partly explains why men (and non-conforming women, such as in the above link) have a hard time approaching feminism, when individual women give divergent arguments, yet each woman insists or implies that their own personal belief is the political reality for all women.

Another article illustrates the problem when ideologically driven research ignores counter-arguments and evidence that does not support their claims. This article is about Rimworld, where the player is in charge of a colony of initially 3 people on another planet and assigning them tasks so they survive and prosper. The gender of the colonists determines different programming for thoughts and behaviour. Lo, the author, takes issue with how, among other things, female colonists are programmed to rarely initiate romance and to be not affected when rejecting romance, and male colonists are never programmed to be bisexual. The effect of this article on me was different than the piece on Tomb Raider, since I know less about programming than about representations and was impressed that Lo managed to dig into the code at all. The tone of the article also seemed fairly objective and her conclusions were not opinions, but rather fairly objective descriptions about the game mechanics. However, I cannot write off the developers’ objections in the comments as he explained that there was a updated version of the game where many of the issues Lo points out had been fixed, but she did not examine that version, and in addition he had asked that his full explanations be reproduced in the article but was refused. The Editor’s Note from Rock Paper Shotgun is that agreeing to reproduce the developer’s interview in full would be ceding editorial control. To me, this says that Lo and the editors already have an angle in mind based on preliminary research, and would exert editorial control to convey this angle even in the face of contradicting evidence. Similarly to representing individual opinions as representative ones, this lack of objective methodological rigour allied with strong ideological commitments can also drive away potential supporters who do not yet share those ideological commitments.

To me, the latter is a more serious issue for society, even though the former bothers me more personally. The reason for my personal discomfort at the former is that I have often run up against 3rd wave Euro-American feminists who assume that their perspectives, aspirations, and standards of femininity apply to me. At the same time, they reinforce one another’s personal expressions while denouncing critique as being anti-feminist, which prevents them from hearing about alternate feminisms. One particularly troubling incident occurred in a senior undergrad art class where the class votes on a semester theme, and the White female majority of the class chose sex; they then voted to replace the usual year-end gallery exhibit with public art installations around campus. Muslim student groups objected when they saw sexually explicit material being displayed in public space, however the art students wrote them off as being repressed and oppressed by their religion. I did not have the language to convince my class and thus my arguments weren’t particularly effective. To this day I am not sure how the professor could have not stepped in to at least clearly lay out what was at stake for my fellow students (There was also an incident where a fellow Women’s Studies TA told her classes that she hated men, which I will discuss more in Part III).

I do think that implying that personal opinions are representative of one’s identity group can be mitigated by having multiple individual opinions in the public sphere, and giving more critical and integrative tools to everyone so they know how to evaluate personal claims together to arrive at a bigger picture. Ideological-driven research that ignores evidence would be more devastating on a larger scale, since it is exactly what the far right does when they ignore how free market capitalism coupled with a limited government would produce mass inequality, and insist it would be better for everyone. At the very least, ideologically-driven policy-making it would lead to ineffectual leadership because certain groups and their interests would be not consulted based on ideological differences, leading to factors that the governing group cannot foresee or harness. Just because everything is at some degree ideological does not mean that we have an excuse to not examine our ideologies and positionalities.

* I chose articles that have to do with video games because gender and gaming has been a very hot topic after Gamergate, and it is the area where men have explicitly and unilaterally defended their identity as men. In addition, as a woman who has recently discovered gaming, I read more about games than any other medium (maybe other than comics, and my own academic reading). Regarding the issue of gender in video games, I think the above post undergirds my opinion. I agree with women who believe that video games and the culture around them exclude women and perpetuate harmful gender standards and should change to keep pace with a changing society. However, I also think that women have been asking for change in an antagonistic, unilateral, and internally contradictory way that doesn’t actually give much constructive plans to work from (such as the article on Lara Croft).

I say “unilateral” because while gender is the most salient factor, it should not be the only factor being considered. Most of my male friends who love games are nerdy Asian immigrants, who would have to combat an equally detrimental system of negative racial imagery to be fit in with mainstream men, and even more so to be desired by mainstream women. I would hazard a guess to say that many people (including men) who are die-hard fans of anything (including games) got into it because they were not welcomed into many other things society has to offer. Men who are excluded on factors other than gender can find community in video games, and thus I do think that gaming culture, if not the maleness thereoff, can be defended to a certain extent against mainstream feminism and its exclusive focus on gender. However, this defense should not be couched in purely gendered terms, and cannot take the form of personal attacks on women and their private lives. Ideally, neither side needs to throw the baby out with the bathwater; both sides should come up with ways to reject gender stereotypes and exclusion in games while maintaining games as a unique culture that many men have deeply identified with.

Into the Lifestream: Histories and Philosophies of FFVII

Part I – Personal fannish stuff
Part II – Socio-political stuff (Race and gender, Japanese history, Environmentalism)
Part III – Philosophical stuff (The Lifestream, Aerith’s way, Advent Children extensions)
(Because this WP layout has a static banner, it covers the first paragraph or so when you go to an internal link, so you need to scroll up a bit. sorry.)

One of the biggest pieces of news coming out of E3 this summer was that there will be a remake of Final Fantasy VII, and hearing this has made grown men cuss and cry in front of their children. There are 2 decade’s worth of debates on the game’s impact; while my personal reasons might be rather idiosyncratic, I also think a portion of them might be what a lot of fans find appealing when they say they were impacted by Aerith’s death, but they just haven’t articulated it the same way.

I won’t be addressing the technical aspects of gameplay or graphics advancement in the 1990s, since I don’t know enough to judge. What I’d like to focus on here are the themes and the concepts that the character, plot, and the world-building imply. I think what makes this a good story is that while it’s fantasy, it reflects Japan’s concept of itself in the world, and in the end it has a rather modest and relatable view of good and evil, which are locate in the ways we approach life and loss and the world we live in.

Having said that, though, I do think how characters as gameplay elements relate to characters as narrative elements is important to keep. Some of the later FF games have no specializations for characters and they can grow technically according to player choice. Battle system and random encounter mechanics aside, I do think that stats and specializations contribute to a sense of who the characters are. Relying on the table in Section 1.4 here on character stats, it makes sense that a character like Aerith doesn’t grow in strength as quickly as Barrett, who conversely doesn’t grow in magic as quickly as Aerith.

I. Personal stuff

I’m a big fan of FFVII but not through the typical route of “this defines my childhood.” I watched Advent Children (AC) when it first came out in 2005 with the anime club in university, without knowing anything about it. While it didn’t make much sense to me, it haunted me and I watched it up to 5 times in one semester trying to figure out why. I suppose that having had watched a lot of anime, certain dramatic devices and characterizations, such as angst, was familiar. I was also taking a Bible and Literature course at the time and wrote a response paper on Biblical themes and whether FFVII subverted them by making Sephiroth an antichrist figure (especially with the similarity of “Jenova” to “Jehovah”), and whether there was a subtext of Eastern polytheistic religions compared to Western monotheism. Later in this post I will also justify why think in the thematic scheme of things AC is absolutely necessary, even if it retconned half the characters and nothing particularly different from the game happened.

I got into gaming only in my mid-20s, as my family were relatively poor immigrants for whom entertainment in general was frivolous spending. (Advice for the next generation of parents: start ’em young. Gaming is like piano or martial arts, because it requires a very specific set of sensory-motor skills and a “language” in terms of reading what the game wants you to do. The literacy of videogames are different from other visual media like movies and so forth because there is an interface, both in the sense of the actual menus you see and also implicit conventions in what you can and cannot interact with). I played FFVII when I was teaching English in China because I had more time from not being in school myself, and I was also at a telecommunications / software engineering institution where students exercised free will over their lives for the first time by playing games all the time. They were asked to choose English names for the benefit of foreign instructors and one kid actually named himself Sephiroth. He wasn’t my student, but I found this out during a Thanksgiving event, where teachers announced “Sephiroth will be performing Pachlebel’s Canon in D on the violin.”

I guess I took this as a sign and downloaded a PC version of it, though because of my lack of gaming skills meant that I followed a textual walkthrough (from Absolute Steve, who is a great writer for this kind of guide in terms of being clear, comprehensive, and occasionally humorous). It took me a couple of months and the timer in the game clocked out long before I finished it. I didn’t feel attachment to specific characters more to the party as a group, and it got to me to the extent that when I failed to destroy one of the Weapons I actually felt like I let someone down. I did finish everything in the end, though because it too me so long, the emotional payoff at the end didn’t seem as salient. But FFVII stayed with me in a way that has influenced my personal growth; every time I’d get cocky or get overcome with guilt over something I tend to think of FFVII to get me out of it (more about this in Part III, and an excellent interview with Takahiro Sakurai, the voice actor for Cloud, sums this up perfectly towards the end). AsI go onwards with graduate education I also see in FFVII a unique and instructive Japanese approach to the world (Part II). And like most fans of the FF series the music has been a major draw; as a flute player I tend to practice a lot of FFVII tunes (my favourite being “Cloud Smiles”).

II. Socio-political stuff

Race and gender issues

I’ve seen some articles since E3 discussing what should stay in the remake and what should be changed, among them more sensitive topics such as Cloud cross-dressing, and Barrett’s behaviour and speech being racist. While Cloud cross-dressing adds a lot of humour to the game, there is concern that having it simply as a humorous element and having Cloud unmask himself as a “real man” at the end of that sequence sits uncomfortably with queer and transgender sensibilities 20 years on. Though I think even today, if you ask an average straight guy to wear a dress and infiltrate a brothel, he’ll still be uncomfortable, and men he meets in the brothel would still be uncomfortable when they find out. It might be interesting to explore the diversity of orientations if someone were to be attracted to Cloud regardless of whether he’s in disguise or not, even more interesting if a significant character were bisexual or something (oddly enough I can see Aerith being such, also Rufus).

As for the character of Barrett, I would also say that because he’s a rather complex character overall and exists in a fantasy world, I don’t think his behaviour and speech really matter all that much in the end. For Japan, who has its own rather different racial discrimination problems, I thought his character was already pretty progressive. I also don’t know how much of his speech is in translation and how much of it was written in the Japanese version already, and if the latter, whether it signifies differently in Japan (I think in Axis Powers Hetalia, world accents were represented as Japanese regional ones for the Japanese voice acting, so if Barrett has something similar going for him I’m not sure Euro-American fans have enough information to complain). What I would like to see, though, is if he’s meant to reflect a specific racial/class demographic, when the English voice acting take place, the producers would actually consult English the way it’s spoken by that demographic. I’m thinking of the Zimmerman trial where Rachel Jeantel was deemed to behave inappropriately or spoke unintelligible English when it was legitimately a different form of vernacular. Anyways, I always thought his idiosyncracies were more about class than race, and I do think it’s realistic and relatable for a person of colour on the outskirts of the world to have their prior ways of life and economies (in his case, coal) to be interrupted by new technology from urban centres.

I think some things have changed, though, and the sensibilities of a post-9/11 and post-Fukushima world need careful treading around. It might be hard to pull off heroism of eco-terrorists blowing up energy reactors now, even if the heroism is only initial and Barrett recognizes his error later on. Fukushima also makes Advent Children harder to accept, as Geostigma and orphans infected with Jenova-contaminated water is uncomfortably close to the effects of radiation exposure. I’m not sure how the writers plan on handling this sensititive topic.

Japanese history

I’m doing a doctorate in American Studies, which examines the ideas and status of people within the US and the effects of the US worldwide. One of the topics is how Asia has been impacted by the US, and another topic is what Eisenhower calls the military-industrial complex, the consequences of which I think FFVII shows in the Shinra Corporation. If this seems far fetched, a similar thread that fans have also noticed is that Japanese anime, especially pre-2000 ones, has a lot of apocalyptic scenarios involving cities getting destroyed (Evangelion and Akira, to name 2), which people tend to agree has to do with a generation growing up after the atomic bombs.

When Eisenhower came up with the term “military-industrial complex” he was referring to the conjoined interests of legislators, military leadership, and the arms industry in the US. Since industrialization in the Euro-American world, a lot of the industry was privately and not state-owned; governments and militaries would contract out arms production to these private companies, and in turn government legislation would ensure that these private companies would be able to produces armaments smoothly. In broader terms, the military-industrial can also arise from the joint effects of military and economic influence, which would be different from a strictly economic force such as foreign direct investment. Japan would be the Asian nation which has felt the effects of the US military-industrial complex the earliest, with commodore Perry and the navy opening Japan to economic development in the mid-1800s. Rationale for this on the part of the US is numerous, some of which involving needing Japan as a fueling station of sorts, and also wanting to control shipping routes to China, which was seen as a huge market. Japan industrialized quickly and even defeated Russia in modern warfare, but the US didn’t pay it much mind since it was still preoccupied with Europe. Japanese and American interests around the Pacific began to clash during WWII; the incident Americans tend to know from this is the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in Hawai’i. Then the US dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, leading to the withdrawal of Japan from the Pacific theatre of WWII.

Common knowledge about the US’s involvement in Japan usually ends here, and most people assume that Japan got itself back on its own feet. In the treaties after WWII Japan was forced into complete disarmament due to its encroachment on its Asian neighbours. Instead, the US stations military in Asia and the Pacific region to secure the places that Japan withdrew from (such as the Philippines and Pacific islands like Guam, as well as Korea). In addition to military presence, the US also heavily influenced (if not dictated) the direction of Japanese economic and industrial development into the 50s. Part of the result, intentional or not, was that the Japanese economy also became a military-industrial one to provide support to American engagement in the Korean War, and American influence in South Korea also created institutions to support its engagement in Vietnam. During these Cold War engagements, Japan, Hawai’i, and Thailand served as R&R stations for US soldiers on leave, which some people argue was the start of making Hawai’i into a tourist-driven economy.

I can’t draw a direct connection between Japan’s relationship to the US and Shinra, but I also think that an energy corporation with a paramilitary presence like Shinra would come uniquely from a country which has lived through national development influenced by a combined foreign military and economic force, and it would be harder for Euro-Americans in the 90s to conceive of this particular combination. This is especially salient due to the presence of Yuffie and Wutai in FFVII. Wutai’s cultural aesthetics are heavily Japanese-inflected; it was supposed to have been a strong warrior nation, but because Shinra wanted to set up a mako reactor and Wutai did not, and a war ensued that Wutai eventually lost. In addition, along with becoming a source for energy extraction, Wutai also became a resort destination for non-Wutai tourists, which Yuffie and other Wutai resistance fighters are ashamed of.

This lack of self-determination in Wutai reflects the history I have outlined above, where both Japan and Wutai have little choice but to become a proxy or service for another nation which is stronger both militarily and economically and uses the former to secure the latter. Reading Shinra as the US military-industrial complex might be stretching it, since the US didn’t explicitly carry out military-lead resource extraction; however, a number of US industries and scientists were folded into the nuclear development program during WWII (a good book just published about this is here), and it’s kind of unsettling to add the fact that the US dropped nuclear bobs on Japan to the fact that the nuclear reactors at Fukushima were designed by General Electric, which we tend to associate with benign home appliances. While the intentions of the US and of Shinra might be different, the result they have left on Japan and Wutai are not so different. Because Yuffie is the representative of this, though, the message is “safe” in that most people wouldn’t read threat in a young woman who’s annoyingly cheerful and slightly incompetent. There’s a whole area of research into why Asians like to convey messages in cute things, which I won’t get into, but recommended sources would be artist Takashi Murakami’s Superflat aesthetic (which he links to WWII here), as well as the chapter on cuteness in Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting.


Another issue related to the military-industrial complex is environmentalism, which is on the forefront in FFVII. Environmental activism can date back to the 60s as a major movement and isn’t particular to Japan (though it did take place around the same time as civil right and anti-war movements). An excellent academic book that touches on this (and readable for laypeople / Japanese pop culture fans) is Anne Allison’s Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. Allison argues that Japanese popular culture reflects the social conditions and aspirations that Japan has lived through post-war; one of the effects of industrialization is that areas of untouched nature shrunk, and thus many Japanese people feel a great deal of nostalgia for a natural or pastoral landscape (as a Canadian person, I was amused to learn that Japanese people really like Anne of Green Gables and are the largest group of foreign tourists to Prince Edward Island, which they apparently see as an image of what Japan had been). Allison spends a great deal of time talking about Pokemon; she writes that Tajiri, the creator of Pokemon, borrowed from his childhood experiences of catching insects and fish in his town and tries to recreate this experience of nature as playground, albeit a fantastical natural ecosystem of “monsters.” Allison doesn’t discuss this, but a more sober and ambivalent work in Japanese popular culture regarding the loss of nature would be Princess Mononoke. It’s also no accident that these works emerge in the 80s and 90s, which is when the generation born after WWII in Japan had matured into adults. Thus, while the environmentalism presented in FFVII seems to be a universal issue, it’s also very specific to the Japanese.

III. Philosophical stuff

Another rather Japanese-specific theme in FFVII that gets into philosophical territory is that “nature” in FFVII is not simply a material existence but a spiritual one, and is fundamentally no different from human beings. Hippies and esoteric beliefs aside, most people living in the Euro-American world would see nature as a resource (energy, raw materials) or as a setting for human activity and enjoyment (leisure, beauty, being in touch with ourselves). If we “respect” nature it’s more that we need to survive sustainably rather than for nature’s own sake, or when we fail to predict or control nature, disasters happen and we are humbled. If we “return to nature” upon our deaths, it is decomposition on a material level of the body, which we have in common with the natural world. Judeo-Christian-Islamic thinking has influenced most of us to think that human beings are exceptional for having souls, while beings of “nature” lacks it, even if we are not all religious adherents. The Lifestream in FFVII is a very different world view, where human beings are not exceptional, and everything returns to the Lifestream; thus, everything has some degree of soul, if that’s still the right word for it. Thus it also makes sense that Aerith’s flowers grow best in a church.

The Lifestream and good and evil

Because of this underlying spiritual element to FFVII, I think there are two parallel but linked frameworks of good and evil in FFVII. On the one hand, there is the familiar good and evil of an adventure story where Cloud and his friends, as the heroes, save the world from villains, which are both Sephiroth and Shinra. But what makes Sephiroth and Shinra the villains? And while Cloud is flawed, what makes him good, and what makes Aerith good? I think the other framework of good and evil is whether one acts according to the Lifestream or not. Two attributes of the Lifestream is that a) it is a continuous cycle where, in due time, everything on the planet dissolves into and b) in the flow, everything is broken up, remixed, and appears in a different form. The opposite of these would be a) taking something out of circulation and b) persisting in one form that does not distintegrate or recombine. In terms of nature and environmentalism, this would be plastic in a landfill. In the case of FFVII, it’s true that Sephiroth has killed innocent people, but I think his evil has more to do with being bent on continuing Jenova’s takeover of the planet, which directly affects the Lifestream; and Shinra Company’s evil is that they process the energy of the Lifestream into mako and use it up without replenishing it (an interesting article here argues that Shinra represents capitalism). Sephiroth is also guilty of this; in AC he explains that his aim is to spread his influence with the remnants of Geostigma victims, take over the planet that way, and use the planet to sail somewhere else to find another planet. This is definitely not sustainability either.

These are concrete ways that the Lifestream is affected, however there are more abstract versions of the two attributes. As life attitudes, the attributes of the Lifestream would translate to moving on when it is necessary to do so, and being flexible about what one needs to be. Here is also the reason I think Aerith is such a compelling character, and why Cloud is at first Sephiroth’s shadow but manages to be his own person. This is also where I think Advent Children shows a quite different manifestation of the same theme, a side which is important to consider.

Aerith’s way

In their own extremes, Sephiroth represents stagnation and self-absorption, and Shinra represents waste, while I think what makes Aerith “good” is that she lives her way according to the Lifestream and something like the “middle way,” and through her Cloud learns to do so as well.  This is also why I think it makes sense that Sephiroth reappears in Advent Children, since he is so bent on revenge and world domination that he does not allow his consciousness to dissolve in the Lifestream when it should. Near the end of FFVII, there is a discussion on Cid’s airship regarding whether Aerith planned to sacrifice herself, or whether she planned on returning to her friends (When Sephiroth tricks Cloud into giving one of his avatars the Black Materia to summon Meteor, Aerith leaves the party and goes to the city of the Ancients to summon Holy with her White Materia). The conversation ended on a note that leans towards the latter, but one wonders why, if she didn’t plan to sacrifice herself, did she leave alone and didn’t ask for help.

It’s debateable whether Aerith needed to die to save the world. She could have finished summoning Holy, and if Sephiroth’s power prevents it from taking effect, the party would have finished off Sephiroth in the Northern Crater, and Meteor would have stopped. However, it might be the case that even if events had unfolded this way, the party wouldn’t defeat Sephiroth in time and the Meteor would still be on its trajectory. There are different ways of interpreting the scene at the end of FFVII where the Lifestream rises up to counteract Meteor. It’s possible that the Lifestream would have done this anyways if the Meteor got too close (which is what Marlene describes in Advent Children), however since there is a shot of Aerith’s face in the glow of the Lifestream at the end, and in AC her voice seems to emanate from water, I prefer to think that Aerith was the one that instigated the Lifestream from within to counteract Meteor, and she could not have done this while alive. It’s not that she would have known when Sephiroth kills her that she needed to be dead, either; it’s just that she does what she can while alive, and also does what she can after death as well. This is in line with the attributes of the Lifestream, which is that she accepts what happens to her, moves on and takes on another form, which both is and isn’t Aerith, and makes it work.

Cloud also learns to do this by the end; on the airship he says that they all need to let go of Aerith’s memory; as he and Tifa are hanging from a cliff in the Northern Crater after defeating Sephiroth, he says that he is beginning to understand what the Promised Land is, and he could meet “her” (Aerith) there. Perhaps the Promised Land is the Lifestream and they will all “meet” Aerith upon death as everything recombines; perhaps it’s a place of mind where he understands that she is with them but in another form. Hopefully players also understand this by the end, know that hacking the game to keep playing her character rather defeats the purpose of the game’s thematic development, and most likely Aerith wouldn’t want that to happen. I remember reading fan confusion regarding the intention with her death, with the producer Kitase saying that the developers wished to reflect the meaninglessness and suddenness of death in real life (against the trope of sacrificial deaths in popular media, where sacrifice or love is usually a clear-cut meaning); on the other hand, resurrecting Aerith would take away the meaning of her death. I think what he means is that there is no inherent meaning in Aerith’s death, but her death is meaningful for the emotional and intellectual struggles of Cloud, the party, and the player as they come to terms with it. Paradoxically, one of the ways of making meaning of her death is to accept that it has no meaning to death; if this seems nihilistic, her death has no meaning because it’s a non-event, and she is not really gone, and you can meet her in the Promised Land.

Cloud takes quite a long while to get there though. If Aerith goes with the flow of the Lifestream and accepts that she dies and takes another form, Sephiroth and Cloud are too wrapped up in maintaining their self-image, to their detriment and the detriment of others around them. Sephiroth, for his part, goes on his rampage after discovering that his status as an elite SOLDIER was due to being experimented on by Shinra and Hojo, and strives for revenge and to continue Jenova’s supposed legacy of taking over the world (This second goal never made particular sense to me, since going from “Jenova was meant to take over the world millenia ago” and “I have Jenova cells” to “I must take over the world” seems quite a leap, and my only explanation is mako and Jenova-induced mental instability on Sephiroth’s part, as well as a slightly hamfisted way of introducing the theme of legacies). Cloud is so invested in being a member of SOLDIER that he adopts Zack’s memories as his own and deludes himself and everyone else into thinking that he had been in SOLDIER. Even as a boy, as he explains to Tifa when they are in the Lifestream, he told himself that he was superior to the other children when all he wanted was to be included. And of course, when Hojo reveals that he had experimented on a series of beings (?) in an attempt to create Sephiroth clones, Cloud begs Hojo to give him a number so that he has something to latch onto for his identity. After Tifa helps him to piece things together in the Lifestream, he accepts that he isn’t who he thought he was, and that’s all right, since the party together, with the memory of Aerith, will do what needs to be done.

Advent Children extensions

In Advent Children, though, there exists the opposite problem, where Cloud, presumably coming down from the high of defeating Sephiroth, no longer knows who he is at all, nor do the people who used to live in Midgar. This is the opposite extreme to what Cloud manages to conquer in the game, which is overweening pride; in AC he falls into despair. Geostigma infects people who have lost their will to live, and what looks to be acute Geostigma attacks occur during moments of despair or doubt, such as when Denzel first accidentally calls Tifa and tells her that he doesn’t know what to do with his family dead and home gone, and in midst of crying suffers an attack and passes out. Rufus is correct in saying that Sephiroth, by holding onto himself in the Lifestream, is responsible for Geostigma; his malevolence in the Lifestream overpowers those who let themselves go. Cloud, especially, isolates himself when he’s ill with Geostigma; this would be taking himself out of circulation in social terms. Cloud and other Midgar denizen’s issues in AC also show that while Aerith goes with the flow of the Lifestream, this doesn’t mean that she lacks direction or personal integrity. Whereas Tifa tends to hold back, Aerith acts; in addition to going to the City of the Ancients by herself, one detail I remember in particular is from recruiting Vincent. After Vincent explains that he decided to sequester himself in the Nibelheim mansion due to his inability to save Lucrecia, Aerith responds, “So you decided to punish yourself by sleeping? That’s kinda weird.” Aerith would (and does) disapprove of the way Cloud is behaving in AC, though at the end she acknowledges that he’s grown up a bit more.

I think the events of AC makes sense; heroes don’t save the world and live happily after. Sometimes overcoming a catastrophe means there are still pieces to pick up, which might call on different skills and attitudes from the catastrophe itself. There needs to be a medium between arrogance and despair, between action and waiting, between identity and adaptive flexibility, and finding a way of taking on someone’s legacy without becoming a puppet, which is what Sephiroth accuses Cloud of being. I find that the conflict of AC is more internal than in the game, though because it’s a CG movie it needs to show off visual aesthetics with visible antagonists. Oddly enough, in AC it’s Rufus who becomes the most erudite advocate for a healthy attitude, when he tells Kadaj that it wouldn’t matter if Sephiroth were to return; the cycle of the Lifestream means that history might repeat itself, and any number of Jenovas and Sephiroths would not stop those connected to the Lifestream from living as life mandates.

To put FFVII in context, I think that perhaps Japan, with their pride and ambitions during WWII and quick fall into defeat and surrender, particularly needed these popular culture texts to think through what it means to find a middle way. In the context of Japanese society, I suppose I also understand why Advent Children in the 2000s is tackling despair as the problem as opposed to pride in the FFVII game; the pressures of the education system, plus the recent 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and poor employment, likely gave rise to a lot of young people not knowing what they should be doing with their lives and with some becoming hikikomori in extreme cases.

However, I understand the golden age of Japanese popular culture to be in the 90s, when creators were really trying to grapple with the history of their country and what it means to live life to its fullest potential. Since then, I’m rather disappointed to see tropes recycled a lot without much substance behind them, and also Japan’s national branding project in the 2000s (the Cool Japan cultural policy) means that Japanese popular culture may be more devoted of its global image to non-Japanese, whereas self-searching is perhaps put on the backburner. With a new FFVII remake, I hope that it would carry forwards the social and philosophical ruminations of the original game and AC, and even be thematically different from the game so as to continue to reflect what Japan is internally going through today. Regardless, as a major fan of FFVII, I’m looking forward to what the reunion might bring.

Charlie Hebdo and The Interview: Uses and Abuses of Free Speech and the Unmasking of God

“I’m a satirist, so I’ve got boxing gloves on if the person is worthy of satire. But I’m not an assassin.” – Stephen Colbert

“There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive – no wonder everyone keeps invading you.” – Twelfth Doctor


From last year until now, the world has been struggling over a series of incidents regarding media representations: first, The Interview was pushed back, revised, and then nearly cancelled due to threats to Columbia, Sony Pictures and theatres over the depiction of the assassination of Kim Jong-un; second, satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in France was attacked by terrorists in response to publishing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, in which 11 staff members were killed. In both of these incidents, a Western agency created satirical representations, then non-Western society protested over their representations as offensive, and then the Western content producers protested in return that their representations were justified based on good intentions and free speech/creative expression.

As a fairly pacifist human being and one that does work and research in the arts, I do not condone any kind of attack on creators of an image, however offensive this image may be. However, in discussing this matter with others, I have repeatedly defended the objections of North Korea and of Islamic fundamentalists, and repeatedly found myself on the wrong side of the argument; this post is a means of sorting out and justifying why I think the way I do. One thread in my thinking is related to what we call “free speech,” and the other is linked to representation and divinity.

Organizing these thoughts might start with what seems to be contrasting definitions on concepts we take for granted, and also different weights given to these definition: what is a “representation,” what is an “attack” (figurative or literal, or what is figurative or literal violence), and what is “satire.” There are also different stages to these controversies; of the incidents themselves, there is the stage in which a Western representation takes place, another stage where retaliation takes place, and another stage where protests against these retaliations take place; behind the event itself, there is the long history of global politics.

Working backwards, I believe protests over retaliation on the part of terrorists and North Korea has to do with the sense that their reactions are incommensurate with the representations they find offensive (accepting for a moment that finding them offensive is justified). A justifiable reaction might be also in the realm of representation or in the discursive realm, eg publishing a column protesting The Interview or perhaps a fatwa against caricatures might seem to be responding with a commensurate retaliation (even if the logic behind it seems silly to Westerners), whereas hacking and a terrorist strike aren’t. These “extreme” forms of retaliation are incommensurate because they are material rather than discursive; they cost lives and interfere with livelihoods. Cue the sticks and stones childhood rhyme – words and pictures don’t hurt but sticks and stones do.

Going more theoretical here to cite theorist Jean Baudrillard, there are iconoclasts and iconolators. Iconoclasts object to representations of the divine, because any human imagining of the perfection of divinity or associated figures would be a profanity. Putting aside any debates on whether it’s RIGHT to think this way, it is at least clear that fundamentalists of a number of religions are iconoclast, and they steadfastly proclaim themselves as such. On the other hand, it seems that the Western world is confused about whether it wants to be iconoclasts or iconolators. We believe that representations matter; social groups advocate for better and more authentic representations of marginalized groups, and the childhood rhyme is no longer tenable in school management – psychological bullying hurt as much as physical bullying. Personally, as someone who has done illustration work and researches comics, I have to admit that my Western, Humanities scholar self has a sense of perverse pride that in the The Interview and Charlie Hebdo incidents, representations matter so much. However, while we advocate for how representations matter, we also seem to get bewildered and angry when another community thinks they matter more than we do. Representations matter, but if you’re willing to kill and die over representations, then you’re clearly insane.

In the Western liberal scheme of representations, while we might not believe there is much of a relationship between a representation and the actual thing, it’s not the case that we believe all representations are immaterial or should not have material effects. What, after all, is the end goal of increased and better representations for marginalized groups and stopping psychological bullying among children? It is so that children grow up confident and assured and with psychological resources for better lives. Or that marginalized groups do not run up against a wall of prejudice and can get better jobs and education and better lives, perhaps have lives in the first place (thinking of Ferguson). Even if some Westerners believe that young Black men are more disruptive and tend more towards criminal behaviour, I don’t think we would disagree that persistent media representation of young Black men as criminal at least contributes to increased targeting by police and hence disrupt lives if not cost lives. So, if representations are a matter of life and death, then we should also not argue that, at least on a theoretical level, it is wrong for certain iconoclast religious fundamentalists to be willing to kill and die over representations.

Onto the second thread, which is free speech. Again, as a person working in and around the arts, and as someone who will usually defend fan work over copyright, I believe that society needs both an ideologically generative and economically lucrative structure to protect creativity and “immaterial” labour. On the other hand, in terms of a debate we have had internally to the West, there is the tension between free speech and hate speech, which are part of the convulsions France is currently undergoing. An article from NPR states that hate speech and blasphemy are different under French law. I am not sure about the logic behind this, but it seems that if religion is integral to someone’s identity as their ethnicity (I suppose in certain Pan-Islamic contexts it is more important than ethnicity), and if objecting to someone’s ethnicity is hate speech, it doesn’t make sense that objecting to someone’s religion isn’t. I suppose there is still the sense that the racial/biological part of one’s ethnicity is in some ways innate, and can’t be helped, whereas religion has ideas that one has agency to renounce. But if a religion is the only system of knowledge and truth that you know, and it has structured your life from the day you were born, it’s not so easily to step outside it.

Another argument I have heard in protest against Islamic fundamentalism is that the world needs a system of checks and balances, and no group should be exempt from criticism. Outsiders to the group under consideration should also not fear for their safety due to their critiques. I also do believe that aspirations of a ruling class to be fair and generous towards everyone else usually fails as people tend to protect their own interests, and hence a system of checks and balances needs to be able to function so different elements of a society can critique each other without impunity. However, to me this system of checks and balances has not been actualized, and it is as a lofty and unrealistic goal as noblesse oblige. Checks and balances assumes that each party can have their voices equally heard, and to have their stakes equally measured, otherwise disproportionate power means that there is no checks and balance. And there is no global equality. Regardless of whether the US being engaged in the Middle East was a justified action after 9/11, the UN security council expressed reservations about interventions; the US as a disproportionately strong world power was able to say it would act alone. This is not something that most countries or communities in the world can do. Due to historical colonization of Asia, Africa, and South America, nations in these locations do not have as much political or economic leverage as Western countries, thus they disproportionately have their concerns infringed upon while being disproportionately unable to influence world powers. For example, the term “banana republic” originally referred to Honduras, which could not exercise its sovereignty against American businesses who wanted to grow bananas cheaply there. Most colonized countries have not bounced back from this state of being. There are certain international laws in place to prevent exploitation, however historical legacies are not so easily overcome.

In this context of unequal power, what “satire” is needs to be seriously considered. The famous example would be Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, where he satirized England’s encroachment on Ireland by suggesting that taken to the extreme, the English might like to eat Irish babies. Satire does not exist in an abstract world where each cultural work has the same weight as other cultural works, but a tool of the weak against the strong when no outright critique is possible. In Swift’s case, objecting to the English directly would have resulted in retribution, so satire was criticism disguised as a fable, where on the denotative level there is no criticism, just absurdity. I would argue that if the power dynamics were reversed, it would no longer be satire, but ridicule and psychological bullying. It is true that the average French journalist doesn’t have as much power as the average terrorist (sorry, “the average terrorist” sounds kind of…wrong), however on a global scale I would argue that France and French media command more attention and has more power to shape international decisions than religious fundamentalist teachings and “extremist” policies, which tend to terrorize a local context. Also, if Swift was trying to reveal British atrocities, I’m not sure what the staff at Charlie Hebdo meant to reveal – or at least the throughline between Mohammed being humanized and current extremist policies isn’t clear enough to me from a caricature to be satire. It would take a long exposition about traditions of veneration in Islam, the impact of rigid or literal interpretations of divine texts, and perhaps a statement on the choice to deliberately tackle image-making to move beyond ridicule.

In addition, perhaps specifically related to the Charlie Hebdo incident, the audience matters. I do not know the readership of Charlie Hebdo, but I understand that this magazine has always critiqued French society, and perhaps its satire has revealed to citizens machinations in French politics and enlightened them to make better social decisions. Thus, I am assuming that most of their audience are not Islamic fundamentalists or doubting Muslim followers who are trying to embrace secularism. In which case, if the caricatures are meant to be satire, I am not sure what kind of social change the cartoonists were trying to accomplish. After similar incidents they should know that Islamic believers won’t respond well to caricatures of Mohammed, and probably won’t renounce their fundamentalism after seeing these caricatures. If their audience are other liberal middle class Frenchmen, with the cartoons they are already preaching to the converted (sorry for the religious metaphor there). Thus, the caricatures are not so much socially-motivated satire as an ingroup joke ridiculing those who are already outsiders. From this point of view, this issue isn’t a free speech or hate speech issue on an abstract level at all, but pragmatically a bad allocation of artistic resources.

The Interview is a similar case and perhaps enlightening in terms of caricatoonists’ thought processes. In The Interview, two American journalists set out to prove to the people of North Korea that Kim Jong-un is not a god, but human. In parallel, one way of thinking about caricatures of Mohammed is that by making him ridiculous, cartoonists are stripping him of his divinity and making him human. Both of these stripping away of divinity is supposed to lead to some kind of secular or democratic liberation, as people would be able to see through a lie.

What is interesting is that Dave and Aaron are enacting what the terrorists enacted in real life, which is attack a representation to shut it down. There are three facets of difference: First, the material routed through representations or the material straight up: The Interview is fiction, whereas the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo is a real world occurrence. Second, in the case of Kim Jong-un, the representation and the crafter of the representation are the same figure, Kim Jong-un, whereas in the case of caricatures of Muhammad, the representation and its crafters are different entities. The last facet of difference is Rogen and Goldberg are attacking and taking down a representation of god and showing there is nothing behind it, whereas the terrorists are attacking and taking down a representation of god to preserve the divinity behind it.

These differences are significant, but at a conceptual level both parties were acting under very similar logic. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg can conceive of making Kim Jong-un fall but cannot put it into practice, and so created a representation that they hope will achieve similar real world effects in the long run, whereas the terrorists were different in that they were willing and able to commit real world actions directly. With the second point, a Western liberal question might be to ask why not just attack the images instead of killing the people who created it. In The Interview, Aaron protests against killing Kim Jong-un because another dictator would just be set up in its place, ie it doesn’t really solve the root of the problem. It actually does – conveniently for Dave and Aaron, they can kill two birds with one stone and kill the image of god and the dictator who crafted him in one go, whereas the terrorists don’t have that convenience. The same logic might apply in the terrorists’ mind – just protesting verbally that images are offensive falls on deaf ears and more images would be made; might as well kill all the cartoonists and root out the problem. Third, as I’ve discussed earlier, both the film producers and Al-Qaeda are iconoclasts, just different kinds.

One point this post is aiming for is that for all of lofty Western values, in practice strategies don’t necessarily operate on different grounds than terrorists. Another point is that in the West we need to work out exactly what we believe representations are and what they’re meant to accomplish, and acknowledge some kind of internationally-accepted limit, that’s just as important, I think, as a UN security council. As a subset of this, we need to be clear about what satire is meant to accomplish.

Third, we also need to assess what it means to unmask god. If we are so keen to destroy the image of god of another community and show him to be human, we should also accept that another community might be rather keen to destroy the images we make of their god. Also, regarding allocations of artistic resources: if a terrorist attack doesn’t convince the Western world that they’re wrong in drawing caricatures of the divine and just deeply offends everyone, how would a movie showing a terrorist attack on a man people think is god going to change anything instead of deeply offending everyone? Finally, if we unmask god, what do we put in his place? Do we take a boat off into the sunrise with the dog we rescued? Do we try to become god? How do we teach a community who has lived with god that God is dead and we have killed him?

Doctor Who and Ethnicity, Part I: Race and the cultural embeddedness of Science Fiction

At the end of May, there was a controversy surrounding British television series Doctor Who, due to the impending publication of a collection of academic essays titled Doctor Who and Race.  Since the volume is out now, I expect the issue to open up again.

This controversy brought out a lot of things I have been turning over in my head since I started watching the revived Doctor Who.  Anyways, the press picked up on essays in the collection that describe Doctor Who as propagating British imperialism, being dismissive of Black characters, and demeans cultures that are not industrially developed. Fans of Doctor Who got offended, and the BBC defended itself by saying that Doctor Who is especially committed to colour-blind casting and depicting all of humanity (and since this is a science fiction show, all potential life forms) as equal. The editors of the collection responded to this controversy by reminded fans and the media that not all the essays are critical of Doctor Who.

This Part I will deal with analysis of the episodes’ representations of race and ethnicity, as well as representations of British culture, especially British ideas of tea and Asians. The controversy also has a few instructive lessons on science fiction, media in a global context, and the relationship of academics to everyday life, especially popular culture, and that will wait til Part II (I wanted to post all of it together, but seeing as the essay collection is published already, posting asap on the issue seems important. And also it will cut down the length). Here I will discuss what I have seen of Doctor Who (henceforth DW) but will also briefly talk about a couple more scifi shows: Fringe, Firefly, and, uh, Doraemon, just to put things into non-Western perspective. Most of it will be about race and ethnicity, but some of it will be about gender, sexuality, and cultural consciousness in general, because constructs of race and gender and sexuality are part of cultural consciousness.

This post is NOT meant to be a summary or review of the essay collection, and it was written without having read any of the essays in the collection. Rather, this is what I might have written if I were a contributor to the collection, as a way to think through the issue on my own before reading about other people’s opinions. I’m sure many points below have already been touched on in the essays, and I don’t claim to have thought of them first or anything. Actually many of the issues of Doctor Who and race have already been debated in the media, just not the the extent that they have recently with the publication of Doctor Who and Race.


Bit of a pre-amble on the issue, and on scifi, below

I. Black characters in Doctor Who: Martha Jones, Mickey Smith, and recent minor characters

II. Cultural embeddedness: British culture and conceptions of Asia (plus a bit on Fringe, Firefly, and Doraemon at the end)

(Sorry, no underlining or italicising for titles as per MLA guidelines. My browser crashed several times trying to post this so I’ll neglect the unimportant stuff.)

Similar issues of scifi and race have already come up in relation to Battlestar Galactica (my post here), whose themes involved race and ethnicity more directly than Doctor Who. However, Doctor Who is a children’s show, which means that the BBC, academics and fans might all be more invested in its representations. It is more an educational tool that might make children more or less tolerant of aliens, whether they be the extra-terrestrial type or the resident immigrant type. I think it is not difficult to see the former as an allegory for the latter in scifi. Science fiction (speculative fiction in general) can do something that general fiction can’t, which is allegorize current earth-bound ethnic relations with an expanded universe of humans, aliens, cyborgs, etc, a context in which the immediate practical interests of one ethnic group (usually ours) can be set aside so as to better deliberate morality (also usually ours). Hence, scifi is a great place for self-reflexivity without people getting angry and defensive. As for the distinction between scifi and fantasy and which one has potential to do this better, I’m not equipped to answer this, though comments are as always welcome.  So first off, I’m re-iterating that scifi shows like Doctor Who and controversies they might generate are very important and should not be brushed off as the purview of a few nerds or a few academics angrily punching at their keyboards. Though, in the spirit of self-reflexivity, I’m a nerd and an aspiring academic, so my estimation of the importance of Doctor Who and its controversies might be an over-estimation. More on that later.

One last thing:  I believe that the essay collection deals with both the older run of DW and the revived one starting 2005. That might have been where some of the confusion arose that lead to controversy – the 1960s had different takes on identity constructs like race, and academics who were critiquing those older series might have been reported by the press as critiquing DW in general. I’ve only watched the revived one, so I will be evaluating what I think of that one. Although, after the latest season finale, “The Name of the Doctor,” I was in DW withdrawal and tried watching the very first episode. In this episode, the first Doctor compares the Susan’s teachers’ incomprehension of the TARDIS to “savages” who cannot understand a train. So, I stopped watching.

I. Black characters in Doctor Who: Martha Jones, Mickey Smith, and recent minor characters

As with most controversies (eg controversies about Hetalia, here), I can see this issue of Doctor Who and race both ways, that is I can find a number of examples which support BBC’s statement that DW is colour-blind and committed to ethnic equity, and on the other hand I can also find a number of examples that support the academics’ analysis that DW is imperialist and Black characters are not treated with respect. And because I’m Asian I can find examples of Asian characters that land on both sides of the argument. And aliens. Here goes.

As BBC states, Martha Jones and Mickey Smith. Martha is definitely a good example of where DW handles race pretty well. As a character, she is knowledgeable med school student, resourceful companion to the Doctor, and I would say a resilient and wise woman at the end of her journey, recognizing that her life cannot always revolve around the Doctor (especially since he doesn’t return her affections), continuing work for UNIT and helping to save the universe at the end of Season 4.  I don’t think she is a stereotype of Black women, especially since she isn’t particularly sexualized. At least I don’t see it – Rose and Martha, and more recently Amy, all had their fair share of revealing outfits and not. Donna is slightly older and temps at offices, so she’s out of the comparison.

Parts of the story that happens around Martha are also well-handled. One alternative to putting up ethnic stereotypes in the media is to put up ethnic minorities who are “just ordinary people” or characters who obviously go against the established stereotype, eg a Chinese person who’s not good at math, or an affluent, meek, and law-abiding African American. However this approach has also been criticised because at times it does run against realism. In the case of math it’s not so important, but the argument is that an affluent, meek and law-abiding (let’s abbreviate this set of traits “AMLA” for now) African American eclipses thousands of African Americans who live in poverty, develop resourceful solutions to survive, and have the law constantly on their backs, through no fault of their own, a social situation that the AMLA African American character seems to have transcended through the American favourite of pulling himself up by his bootstraps or somehow achieved without explanation. Anyways, the point of that detour was that sometime characters are not stereotypes but they can still be problematic if they totally ignore race or the realities of ethnic inequality.

DW 01

This issue has come up for the 2-parter “Daleks in Manhattan” and “Evolution of the Daleks” (S03E4-5)where the charismatic leader of the 1930s New York destitutes living in Central Park’s Hooverville is an African American man named Solomon (above). I remember reading praise for his character, but with someone commenting that realistically an African American man during those hard  times would hardly have been elected leader. Personally I agreed with this one – he would probably have been seen as competition by the White working class and chased out of Hooverville. But anyways, the response to this criticism was that a scifi show that puts Daleks in Manhattan in the 1920s hardly needs to follow historical accuracy on other fronts. I can also see the point of this argument – why only speculate about the future in scifi? Though, since the two episodes also focuses on how the Daleks can potentially change their racist doctrine, there could be a corresponding change/development in the human community going from intolerance of an African American leader to an acceptance. That would probably have made the episodes too complicated, so settling on humans already achieving ethnic equality is probably the next best thing.

Anyways, with Martha in DW, she manages to go against stereotypes of Black women and her part in the story generates race-related situations or at least anecdotes. A favourite would be the 2-parter story “Human Nature” and “Family of Blood” (S03E8 and 9), where Martha is posing as a servant for the human-ized Doctor as they stay in a boarding school in 1913, hiding from aliens hunting the Doctor, who are tracking him by sensing his Time Lord essence. Martha faces outright racism and dismissal from the students at the school and other staff (one nasty student asking her how she can tell if anything’s clean with dark skin, the matron telling her that a woman can never be a doctor, and even if one day they can, “hardly one of your colour”), and the townspeople (the war veteran at the community dance event telling her to use the servants’ entrance). The general tone of these episodes is that the matron’s understanding is limited despite her good intentions otherwise, and the boys can be just plain evil, and children should not be like them. Aside from these two episodes, as a fan I loved how she was the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets (though Sonnet 18’s dedicated not to the Dark Lady but actually the Fair Youth, but never mind), but with an accompanying facepalm from both her and Doctor that Shakespeare’s names for her (Blackamoor, Ethiop girl, Queen of the Afric) are “political correctness gone mad” (S03E02). For me this would teach children a far more subtle lesson than “negative stereotypes are bad.” It also potentially teaches children that even positive stereotypes are bad and that trying too hard to make up for stereotypes with political correctness can also derail.

DW 02

On the other hand, I think there are also problems with Martha’s character. To be fair, she is not defined by her unrequited love for the Doctor, and it is understandable that he has just lost Rose, however I was still uncomfortable that a non-White female character spending a lot of time onscreen pining after a White man, which is what the Doctor looks like even if he’s not human. This visuality makes a difference:  during “The Shakespeare Code,” when Martha is concerned that she might be carted off as a slave because she’s Black, the Doctor responds first with incomprehension and then “and I’m not even human. Just walk around like you would any other place. It works for me” (image above) This seems to be logical except that the Doctor can walk around with the privilege of a white man because he looks like one, but his attitude that his strategies of passing would work for Martha is rather presumptuous. To make an extreme argument, it’s almost having your cake and eating it too – having a certain degree of otherness to the Doctor to suggest that the show is tolerant towards otherness, without actually having to address otherness because people don’t perceive him as other. Granted,” The Shakespeare Code”‘s main theme is about the power of words and stories, which I find well conveyed, however it does seem implausible that Martha could walk around Elizabethan England without getting harassed. After all, Othello is the “Moor” of Venice, not London, and if I remember my undergrad Shakespeare classes,  Italy’s place in the Elizabethan English imagination was kind of an exotic hodgepodge that was exotic precisely because it wasn’t like England. Also, I understand that the Doctor’s first reaction of confusion might be to mirror young audiences’ surprise about slavery if they don’t know about it already, but for the Doctor, who has observed and participated in all of human history, to not know about the slave trade is also implausible. This issue could have been taken care of by the Doctor recognizing that Martha’s skin colour poses a danger to her and then using a perception filter on her so that people around them won’t really recognize that she’s Black. This won’t even impact how Shakespeare sees her, since he could see through the psychic paper’s trick.

And then there’s Mickey. Some people believe that the first Black companion is not Martha but Mickey, so he has that going for him. However I have a feeling that the “dismissal attitudes towards Black companions” that the press says that the academics have seen in DW might be about Mickey, because the Doctor is really not very nice to him to start with. For example, in the pilot episode “Rose,” the 9th Doctor doesn’t seem to really care whether Mickey’s been killed by the Nesteen consciousness or not, and when Rose finds him alive and runs to help him, the Doctor sort of rolls his eyes. Though the Doctor sort of has a dismissal attitude of 20th and 21st century humanity in general (“these stupid little people have just learned how to walk”), he especially likes to, well,  to use British English, to take the mickey out of Mickey. In S02E03, as the Doctor, Rose, and Mickey investigate a school for producing record student results, Mickey stumbles into a closet full of vacuum-packed rats and screams, and the Doctor accuses him of screaming like a 10-year old girl with pigtails (don’t even know why that’s relevant). Anyways, at first Mickey’s character is, as he puts it, the tin dog of the group (a reference to him having a supporting role like the robotic dog K-9, in the same episode), and in S0S04, when Rose objects to the Doctor wanting to keep a horse that has stumbled into a spaceship, the Doctor replies, “I let you keep Mickey.” So Mickey is likened to a tin dog and then a pet horse.

DW 03

Moreover, his character is often the one providing comic relief, for example in S02S04, while Mickey, Rose and the Doctor are on a spaceship, we see Mickey through the ship’s cameras where his face is distorted to look comical. Rose: “You’re not keeping the horse!” Doctor: “I let you keep Mickey.”.  Since there is a long history of Black characters used as comic relief (or, in other words, laughing at Black people), such as blackface minstrelsy, Mickey as comic relief is just repeating a stereotype. Incidentally, I learned just last year that the character of Mickey Mouse has roots in blackface minstrelsy, which explains the white part of his face around his features. I’m pretty sure the Doctor calls Mickey “Mickey Mouse” at some point, and the writer, actors, and production team on that episode probably had no idea about Mickey Mouse’s origins. Anyways that just makes Mickey’s representation in Doctor Who a little worse.  He does comes to his own in Season 2, staying on to clean up the mess of the cybermen, and again at the end of Season 4, so arguably the earlier quips about his uselessness are in place to accentuate his later character development. However, arguably you can have character development without the characters being a laughingstock the begin with, examples being Rose and Martha. Again, Donna’s sort of out of comparison because Catherine Tate is a comedian to start with .

Also, returning to a problem of romance similar with Martha, he’s basically a Black man losing a girl to a White man. Not only that –  at the end he ends up with Martha, and despite Jack Harkness’s sexual flexibility covering all genders and all life-forms, we don’t even get any interracial couples at the end. Personally I feel that his relationship with Martha came out of nowhere – we see Jack, Mickey and Martha walking off, and the next time we see Mickey and Martha they’re married. Granted that as both ex-companions and experience fighting hostile aliens, they have a lot in common, however I can’t see their personalities meshing and there was no development in this regard. I suppose an argument is that BBC left it up to fanfiction writers.

Another argument would be that the show needed comic relief, and since you can’t laugh at main characters like Rose or the Doctor, you go to the next-of-kin and laugh at Rose’s boyfriend Mickey and at her mother Jackie. And Jackie is White, so it’s not like the show only uses Black characters as comic relief. And the BBC just happened to cast a Black actor as Rose’s boyfriend. And Martha’s unrequited love for the Doctor isn’t because she’s Black and he’s “White” but he would behave in that way to any companion that came after Rose, and the BBC just happened to cast a Black actress as Martha. I understand that this might really be the case, however this might reveal a problem about colour-blind casting. Similar to the problem of race neutrality not reflecting or making up for real world ethnic inequalities, colour-blind casting can be a problem if it really is blind. Colour-blind casting, meaning that casting directors don’t consciously slot actors into ethnic stereotypes, implies that things will come out balanced. However, decisions can be unconscious and require colour consciousness to balance them out. What if the casting directors, influenced by a history of Black characters as comic relief,  unconsciously chose Noel Clarke as “best” for the role of Mickey because he was Black? I’m not saying that’s the case, I’m just taking issue with the BBC’s implication that colour-blind casting is a solution to ethnic problems in casting.

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And starting in the 5th season with Steven Moffat as the showrunner, there aren’t any significant recurring characters of non-White races, however a few minor characters can be important to comment on. First, in the second episode of Season 5 we have a future Queen of England, “Liz 10,” who is played by Sophie Okonedo (above). Since the wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton just went by last year, there were some comments that for the first time, someone in the British royal family was marrying a “commoner.”  Liz 10’s possibly mixed-race character implies that at some point in the future, someone in the royal family marries a Black person. Since the aristocracy of Great Britain does not have any non-White individuals at present, this hypothetical future Black person would probably be a “commoner” as well.  I’m not sure that the child audiences of DW would necessarily grasp this, but personally I thought this was a bold move to make.

The other three Black characters I can think of off the top of my head, though, don’t necessarily make any imaginative interventions of this sort. First would be Colonel Manton in the Season 6 mid-season finale (S06E07), “A Good Man Goes to War.” I actually thought that Danny Sapani did a wonderful job at giving Colonel Manton a commanding and dignified demeanor, especially how he restores order among his soldiers after the Doctor sets them against each other, however that comes to nothing as he’s on the “wrong side” (fighting against the 11th Doctor) and the Doctor goes on a rare angry rant about how he wants Colonel Manton to be known as “Colonel Runaway” in the future. Then there’s River Song’s previous incarnation, Mels, played by Nina Toussaint-White. There was a lot of praise from the press about how Touissant-White brought life and energy to her character, and I agree, however I’m bothered by the association between her character and crime and misbehaviour, basically all through her childhood, mouthing off to teachers, stealing cars, etc, with Amy needing to get her out of jail at one point (below). Going back to the Russell T. Davis era, I was thinking of the Black family in S02E11, “Fear Her,” where mother isn’t exactly sorry that her husband has died because he was abusive to both her and their daughter, and part of the story is the daughter trying to move on from the fear of her father. I understand that River Song was brainwashed and trained to become a psychopath so she could kill the Doctor one day, however it is at this kind of juncture that colour-blind casting needs to be actively rethought. Toussaint-White is a powerful actress and great for a pre-Doctor River Song, and colour-blind casting would cast her instead of casting a White person (which would maintain continuity with River Song). However, do we want to cast a Black actor as a teenage psychopath, when Black people are already associated with crime? Similarly,  for “Fear Her,” do we want to associate Black people with domestic violence and dysfunctional families? To me Colonel Manton and teenage Melody Pond are instances where the Black actors performed wonderfully in their roles, but were limited by how their roles were written, and I don’t know what the writers were thinking of in “Fear Her.”

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Leaving race aside for a moment – I also think that there is a problem with gender in Doctor Who, despite the inclusion of strong women like River Song and Martha Jones. It seems that people who fail to be “the best of humanity” have often been women in recent years, and not because they were indecisive or passive. For example, Harriet Jones, who blew up the Sycorax even though they were retreating (Christmas Special between seasons 1 and 2), Ambrose who murders a Silurian soldier (who was also female, while Ambrose’s father and husband were sort of the hapless sort), and Miranda, who sparks conflict with the Flesh in S06E5-6. While many of the minor male characters were just hapless, these women seem to be portrayed as failed humans precisely because they were too opinionated and too ready to act. Also, I’m still not sure about Amy’s character. Despite being feisty and strong-willed, she often doesn’t actually contribute to solving the problem. This bothers me, but I haven’t thought about this as much as I thought about race and ethnicity.

II. Cultural embeddedness: British culture and conceptions of Asia (plus a bit on Fringe, Firefly, and Doraemon at the end)

Another complaint from the essay collection was not necessarily about race per se, but about how Doctor Who situates itself relative to culture. Something about the Doctor loving cricket being an indication of the show’s British imperialist tendencies? Again, the book just being released means I’m not sure exactly how the argument goes.

Cricket doesn’t show up a lot in the revived series, however tea certainly comes up a lot as a signature of British culture. Something like this is what makes DW a very British scifi show, because even though Americans drink tea, it’s not such a part of American culture that it needs to be repeatedly mentioned, even to laugh at it. To be fair, in whatever context cricket came up, tea comes up ironically as a way to laugh at how British people seem to think that tea is the solution to all physical and psychological ailments. For example, Rose’s mother brings tea on board the TARDIS during the Christmas special, while the new 10th Doctor is still unconscious from regeneration. Mickey comments, “Tea. We’re having a picnic while the world’s coming to an end. That’s very British.” However tea ends up being exactly what the Doctor needs to regain consciousness, so its therapeutic value seems to be restored at the end of the episode. This contributes to the same issue mentioned earlier, that the Doctor is non-human but this total otherness is gotten around by his appearance being that of a White man. In this case, while his biology is non-human, this is gotten around by him actually needing tea, making him more like “us,” or more like the British. Especially since that the Time Lords are life-forms superior to humans (technologically, of course, but also cognitively, in that they can sort of see all of space-time laid out before them, and also biologically, having 2 hearts and able to cheat death a certain number of times by regenerating), basically in having tea being what the Doctor needs is having a part of British culture being validated by a superior alien culture. If Cricket is associated with British imperialism, I can’t think of any current food component more embroiled in imperialism and colonialism than tea. Maybe coffee, or tobacco. Or bananas… or cotton…well actually a ton of things, which is actually quite telling of how Western culture has gotten to where it has. Anyways, why tea is so British isn’t interrogated, just that Time Lords need it too and it does have therapeutic value despite jokes being made about it.

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Another time that tea comes up in the Moffat era is in S06E11, where the Doctor, Amy and Rory are pulled into a maze-like place that looks like an 80s hotel, with other people trapped inside. One of them is Rita, who seems to be a medical school student or a nurse, and who identifies as Muslim. First of all, I really do like her as a character and I think audiences are meant to, as when the Doctor seems to evaluate her as a potentially more resourceful companion than Amy and tells Amy jokingly that she’s fired. Her identity as a Muslim is also handled well, as when the Doctor guesses that she’s Muslim, she jokes, “Don’t be frightened.” Her strong Muslim faith is also figured strongly in the plot, as it helps her accept her demise in a dignified manner (I suppose, though, her faith is what gets her killed, though every kind of faith gets people killed in that episode, so it’s not like the story was hinting that being a Muslim would make someone especially in danger of getting killed). Anyways, as everyone is running around confused and terrified of a minotaur-like creature, Rita offers to help everyone calm down with tea, and also says that “I’m British. It’s how we cope with trauma” (above). I find this slightly at odds with her identifying as a Muslim. Obviously I’m not saying that Muslim people don’t or aren’t supposed to like tea, and I’m also not saying that there can’t be hybrid identities. However I find it a bit of a mystery why a devout young Muslim woman would necessarily subscribe to the specifically British culture around tea. If she thinks that the hotel is Jahannem (something like Hell in Islam) and her faith is powerful, why would tea still be what she uses to cope with trauma? Or, in other words, tea seems like a universalizing component of British culture in this episode, again without interrogating its associations with imperialism and colonialism.

To return to Shakespeare for a moment, it’s obvious to see that the literary figures featured in Doctor Who are often the canonized White people, such as Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. I suppose Agatha Christie was a good choice as a woman writer of genre literature, but we’ll never see the Doctor and his companion visiting, like, Salman Rushdie or something.

Otherwise, in general I do find the new Doctor Who rather Britain-centric (though one thing I find more accessible about the Steven Moffat era is that it focuses less on Britain ), and this comes up when it makes quips about Americans. I’m all for people making quips about Americans in other media because so much of global media is controlled by Americans, but anyways. First, during the same Christmas special with all the going-ons about tea, the Sycorax are on the verge of invading Earth and Harriet Jones, prime minister of Great Britain, gets a call from the president of the US saying he wants to take command of the situation, which she responds to with “He’s not my boss, and he’s certainly not turning this into a war.” In the first episode of Season 6, where the Doctor lands in President Nixon’s office but is confident that he won’t be shot, River Song  runs out of the TARDIS to remind him that “They’re Americans!” The implication is that Americans are a violent culture and the British are not. However, given Harriet Jones’s actions at the end of the episode, where she orders Torchwood to fire on the Sycorax ship when it is retreating, puts this into doubt. Of course, the Doctor disapproves of her actions, and the audience is meant to as well. However there remains something of the tragic hero in Harriet Jones, as her decision to fire on the Sycorax ship comes from the conclusion that humanity needs to show the universe that it can defend itself, even without the Doctor, which in of itself is a valid conclusion. She also sacrifices herself to defend Earth from the Daleks at the end of Season 4. Given the quips about American tendencies for violence in DW, Harriet Jones’s actions are represented as a  personal failing rather than a cultural one. However, given real life situations like Tony Blair buddying up with Bush for military action in Iraq, it’s pretty obvious that one human culture, especially those in industrialized Western societies,  isn’t significantly more pacifist than another culture. Maybe Canadians. Anyway, an extreme argument could be that DW is erasing a history of British violence by displacing it onto Americans, while rationalizing it as needing to teach children about pacifism.

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Personally I wouldn’t go so far, but what disturbs me more is how Harriet Jones assumes that she could speak for Earth, if the President of the US is not fit for this job. When the Sycorax asks for the leader of Earth, she steps forward, despite 1/3 of all of Earth’s population being hypnotized (more or less) by the Sycorax. When she is teleported onto the Sycorax ship, she is given the choice of having the 1/3 of the human race kill themselves or having 1/2 sold into slavery (above). All through this process, there was nothing like “Earth doesn’t work this way” or “I need to consult the leaders of other countries first.” Saying so wouldn’t even have changed the plot, as Rose and the Doctor are also teleported onto the ship soon after and the Doctor takes over the situation. In addition, Harriet Jones characterizes the Guinevere I space probe as  “This country’s limitless ambition, British workmanship sailing out there among the stars,” and I have a feeling that the audience is suppose to agree at this point.  To me this is still the remnants of British imperialism at work – the space probe can be seen as a 21st-century equivalent of ships from Europe in the “Age of Discovery” in the 15th and 16th centuries. And if it finds any alien life forms, Britain will speak for Earth, thank you kindly.  Thankfully DW isn’t like this all through the other seasons, though. In S05E09, when miners in Whales stumble upon a civilization of Silurians under the Earth’s crust (Silurians are evolved from lizard species in prehistoric ages rather than from mammals like humans were, and went into hibernation because they believed that an asteroid was going to destroy Earth), the Doctor says that he doesn’t represent humanity but Amy Pond and Nasreen Chaudhry are good representatives to bargain with the Silurians about how to potentially share the Earth. It was nice to see that while saving the Earth multiple times, the Doctor here doesn’t presume that he could represent human interests. (As a way to apply this scifi story to current events: as of writing this, we are still in the midst of the Edward Snowden issue. Apparently one of the arguments against him was that it was unconstitutional for random 29-year-olds to decide what national secrets to reveal, but supporters of Snowden argue that the American Constitution ensures that lone dissenters still need to be heard even if they are average folk.) This doesn’t mean that everything’s right with this episode, though. Amy’s solution for sharing the Earth was to ask the Silurians to live in areas that are uninhabitable for humans. While I’m sure the Silurians have terraforming technology or something along those lines, Amy’s assumption that they could survive in those places humans can’t is strange, especially since the underground environment resembles a rain forest. More importantly for race and ethnicity though, asking the pre-existing Silurians to live in the Sahara Desert it sounds disturbingly like exploiting the land’s resources while herding Native North Americans onto reservations. Being British, perhaps the Doctor Who team didn’t pick up on this similarity.

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Going back to race and ethnicity, though, it is interesting to see that the representation of race and ethnicity in DW is also very embedded in British specificity when we look at how different Asians are represented. First of all, while there are more South Asians (including an Indian Space Agency in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” (S07E02), Torchwood scientist Rajesh Singh in the finale episodes of the 2nd season, Solana in S04E02, the housekeeper Miss Chandrakala in S04E07, Nasreen Chaudhry in S05E8-9, and perhaps also Rita in S06E11 and Martha’s colleague in S03E01) there are very few East Asians. I can only think of 3 characters in all 7 seasons of the new DW, which is Toshiko Sato from Torchwood before Torchwood was a show (in  S01E04), Lorna Bucket in S06E07 , Alexei in S07E06. Lorna Bucket is a soldier in the army of the Church in the future (which is something I often wonder how Christian critics of Doctor Who would handle), and she looks mixed race and the character isn’t from Earth, so that was a nice inclusion. However, Alexei is a computer tech guy, and Toshiko is a lab technician, which seem to be instances of rather stereotypical casting.  I’m not necessarily criticising the lack of East Asian characters, not yet anyway, because to me they are just indicative that Britain understands Asia differently from Americans. In North America, if one says that someone is Asian, the listener would most likely think of East Asians first. However, Great Britain used to hold imperial power in South Asia, and India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are still a part of the Commonwealth, with and so South Asians might be more familiar to the average White British person than East Asians. (However, from a quick look at a poll reported on Wikipedia’s page on England, there has been an increased number of Chinese immigrants.) Leaving aside DW for a moment, I remember reading The Grey King (by Susan Cooper, published in 1975 and set in Wales) in elementary school and feeling very glad that a character criticizes some children for calling new South Asian immigrants “Pakis.” So, without a lot of knowledge on the issue, I’m going to tentatively say that the representaion of South Asians in British media is, if not decent, at least prevalent.

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The relative distance of East Asia to Britain does become a problem, however, in an episode like S04E10, “Turn Left.” In this episode, the Doctor takes Donna to a planet ostensibly inhabited by future descendants of Asians, most likely Chinese (above), where Donna gets her fortune told. However the fortune teller actually sics a giant beetle-like creature onto Donna to eat away at her past. I found this episode rather offensive to East Asians for multiple reasons. First is the architecture of the planet – it is supposed to be a society of the future, however it looks like China in the 1600s (there’s even one extra with a queue). This represent a common complaint about non-Western cultures in scifi, which is that while Western cultures are imagined as continuing to develop technologically, non-Western cultures are imagined to be distinct only by virtue of their traditions, and hence even in the future they look traditional. Another point related to this is that the brief street scenes in the episode show Donna and the Doctor being offered various foods and items from merchants in charts. Basically, in addition to the inability to represent Asian-specific modernity (and futurity), this episode also shows the inability to imagine Asian culture as something other than a tourist economy offering stuff to White visitors, which is probably what tourists in Asia see, Or the inability to imagine an Asian society that doesn’t look like a Chinatown, which has developed a tourist economy for sustenance. Third, the whole fortune telling thing recreates the figure of the mysterious and inscrutable Asian, again based on some sort of tradition, plus a dose of threat as the fortune teller is trying to prey on Donna (below – and this is the fortune teller’s expression for most of her appearances. Another example of good acting but limited by the part).  Fourth, speaking characters all speak with an accent. The TARDIS translation matrix translates Latin into English without a Latin accent in S04E02, “The Fires of Pompeii,” so I’m not sure why an “Asian” accent remains in “Turn Left.” And that Pompeii family is made out to resemble a contemporary generic Western family too, with the husband going for class mobility and buying big art to show for it, a slightly emo teenage son, sibling rivalry, etc. No such similarities for Asians.

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This was just one episode in Doctor Who, however I see this kind of representation of East Asians elsewhere. In Sherlock, also run by Steven Moffat (together with Mark Gatiss), the second episode of the first season had Chinese tea sets in the British Museum, mysterious symbols related to international underground trafficking, and Chinese acrobats/ninjas/triad members who perform cruel and unusual means of torture on Watson’s girlfriend. Despite the Sherlock series being very smart, the thoughtlessness of Asian representation in this episode dumbed it down ideologically. Similarly, in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (also called LXG, and I mean the comic by Alan Moore, who is British, not the movie, which was Americanized in part by the addition of Tom Sawyer), a large portion of the first volume had to do with Chinese underground activity in the limehouse district of Victorian London, plus an appearance by Fu Manchu. Given the more complex and sensitive treatment of Jekyll/Hyde in the comic and the expanded role of Mina Murray, I was especially annoyed that Fu Manchu wasn’t really altered form his character in the novels and remained a villain played straight, out to take over the British empire. Possibly fuelling anti-immigration debates in England, don’t you think?  This seems to be an inherited image of Chinese people that is particular to the British.

In fact, this idea of Victorian-era Chinese criminals in Limehouse is also in Doctor Who, just not in the episodes. Apparently the character of Jenny Flint, feisty Victorian-era  Cockney girl and accomplice and romantic partner to Madam Vastra, met Madam Vastra while Vastra was saving her from Chinese gangsters (this is from The Brilliant Book 2012, which I read on the DW Wiki). This was the most disappointing instance of bad representation in Doctor Who for me, because I love Jenny and Vastra as a couple, especially since the production team was pushing queer inter-species romance with them (Vastra is a Silurian). Race was even brought up for Vastra and Jenny – in “A Good Man Goes to War,” Vastra quips that mammals all look the same to her, which offends Jenny, and Vastra apologizes. To me this is like addressing stupid comments like “All Asians look the same.” The back story of how Jenny and Vastra meet is disappointing because the they really do seem to be an example of how Doctor Who can transcend conventions related to race and sexuality, until it relies on vilifying Chinese people to bring the two together.

I’m not saying that Americans have a better understanding of East Asians or that it hasn’t had Fu Manchu ideas about Chinese people, but because of the history of indentured labourers, internment, and Asians in particularly professions, America has different stereotypes of East Asians. In addition, because there are more East Asians in America than in Britain, plus having a history of activism around representation, typecasting, and the like, I can’t see an episode like the 2nd one of Sherlock being released without protests or petitions. American television might be slightly better at representing ethnicities because of this, for example Asian characters in Grey’s Anatomy (though I remember reading an essay that said Sandra Oh’s character is the stereotype of the overly technical Asian doctor whereas other White doctors were more spontaneous), Lost having  Kwon Jin-soo and Kwon Sun-hwa. Sadly, two American scifi series I actually watched every episode of didn’t have many Asians in them either, which are Firefly and Fringe. For Firefly this is especially annoying as China is supposed to be one of two world powers. Anyways, obviously this series is very American because its premise is what would happen if revolutionary fighters lost something like the War of Independence, with the good guys still fighting for personal agency and political self-rule.

For Fringe, my main complaint isn’t the lack of recurring Asian characters, but the weird optimism that the show ended on, which I attribute to its American cultural locus. I know it was a rushed ending and the fifth season barely made it on air, but it contradicts what the characters ought to have learned from everything that came before. Anyways, in Fringe, the premise of all the problems is that the fringe scientist Walter Bishop upsets two whole parallel universes because he crossed between them to save his son. At the end of the show, he takes a boy into the future to wipe out the Observers, who are vastly intelligent but emotionless people that humanity develops into some time in the future, which come back to the present day to invade humanity. For me, Walter and everyone else should have learned about the butterfly effect by now, which is that trying to fix a problem could potentially create a larger one, and one should not play God. Hence, I don’t know why it didn’t occur to anyone that trying to wipe out the Observers could potentially create an even bigger problem. The reason I feel that this is very American is that this seems to be how America as a nation operates – it continues trying to right wrongs all over the world even though it has been faced with disasters in the past such as the Vietnam War. America as a nation that continues hoping that it could be the hero, and so the ending of Fringe is with the Fringe team not heeding the lessons of the past and going off to help humanity and be heroes.

One might ask, which adventure story does not end on continuing resistance against domination and heroic optimism? This question does have a point. However, for example The Water Margin, one of the 4 Chinese classics, actually has rebels co-operating with the government to put down other rebels and all rebellions mostly put down by the end. Although I haven’t read any academic articles about this, I do believe that one reason this story is propagated by the Communist government is that it both lauds resistance against corrupt bureaucracies, which the Communists in China began as, and simultaneously lauds the ability of a government to pacify rebellion by using rebellion wisely and staying in power that way, which is what the Chinese government is trying to do. The lesson from this example is not that the Communist party is wrong in promoting literature this way (although I do think it is), but that every culture promotes certain values in literature and often within the culture itself, audiences take those values for granted. Although they might appear to be universal, the values promoted in scifi shows like Fringe and Firefly are very American.

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From these examples (plus the Hollywood adaptation of LXG adding Tom Sawyer) it is obvious that science fiction is very much embedded in the culture in which they are created. Just another non-Western example to make my point – if Chinese people are villains in Doctor Who and Sherlock, then American are the villains in Doraemon. In the story about Nobuta finding a fossil of a dinosaur egg and hatching it with Doraemon’s time-reversing technology, the evil dinosaur poachers who are after  his dinosaur are portrayed to look like bandits from American Westerns. Just like how the DW episode “Turn Left” establishes an future Asian/Chinese culture based on visual cues without saying what Earthian culture it derives from (lol, since there’s a New New York, is this supposed to be New Beijing?), Doraemon also establishes a future culture that resembles Americans without saying they are Americans. So, I’m not sure whether the essay collection on Doctor Who and Race will cover this, but if Doctor Who is racist, it is not just racist but racist in a very British sense.

That’s all for now. I would like to read the collection before posting Part II, so hopefully I can find a copy and get to Part II soon.


Asian Stereotypes in The Big Bang Theory and The Boondocks: The inability of television to multitask with subalterns

I focused my master’s degree thesis on writing about Asian American comics presenting Asian popular culture as a way of ameliorating the image of Asians and Asian Americans, and in the years since, I have started to hope that this is a trend that exist in popular culture more generally. After getting into both The Boondocks and The Big Bang Theory, I have started to notice that even if one cultural group that has been dumped on (African Americans, nerds) is being shown in a positive light, usually the show still needs another group to dump on, and interestingly enough this alternate group tends to be Asians (1). I’m particularly disappointed in The Boondocks – after starting my PhD in American Studies and Ethnicity and learning about studies on inter-ethnic solidarity in America, I have to admit that I don’t really see this happening in popular culture. Basically, whether it’s the Indian character Rajesh Koothrapali in The Big Bang Theory or representations of China and Chinese people in The Boondocks, they are rendered pathetic, evil, or both even as nerds and African Americans get some positive spotlight. (The Big Bang Theory first; if you like, jump to The Boondocks).

The Big Bang Theory

Raj apartment

Raj interrogated by FBI agent, and getting nervous.

Briefly, The Big Bang Theory is about four physics nerds at Caltech and their everyday lives, which involves a routine of work and nerdy hobbies interspersed with lusting after girls (most of whom they can’t get, though at the time of this posting, 3/4 have more or less stable relationships with women). As a nerd who likes games and comics and scifi (even if I don’t get the physics), I have been happy that the Big Bang Theory has sustained itself as a mainstream sitcom. I do find myself getting mixed reactions at the show as a sitcom though – should I be happy that nerds get some TV exposure as relatively more complex main characters, or should I be unhappy that they are the objects of ridicule? I understand, though, that this is a property of the sitcom – the ability to laugh at a figure of fear and loathing may lessen these feelings towards that figure, and so along with laughter the show is able to sneak in nuances that the audience might not be ready to receive otherwise (a good book on this is Darrell Hamamoto’s Nervous Laughter). So, while I feel ambivalent about nerds being featured on a sitcom, I understand that as a sitcom it might need ambivalence to further its point.

However, I believe that a sitcom about nerds doesn’t need to laugh at other cultures to further its point.  First of all, the show dumps a lot on North Koreans, from Leonard’s ex-girlfriend Joyce Kim, who turned out to be a North Korean spy (S3E22), to Dennis Kim, the North Korean prodigy who Sheldon is nervous about in Season 1. It is interesting that they are both named “Kim.” Kim is a common last name in Korean, however purposefully naming two unrelated characters Kim in a work of fiction either betrays an absolute disregard in telling Asians apart, or an attempt to convey their relationship to the current North Korean regime, or both.  Also, since the setting is Caltech (greater Los Angeles area), if there are Koreans on a show about nerds, the most plausible population to include would be the vast Korean American population in LA, however the show doesn’t mention these Korean Americans at all and resorts to North Korean nemeses.

But I want to focus on Rajesh Koothrapali. I can accept that as a recent arrival to the US, Rajesh has difficulties mastering North American popular culture (this is one reason I want to study popular culture academically, because his problem is also my mine, and I think it has real consequences). His faux-pas, such in the S06E11 Christmas episode where he inadvertently speaks sexual innuendos during a game of Dungeons and Dragons, is plausible and I can accept laughing at that as a part of a sitcom. However, there are other aspects of his representation that I find extraneous to the main idea of the show and also troubling / offensive. First, the consistent association of Rajesh with Indian tradition. In his apartment (helpful images and descriptions here): he has a tapestry on his bedroom door, and the cushions with “Indian accents.” As a Chinese person, I can’t speak for Indians, but a young Chinese physics nerd in Rajesh’s situation would most likely not have brush calligraphy or something hanging on his bedroom wall. Even in China this hypothetical young Chinese man would not have calligraphy hanging on his wall.  There’s definitely nothing wrong with tradition or the decorative aesthetics of Asian traditional cultures, but in mainstream media Asians have a tendency to be associated culturally with their traditions only, as if Asians consisted of a rich cultural past but no present and no future. And if they have a present and a future, it’s most likely going to be a Western one. Bollywood and popular culture of South Asia is mentioned but this is often to laugh at it, for example when Howard does an imitation of Rajesh doing drunken Bollywood dancing after getting a the magazine “Bombay Badonkadonks” (video here). The made-up magazine is meant to sound silly and does not reference any real magazine, and we don’t see Rajesh dancing, only Howard doing an imitation of him with the goal of ridiculing him.

Next is the question of Rajesh’s sexuality.  Before Howard married Bernadette, there were numerous jokes that Howard and Rajesh were like a married couple, with Rajesh often in the role of a woman in the relationship (helpful video here with some of the key moments). For example, S3E06, where Rajesh loses his Patang fighter kite due to Howard chasing after a girl during a competition, Howard tries to make up for it by buying Rajesh a new kite, to which Rajesh says “Buying me something pretty isn’t going to make our problem go away.” In this scene, Howard is clearly playing the stereotypical male part who tries to placate his romantic interest with gifts, whereas Rajesh is playing the stereotypical female part who insists on emotional understanding. I am not arguing for a throwback idea of gender roles where men have to be “manly,” whatever that means. However, there is a tendency to believe that Asian men are less masculine than men of other ethnicities, and the depiction of Rajesh contributes to this tendency. In addition, while it can be argued his feminization comes from the nerd stereotype and not the Asian stereotype, as it progresses to Season 6, Rajesh is the only person who doesn’t have a stable romantic relationship (correction: As of Feb 2013, it seems he has a shot with Lucy). In studies of ethnicity, we have talked about “intersectionality” a lot. This is when categories of identity, for example ethnicity, class, and gender, while each having an effect on how a person is treated in society, can have greater / different consequences when compounded together. A classic example is that in a workplace setting, being Black or being a woman means less chances at job promotion, so being a Black woman means even less of a chance at promotion (I think Kimberlee Crenshaw wrote this? But I can’t find it anywhere). Rajesh seems to be an example of how being Asian and being a nerd compounded on each other makes him even more feminized than the rest of the main characters. As he says when “creating a scene” at the end of S5E19, even if he gets a girlfriend, he will be known as the guy who did so after Sheldon.

Finally, somewhat related to the first, are digs at India and the fact that Rajesh is not a “real American.” This is the category that I find the most offensive. In S4E9, Howard’s comment about an Indian version of the board game Monopoly goes thus: “Indian Monopoly’s just like regular, except the money’s in Rupees, instead of hotels you build call centers, and when you pick a chance card, you might die of dysentery.” As if building call centres is India’s own economic initiative, rather than due to Western companies outsourcing and seeking cheap labour. And after all the SARS and H1N1 problems, the last thing audience need to think about Asia is that it’s the origin if the world’s epidemics. Although Howard ends with “FYI, that was racist,” this doesn’t really ameliorate what he said before. The humour is with the insult towards India, and the rational afterword doesn’t cancel the humour. However, the most troubling episode (S4E7)is when the FBI investigates Howard’s friends to find out of Howard is fit to join the Defense Department. Rajesh feels so nervous about his legal status in America that he tries all kinds of antics to prove that he is American (video here), such as singing  “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” He doesn’t get the whole song, and the humour in this scene is that first he is not a real American and second he fails at pretending to be one. While his claim that part of his reason for loving America is the “rampant obesity” can be a critique of America,  a foreigner in the US being afraid of the consequences of being foreign should not be a laughingstock. This is the concern of survival for many people in the US, whether they are here legally or not. I have family who was deported from the US based on insignificant reasons (and believe me, my family falls squarely under the model minority stereotype; they won’t even report a crime, much less commit one), and I myself have been interrogated for hours upon crossing the border. This part of the episode made me feel slightly ill. Gene Yang, creator of the award-winning graphic novel American Born Chinese, said in an interview that the stereotypical character of Chin-kee isn’t supposed to an outright figure of humour: “He’s meant to come off the page and slap you in the face. If you’re laughing at him, I want you to do so with a knot in your stomach and a dry throat.” In American Born Chinese, this works; Chin-kee is represented in such an overboard manner that he is definitely a satirical figure meant to mock the ridiculousness of the stereotypes, especially since the end of the graphic novel reveals that he is a disguise. However, Rajesh is realistic enough that he may not be read as a satirical figure, and the laughter in the background of  this episode invites an outright laughter at his distress. As a nerd, I really enjoy watching The Big Bang Theory, but as an Asian nerd, sometimes I’m not exactly on board.

The Boondocks

I have been thinking about the figure of Rajesh for a while now, but what made me finally put finger to keyboard on Asian stereotypes is an episode of The Boondocks. Briefly, The Boondocks is a cartoon, based on a comic strip series, which explore the social issues of race through a Black family, the Freemans, living in a White suburb. The tone of the show is aligned with its central character, Huey Freeman, who is a mature, intellectually complex and politically conscious 12-year old, who must deal with Grandad’s lack of concern towards socio-political issues, his younger brother Riley’s blind adoration of all African American popular culture, the ignorance of their White neighbours (and larger society as a whole), and what he sees as an unmotivated and misled generation of African Americans. I started watching this series because my formative teenage years were spent in Vancouver, which is inundated by Chinese people, and I feel that I need to understand the popular cultures of other ethnicities. Not really having a good in-road to African American pop culture (I confess that I don’t like the sound of rap and hiphop, or any popular music, for that matter – my family grew up with Tchaikovsky and Debussy and the like. I’m not judging popular music to be “base” and classical European music to be an epitome of culture; as a student of pop culture, I actually think the reverse. But due to my upbringing I don’t find pleasure in popular music and I don’t understand its aesthetics), I decided that a cartoon is probably the best place to start, especially since the creator, Aaron McGruder, has sometimes described it as an anime. So far I have enjoyed it, since not many cartoons (or any fictional series, for that matter), tries to handle social commentary about ethnicity.

Some of the ambivalence I feel about The Big Bang Theory I also feel about The Boondocks, though I didn’t expect the cartoon to be so critical of African American culture. I cannot judge whether the criticisms are true, for example the attacks on BET for purposefully trying to make African Americans stupid, but if the audience is not African American, the show might perpetuate stereotypes of African Americans as stupid. But anyway, I’m not going to discuss this matter since it’s not something I know much about. I want to discuss how the series represents Asians, with a focus on S3E04, “The Red Ball.” I had hoped that being influenced formally by anime, the series would exhibit thematically a confluence of concerns of people of colour, and by and large, I was disappointed. Thematically, the series cites Asia mostly in terms of martial arts, with the character of Bushido Brown as an epitome of cultural fusion in this regard, as evidenced by his name. I could argue that The Boondocks stereotypes Asians by reducing them to martial arts figures, but compared to what happens in “The Red Ball,” the “Asia-martial arts” association in The Boondocks is less significant.

Boondocks 2.0stinkmeaner

Stinkmeaner looking up at Satan (presumably)

The first episode where alarm bells came on was the Season 2 episode “Stinkmeaner Strikes Back.” A neighbourhood terror, Colonel Stinkmeaner, had been accidentally killed by Granddad in Season 1, and in this episode, he trains in Hell and comes back to take revenge on Granddad. There is a sequence showing Stinkmeaner training in Hell. Given that the series focuses on martial arts a lot and has beautiful fight sequences, I can accept that Stinkmeaner training in Hell would involve martial arts. However, what I don’t understand is why Hell has Chinese architecture, or why Satan (I’m assuming it’s Satan) is wearing traditional Chinese clothing. Stinkmeaner can be said to have no racial/ethnic politics –  that is, he’s not like Uncle Ruckus, who has internalized White supremacy and hates everything Black, but rather Stinkmeaner is mean towards everyone – so arguably, his evil has no racial implications. But I read martial arts in The Boondocks as providing a kind of agency, a set of skills that Huey, and to a certain extent Riley, can use to metaphorically fight the system.  For a body of skills that for Huey represents agency and mastery is made evil by Stinkmeaner and then associated with being Chinese is problematic and does have racial consequences.  After all, it’s not made clear what cultural influences Huey’s martial arts draws from, whereas Stinkmeaner’s martial arts is directly tied to both Satan and China in a visual move where Hell and Chinese culture are bizarrely conflated.

Anyways, more disturbing is the Season 3 episode, “The Red Ball.” The premise is that Ed Wuncler, the corporate magnate who has the town under his thumb, is getting ready for an annual kickball tournament with the team sponsored by his rival, the Chinese businessman Mr. Long Do (the “Wushung /Woodcrest Junior/Senior Harmonious Kickball Tournament), and to win, he forces Huey to join as the star player, despite Huey’s reservations. Like the move in The Big Bang Theory, where it is North Koreans represented in the show instead of Korean Americans,  “The Red Ball” features people who are nationally and ethnically Chinese while we don’t see any Chinese Americans in the show at all. So, first of all, Asians are again rendered as perpetual foreigners.

Arguably, this show targets Ed Wuncler and his exploitative capitalism. His betting all his banks and everyone’s accounts and the Freemans’ house on the tournament is a critique of his shady business practices, but right after he admits this, he says “You think I’m bad, just wait till the Chinese take away all the freedoms you enjoy –  freedom to complain, freedom to have as many offspring and assault rifles as you like, the freedom to surf the Internet for pornography of your choice.” Okay, the pornography thing is a critique of “freedom” conceived in the West as being really not as big of a deal as we’d like to think, but what this statement boils down to is that no matter how crappy the American system is, it’s a lot better than the Chinese one, so be grateful. Despite the premise being the 12-year old Huey militating against both members of his own community and the White majority for structural changes, the message this episode is totally antithetical to the spirit of the show.

Boondocks 3.03.14

This episode also precludes any sympathy for Chinese people. Huey, after seeing the Chinese team play, agrees to play, even if he’s not playing to defeat them for Wuncler. Mr. Long Do’s granddaughter Ming, who is the team’s captain, then feeds Huey a sob story about how she was plucked from a young age to train in kickball for the Chinese state, and that if she lost she would be sent to a prison camp for athletes who have failed their country. At this point the episode goes into a series of montages: a woman forced to perform on the balance beam while rabid wolves circle beneath her if she falls off, a man doing a foul shot with prison guards pointing guns at his head, and a man jumping hurdles where the hurdles are replaced by rows of spikes. Ming tells Huey that she also longs to walk away from the game, however she is not so lucky to have that choice, because she doesn’t live in America. Another shot for how we should be grateful for America. And later we learn that this story is entirely untrue, that she made it up purposefully to make Huey underperform. Despite Ming’s story of the prison camp being a lie, the visuals of this sequence still reinforces the idea that China has cruel and unusual forms of punishment , especially since China’s issues with human rights is circulating in the popular sentiment. Also, while reinforcing this, the episode also suggests that even if the average Chinese person suffers from the Chinese system, they are not to be given any sympathy, because their complaints are a part of a duplicitous strategy to undermine American ascendency.

Boondocks 3.03.18

Jazmine (left) and Sarah (right). Sorry captions are mutated by a language setting on my computer.

Most disturbing of all is the finale of the game, where the two teams are tied, and the Woodcrest side of the crowd is rooting for their team. This would just be a “rooting for our team” spirit with no nationalist or racial undertones, except the song that everyone is singing is “America the Beautiful.” We see Tom Dubois’s family singing in the foreground, and more spectators in the background, including ostensibly an African American, and of course the kickball team consists of African Americans like Tom himself and Grandad. Later there is also a scene of American flags waving among the spectators. Never mind that Tom’s wife Sarah is an advocate on behalf of civil rights; never mind that his mixed race daughter Jazmine often feels that he doesn’t fit in; never mind that Huey has spent his life trying to change racial inequalities in American society; when it’s up against the Chinese, Americans of all other ethnicities and backgrounds are a part of America the beautiful. Right after the song ends, Huey pitches Ming in a Dragonball-esque confrontation, suggesting that Huey is the embodiment of all the patriotic American sentiments displayed earlier by the audience.  I’m frankly disappointed in Huey for tagging Ming with the ball even after her ankle and his arm are broken, or disappointed with the episode’s writers for shoehorning Huey into this role. It would be more in Huey’s character, and the spirit of the show, for him to at least realise in the last moment that he’s playing into Wuncler’s schemes. This episode had potential for examining how two children of colour, Ming and Huey, become tools in petty games of transnational capital, but instead it boils down to a message of forgetting American racial inequalties to defeat a common Chinese enemy. I’m not even going to count all the times variants of the phrase “yellow motherfuckers” popped up.

The theoretical underpinnings of this post largely came from a book we read as a part of an Asian American Studies directed reading course last term, which is Jasbir Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. In this book, her argument is that the increasing liberal attitude in America towards queerness and homosexuality is due to a need to bring together American citizens after 9/11 to face the new villain, which is the terrorist. The argument tuned me to the fact that just because one group who has been discriminated against is now accepted, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all the problems with discrimination are fixed, because frequently it just means they’re not as much of a threat relative to some new group. Of course, this dynamics doesn’t apply only to different sets of groups, like queer Americans and Middle Eastern terrorists, but also work within one large set. Even as Asian Americans are ostensibly the model minority and bringing capital to America, I think The Big Bang Theory and The Boondocks show a latent distrust and fear towards Asians.

Sorry if the second half of this post made no sense. I wrote it right after I drank a concoction of gin and chocolate milk, which for some reason seemed like a good idea at the time. Anyways, as Riley would say, haters gonna hate, and I realize that I might be sounding like a hysterical academic in this post, so I want to end on a positive note. The Big Bang Theory and The Boondocks are really quite good shows otherwise. Especially The Boondocks – the episode on Obama’s election was a lot more nuanced than I thought it would be, as I was expecting a cartoon about African Americans to be unreservedly jubilant about Obama. And also well done is the “The Booty Warrior” episode where Tom finally gets some character development, and where Huey gives a graduate-level definition of the prison-industrial complex (I cheered out loud when I was watching that part). I’m really looking forward to the next season. As for The Big Bang Theory, the best moments that ameliorate some of racism that Raj faces is when he does an American accent. It’s hard to say why those moments are funny, but they’re absolutely hilarious. I think at a basic level, it’s suggesting that Raj’s Indian accent isn’t a shortcoming that he wants to overcome, like a stereotypical English learner would, but rather, his Indian accent is something he consciously chooses against sounding like an American. I’m looking forward to the book by Shilpa Davé, Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American TV and Film, and I’m hoping Raj is in there somewhere. Also, I noticed on Wikipedia that originally the role was supposed to be Indian American until Kunal Nayyar was cast, and because he was  “so Indian” the character also became as is. Not sure how we can say how much of Raj is the writers and now much is Nayyar’s being “so Indian,” but  that’s something to look into. Here’s to hoping that Raj’s relationship with Lucy works out.


Also, when I taught comparative film as an English course in China, I was really annoyed that in The Departed, which is a remake of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, Chinese terrorists replaced Thai drug dealers as villains. Not that I wanted Thais to remain drug dealers –  that’s a stereotype Cantonese media needs to deal with. But in a remake of a Chinese film, it seems making Chinese people villains is a poor move.

Youth Culture, Fandom and Social Participation in Durarara!!

I. Personal background
II. Comparing Baccano! and Durarara!!: narrative structures, emphasis, character relatability
III. How Durarara!! shows the condition of an urban setting, with a bit on parkour at the end
IV. How Durarara!! shows different kind of fandom/participation, through character analysis
V. Duarara!! fandom activities

When Durarara!! first started airing on Crunchyroll, I watched the first two episodes because I liked Baccano! and they have the same original author, Ryohgo Narita. I was expecting something along the lines of Baccano! especially because I read on a summary that Durarara!! would also be certain events told from multiple perspectives, but the first two episodes left me feeling a little “wtf?” The issue with Rio Kamichika wanting to commit suicide in the first two episodes, added to the fact that the main characters were high school students, gave me the impression that the series would revolve around teen angst a lot. I feel that I’ve already outgrown that (or maybe I’m just eager to outgrow it), so I dropped the series. It’s a pity that like me, some other viewers also felt that they couldn’t get the point of the series after a few episodes and stopped watching.

Recently, I’ve been intensely absorbed in Baccano! – I’ve been doing translations of volume 8/9 of the light novels over at Baka-tsuki, and recently I just finished the first volume of the story arc. I remember hearing that there was an Isaac and Miria cameo in Durara!! and that the two series take place within the same universe, so I decided to try Durarara!! again. I’m glad I did, because I’m doing some background reading to prepare for PhD applications, and recently came across studies about fandom and Internet culture. To me, these topics clicked with a lot of what is depicted in Durarara!! .

II. Baccano! : Durarara!! :: form : content/theme

Why are people comparing baccano to Durarara? Yes, they’re by the same author. But that doesn’t mean much of anything.
NYA, Random Curiosity

(I have a post about Rashomon, Baccano! and Haruhi in the works but it’s stalling because I couldn’t find anything new and intelligent to say, and also because I have to watch series multiple times before I blog about them, and watching Haruhi repeatedly drives me crazy.)

Both Baccano! and Durarara!! are by Narita and do share some similar structures, in terms of an ensemble cast, multiple perspectives and incomplete information that gets gradually revealed. While at this point I still like Baccano! more, probably due to how much work I’ve invested in it, I have to say that Durarara!! is the more “mature” of the two series. It was written after Baccano!, so from this point of view one can say that Narita has smoothed out his rough edges as he developed his craft.

However, the most obvious difference between the two series to me is that they have different purposes, with one emphasizing form more and the other emphasizing themes more. As an analogy from art history, milestones in the field seem to come either from a radical new subject of the artwork or a radically new way of representing it. For example, Gustav Courbet painted peasants working in the fields in the 1800s and this was shocking because peasants had never been thought of as appropriate subjects of painting. In the early 1900s, Marcel Ducahmp painted works like A Nude Descending Staircase; while there have probably been a lot of nudes on staircases in the history of painting, this achievement was one related to form because Picasso represented the human form as geometrical and also tried to depict movement in a stationary medium. I’m oversimplifying this – Courbet also developed a rougher way of painting that offended the Academy, but one can see these two painters as general examples of how art and literature can develop through form or content, if not both.

Baccano! is very entertaining with its larger-than-life characters and fantastic elements. The “point” of the Baccano! anime seems to me to be a formal/structural one. Within the 13-episode series, there are 3 main timelines that proceed simultaneously, and each episode switches back and forth between these. The OAVs brings the viewer back to Gustav St. Germain and Carol at the end to emphasize that there is no one perspective that can be more valid than any other, and there is no beginnings and endings even though the tidy human mind likes to think there are (from what I’ve read of the novels, this seems to be mentioned in the novels but it isn’t stressed as much as in the anime), and the immortality of the characters just makes this point more salient. The anime is brilliant in that it leads viewers through 3 plotlines to arrive at a resolution for all of them, and one plotline can give clues and answers to events in the other ones. The most dazzling aspect isn’t necessarily the events in the plot (which, to tell the truth, are still pretty dazzling) but how the plot is executed and what this says about human cognition and our need for closure.

Durarara!! is different in that while it does include an ensemble cast and does have narration from multiple perspectives, the execution of the anime’s plot is pretty linear compared to Baccano!. It seems that Narita has confidence in the form that he has developed over Baccano! and is now building up more of the content with Durarara!! Like Baccano!, Durarara!! also has amazing characters – e.g. I feel like Izaya is almost like a more sadistic version of Huey Laforet – but it places its content more at the fore. There is less action and that makes the anime seem slower, but events in the plot, rather than the plot’s structure, is more reflective of the human condition.

Jutester wrote on the recommendations section for Durarara!! in that the two series are similar in that they are both about underground groups in society, and this is true; there are gangs in both – organized crime like the Mafia in Baccano! and youth gangs, underground doctors, and illegal immigrants in Durarara!!. However they are handled differently. Baccano glorifies in violence and gore, like it’s an animated Quentin Tarantino film. The psychopathic Ladd Russo is probably the best example of this – punching an opponent until both fists are bloody, dancing in a pool of blood, shooting a child in the head, etc. But while Durarara!! glorifies in action, such as Shizuo Heiwajima throwing things like pop machines and Celty’s chases on her motorcycle, it doesn’t figure violence in an entertaining way as much as Baccano! does. From very early on in the series, Masaomi narrates that he wants to protect Mikado from the darker side of society, and the actions of the renegade Yellow Scarves members are horrifying rather than appealing. In addition, the “twisted love” in Durarara!! seem more frightening than the twisted relationships in Baccano!, even though technically they’re on the same level of twistedness. For example, Ladd and Lua in Baccano! are pretty messed up, as well as Huey’s relationship with his children, but they don’t seem as creepy as weird love trapezoid between Mika Harima, Seiji, Namie, and Celty’s head, and the entourage of girls who worship Izaya. Speaking of Izaya, I also feel that while the information brokers in Baccano! seem very cool for the extent of their powers, Izaya in Durarara!! is meant to be doubted despite being appealing, seeing as how he shamelessly uses people and puts the focus characters through a lot of misery. In Durarara!!, I think, there are more clear villains.

On the flipside of villains, something which Baccano! lacks and Durarara!! has is characters viewers can relate to. There isn’t really anyone in Baccano! that viewers can relate to right off the bat, because the world it depicts, 1930s American gang warfare and train hijacking, is so far removed from our own, even without any anime-esque twists. While there are elements of profundity like Claire’s solipsism , and his idea that human relationships makes one’s world bigger, there aren’t too many instances of desires or quandaries or losses that exactly match what real people today experience.

Also, the two series are both about gangs but they are very different gangs. In Baccano!, the gangs are well-established organized crime families run largely by adults, but the gangs in Durarara!! are mostly packs of kids, and I think this is the series’ strong point. In Episode 18, Masaomi singles out Horoda for being too old and tells other members not to invite adults anymore, because they’re just junior high students and wants neither to fight against adults nor be controlled by adults. In the end, when Horoda and the Blue Squares members reveal that they’d taken over the Yellow Scarves from the inside, all the remaining members appear to be adult or approaching adult age. I remember in Children’s Literature class, the professor says that a lot of young adult stories “get the parents out of the way” before the story starts – either they’re dead or missing or away on a trip or whatever, because these stories tend to want to build into a world just for children(1). Masaomi’ comments seem to reflect this. All children feel at some point in their lives that parents can ruin things and they just want to bump around and see where they end up, which children’s literature allows them to do. Durarara!! shows a world where there aren’t many adults, and rather it’s up to interactions among teenagers to sort things out, and so the teenage/young adult audience might find the series more compelling than Baccano! because they would see themselves more in the series’s characters. Ultimately, which side of the line Mikado will end up in and how he will get there, and whether Masaomi can extricate himself from a gang war that he’d rather not be in, stand in for all the questing of young people to find their place in society, as trite as that sounds. So, I must admit that I misread the first couple of episodes, and the series actually does have very strong points and a lot of depth.

III. The Urban Condition

So uh, anybody figure out who the main character was? Some say it was Celty, others say it was Mikado, and people even say that there is none. […] In my opinion its Ikebukuro itself, since I felt that the events spiralled around the city itself, but then again, that’s just me.
Click, Random Curiosity

A lot of people who watch Durarara!! noticed that the anime prominently featured Ikebukuro. There is also a discussion on Random Curiosity about the final episode where Simon punches Izaya into a sculpture that says “LOVE,” where fans debate whether it’s in Shinjuku or Ikebukuro and one fan, “ammato,” says that he/she heard that the production team actually went around Tokyo and assigned where certain events would take place. Hence, Click in the quote up there is correct that Ikebukuro is more than just a backdrop – it has its own importance. (I really wish that I had my notes with me, because a couple of years ago there was a seminar on anime culture at Ryerson University in Toronto where one professor talked about the relationships and significances that different areas of Tokyo such as Ikeburkuro and Akihabara had to anime fans. I can’t remember what he said, but it seemed to be along the lines that there are many places in Ikebukuro that cater to fans.) Anyway, in this section the focus is more generally the city and how the city, Ikebukuro or not, provides an important setting that is also a comment on the condition of many young people today, and sets up a lot of tensions in the anime series.

I think urban studies is a specific branch of the Humanities, but I haven’t really done any work in this area. I only have a vague memory that Charles Baudelaire, an early 1900s French poet, had about the idea of the flaneur, which is someone who walks around the city and looks at urban sights and urban people, which is sort of like window shopping + people watching today, and very general stuff from Social Studies class. In the 1800s and 1900s, the city was just developing into the structure it was now. In the Industrial Revolution migration of people from the countryside to the cities, social structures in the country, such as the relationship between landowners and peasant farmers, changed. This caused a lot of concern among the middle and upper classes regarding the breakdown of traditional hierarchies in the city where you could meet anybody. The absence of a hierarchy and the everyone for themselves attitude, added to poor working conditions, also made crime in the city a big concern. In some ways this is still the case.

More abstractly, life in the city also changed people’s self-concept. In rural areas and in feudal societies, a person’s place in society was likely determined by the work that he or she is doing, which was most likely passed down from older family members, plus being a member of whichever church/congregation. Most people lived by identifying themselves vis-a-vis immediate family first, then the community, which was probably a village or a town, and for most people this would have been as far as identification got. Middle-class merchants and craftspeople would have had a bigger world view since they engaged in trade and production, and of course the upper classes had an international mentality and could probably speak a few languages. But most common people would not have had the chance to feel that they were a part of a world or even a part of a country. But being in the city, where there was every kind of person imaginable, plus the sheer number of people, made one quite aware that there was a huge world out there and that one person was quite small.

Also, since the city developed due to industry, there was the sense that the city was a giant machine and people got sucked into it. This idea of the city still stays with us today, because people who work in urban areas like to go to the beach or the woods or something non-urban for holidays. Part of this is true. To be sort of Marxist (not meaning a Communist here though), industrialization does make the individual worker a cog in a machine. In feudal societies, perhaps even peasants had the sense that the land they were working on has been handed down through their ancestors, and it gave them a sense of ownership and pride in the work they put into it, but in the factory, workers do small repetitive tasks for the owner of the enterprise.(2) However, industrialization, while messing with traditional hierarchies and identities, also provided a new playground. It is possible that in the city a lowly peasant could work hard and become wealthy through the capitalist system, whereas this wouldn’t have been possible in the feudal system. (The American dream should be amended to be the American urban dream. Few immigrants go to America to be farmers, for instance). So the city provided a sense of possibility but also a sense of danger in that anything could happen to you, and also a faint sense that taken altogether, the city wasn’t quite human and sort of mechanical (For a comparison between the experience of working with a machine and the experience of being jostled in the city, see Bejamin’s “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” section VII).

Benjamin writes that Baudelaire was caught between two aspects of the city – on the one hand, he could be a flaneur and enjoy the teeming possibility of the city as a detached observer, but on the other hand, as a person being among the city crowds, he was also a part of the masses. A quotation from Benjamin is that “He [Baudelaire] becomes deeply involved with them[city crowds], only to relegate them to oblivion with a single glance of contempt.” (“On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” section VI). I might add that other people also dismiss Baudelaire with a single glance of contempt too. Whereas in a village you knew everyone who lived around you, in the city this isn’t the case, and so critics in the 1900s talked about alienation in the cities, a criticism we still hear today.

So, going by these effects of being a part of the city, there is alienation from the traditional references of personal identity, which are no longer present, however there is also the possibility that people can develop into anything they want. There is fleeting glances of contempt but there is also anonymity if one is trying to escape from the law. All of these aspects of being in a big city is central to the development of Durarara!!. Toshi left an insightful discussion comment on Random Curiosity that if we apply Campbellian archetypes, Mikado is like the young man in tribal societies who leaves his home to go into the forests to become a man. I agree that the Campbellian archetype is still apt even for the 21st century, except boys no longer go into forests to prove they are men anymore, they go into cities. The cities is where a new identity can be forged and sustained through new connections, but it’s also where young people can fall really, really hard.

In the first half of the anime, Mikado repeatedly emphasizes that he wants his life to become more interesting, and that’s one reason he accepted Masaomi’s offer to enroll in Raira Academy in Tokyo. This is the aspect of Mikado that would take advantage of a city’s possibilities. The first episode seems a bit confusing but that’s probably exactly what the producers want us to feel, which is to feel like Mikado experiencing the city intimately for the first time, with its legends and rival factions and quirky characters. It also makes Mikado and the audience feel that there’s a whole web of material that we don’t know about, which there is, and this is the aspect of the city where individuals might feel alienated and insignificant. Some audiences (like me) might have felt alienated enough to drop the series, but I think the point of the series is that the audience should overcome what amounts to culture shock along with Mikado.

Because anything in the city is possible, there’s a question of where Mikado would go, whether he will be swallowed by the anonymity of the city and become a drone, or whether he will become a man in the wilderness. He obviously doesn’t plan on becoming a drone, however soft-spoken and awkward he is. But “becoming a man” is also fraught with danger, since anything is possible and there are all kinds of people in Ikebukuro, from mad otakus to headless fairies to hell-bent traffic officers to rival street gangs. Many young characters of the series is in a similar situation as Mikado, in that they are trying on identities and allegiances and fandoms in order to find who they are. The question surrounding Mikado becomes: what aspects of the multitudinous city will he imbibe to form his identity as a man, and are they the right ones?

(Before I get into answering this question in the next section, I want to add that part of the mechanicalness of the city is that it controls the flow of human bodies. To drive in the city you have to obey traffic lights, for instance. But something we might take for granted is that most public places are ordered into grids or webs of some kind, meaning you can’t take the most direct point from A to B “as the crow flies.” Most people probably don’t see this as a restriction, since we generally still end up where we want to go. But we still find that breaking these rules seem pretty cool. In Durarara!!, Celty is amazing for her mastery of the Ikebukuro streets on her motorcycle/horse, and Shizuo is amazing because he can literally change the urban setting by picking up and throwing almost anything that’s not a concrete building. I thought that part of the humour of how he used a highway signpost to smash the car that Saki’s captors were fleeing in (Ep. 21) lies in that he’s abusing an urban sign which is normally used for peacefully directing traffic to completely smash someone’s vehicle, not to mention deprive other drivers of directions, at least until it gets fixed.

Even if Shizuo can’t pick up buildings, He and Izaya both know parkour, which is sadly underemphasized in the anime. Wikipedia says that the objective of parkour is to “take the most direct path through an obstacle as rapidly as that route can be traversed safely,” or in another words, A to B as the crow flies and working around the obstacles that the city places in the way. In the philosophy of parkour, “Urban reclamation,” which is “the idea that by creating an urban landscape around us, society has robbed us of something dear to us” and “We re-imagine the concrete and architecture as we see fit, and are no longer bound by the rules of ‘stairs’ and ‘barriers’ and ‘fences'” (Tran, “Two Theories on Parkour Philosophy”) For Izaya, who manipulates humanity, parkour can be seen as another kind of manipulation, but at least Shizuo can be a force for good even if he doesn’t always feel that he is. In Celty, Izaya, and Shizuo, there are characters who are not physically bound by the limitations of the city.

(Interestingly, in the article “Two Theories on Parkour Philosophy,” there is a section on “Human Reclamation” that contrasts the movement of parkour to movement up the social ladder of capitalism, which most people are “conditioned” to believe they will be “perfect capitalists,” but
“reality and statistics have only shown that this is a very rare occurrence and most people will remain in the same place or social stratum for most of their lives.” So, this goes back to the idea of the city as being a place where anything is possible – but actually few people “make it.” Working around the boundaries of the city becomes symbolic for working around the system of capitalist production that the city stands for.)

IV. Different Kinds of “Fandom”

With “fandom,” I don’t mean just fans of particular media productions – I mean more loosely groups who actively participate in anything that gives them a sense of identity.

Durarara!! shows many different ways that its urban youth focus characters engage with society to build their identity. There’s Izaya, who manipulates everyone while claiming to love humanity; Anri, who can’t engage with people, and Saika, whose relation of “love,” similar to Izaya’s “love,” brings destruction; again, the love triangles between Mika, Seiji, Namie and Celty’s head; the scary makeup girls who bully Anri, who seem to be swallowed in commodity culture, and their rapidly gesticulating boyfriend; Walker and Erika, the otakus with a twisted sense of reality; Masaomi, who becomes the leader of the Yellow Scarves and is mired in gang warfare; and Mikado, the anonymous leader of the Dollars.

Basically, I see Durarara!! showing two kinds of social engagement. One is an obsessive, (self-)destructive engagement with one aspect of society that makes everything not of this aspect to be expendable, and another is a balanced engagement that takes into account both one’s private sense of self and one’s social roles with a sense of responsibility. Some characters have a sense of this all along, and some grow into it. One can say that Celty and Shinra, two older characters, also go through this path as well. Shinra, being in love with Celty, wants to hide the knowledge of her head from her, but realizes that he is perhaps being selfish. Likewise, in the beginning of the series, Celty is very adamant about finding her head, but she comes to accept that lacking her head does not unmake who she is.

To start with more minor characters, the creepy makeup girls and their boyfriend. They seem like they’re trying to fit into a certain popular image, which in the representation of the anime, seems outrageous and ridiculous because it’s overdone and pretentious. The boyfriend, especially, seems to reflect how young people will overload themselves with signs of a subculture to shore up their sense of belonging to that group, hence the hair and the gesticulating that proclaims himself as part of street culture, but again, overdone.

I don’t know how to analyze Izaya, and it seems to me that he’s one character in the series who isn’t quite human in character – all other characters, when they do wrong, seem to have a reason and a background story to explain it, but Izaya doesn’t. Anyway. The obsession on the part of Mika, Seiji, and Namie doesn’t really need to be explained, except to emphasize that Mika is so blinded by her obsession that she’s willing to accept a severed head in Seiji’s possession and would get cosmetic surgery for a chance to be with him, and Anri also said that Mika and Anri were only friends because they each used the other to make themselves look better. And Seiji is willing to grievously hurt Mika to protect the relationship between him and the head, and Namie is willing to completely disregard the law to protect Seiji, kidnap people to do experiments on them, etc.

Next, there’s Walker and Erika. When I first heard about them, I was immediately interested, because having anime fans in anime is a very brave thing to do because the production is confronting the audience with themselves. I first thought they were sort of cute, and it was very brave of Walker to save Saki. His otaku-esque rant while he is confronting the Blue Squares who kidnapped Saki was one of the highlights of the episode : “In real life, people don’t come to the rescue like in movies and cartoons, and so this girl’s been trashed like she has. So I was thinking…if a hero appeared now to save her, perhaps the world would become two-dimensional, and I’d become the saviour of the world with superpowers at my command!” (ep. 18)

Basically, Walker and Erika espouse the philosophy that reality and fiction aren’t separate. This is perhaps what enables Walker to walk up to a gang and save someone they’re torturing – he sees his actions as a part of a fictitious story, a two-dimensional world (which it is from the audience’s POV, hence part of the fun in this scene). I think this episode portrays an obsession with the two-dimensional world in a positive way, because it gives people courage to do what they wouldn’t dare do otherwise.

However, Erika and Walker quickly become extremely creepy. I haven’t read the novels but apparently they torture people according to how people in anime, manga and light novel series are tortured. The most disturbing of all is Erika in episode 21. While Izaya is goading Masaomi with the theory that he will always be haunted by his past, Erika is basically saying that Masaomi can just pretend that the conflict with the Blue Squares never happened. Later, scenes of a troubled Masaomi pacing the streets of Ikebukuro are interspersed with Erika and Walker in an anime store, and Erika saying hat she can edit reality to be what she wants and can get rid of everything that she doesn’t find interesting. The scene shows her casually throwing one of those ball container things into a garbage can. While this isn’t as bad as educational critics saying that violence in the media causes incidents like the Columbine shootings, it has a more troubling undertone in what it says about how a engagement with fiction might distort a person’s social outlook. From this, I find how Narita handles Walker and Erica to be very realistic, by neither criticizing nor glorifying the otakus, and hence I still like Walker and Erica as complex characters.

Saki’s situation is also troubling. Again, not having read the novels, I’m not sure exactly how Izaya collects girls who have been traumatized in their past, but Saki as the one example in the anime would do anything for Izaya, as she states in Masaomi’s flashbacks. During the conflict between the Yellow Scarves and the Blue Squares, Saki gets kidnapped and tortured and hospitalized on Izaya’s orders. I suppose, purely theoretically, being traumatized in some way is a big wound to anyone’s self-concept, especially children. Izaya might exploit this fragile sense of self and give the girls a sense that they have a legitimate place alongside him, and they do as he commands because he is the only person in their lives to offer them a sense of place. Saki’s change through the series seems to be that she has found another reference point for her personal definition, which is Masaomi. A lot of fans seem to find her really creepy too, but I think the last episode redeems her, when she calls Simon’s sushi restaurant and tells him everything that Isaya plotted in an effort to save Masaomi.

Masaomi’s situation has a slightly different inflection than the other characters. He’s no longer trying to be a part of something to give himself a sense of identity, but trying to get away from certain things in his past that makes him someone he doesn’t want to be. This can be just as bad as unquestioning participation. One thing in his past is the Yellow Scarves, whose leader position he grudgingly takes up again, and another is Saki, whom he couldn’t bear to visit and whom he wants to break up with. At first, around Masaomi are two competing choices. One is Izaya’s philosophy. Izaya says to Masaomi in Ep.20 that since people use their accounts of the past as a guide for their actions, then it is possible to think of the past as “God.” Izaya uses this chain of reasoning to tell Masaomi that since he feels guilty about what happened to Saki in the past, then Saki will be like Kida’s “God,” and that he will never shake free of it. The other philosophy is Erika’s philosophy that Masaomi can believe what he wants and forget about what happened to Saki if he doesn’t like it.

However, Kyohei (Dotachin) gives Masaomi another choice, and that is to overcome his guilt and “be responsible to both the past and the future.” This was stated in rather abstract terms, but Masaomi manages this by the end of the series. Not wanting a repeat of what happened between the Yellow Scarves and the Blue Squares, Masaomi goes to face Horoda, the upstart leader of the Yellow Squares, proclaiming that he’d been running from his past but he is going to actively catch up with his past this time.

Lastly, there’s Mikado. Contrary to Masaomi, who just wants to be a normal high school student, Mikado wants his life to be extraordinary, which is one reason he went to Tokyo. This makes Mikado the character that most of the audience can relate to, because most audience members are probably teenagers and young adults who wished that their lives were more interesting, and not the reverse like Masaomi, which is wishing that their lives were more normal. Hence, what Mikado does in the series would command the most attention, and more than anyone else, his path serves as a guide among all the other clearly dysfunctional paths other characters take.

Unlike other characters in this section, Mikado doesn’t jump into a social faction to find a place for himself and he doesn’t commit himself to actions just to prove himself. For instance, he advocates peace when some of the Dollars members agitate for conflict with the Yellow Scarves, even when he doesn’t know that the leader of the Yellow Scarves is really Masaomi. In other words, he seems to feel secure enough in his position (and the position of Dollars) that he doesn’t feel that he needs to prove anything by committing everyone to a gang war. He’s already proved himslef. In the middle of the series, when Mikado is dealing with threats from Namie, he has proved that he can mobilize all of the Dollars members and overwhelm Namie with numbers acting in a pacifist way. The nature of the Dollars, contrary to other youth gangs, is nonviolent; Mikado tells the Dollars members only to stare at Namie and her employees, but not to actually do anything else to them. He has tried to influence the Dollars to become a socially benevolent group, for example through public acts of charity. Most importantly, he can let go and disband Dollars when it seems that being a member risked targetting by the Yellow Scarves. All in all, for Mikado, the Dollars is important but not such a crucial part of his identity that he would hold on to it above all other things, such as the safety of its individual members, and it doesn’t colour his perception of his own situations to the exclusion of everything else. In this way, Mikado strikes a balance that many of the character in the series lack.

One quote from Celty that strikes me is in episode 23, when she says that Anri, Masaomi, and Mikado need to meet not as the leaders of their respective factions, but as themselves. But what is “self” but a collection of identities, and what are identities except that they describe the self as belonging in various groups? So how can there be a self for the three Durarara!! characters totally apart from their identities as Slasher, Yellow Scarf leader, and Dollars leader? What Celty seems to be saying is not that there is some abstract “self” apart from identities found in social groups, but that one’s investment in one social group should not overwhelm the other aspects of one’s identity. In this case, it would mean that none of the three characters ought to place their relationship to their respective groups above their friendship for one another.

In this respect, Durarara!! is extremely postmodern. In postmodernity, everything is constantly shifting, there is no fixed centre of reference and nothing is absolute. Postmodernity describes secularization, since less and less people are sure about all-powerful deities and their absolute authority. Postmodernity also rewrites history, showing that multiple events and people contributed to the unfolding of one event rather than attribute the event to one remarkeable person.(3) It is where we get novels like Wicked, and where we get narratives structured like the ones in Baccano!. Identity, too, is part of this. There is no single “self” that is always going to be stable through time. All the other gangs in Durarara!! seem to espouse an older and outdated sense of identity, where there are feuds between factions and revenge; Yellow Scarves members calling Masaomi “Shogun” seems to reflect that they are more traditional in their idea of hierarchies.

Dollars reflects a more postmodern sense of identity. There are no hierarchies, no defining characteristics, no fixed memberships, and an unknown leader. In Episode 21, some members of Dollars call out in the chatroom for their leader to do something about the impending gang war, and also question the leader’s choices and capabilities. However, the members come to the agreement that it’s not up to their leader but themselves, because the group has gone beyond the conventional notion of gangs where a group of people “belong” to a person who leads them, but rather, “It’s not about who Dollars belong to – it belongs to us.” In this move, Dollars crosses the line between the social and private self. We see in Masaomi the conflict between what he wants personally and what he must do as the leader of the Yellow Scarves because the Yellow Scarves is external to his sense of self and calls on him to negate other aspects of his character to prove his allegiance to the Yellow Scarves. Group membership is the worst peer pressure. However, in Dollars, there is no difference between the outside group to which one belongs and the members’ sense of self, since they can join and leave as they please – in another words, participating in Dollars would never risk one’s self-concept because Dollars never tries to impose on its members that it’s more important than any other identity that its members might hold. The fact that Dollars members refuse to disband comes from their own sense of self as responsible individuals and not because the leader of the Dollars calls on them to prove their allegiance.

This difference between Dollars and the other groups is most saliently expressed in the colours of other gangs versus the Dollars’ transparency. What I have been talking about with Masaomi, the scary makeup girls, the otakus, and Seiji, Mika, and Namie is that something external to themselves – either a group or a person – has drawn them into an allegiance where all other allegiances are rendered unimportant or impossible. If one participates in a colour gang, for example by joining the Yellow Scarves, one has to be yellow and no other colour, and this is often shown on the characters’ clothing. However, Dollars does not require this of its members, and it has no outward sign of membership. Not requiring that its members show a particular colour symbolically means that it lets its members take on other identities in addition to being a Dollars member. The anime handles this well stylistically, by making unnamed colour gang members gray silhouettes with only their colour to identify them, making the majority of passers-by grey, and having all the members of the Dollars suddenly erupt into their full spectrum of colour when they choose to act on Mikado’s call to stare at Namie.

V. The Fandom of Durarara!!

The Dollars ARE real. And you’re a part of them. We are real people trying to make a real difference in this world. And we don’t WANT the world to take us seriously, because then our group would be infiltrated by a bunch of assholes that just want to ruin everything. Yes we all have different cells (our friends, and people near us), but that doesn’t make us separate gangs as long as we all continue to collaborate and contribute by keeping communications with these forums.

— Umbra Serpens, ID TzE2UXLq, Dollars BBS

People speak of Urban youth culture a lot, and in general the city is seen as a place where youth culture is established, because the city has spots outside adult surveillance and young people can move freely to find themselves. While the roots of urban youth culture isn’t going to disappear any time soon, I feel that in the West at least, the Internet is the home to more subcultures than the streets.

In some ways, Dollars is extremely similar to the medium it operates through, which is the Internet. The Internet is postmodern because there is no centre and technically no hierarchies; there is no central website that governs other websites, and people connect to the internet and leave, whatever identities they have outside it. The Internet is anonymous, which translates to the Dollars’ transparency. In addition, the Dollars is shown to be all-pervasive in Ikebukuro even though they aren’t seen by marked symbols of membership, such as when member after member pop up and help Anri escape from the Yellow Scarves on an unplanned relay rescue. Similarly, the Internet today is ubiquitous, as smartphones can connect to the Internet and one can access the unseen Internet almost wherever one goes. Mikado’s words as the anime ends is that Dollars can be considered the city, but I would say that Dollars is the Internet as well.

Or maybe another perspective is that Dollars and its members are the go-between between the virtual world and the concrete one. Many people join Dollars (or any other group) because group membership makes them feel that they are affecting some positive change, if this change is only just to make oneself happier. A group like Dollars may start on the Internet, but it has real life consequences for the characters, for example when Mikado sees on the news that graffiti has been cleaned up overnight due to his nudge the day before, not to mention Dollars helping to save Anri’s life through the cell phone network. The importance of the Internet to Dollars is that it provides a network that can be called upon to change the world.

At the next level, although Durarara!! is an anime, it has real life consequences for the audience’s real life. There is a Dollars BBS made to look like the one in the anime. It’s a mind-blowing project, because as you face the log-in page, you feel that the difference between reality and fiction is collapsing. Like Dollars in the anime, people can come and go as they please, use different user names if they choose, follow other members’ proposals or not. It’s all entirely voluntary and there is no leader, other than perhaps administrations. As implied in the quotation opening this section, some people are concerned that this kind of group cannot last among a world still dominated by hierarchical groups. But just as parkour is a symbolic rebellion against the tiers of the capitalist system, Dollars can be a symbolic alteration of conventional hierarchy. The fact that some members don’t need to be “taken seriously” is like what I said about postmodernity, that there is power in being fluid, unstable, and outside the system of punishments and acknowledgements. In addition, the problem that I looked at in the last section with everyone except for Mikado comes from taking their groups too seriously, making it more important than anything in the character’s life. Not insisting that the real world Dollars be taken seriously by the rest of the world may also protect members from investing too much in the group itself to the exclusion of other aspects of their lives.

On the BBS there are also threads proposing missions to better the world in small ways, such as giving others confidence and helping each other with life issues (I’ve barely scratched the surface of the missions – I’m sure there have been other worthy projects that I haven’t seen). It was started by fans of the anime, and it’s still bound to its roots, but it has great potential to become a major force. I am slightly worried that the enthusiasm with the real-life Dollars group will fade as fans move on to other animes, but I hope that this will not be the case. For everyone who wishes their life were more interesting, if members do complete small acts of kindness in their life and get positive reinforcement from other members, this will constantly remind them of what it means to be a part of Dollars. Then, when a crisis does come, members may remember that they are a part of Dollars and react accordingly. For example, if an earthquake hits the city you are living in, it would be wonderful if a message can be sent to all the Dollars members in the city, and whomever is safe and has no other obligations can meet up and try to help others.

The whole last section was spent analyzing different kinds of social participation, with the conclusion that the colourless nature of the Dollars helps its members to stay and do good without compromising their selfhood. What the Dollars in Durarara!! did for its members is what Durarara!! would do for its audience – make the audience into intelligent and socially responsible people and not Walkers and Erikas, who simply put reality they don’t like in the trash. And it looks like it’s working.

(1) The first example that comes to mind of children’s literature where there are no parents is Harry Potter. Of course Harry doesn’t want his parents to be dead, but it means that his adventures are negotiated through an interaction with his peers rather than through teachings by his parents. And step-parents don’t count as parents – I remember my prof for Children’s Lit saying that having step-parents in a story is an automatic cue for readers to hate them as surrogates for all the adults ruining their lives. Hence the Dursleys.

(2) This is an oversimplification and I don’t entirely agree that the two systems are so different. One could say that in feudal societies, a lot of work that peasants do is for the landowner and not themselves, and in contemporary production there are still many incidences of small business and individual craftsmanship. But it’s more a question of the scale of the two systems.

(3) For example, in recent decades historians have been trying try to explore the Holocaust and WWII in the West through examining social forces rather than put most of the blame Hitler, but many people are unhappy about this because that seems to absolve him of guilt. Personally, I don’t think it does, because explanation doesn’t absolve guilt, it just explains guilt.