Thursday, February 25, 2010

Monstrous Musings: Patriarchal Baddies and Smokey Goodness? Musings on the Monsters of Lost

This is a guest post from Natalie Wilson

I am a literature and women’s studies scholar and author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. I am currently writing a book examining the Twilight cultural phenomenon from a feminist perspective. My interest in vampires and werewolves dates back to my childhood fascination with all types of monsters.


Though I am not sure what genre-bending category to assign Lost to, one thing is for sure, the show has its fair share of monsters. As with other island narratives, (such as William Golding’s Lord or the Flies,) one of the key narrative questions is just how monstrous humans will/do become when divorced from civilization. 

While Lost is notable for its diverse cast and complex characters, it sometimes veers towards displaying people of color as either more monstrous, more “backwards,” or less important than white people. Just as “Vanity Fair Doesn’t Like Black People,” Lost seems to have a troubled relationship to blackness.

While Lost is certainly an improvement on most television shows in terms of diversity (and certainly 200x better than Disney), it seems white male privilege still rules the island. The show gives the most narrative attention to LWMs - or lost white males – and people of color are often presented stereotypically (Republican Guard/torturer Sayid, over-controlling and “English-challenged” Jin, simpleton Latino dude Hurley, folksy wisdom Ruth, oppressed Sun, etc). As Bao Phi points out in Why I Still Watch Lost,” Lost’s “characters of color sometimes toe the line towards stereotype.” As proof, he cites Season 3’s Stranger in A Strange Land” episode, which “manages to portray every ugly stereotype of a Southeast Asian country as seen through a white male tourist.”

To its credit though, the show features many complex, sympathetic characters of color. Sun and Jin are fan favourites, as is Sayid. Yet, as Phi points out, though the inclusion of Asian characters is laudable, “There is still a shortage of other characters of color in the show… It’d be great if they were joined by actors from other communities of color.” I agree. As that doomed flight headed out from Australia, how about some aboriginal characters? And why is the only regular black female character (Rose) relegated to a sidelined role?

Thus, though notable for its racially diverse cast (which as Megan’s Minute jokes, aligns it with Obama’s administration), the real power of the show (both in terms of protagonists and in terms of island authority) lies with the white dudes – Jack, Sawyer, Ben, Locke, Alpert – and, a few white women, Kate and Juliet.

Melissa McEwan of Shakesville reads the LWM’s as patriarchs, writing: “The Lost fathers (Benry, Widmore, Paik, Shephard the Elder) are archetypical patriarchs—rich, powerful, well-educated, well-connected, straight, and white…It is within the battle among these patriarchs that everyone else is caught; it is to their whims, and their arbitrary rules and preferences, that everyone else is subjected.”

But, can we also read patriarchy as THE monster the island presents us with? Male rule is far from benign on the island, and those given less island power (females, POC) often seem to be the heroes/saviours – or merely to have the best survival skills (Kate’s bad-ass jungle know-how, Sun’s garden growing, Sayid’s techno-savvy, Hurley’s realization humans need humour and fun).

As I write elsewhere, though the island is certainly patriarchal, one could make a strong case that male-rule is not such a good thing for (island) society. McEwan, in her discussion with fellow Lost fanatic, Brad Reed of Sadly, No!, agrees, stating “the show looks increasingly to be making an oblique but advanced commentary about the patriarchy.”

In fact, couldn’t we argue that most of the bad/evil things happening are associated with the island patriarchs – Jacob, the Man in Black, Ben, Christian, etc - ? The fact we don’t know who is good and who is evil seems to accord with this reading. Within patriarchy, the white father (also redolent of “God the father”) is framed as a rightful and just leader, but Lost questions the white male leaders – is Jacob good or evil? is Jack a hero or a sad-sack?

Yet, even though the show troubles the patriarchal waters and blurs the distinctions between good and evil, it often still problematically frames monstrosity as black, dark, Other. In so doing, it taps into a historical tendency to associate black with evil. Perhaps this can be best illustrated with reference to the black smoke monster. Now, I can already hear the “OMG! Next thing your gonna say Darth Vader is a racist representation!” naysayers. Well, in truth, I think many (most?) black/white textual representations have racial undertones.

Just imagine for a moment if the smoke monster were white. Would there be more debates as to whether Smokey was good OR evil? Would there be a tendency to read Smokey as benevolent, as a Godlike smoke angel, as a holy spirit carrying out necessary island justice? You bet there would!  But, since the smoke monster is black, the assumption s/he/it is evil is taken for granted.

As media consumers, we get the message black is evil in all sorts of forms – villains wear black cowboy hats, evil characters are often clad in black, cartoon baddies either have darker coloring and/or black clothes (for example, Lion Kings Scar, The Little Mermaid’s Ursula, Twilight’s black-caped Volturi, and, yes, Darth Vader). We hear black is bad in the language we speak. Calling the kettle black. Black sheep of the family. Black market. On the flipside, white is usually represented as good – a point Sawyer recognizes as indicated in his comment to Kate that "I wouldn't be surprised if Jack didn't find himself that horse of yours and start leading the charge in a big white hat."

Given that Lost has various religious undertones, William Sierichs article “The Christian Origin of Racism: That Old Black Devil” also seems worth noting. Sierichs, arguing that “Christians had equated the color black with evil as early as the second century,”  cites “equation of evil, darkness, and blackness” as “a source of later racial stereotypes.” Hmmm, is this why viewers so readily read the black smoke monster and the Man in Black as evil?

In Lost, this white is good, black is evil meme plays out in multiple ways. Heroism, leadership, purity, and faith are mainly associated with whiteness – both through the white skin of our island heroes (Jack, Locke, Kate, Juliet) and via white symbols – the “beautiful, white light” Lock sees in the eye of the island, Claire/Aaron as white virgin Mary and Christ-baby, Jack’s white shirt, the representation of white chess pieces/rocks as symbols of goodness. Yet, in Lost fashion, these white symbols/characters are not wholly good – can the show thus be read as trying to question the association between whiteness and good?

On the flipside, the symbolism of darkness/blackness often plays into a black is bad conception – the black smoke monster, the Man in Black, the Black Rock, the deadbeat dad (Michael), the gold-digging heart-breaker (Walt’s mom Susan), the murky, dark temple water that infects Sayid who now has “a darkness growing in him.” Further, it seems that for the most part the darker your skin, the sooner you die and/or exit the show – Walt, Michael, Eko, Ana Lucia – and now Rose has terminal cancer and Claire just axed Aldo! But, Sayid lives on… Can his survival (and that of SOME females and POC characters) mean that the show might wrap with a one-two punch, delivering one blow to patriarchy and another to cultural conceptions of whiteness as pure/good/heroic? I sure hope so… I am routing for Smokey because I refuse to read her/his/its blackness as bad!