race

Five Lessons the Media Can Learn from Welcome to Night Vale

welcome-to-nightvale-podcast

Warning: there be spoilers ahead. If you haven’t listened to the podcast yet, you have been warned.

A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome… to Night Vale.

If an ambient snare / hi-hat / piano melody is playing in your head right now, then you’re already familiar with the podcast Welcome to Night Vale. If you’ve ever opened up a Tumblr dashboard, chances are good you’ve at least heard of the bi-monthly storytelling extravaganza by Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink that, over the past two-odd years, has taken over the iTunes podcast charts, Comic-Cons, and my life. And if none of these things are true, what are you even doing with your time. Go listen to this podcast.

As a feminist writer and fiction junkie, I look for two things in my media: quality storytelling, and a basic adherence to the principles of equality, social justice, and representation. Now, it’s not necessary that something holds these principles up 100% of the time for me to fall in love with it. You can love media and still criticize it at the same time. Guys. I watched every episode of four seasons of The Real Housewives of New Jersey. I know.

(Team Jacqueline. Anyway.)

But the beautiful thing about Night Vale is that it doesn’t ask me to compromise. Amid its gloriously self-referential, convoluted storylines that somehow intersect with the fulfilling eclectic fatality of a tweaked-out spider’s web (listeners: I’m torn between Nazar al-Mujaheed and Marcus Vanston’s coffee table as my favorite bits), Night Vale’s creators make efforts toward dismantling the kyriarchy on a bi-weekly basis. And guys, it is awesome.

I could make a list of hundreds of tips mainstream media could take from Night Vale Community Radio, but this is a blog post, not a manifesto. So, here are five awesome elements of the podcast that make my feminist heart sing.

1. LGBTQ Representation, Without the Drama

Night Vale’s central romance takes place between Cecil, the velvet-voiced radio host, and the perfectly imperfect Carlos, seemingly surnamed The Scientist. Now, that’s a step in and of itself, since gay relationships are often mined as campy comic relief (Will and Grace, though long off the air, comes immediately to mind) or angst-ridden existential crises and ultimate tragedy.

This isn’t to deny the weight and gravity LGBTQ folks face when coming out in our homophobic society. I’m not suggesting that discounting the serious struggles homophobia creates is the way to go.

But as a counterpoint: science fiction and storytelling are just that: fictionAnd Night Vale invents a world in which being gay is exactly as interesting as being straight, or being a five-headed dragon. (Okay, it’s a little less interesting than being a dragon.) Cecil and Carlos’ romance develops as a caring, nuanced, consensual, unbelievably adorable relationship between two adults for whom sexuality is just another aspect of their identity, not something that needs to be questioned or torn apart or defended to anyone.

My favorite example is what can, if you squint, be called Cecil’s coming-out. The character Old Woman Josie asks him why they don’t go bowling like they used to. Cecil replies,

“I don’t know. There has been a tiny underground army living under the bowling alley, and they’ve declared war on all of us. They injured my new boyfriend. Also, I have a new boyfriend. Listen, we should totally get the team back together and go to League Night again.”

That’s what I mean. There’s so much craziness going on in Night Vale that a radio host’s sexuality could seriously not be less of an issue. Looking at our own current events, there’s a lesson there for us to think about.

2. Saying No to Whitewashed Casting

I don’t know a single listener that doesn’t have a small crush on Carlos the Scientist, possibly because Cecil, our narrator, “fell in love instantly” the moment Carlos entered town. He fell in love with Carlos’ perfect eyes, his perfect teeth like a military cemetery, his perfect hair (especially his perfect hair). And Carlos, quite unequivocally, is hispanic. Take that, mainstream media’s tendency to whitewash sympathetic characters (cough cough Exodus: Gods and Kings).

As if this wasn’t already pretty awesome, there’s the casting of Carlos’ voice actor to take into account. To begin with, Carlos was voiced by co-creator Jeffrey Cranor. But following that, latino actor Dylan Marron was recast into the role. Why? In Cranor’s words,

“It sucks that there’s a white straight male (me), playing a gay man of color (Carlos).”

And Dylan Marron is fabulous. Let’s not forget that. And his hair, folks, actually is perfect.

3. WOC in Central, Awesome Roles

I talked about this recently: guys, fantasy and sci-fi requires you to invent a world from the ground up. If you’re putting dragons into it, what the hell is stopping you from making important, central, well-developed characters of color?

Oh. White privilege and social racism. That might be it.

Remember the controversy when Rue from The Hunger Games, despite being described as having “dark brown skin,” was cast as black? Proof that society has conditioned us to expect sympathetic characters to be white, regardless of what their physical descriptions read as.

Night Vale is a radio show, after all, so we rely on narration and our own imaginations, but Fink and Cranor make a deliberate point of specifying that certain characters cannot default to white. One of these, and by far a fan favorite, is the unbearably kick-ass Tamika Flynn.

Tamika Flynn is every English major’s spirit animal. Her weapons of choice are a slingshot and heavily notated copies of classic lit. She leads children from the summer reading program in a battle against an evil corporate bureaucracy. She’s a revolutionary mastermind who hides throwing stars in copies of Willa Cather. And have I mentioned she’s thirteen?

Have I also mentioned that she’s a woman of color, voiced by two voice actresses, Flor De Liz Perez and Symphony Sanders, who are also women of color?

Have I also mentioned that she’s amazing?

4. Women In Political Office and Positions of Power

All right, “positions of power” is a little vague, because Night Vale is run by a mysterious otherworldly force probably lurking in a canyon. But the fact remains that both mayors in the series, as well as one of the candidates during election season, are female. Just as with Cecil and Carlos’ relationship, no one in the series has any problem with this.

There’s no endless dwelling on Mayor Pamela Winchell’s choice of skirt or pantsuit. There’s no concern that she won’t be able to carry out her duties because her daughter had a baby and who wants a grandma for a mayor? Being female, as being of color or being gay or bi or gender-nonconforming or without a face, is simply a non-issue.

Another tip that our media could take from Pamela Winchell’s emergency press conferences. Report the issues, not the mayor’s cleavage.

5. Speaking Out Against Cultural Appropriation

If you’ve looked at an Urban Outfitters catalogue, been to or read about Coachella, or watched a Katy Perry music video recently, you’re pretty well aware with the concept of cultural appropriation: taking a phenomenon, belief, or cultural practice from a group of people to which you do not belong and taking it in a one-sided and non-mutual colonial-style transaction. For a really clear and valuable explanation of the difference between liking sushi and exploiting someone’s culture, I recommend this article from Everyday Feminism.

Night Vale is having none of this. We are introduced to the Apache Tracker, who is universally regarded as a “huge jerk” for walking around in a cartoonishly inaccurate Native American headdress and claiming to possess “Indian magicks.” It’s recognized by the whole town that he’s taken a symbol with great cultural importance and just tossed it on his head for the sake of insensitive, tone-deaf, and racist ass-hattery.

Another glorious allusion to this very issue came in an episode from just a few days ago (I was listening to it while going for a jog and fist-pumped a little bit on the sidewalk):

“[Pamela Winchell cracked her whip] like in that popular and heartwarming series of adventure movies about a wisecracking archaeologist who comically destroys countless important artifacts under the hilarious misapprehension that they belong in his museum rather than in the religious sites of the cultures that made them.”

And then on to a discussion of the dubious existence of angels. It takes artistry and writing skills to work political and social commentary into a show while still making it entertaining and making me laugh.

You know what it doesn’t take? “Indian Magicks.”

——

Night Vale listeners: what would you add to this list? Do you have any critiques or suggestions for areas of improvement in the podcast? I’d love to hear them if you do.

Stay tuned next for the sound of your own breathing, filtered through a lifetime of regret, indecision, and missed opportunities.

Good night, readers. Good night.

Advertisements

Race, Hyphenationality, and Miss America

miss_american_ap_0916

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few weeks, you’re aware of the phenomenon-slash-train-wreck that was this year’s Miss America Pageant. And if that is indeed the case, please move over. I’m sharing that rock with you.

I’m a little bit late to the party on this particular topic, and there’s all kinds of articles floating around the Interwebs about it. Check out this one to get started, or this one (and not just because it’s from my University. *GoBlue*). But for all my subterranean readers, or those international folks who are lucky enough to escape this story, here’s the run-down.

On September 15, Miss New York Nina Davuluri (also an alumnus of my university – *GoBlue again*) received the sparkly tiara dubbing her Miss America. This makes her the first Indian-American woman to win the title in the pageant’s over- ninety-year history.

And the internet is a horrible place. Really, that’s all.

Commenters have bombarded the web with vile racism since Davuluri’s crowning, with all kinds of cruel and ignorant remarks – many of them not even apparently understanding where India is. A quick brief, for those who may not know: India is in South Asia, not the Middle East. (Here’s a helpful map.) The main religion in India is Hinduism, not Islam. Oh, and also, even if she were Muslim, that does not make her a terrorist. Terrorism is an extremist ideology, not a religion. And on and on, until I lose my breath from pointing out the obvious.

I’m not breaking any new ground here by pointing out the logical fallacies behind the Internet’s recent spewing of racism around the pageant. Anyone with an ounce of common sense or access to Wikipedia can refute all the claims these remarks made. What I find more troubling here is this continued evidence of how America deals with “ethnic” and multiracial identities.

Let me say this right off the bat: I am a caucasian woman and not, personally, multiracial. My experience with this concept comes indirectly, through friends who identify as multiracial and my own experiences with life, American culture, and the Internet. Anything I say, therefore, speaks to my own interpretation as an outsider, and is in no way meant to take away the voices of the community I am discussing.

But getting to the point: America’s idea of race is reductive and not helpful.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are Nina Davuluri, or any Indian-American woman, trying to fill out a survey like this one.Screen Shot 2013-09-25 at 1.58.11 PM

What do you say? You might imagine that “Asian” is the most geographically accurate descriptor for someone of Indian descent, but is it? In the American consciousness, “Asian,” means Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, almost exclusively.

What about people of Middle Eastern descent? Not much of a category for that either, is there? Maybe to placate the Internet crazies, we should just add a “terrorist” option, so we’re all on the same page. (Note: I am JOKING. See above.)

And what about people who identify as multiracial? If I were a person with an African-American father and a white mother, which box am I supposed to check? Am I supposed to deny one-half of my identity because American discourse doesn’t have the linguistic categories to handle me?

The easy-out answer is that last option, the “other” box. But that’s even more problematic than choosing one side or the other, in my opinion. Calling someone an “other” because of their race is the very definition of alienation and distancing. We even have a psychological concept for this, helpfully called othering. Creating a distance between your identity and the identities of others leads to an “us verses them” mindset that is helpful to no one who wants to be treated fairly, least of all those who claim (on what evidence I’m not sure) that we live in a post-racial society.

So what am I getting at with all of this? And how do surveys like the one above lead to the spectacular crap-show that was the Miss America fallout? I’m getting to that.

See, here’s how I view the situation: limiting race to five categories, one of which is “other”, limits our collective ability to see difference. We group people into broad, generalized categories based on superficial characteristics, which enables shorthand decision-making and depersonalization. Does this person look more or less stereotypically like what we imagine someone in a certain racial group to look like? Yes? That’s their race. And with that goes all the cultural assumptions we have about them based on their race.

In essence, American racial understanding does not take nuance into account. This allows for the steamrolling of multiracial identities, the conflation of distinct ethnic groups into one blurry silhouette, and, perhaps indirectly, the apparently common misperception that Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East are all the same place.

What’s the solution to this blurred consciousness? Many people might not like my answer, but here it is:

We need to talk about race more.

Now, I can already hear the nay-sayers pulling out their foghorns. “Talk about race more? Are you crazy? If you don’t talk about it, it’ll go away. The more you talk about racial differences, the worse you make it! That’s racist in itself!”

Okay. Now let’s all pull back and take a breath.

We do not live in a post-racial society. People’s lived experiences are different based on their race, ethnicity, religion, culture, heritage, what have you. Maybe the most topically obvious example of this is New York’s recent examination of the “Stop and Frisk” policy. But even beyond discrimination, a person’s race and heritage can be, and often is, an inherent part of their identity. Would you tell someone that their experience as an Indian-American does not matter, that they’re just American, that they should leave their cultural practices at home and just be like the rest of us?

Well, as a nation, we actually already tried that. It’s called “cultural assimilation.” And when we tried it with Native Americans, it’s generally assumed to be a bad thing.

Denying race, or claiming that “you don’t see it,” denies the lived experiences of people who do see race – their own – on a daily basis. Here’s a great article that explains better than I can the idea: “If You ‘Don’t See Race’, You’re Not Paying Attention.”

When you bring up race in American society, it makes people anxious. It makes all of us a little uncomfortable talking about something that’s become so taboo.

But if we don’t bring it up, and we continue to let generalizations and racial misunderstandings run wild, we’ll just continue ending up with people who lump others into broad categories, deprive them of all individual characteristics, and then discriminate against them all in expansive sweeps.

I’m not 100% behind the Miss America Pageant as an institution (you can read more about its potentially questionable aspects here). But for the purposes of today’s discussion, I throw my support behind Nina Davuluri and the conversations I hope her election will spark.

Oh, and side note? Once a Wolverine, forever a Wolverine. Go Blue, Nina.