Friday, December 18, 2009

Answering Stephen Fry: It's not Good Naturedness

QI, short for Quite Interesting, a TV game show in the UK, is brilliant television. The contestants are often funny (without necessarily plying on -isms), rapid-fire with their conversation, and informative at turns. I love this show and wish it would come out on DVDs so I can purchase them and hoard them and treasure them and hand them down to my children so they'll know intelligent humour while growing up.


But QI does have its privileged moments where I pause and go, "did you really just say that?" Fortunately, with the exception of Alan Davies who insists on plying his trade in using faux Spanish accents as a source of humour, they move on to something more amusing. Here's an example:





Alan: He's a villain, I know that much.
Stephen: That's basically it.
David: We're gay
Stephen: Or gay.
John: Gay villain
Stephen: Or a gay villain!
David: Or people think you're Australian so you get bar work.
John: The high-octane version of the English villain which is to get an English villain to play a German villain.
Stephen: Yes! As in the Die Hard films!
John: The Die Hard films which - it has some of my favourite dialogue of our great friend Alan Rickman, uh, when he says - after he's shot the man's head, uh... *mimics Alan Rickman* "Mr. Takagi, I will count to three. There will not be a four." And he shoots the man in the skull, and then goes downstairs later and he goes, "Mr. Takagi won't be joining us for the rest of his life."
[Back screens show pictures of Alan Rickman from Die Hard and Robin Hood.
Stephen: I know. There you can see him, I think on the left there from Die Hard and on the right, uh-
Emma: Robin Hood
Stephen: -Giving his Sheriff of Nottingham. Now, the extraordinary thing about Robin Hood, I mean, the two most famous Robin Hoods that I saw - those are the Erroll Flynn one, and the Kevin Costner one, so I said, Erroll Flynn and Kevin Costner, basically playing him as American.
Alan: Kevin Costner made no bones about it. Just comes straight from the airport. I can imagine him just getting his tights on in the back.
David: To be honest, I can't think it would have been a better film if he was struggling with a Dick van Dyke Cockney accent.
Stephen: I just wondered, is it because we're too good-natured to moan about it?
Alan: We're the last country left that won't scream 'racism!'
Stephen: Exactly. We don't shout, 'it's so racist to make us the villain.'
Emma: Or is it that, the villains, kind of have to be fiendishly clever, and they suspect, as if, something Machiavellian deep down, somewhere. Always.
Stephen: Absolutely. Tyrannical, because we are the country they fought, originally, to create their own country.
Emma: And we're essentially unwholesome. You know. Really. And we have bad teeth. That's the thing they can't, really forgive us for.
Stephen: British have broken teeth in the Simpsons as well.
David: Alan Rickman has got great teeth.
John: But he does this thing *mimics Alan Rockman again* where he's able to talk, without actually letting his lips touch his teeth, soo...*stops* Alan is so good at playing villains - *to the audience* as you all know - but he hates being good at playing villains. He wants to play the lovely guy in the white shirt, that comes in, you know-
Emma: He did, in Sense and Sensibility.
John: As Colonel Brandon, absolutely. But uh, he was at a party once - and you know kids are fantastic, they always say the thing they're not meant to say. This kid said to him *mimics kid voice* "Alan!" *switches to AlanRickman* "Yes?" *kid voice* "Why do you always play villains?!" Roo-gee! That's the last thing you want to say to him. And Alan went, *mimics Alan Rickman* "I don't play villains. I play interesting people."

The thing about QI is that often Stephen Fry answers his own question if no one else can give a forthcoming answer, but I think his answer here, as I indicated in the italics, is woefully incomplete, underestimating the largeness of the issue. Now, of course, there's no sense talking this Very Serious Thing into the show, which is, after all, supposed to be light and fun, but here's a further reason why the British don't cry "racism":

Some characters of color were created with roots dipped deep in racism and continuing their portrayal as characters of color might prove to be worse than having them turned into a white fool. For those of you who might be inclined to cry foul about having white people play the fool and that they’re unfairly Acceptable Targets, please note that white characters have the greatest range and diversity in mainstream media and that white characters are rarely stereotyped (unless they happen to be a part of another non-racial minority class). Consequently, for every white fool, you have a large ratio of other characters to serve as counterexamples. This does not exist with characters of color and so how they are drawn actually does have a social impact–but that’s another discussion.
- J. Chang, of Init_MovingPictures, posted at Racialicious.

That's the thing about Britain, particularly the dominant Anglo-Saxon Britons, who are white-skinned and Aryan. Brits can't scream racism because there's no racism to scream about. They can't say they're always type-cast as villains because they are not.

Children across the world devour story after story about English children solving mysteries and growing up. They learn, day after day, about how cultured England is, this emerald isle in a sea of storms. The English have heroes and myths of their own. I wanted to be English when I was growing up, and I devoured English literature as if it could fill some hole in me and take me away from my peers, who were not so erudite nor intelligent.

This is, of course, a false impression, set up by many things - the amount of English literature that pervades education today in developing countries, the idea that English is the lingua franca of the world, the systems of government set up by the leaving British as their Empire slowly eroded. Victoria is long dead, but her Empire took much longer to die. Why, it only released one of its last international holdings in my living memory. That's pretty recent, ya'll!

And frankly, if the English were to cry "RACISM!" I think everyone else in the world would laugh its fucking ass off at them. How long ago was it that Britain was in control of much of the third world and under its control, these countries were worse off than ever before? And the Britons laboured under the guise of the White Man's Burden to civilize these places, to pity these regions which clearly were not as well off - except of course there wasn't necessarily a lot of pity, but a lot of contempt for these countries which were places for free labour!

These actions, which were done over a century ago, still reverberate in behaviour today. Dead men have set up systems that are hard to dismantle today, because it is so ingrained into the very fibre of our beings. Even from the grave they make the work of anti-racists harder.

I don't live in the United Kingdom, so I don't hear a lot of moaning about how minorities are getting all the attention, to the detriment of "real Britons". It already happens here in North America - having the British shout 'racism!' is just adding fuel to the fire that sits in the firepit they created 200 years ago. They could, but it would be malicious and cold-hearted, and I'm under the impression that they've spent years trying to let go of malice and spitefulness.

It would be racist if the only examples of English people in mass media were a specific, stereotyped narrative that doesn't allow leeway for the audience to view the English as anything other than the stereotype. But the English have, as Chimamanda Adichie delineates quite nicely, "many stories".There are stories of the aristocrats and the stories of the poor. The stories of men and women. The stories of children in upper-middle-class and the stories of children living in the gutter, or townspeople and rural folk. The English have all these stories with which the English child finds confidence in his or her place in the world. So many others don't.

And that is why it's not racist for Hollywood to continually typecast Englishmen in the roles of villains.

Because for every English villain there are many English heroes. And Mr. Fry is one of them.

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