Normalising the horrific – television and suicide bombers

Let’s call this entry a late night place holder, something I might come back to in greater depth later. I am interested in the role that television, and I mean fictional televison, plays in normalising, or at least how the depiction of things become normalised, by television. This first struck me in the way that torture was shown during the early to mid 2000s – shows like Lost, Alias, Battlestar Galactica and 24 were full of it, and not always by bad guys and in ways that were, for a time, less and less problematised. But that discussion itself is one for later.

Tonight I watched episode 10 of season 5 of Supernatural and something that had struck me watching V about a month ago, caught my attention again. Here were good characters engaging in suicide bombing. Since the rise of suicide bombing in our news over the past 20 years, we have seen plenty of bad characters using suicide bombing tactics on television. It has been in Spooks and, in the third case of suicide bombing that I have seen in the last month on television, quite recently on 24. But these are expected locations for suicide bombing, particularly because it is the bad guy, the one who needs to be stopped, who is the bomber.

Back when Cylons occupied New Caprica in Battlestar Galactica, the resistance used suicide bombing. What was interesting at the time was how the show carefully problematised this use, with debates about it and the clear implication that the “innocent” would die along with the occupiers. This use of suicide bombing was carefully thought through and did make some interesting points to challenge the way we thought about suicide bombing and its use by the oppressed.

In V last month it was a throwaway moment – a character we didn’t know but who was clearly on the side we are unambiguously supposed to support, setting off a bomb to kill himself and others who were in thrall to the supreme bad guy. What has changed to allow such a unquestioning, unproblematic use of suicide bombing by a good character?

The case in Supernatural was a little different – there is an element of the “last stand” about it as Jo is going to die anyway. But this does not explain her mother choosing to kill herself along side her. And yes, they were only killing hell hounds. While the trope of the “soldier” allowing their impending death to be sped up in order to save others is a very common one in war related films, the idea of a full able person killing themselves is much less common.

The other suicide bombing which I haven’t mentioned yet is that which sets off the action of Caprica. Again here as in Battlestar there is a much greater problematisation of the use of suicide bombing, but still questions remain about it.

My central question is, how often did we see suicide bombing on our televisions even 10 years ago? How has the frequency increased? Does this mean anything? Are we entering a Baudrillardian spiral in which the referent disappears?

Thoughts to return to later – but I welcome any comments or ideas.

100 sci fi women #39: Diana

As I have noted elsewhere, I am a bit disappointed in the current V.  But it has made me think more about the old V and I also thought it was time for another villain on the list.

Diana V (1980s version)

Diana is ruthless and sadistic and willing to go to pretty much any lengths to maintain her power. She was also brilliant, beautiful, inventive, clever, defiant and possibly the most interesting character in the original V. Second-in-command when the Visitors arrive on earth, she is clearly the brains of the operation. She can “convert” humans so that they become the pliant tools of the Visitors and she has inoculated the Visitors against known human diseases. When her commander Pamela arrives and tries to assert her authority of Diana, Diana finds a way to discredit Pamela before murdering her. Diana lets no one stand in her way. She is, clearly however, in search of knowledge as we see in her experiment with the impregnation of Robin and her desperation to get hold of the child. While she looks after and values Elizabeth, the hybrid child of Robin, this is more from what Elizabeth symbolises in terms of scientific advances. Diana does not have a traditional feminine softness which can be appealed to, she shows no sign of compassion. When the human priest tries appeal to this potential compassion, she coldly shots him. There is also a hint of ambiguous sexuality about Diana, particularly in her relationship with Kristine Walsh, the human reporter she converts to be their media mouthpiece. Diana is seductive, devastatingly intelligent and very very evil. From a human perspective anyway.

Pamela: You scientific types are so easily ruffled.

Diana: And you military types are so predictable.

[Takes out her gun and shoots Pamela and her guard.]

Diana: You rely on cunning, intrigue…I prefer the direct approach. Don’t worry, dear Pamela, I’ll do my scientific best to command your fleet. And tomorrow I’ll destroy the rebels! Consider this an early retirement.

[shoots Pamela in the stomach]

Choice and alien babies

So watching the new  V as it is being shown on television in Australia. The biggest disappointment: it is kinda boring. However, its lack of excitement is not what I want to discuss here.

Amongst the various things that the old V and the new V have in common is the pregnancy of one of the female human characters to one of the Visitors. There is a very distinct difference in these pregnancies though. In both cases, the women were unaware that the person they were conceiving with was much more non-human than they thought. However in the old series, Robin knew that her sexual partner was an alien. In the current series (at this point), Valerie does not. In the old series Robin was deliberately impregnated as one of Diana’s science experiments, while in the current series it is accidental.

But the biggest difference to me is that Robin was given a choice. Robin knew that she was carrying a non-human baby and was allowed to chose whether to continue the pregnancy. When she chose to have an abortion, she was supported in that choice on the grounds that it was her body, even though the fetus didn’t think so and did not allow itself to be aborted.

In the current V Valerie is not given a choice. She does not know what her partner is, and she does not know what kind of baby she is carrying. Her partner, Ryan, conspires with a 5th column doctor to hide from Valerie what is happening to her own body, and she is shown someone else’s ultrasounds. When Ryan gets the phosphorus she needs to survive – despite having been told ominously by the V Chief Medical Officer that, after taking that there is “no going back” – he hides it in her tea. Valerie is systematically denied choice about her body and her pregnancy by the person who is supposed to care about her the most. And he is one of the good guys.

It is fascinating that at this time the writers have decided to take this approach to the depiction of the alien pregnancy. In 1983, the anti abortion movement in the US was starting to pick up its level of activism. And yet the series deliberately showed the exercise of pro choice values in the approach to the pregnancy. Wanting the pregnancy to continue for plot reasons was easy – make the fetus unkillable without killing the mother. So it is fascinating to me that the depiction in the current V is so aggressively anti choice, so absolutely disempowering to the woman involved.Abortions more regularly are discussed and occur in other series, so why not here, and why so unwilling to even examine the issue from a female viewpoint? Or did it just not occur to the writers what they were doing?

It should be noted that other films and television have dealt with the idea of abortion and the carrying of alien/mutant children such as The Fly. Understanding what you are carrying though does not mean it must or should be aborted due to its difference – Valerie could be willing to embrace this, particularly as her baby was conceived in love. My concern is that she is given now choice, even when the pregnancy could be potentially life threatening to her.

I’m now hoping that Ryan might get killed or turn out to be a double double agent or something, because I sure as hell can’t sympathise with him in any way. And I will be interested to see in what direction this storyline takes itself.

V, the original

I thought that, having rewatched the original V, it might be worth reflecting on it before the giant hovering spaceships of the new version completely obliterate it from my mind. I figured that in a compare and contrast kind of way, I could consider some of the key themes in V from the 1980s and then see how they compare with the new version, 25+ years on. I love this stuff – it makes for fun theses….

So key themes:

Scientists: One of the most important aspects of the original V was the position of scientists. Scientists, including social scientists like anthropologists and ethnographers, were considered by the visitors to be a major threat to them, presumably because they might be able to reveal the fact that the visitors were not who they claimed to be. It is the scientists who form the core initial group of the resistance and the leader of the resistance fighters is Dr Julie Parrish a young doctor and biological researcher. There is the very strong analogy which is drawn between the treatment of scientists and that of Jews in Germany during World War II. It is particularly interesting to see the positioning of scientists in V particularly given how often scientists are cast in the role of the bad guy, or crazy impractical person. Some scientists become collaborators, but this isn’t dwelt on and it is clear that they have been “converted” by the visitors – subject to a form of brain washing which is revealed as they all become left handed. While the importance of scientists diminishes a little in The Final Battle, they still remain significant, and there is a lot of emphasis on the need for scientific equipment and so forth.  This approach to scientists is also fascinating given the right wing politics which dominated the US at the time of the production of the original V were not particularly science-driven. Religious conservatism was dominant and in a number of areas it was a time where science was secondary to religion. But it was also a great time of growth in scientific discovery, particularly with the re-invigouration of the US space program.

Journalists: There are two takes on journalists which are particularly strong in V: first we have our putative hero, Mike Donovan. The opening scenes of the original mini-series see him filming fighting in Central America, itself an interesting comment on the politics of the era itself, given the themes of invasion, government infiltration and resistance. Mike is clearly a man of action, but also of integrity and fairness. When he makes contact with the visitors own internal resistance, he works hard to ensure that the actions taken by his team do not harm them. He is not prejudiced against the visitors per se, and always takes each of them on their individual merit. In contrast there is Christine, his sometime lover, who is amongst the first journalists to visit the mother ship. She gets chosen to be their spokesperson and becomes their propaganda mouthpiece. It later becomes clear that she has been “programmed” by Diana, but nonetheless, she is just a bit too eager to get the scoop.

Religion: While a priest is amongst the resistance fighters from the start, it is interesting that religion never gets a big go. We also see that the Judaism of the Bernstein family does not stop their son becoming an oppressive collaborator, and it is the experience of the Holocaust, and not religion itself which motivates his grandfather. The most interesting approach to religion comes at the time when Robin is pregnant with a child of a Visitor. She, naturally enough, wants to have an abortion. Father Andrew counsels against it in the usual religious terms, also arguing that the child could become a bridge between the two species. Interestingly, pretty much everyone else sides with Robin, and there are some very strong pro-choice arguments given. The abortion is commenced but cannot be completed because of the nature of the creature. Later the priest essentially kidnaps the child and takes him to the Visitors. He is trying to bring peace, but instead he gets killed. There isn’t a lot of room for religion in this world.

Racial difference: There is a constant reference to what the Visitors actually look like amongst the rebels. The heavy emphasis is – if everyone knows what they look like then they will all oppose them. The rebels seem to want to appeal to the most base of human prejudices – fear of difference – to expose the aliens. And sure, the Visitors do have diabolical plans, but should it be that it is the fact they are actually lizards which is the lynchpin here? The number and level of references to the fact that “if only everyone knew what they really looked like” they would oppose them almost makes one uncomfortable. And yet there is a counter point of view even amongst the rebels – not all Visitors are bad; there is a Fifth Column which assists the humans. While some of the rebels, in particular the hard nosed Ham Tyler, are willing to commit genocide and consider that all the Visitors are the same, Mike Donovan in particular looks to protect those Visitors who have helped them, and refuses to see them as all the same.

The original V also has very strong female characters in both the Visitors and the rebels (which happily seems to be occurring also in the new V) but shows that leadership does not require complete certainty; that fear and concern can be part of a leader’s make-up, as long as they can continue to lead.

Anyway, these are some inital thoughts and I will return to this as I watch more of the new version of V.