By Guest Contributor Shilpa K.
Racial diversity in science fiction and fantasy can be difficult to find. Perhaps that’s why the Canadian fantasy show Lost Girl’s casual, anyone-can-be-anything attitude towards race, gender, and sexuality is so refreshing—and why this season’s shift in representation has been so disheartening.
For those who don’t know, Lost Girl’s title character, Bo, is a succubus who was adopted by humans and is only recently coming to understand who she is as she discovers the Fae “world.” The Fae are basically all the legendary mythological beings of global lore combined to form a superhuman species. Broken primarily into Light and Dark factions with subclans within them, they are a step higher on the food chain than humans—yet, they form a secret subculture, feeling threatened by a world overpopulated by humans. Despite their own intense inner politics and practices, most of them also hold power in the human world in some way in order to establish feeding territories. For instance, the head of the Dark Fae also heads the music industry, getting artists to essentially sell her their souls; she is a treacherous muse who makes them famous but slowly eats away their sanity. And while this sounds particularly dark, the show’s overall tone is campy; characters shirk overthinking and rarely wax philosophical.
Despite her newness to Fae-hood, Bo is determined to be the master of her own life, refusing to choose between Light and Dark clan alignments or to other humans. A justice-loving succubus, she spends one minute lunching on someone’s sexual energy and the next fighting for an ultra-noble cause. This cycle repeats itself in various permutations while her pet human Kenzi tags along to provide sassy commentary or to steal liquor from Trick, the bartender/blood sage who runs a bar where Light and Dark Fae may peacefully comingle.
The show’s most noteworthy feature involves its normalization of all sexualities. Bo’s primary love interests, Lauren and Dyson—a human doctor bound by the Light Fae and a shape-shifting Light Fae wolf-person, respectively—are contrasted by their rational vs. instinctive, human vs. Fae natures rather than by their genders.
Unfortunately, the show is not as cutting edge when it comes to racial and cultural representation; despite its somewhat multicultural first and second seasons, the latest season of Lost Girl has been its whitest ever. The siren Hale, who is the sole person of color on the main cast, barely had any screen time and hasn’t used his abilities since Season Two. Most lamentably, almost all the characters who Bo has “fed” on this season have been blonde, and none have been people of color.
That I might be wishing for more people of color to have their chi appropriated by a succubus sounds ludicrous, so let me explain: Lost Girl has always vowed to maintain equal-access objectification of all genders and sexualities. It has been this egalitarianism that makes the show feminist and sex-positive—and a couple of years ago, people of color were part of this equal access objectification as well! This show that does so much to smash the virgin/whore dichotomy to pieces needs to casually cast an ethnically/racially diverse array of characters as love interests for Bo and the others…like they used to.
The beauty of Lost Girl is that even though it has emerged from the context of our gendered and racialized world, it treats gender, sexuality, and race (among humans) as non-issues while creating a polarized socio-political world of its own. Old stories can be dropped: here, we have a black man playing the leader of the Light Fae while a white human doctor is his slave. Cultural power dynamics exist, but they are of an entirely different variety. Racial appearance doesn’t matter, but clan alignment does: What species of Fae are you, and are you part of the Dark or the Light? If you’re human, you’re a substandard species—a slave at best, a pet if you’re lucky but, most frequently, you’re food.
The diaspora of mythological beings need not be bound to the regions of their origins. This is part of Lost Girl’s charm, but it is also another area in which it could grow. An intricate web of Fae politics has been alluded to and occasionally depicted, but after three seasons, they have failed to flesh it out in favor of narrow, shock-and-flash storylines. This is a show that doesn’t need shock-and-flash; it excels at casually normalizing the extraordinary and generally fails when the intent is to shock alone.
The treatment of real-world “isms” in a “fake” cultural setting is fascinating to watch. As the new head of the Light Fae, Hale’s initial stances on the equality of Fae and humans as well as his desire to bridge political differences between the Light and Dark factions were severely compromised. Recently, he refused to give freedoms to his human doctor-slave Lauren, to whom he offered many euphemisms regarding her status. He called himself her “boss” rather than her “owner”; he offered her the weekend off during a time of crisis as though he was being benevolent. My question is: how many viewers recognized the euphemisms for what they were? Slavery’s slavery, and Lauren, despite her having been presumably raised in white, middle-class privilege somewhere in Ontario, has been held captive for six years by the Fae, had her girlfriend cursed by a shaman, and has been exploited for her scientific prowess. Yet, some online commenters excused his behavior because he was “under stress” in his new position as leader, suggesting that Hale was being “protective” rather than restrictive or exploitative since his actions and speech were not as overtly condescending as his predecessors’. Oppression has become a matter of language employed rather than a matter of lived conditions…like in our real-life, educated circles, where people try to lose themselves in language to avoid confronting harsher truths. And Bo, who righteously defended Lauren against the previous leader and attempted to free her, suddenly appears complacent now that her friend is in charge.
Additionally, Bo’s never revealing mixed feelings when her human sister-in-spirit Kenzi is considered her pet by the other Fae shows a sort of acceptance of the mainstream Fae mindset. It was a strategic move on their part for Bo to officially “claim” Kenzi for her protection, yet this status has since gone unquestioned by them. The only one who has expressed distaste around this is Lauren, who complained early this past season of Kenzi’s lying around playing videogames all day. While Kenzi’s and Lauren’s argument was spurred by the jealousy of each regarding the centrality of the other to Bo’s life, the undercurrents suggested that the two, feeling the strain of their tenuous human status, were lashing out at each other with displaced rage. Their general coping mechanisms differ; Lauren’s default is to exhibit extreme competence while practicing or researching medicine. Kenzi runs on personality and charisma, taking advantage of her pet status by being just that: someone loyal but lazy. However, both suffer from institutional, species-based oppression. While they came to an understanding regarding Bo, potential for their building a friendship in which they could discuss their shared experience in subsequent episodes was wasted.
Even the dynamics of Bo and Lauren’s highlighted interspecies romance, somewhat comparable to interracial relationships, was shoddily explored this season. It’s clear that their differing backgrounds rather than their same-sex partnership was a struggle for them. However, during Bo’s foreshadowed descent into singledom over the course of the season, the juicy tensions, power dynamics, and claustrophobic assumptions within a culture where one species is considered superior to another were never discussed. Bo, who is privileged in Fae society, remained obliviously focused on her personal issues and unaware of how the slave-status of the reticent Lauren was affecting her.
Rather than focusing on Lauren’s fixation with science and Bo’s lack of access to higher education as the haphazard breaking point between them, the show could have had them explore the “speciesism” that sets up an inequitable dynamic. It can be inferred that Lauren’s recognition of her “internalized speciesism” was a factor that knocked her over the edge and into asking for a break from their relationship; she had just been assaulted by another human-lover of a Fae who had joined his serial-killing girlfriend in her endeavors. He could no longer access his independent purpose after she was killed. Certainly, his condition caused Lauren, who already felt “not enough,” to examine how she had been acculturated into the Fae way of life during her years in captivity—but a deeper exploration was not pursued in the clutter of unresolved last-minute storylines.
Aside from its scattered treatment of cultural hybridity, the cultural context for Lost Girl’s reinvigorated, urbanized mythologies is sadly absent much of the time, especially if the stories come from non-European nations. Rather than writing storylines from a place of deep understanding of legends and archetypes regardless of what new spins or twists the show might put on them, it is as if Lost Girl writers conceive storylines by skimming Wiki. “Foreign” Fae names are often mispronounced although cultural insiders could easily be consulted for support. Or worse—mythologized figures who are seen as sacred in some parts of the world are misrepresented to the point of being unrecognizable.
The worst of these mishaps occurred during Season 2, where some unthinking writer seemingly plucked the Indian story of the Naga and Garuda off the Internet without any clue that both are currently worshipped by people in South and Southeast Asia—or that the Garuda is considered the golden, divine vehicle of Vishnu. They were set up as nemeses, the Naga being on the side of the protagonist in wanting world peace (or at least survival of the species) while the Garuda was not Garuda at all but a phoenix-like creature who fed on anger and bloodlust. The misrepresentation was clearly ignorant rather than willfully malicious, in much the way that 1999 Bollywood film Hum Dil de Chuke Sanam claimed that its characters were in Italy observing an “Italian dance” though the architecture, clothing, and dance style revealed that they were actually in Eastern Europe—Budapest, Hungary, to be precise.
Why couldn’t that film have just been set in Hungary rather than Italy? Why couldn’t Lost Girl have made “the Garuda” into a phoenix instead of depicting a figure who is worshipped by many as a devil-being? No one is immune from tweaking stories from cultures they have not grown up in to fit the purposes of their plots—but why appear woefully ignorant and waste the opportunity for the richer storylines that comes with cultural depth and nuance?
While part of Lost Girl’s charm is in creating a fake culture in which the characters may intersect with not-quite-human politics, some of its strongest mythological representations have occurred when depth of understanding drove the writing. The Baba Yaga episode, for instance, included some amount of Russian language as well as the contextualized experience of the character of Kenzi, who grew up hearing cautionary tales of the predatory witch. Its success in that regard was largely due to having a cultural insider Ksenia Solo on the cast and partially due to attentiveness to the spirit of the mythical figure.
The power of intersecting with mythologies which we have grown up in is significantly different than when mythologies are a distant, anthropological study. To bring “foreign” mythologies to life, depth of research, understanding, and nuance must be employed by a production team—and while it may be too much to expect Lost Girl, with its campy tone and casual hybridity, to be expected to provide consistent cultural depth…it can do a little better than it has this season.
In general, Lost Girl needs to recognize the importance of taking increasingly rather than decreasingly feminist, multicultural stances that challenge normativity. They have done their best to represent a broad spectrum of sexuality but, by failing to centralize the acting roles of people of color this season, they have flattened their show’s diversity. Even if we don’t believe that race should matter, it makes a difference how much of ourselves we see represented in the media—and how much we see of each other.
My hope is that Season 4 of Lost Girl is more visibly multicultural, multiracial, multi-gendered, and casually queer. Those of us whose communities have had their sexualities exoticized or scorned or belittled or negated by the mainstream media deserve to have the opportunity to see representations of ourselves as beautiful, desirable, and capable of attracting and being attracted to many different kinds of people! And storylines, no matter how campy, can be written in a culturally competent manner that deconstructs rather than affirms stereotypes and brings oppressive dynamics to the forefront rather than sweeping them under carpets—unless they’re flying carpets!
Shilpa K can be found blogging regularly at Luminary Journeys.