By Arturo R. García
THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS
Not to get all Morpheus on you, but: what if some of us Whedonistas have been approaching Agents of SHIELD off focus, just a bit?
Sure, I’ve been among the fans who have been critical of the show during most of its’ freshman season, with a good deal of that dissatisfaction aimed at the ostensible audience POV character, Skye (Chloe Bennet) — and this was before we found out she might be an extraterrestrial sort-of object of considerable power, on top of being a super-hacker.
But, over the weekend a colleague of mine at The Raw Story, Scott Eric Kaufman brought me up to speed on at least one more way to approach the series. It might not excuse some of the story choices in Agents thus far, but it sheds new light on how we might consider Skye and her cohorts.
AG: So, for our readers’ benefit, let’s talk about your class, what it covers, and what led you to pursuing this type of course.
SEK: For seven years, I taught a course in visual rhetoric at the University of California-Irvine. You can find many of the lesson plans I used in that course here. I’ve since spun that course into a regular gig with The Onion’s AV Club, in which I help people understand how they’re being manipulated by the directors and cinematographers of the shows and films they watch. In short, I break down the visual vocabulary of film into its constituent parts and teach students — and now, I suppose, people — how to reverse engineer the decisions that went into the presentation of those shots, pans, edits, etc.
I was drawn to visuals in part because of my love of art history — which, I confess, may be a bit excessive — but also because I’m mostly deaf, so my engagement with the world has been more visually oriented than most’s. Also, I’m a very boring person, so “staring at images for hours until you figure out how they work” is a hobby.
AG: Now, your student doesn’t want to be identified, but she did give her consent for you to bring up her theory, and she’s Asian-American. So, let’s discuss it.
SEK: The majority of the students I taught at UC-Irvine were Asian-American, so I don’t want people to think that I might somehow be betraying a single student’s identity by mentioning the fact that she’s Asian-American. (In fact, one of her parents is white, the other Asian-American, which I only mention because it’ll be significant.) I don’t want anyone to think that I’m speaking for an Asian-American woman because she’s incapable of speaking for herself — I’m not usurping her voice, I promise — it’s just that her current employer wants to control its employee’s social media presences.
What happened — and I hope it’s kosher for me to mention this — is that Arturo and I were discussing Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. at two in the morning the other night, and I mentioned that my former student had a completely different take on the show than I did.
I’d been bothered, as many Whedon fans had, by the fact that this seemed like a very Whedon-type show: the attractive, outcast female thrust into the new social milieu proves herself to her mostly-white new best friends, etc. It’s an arguably feminist regulating premise, but its limitations — which have only been discussed everywhere, so I don’t need to re-hash them here — are as vast as they are deep.
So, for the most part, I dismissed the show as more-of-the-mediocre-Whedon-same, until I saw my former student’s posts on Facebook about it. She’d fallen in love with the show — and with Skye’s character in particular — because it’s the first time she’d seen something on television that reminded her of her life. Chloe Bennet, the actress who plays Skye, is herself the product of a Chinese-Caucasian union, but I don’t think my former student knew that.
For her, it was the fact that Skye’s adopted family — the S.H.I.E.L.D. team for which she works — consists of a white father, Clark Gregg’s “Phil Coulson,” and an Asian-American mother, Ming-Na Wen’s “Melinda May.” It’s not a perfect family, founded as it is on lies and deception, but its makeshift quality is one of the elements she finds appealing.
What felt to me like failings of characterization on the part of Zak Whedon et al. struck her as an accurate representation of the tensions between white and Asian parents in her own house. The fact that the intellectual agents she’s meant to emulate are the white “couple” known as “Fitz-Simmons” also moved her, as she’d felt her entire life like her parents had been pushing her to emulate this white intellectual ideal.
In short, she sees in S.H.I.E.L.D. an accurate, if troubled and troubling, representation of her own family, and it’s the first time she’s ever seen that on television.
AG: How much did that throw your interpretation of the show? Because — as we’ve both talked about — up to this point, we’ve been seeing it from a Whedoncentric POV, trying to place this cast among its predecessors, even if they’re not part of that universe.
SEK: It’s made me completely reevaluate not only this show, but pretty much everything I watch. I’m as guilty as anyone of intellectual laziness when it comes to sympathetic identification — I started studying James Joyce as an undergraduate because his novel, Ulysses, was the first I’d ever encountered in which the protagonist was an Irish Jew.
I get it.
But Whedonistas have, for decades now, forgiven Joss and his intimates for their lily-white perspective of the world and its saviors, be it Buffy, Angel, Mal or Echo. So I just considered Skye a concession to criticism — she’s white in the specular sense, as academics say, even if her racial makeup is more complicated.
But that’s not what my former student saw. Absent knowledge of Whedon’s monochromatic universe of protagonists, what she saw was a half-white, half-Asian, improvisation of a family that reminded her of her own. I’m not generalizing about Asian-American families, obviously, merely pointing out my own limitations as a viewer — it hadn’t occurred to me that this show could resonate in the way it apparently is with members of America’s complicated racial future.
AG: How does this change your interpretation of Skye? Because up to this point, the showrunners have tried to write her to be the new Faith, only for her to come off like Dawn.
SEK: First, I should confess that my annoyance with Dawn has diminished over the years. She’s a damn clever plot-device who turned into a character, and she had her growing pains, but by definition plot-devices should be shitty characters. They’re not supposed to be well-rounded, merely functional, so the transition from a function to a person is bound to be fraught.
Second, I admit I never found Faith worth one-by-one, much less five-by-five, so the idea of basing another show around someone filled with Elisha Dushku’s brass tacks struck me as a bad idea.
That said, I find the show much more compelling now that it feels like a more organic improvised family — or because I’m starting to understand that families are increasingly improvised, or have always been, especially in America, and especially today. That’s my own failing, I know, as I should’ve understood that bricolage has always been the American way when it comes to family. So now, in all honesty, I see Skye as a particularly attractive — because television won’t abide by unconventional — example of a new, confused and frankly inspired American familial paradigm.
It’s a mess, and the father-figure’s still a Don Draper-esque white man in a grey flannel suit, so it’s problematic. (Then again, so is the privilege of ”Don Draper” at this point.) But it’s an American mess, is what I’ve learned.
AG: How about the rest of the team?
I asked her about the rest of the team, and she said that “Hot Buff Xander” needs development, and Fitz and Simmons are “racist against British people, who can’t possibly be that white or clueless.” I’m inclined to agree that the rest of the lot underdeveloped, but if the focus of the show is going to be on Skye’s attempt to makeshift herself a family, I’m willing to be more forgiving of those shortcomings in characterizations. If our understanding of them is focalized through Skye, after all, it’s not surprising she’s still sees them more as types than people at this point.