August 16, 2013

Epic theatre in mainstream US television: reflections on ABC's "Once Upon A Time"

I recently had a fascinating discussion with a friend of mine about the kind of I aim to bring to my understanding of ABC's Once Upon A Time, how my awareness of a world beyond the show impacts how I approach and understand it.

It took me a while to remember where I had seen something like this before: in the epic theatre as theorized by Bertolt Brecht.

There’s tons of material on Brecht that you can find for yourself, so I’m not going to rehash all that here. However, one of the things that struck me about epic theatre and how it’s exemplified in just about every bit of OUAT meta that I write is the relationship between the spectator and the events. In so many words, it’s about difference between, “This is happening right before my eyes, and it feels like I’m there” and, “I am watching these events from my position outside them.”

I’ve spoken before about how the characters in OUAT are not real people. They are creations given life by the decisions of a dozens of people—actors, writers, directors, designers, producers, etc. Thus, when I talk about race, gender, sexuality, and so on with this show, it’s with a full awareness that the show is not a self-contained universe with no connection to our reality as we live it now. The show is not a world created ex nihilo by the words of TV gods, but a mirror reflecting the hopes, anxieties, and worldviews of the society that created it. As I write and think about Regina, Snow, Charming, Rumplestiltskin, or (fuck you) King Leopold, I am using those names as a shorthand for the many things that they represent in our world, particularly as they relate to race, gender, sexuality, and such.

Unlike Brecht, I do not conceptualize this distinction as prioritizing reason over emotion. In all honesty, the difference is in what I get emotional about. Anyone who’s talked to me about the show knows that I’m very passionate about what its says through these stories and these characters. As a matter of fact, it is my awareness of these things beyond the show, which nevertheless make their way into the show, that make me so invested in what happens within the show.

Despite the sensibility I bring to my viewing of the show and how I analyze it, I know for a fact that the show itself encourages me to pretend that all that stuff doesn’t exist, to get swept up in the story, to allow myself to believe the illusion of the show, to position myself as something like a tourist to the Enchanted Forest and/or Storybrooke as though I am looking through a window in time and space and not at something that was created by real people in the real world. In other words, I am aware that I am being asked to turn my brain off and just let the show work its magic on me (no pun intended—haha, yeah it is). And yet, time and time again, I find myself resisting that sort of hypnosis, and I find myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable about approaching the characters as though they are independent beings capable of real agency.

Being fully aware of these things means that I’m already experiencing Verfremdungseffekt (badly translated as “alienation effect”) before I even begin to watch the show. As soon as the episode starts, what is supposed to be familiar to me is rendered strange simply because the context I bring to the show is so radically different from the context that created the show. Although this show is far from the first instance where I've experienced this, it has made me increasingly conscious of the fact that I experience Verfremdungseffekt as a matter of course. I suppose it comes from my keen awareness that most media is not made with me in mind. Not because people deliberately exclude women, LGBTQ people, or people of color, but because in mainstream media, "person" typically defaults to white, cisgender, straight, male, and middle-class.

Take (fuck you) King Leopold. King Leopold is not real, but I loathe him. Why? It’s not about King Leopold the flesh-and-blood human being because King Leopold only exists as words on a page, or pixels on a screen. I hate King Leopold because his mannerisms, his attitudes, and the way he treats people reflects the experiences of myself, my friends, my family, and my community with men like him. It’s about the big and small ways that King Leopold shows up in the men in our lives. My irritation is also compounded by that fact that, just like in real life, I am meant to think well of him despite the harm he does.

Contrast this with how in a lot of ways I am encouraged not to identify with Regina, not to see my own struggles as a queer woman of color reflected in her story. Pity her, sure. But not see myself in her, or her in myself. I’m supposed to see her story as being about redemption and not liberation. Success for this character is supposed to be about earning someone’s seal of approval and not establishing true agency. I’m definitely not supposed to ask, “What does it mean to have Regina do this or have this happen to her? Whose interests does it serve to frame her story that way?”

As a result of the ways that, simply by virtue of existing outside the assumed norms the show operates in, the things I look at in the show and the questions I ask are different. I am not unique in this because when I talk about media with people of color and LGBTQ people, we often carry that same implicit awareness of media as a creation by real people in the real world and not an independent reality. I believe that, in a lot of ways, it’s a strategy for resisting narratives that reinforce harmful ideas about people of color and LGBTQ people—namely, that we do not or should not exist except in very limited capacities.

(It is my intuition that people of color and LGBTQ people would probably grasp Brecht’s epic theatre better than Brecht himself did.)

I believe this is why the commentary of the actors, writers, or creators don’t really bother me much when it seems way off base from what we see on the screen. To me, that’s not them speaking with authority about a character or the show but reflecting their own position in the society that created the show. Therefore, their commentary, no matter how sincere, is not taken as objective fact but a reflection of their own subjectivity. That subjectivity comes with its own insights and blind spots. Why should I defer to their interpretations if I and others who watch the show are able to provide a deeper and more expansive perspective? Why should I assume that because they were thinking one thing when they were making the show that it could not have another meaning or interpretation that’s just as valid but coming from a different direction?

Now, I know that to some, denying or arguing against a creator’s interpretation is a lot like arguing with God. Which is interesting because, well, I’m Jewish, and struggling with or arguing with God is, in some cases, a moral imperative. Saying things we don’t like about the characters or the show is not on par with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, yet it remains that we do not have to accept a position just because it comes from the “gods” of the show.

Paradoxically, it’s the distance between spectator and narrative that has given me the freedom to incorporate the full richness of my entire humanity to the show.

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