Before I really dive into this, I have to admit to a few things.
The first is, in the reading of Bringing Race to the Table (review forthcoming) there have been a number of stories that have really ripped my eyes open and have broken my heart. One that has sunk in real, real deep was Reluctant Spider talking about searching for images of “Goddess” and finding page after page after page of white goddess images. (The whole book has hit me, hit me good and hard, and I’ll be writing about that soon). Reluctant Spider sharing this story went a bit beyond my interest as a person who wants to not be an asshole, who wants instead to be the sort of ally that is wanted, and hits me hard in the storyteller-vein. More than any article on systemic racism or institutionalized racism or the prevalence of white privilege, this sharing of seeking out a visual representation of the divine that resembles oneself and failing miserable made me stop and really, really look at what we are doing, at what we’re saying, not with our direct words, but with our myth and our poetry, with our legends, our books, our movies, our stories. So, while I knew before that making someone like Papa Ghede into a villain in a story irked me, it didn’t go beyond a “meh, whatever, Christians, blah.”
The second thing is, I’m sort of by accident reading an awesome collection of essays on Oshun, because when I was at the library the book was all, “Hey there. You’ve only got two books in your hands, I see. Look at me in all my splendor. You want to read about water deities? Yeah? I have all the stuff about the Mother of all Water Deities. . . ” If there’s a pick-up line I can’t resist, it’s any pick up line from a book, so, you know, that book came home with me.
The third thing is, Beth and I are making our way through the TV series Grimm. We adore it, we love the “in jokes”, and I am firmly in Camp Monroe. It’s entertaining, funny, and while all the German makes me want for Zie to show up for a visit (wrong fandom!) or Adam even (again wrong fandom, though dude, they used his name!), it’s not like, when it comes to mainstream TV shows I expect a LOT in terms of not being asses.
These things all laid out for you, and knowing that this post will contain spoilers for season 2 and 3, let me just get some stuff off my chest.
What the fuck did I just watch?
For the second-to-last episode of season 2, we are introduced to Papa Ghede. All nice big top hat. Tall, slender, attractive enough looking black man (for transparency: the degree of attraction increases with my viewing depending upon whether the character is supposed to be human or not — the more “not” the more attractive I tend to fiind them, so that’s my viewer bias kicking in) with a nice thick French accent. Already I’m groaning, because so far the “wessen” characters have almost all of them been white and have almost all of them been drawn from German/Eastern European myths and folklore — the show is called Grimm — and while there have been a few non-white folks to show up as the antagonists for the show, in my memory they’ve tended to be less “misunderstood shapechangers who had something go bad while trying to blend in, their crime is not their fault” and been more “working for the over-arcing bad guys of the series.”
It was clear before the end of the episode that Papa Ghede was aligned with the people we are’t supposed to like, and that he was a tad more sophisticated the the rest of the villains had been. Before the end of this particular mini story-arc it was clear that Papa Ghede was a shapechanger (they call them wessen — phonetically, vessen) and had been recorded in the Lore as a voudou priest back in the day.
I had a few immediate reactions to this. Having just watched American Horror Story: Coven, the trope of using one of the lwa as a villain was fresh in my mind and high on my list of annoyances. As a pagan and as a storyteller, I find an inherent laziness to using pagan or non-Abrahamic gods as villains. It’s something that will destroy my interest in a series right quick. For example: there’s a series out there that portrays Artemis as some vapid, sex-crazed villain. I liked the writing well enough, but once she was introduced in that way, I couldn’t continue. For another — and sadly surprising — example, I’ll point out on of Nora Roberts’ paranormal series, the Cousins O’Dwyer trio. I read all three, and I genuinely enjoy her writing — I love the way she weaves threads together and builds family. But in the last book, the driving antagonist turns out to be a demon (ho-hum) who then she decides to name Cernunnos. In a matter of a sentence, mere pages from the ending, she utterly ruined the story for me, and instead of it being good escapism, it’s a series I have to say I can’t recommend in the least bit. I can’t help but see this as anything but lazy story writing, and it bothers me so much.
But I’ll say it: it’s worse when we do it with folklore, myths, legends, and figures from the cultures of those who are marginalized. Why? Because as story tellers, we are use myth, folklore, legends, and figures as short-hand. It’s part of telling a story, and that in and of itself is not bad. What I find uncomfortable — deplorable, really — is what this particular type of short-hand says. “This figure, this myth cycle, is foreign. It’s unknown, it’s unfamiliar, and that makes it bad.” Every time we use this short hand in this way (Papa Ghede being on the ‘wrong’ side) we are re-enforcing the idea that this particular way of being different in wrong. We’re re-enforcing particular associations (dark skin, an accent, altars with candle stubs and what could be wax, could be blood, the creation of zombies, the portrayal of a veve) with the idea of a malicious sort of ‘other’. In contrast, in the show, another story-arc involves a witch trying to get her powers back. She’s another antagonist, and her witchcraft involves death work, but she’s a pretty, skinny white woman, and while what she’s doing isn’t necessarily good, we’ve gotten her back story, and she’s been written in a way that we are encouraged to have moments of sympathy for her. That is, she’s multi-dimensional, complex, etc.
This isn’t even touching the problems I have with the use of a marginalized religion of any sort being used in a dramatic way to build an atmosphere of mystery and unease. I get that in an hour long show (even a two-parter!) there isn’t time to get into it that deeply . . . but come on. You can get the culture of the region so spot on that one character is making blueberry quinoa pancakes with a spinach puree maple syrup, but you can’t not be lazy about this? Really? And all *that* isn’t even coming close to my issue with taking Powers and making Them less — which is a big part of my problem with Roberts’ use of Cernunnos.
Look, I’m a storyteller, too. And I write about gods and spirits, about Powers interacting with humanity. Not all those interactions are good. I don’t require that spirits and gods not fulfill an antagonistic role, really, I don’t. I, too, have written gods and spirits as the “bad guys” of a tale. I shy away from “good versus evil” and try to keep it more “hey, obviously we want our side to win and we think we’re in the right, but so do they,” but in the end, I have had gods and spirits that needed defeating or thwarting. So it’s not that.
Just . . . don’t be lazy about it. Be respectful, and maybe try to get it right. Don’t use something (Hi, Voudou. Sorry, Voudou. We suck, Voudou. It’s probably not going to stop.)(Looking at you too, all ‘demons’ ever) that is rich, complex, and already done to death as a short cut. It’s not a short cut. It’s lazy. Who wants to be a lazy writer when you could instead be digging deeper?