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Ethnocentricity and Gender Violence: Where Sense8 Failed

03 May

I was quite upset last year when I found out there would be no more new episodes of Sense8, especially when the last episode ended on such a kickass moment. But a year on, I realized an issue with the show that I hadn’t noticed when actually watching the show. There were glaring issues that were present in my mind as I watched the show. But this one that I’ve more recently thought of is quite possibly the biggest issue in the crafting of the show. And that is the issue of the whitewashing of Kala’s experience in India to be basically the same as any privileged American woman. Spoilers below.

The Characters

Some characters had very personal issues while others had issues that dealt with major national and global issues. Sun, who lived in South Korea, had to deal with the fact that no matter how good or capable she was in her life, she was often seen as inadequate based on her sex alone, and her brother could be the worst person imaginable and still be considered better than her. We see this in her decision to sacrifice herself to the law to hide her brother’s embezzlement of the family’s company funds. We also see this in the fact that to compete in her favored martial art, she had to do so under an assumed name and eventually quit competing altogether. Nomi was a trans woman, who had to face her family’s rejection and even the rejection of other women of her identity. Her mother continually dead named her whenever her family deigned to contact her. And some feminists saw Nomi as a man trying to take more from women. Riley’s issues were much more personal. She had to deal with the underbelly of club life, but most of all, she had to deal with her grief over losing her husband and child. Wolfgang had to deal with the gang life of Berlin, trying desperately to both stay alive in a dangerous world and carve out a place for himself in it. Lito, living the predominantly Catholic and highly toxic masculinity soaked Mexico, had to hide who he was from the world in order to continue the career he loved. This was definitely the most turmoil filled of the character issues. Capheus had to deal with the difficult task of getting his mother AIDS medication and surviving the very dangerous violence of poverty-stricken Kenya and possibly corrupt government. Will, a Chicago cop, had to deal with the very adversarial nature of policing an area that hated the police and divisive community that both wanted help and was suspect of it. Kala was asked to marry the son of an affluent man who owned the company she worked for and deal with meshing her religious family with his non-religious family.

Some of these storylines grew and development or were dropped entirely by the end of season two. Eventually, Sun just worked to murder her brother, Nomi spent most of her time in hiding from the law but also developed a better relationship with her sister, Riley had a pivotal moment wherein she had to at least stop suppressing her memories of her deceased family but then simply spent season two helping Will, Wolfgang continued to try to find himself a place in the organized crime of Berlin, Lito was outed and his Mexican film career was ruined but his career was opening up in the US after giving an amazing speech at a Pride parade, Capheus was pushed to run for a political position to help his community with integrity, Will developed a heroin addiction but also spearheaded the fight against the shady organization after them, and Kala married her wealthy paramour and found out that many of their poorly produced meds went to the areas that needed them the most, such as Kenya.

Gender Inequality and Violence in India

Back in college, I took a course in Global Women’s Issues which covered problems that women faced the world over. For example, FGM in Africa or Bride Burnings in India. If like me, you’ve paid attention to the gender violence that goes on in India, you would notice that it hasn’t slowed down much. First off, women are not highly valued in their infancy but many communities in the country cannot afford numerous children. As such, there aren’t currently many women in India. Counter to most statistics elsewhere, men outnumber women in India. Recently, the NYT covered this subject, but the number of women there is trending upward. But not only are women outnumbered by men, but due to the lack of plumbing infrastructure, there are many public bathrooms throughout major city centers that require people to pay for their use when defecating. Last I read, men’s bathrooms far outnumbered women’s bathrooms beyond the male to female ratio, and since it is hard for a woman to prove whether or not she had only urinated without a major invasion of her privacy, going to the bathroom costs women money more often than men. These two things seem minor, however, in comparison to the violence perpetrated against women in India.

First of all, I had previously mentioned Bride Burnings which involve the killing of a young woman recently married for either her family not paying a dowry, not paying enough or more in the dowry, or when the husband dies and the husband’s family does not wish to pay or care for the young bride. These women are not killed and then their bodies burned. They are burned alive. Unfortunately, the India government, mostly local courts, has turned a blind eye to most of these murders, with a conviction rate of only 33% in 2008.

More commonly, rape is a very prevalent crime in India, despite the idea that it has one of the lowest rates of rape of all countries. This is because rape is not often reported in India. One of the most known incidents was the rape and murder of a student on public transport back in 2012 in Delhi. A male friend of hers was badly beaten during the incident and all six other men, including the bus driver, raped her. She was also violated with a metal rod, severally damaging her internal organs, leading to her eventual death. After this, the public outcry against this kind of extreme gender violence broke out into protests, the demands of which included better safety for women in India. Fortunately, the court did convict the rapists of multiple charges, including rape and murder. All levels of the Indian government got  involved, including the parliament. But this didn’t change too much, as not even a year later, another student was gang-raped. But the men who raped this woman in 2013 got the death sentence, so the government was trying to make rape less and less appealing to gangs. But even as recently as this January, an eight year old was raped and murdered by eight men including two political party members. There have even been reports of mass rapes, which included children and elderly women. The anger over all this gender violence once came to a head in 2004 when a crowd of about 200 women lynched a rapist who called one of his victims a prostitute. The women had stated that he had been bribing the local authorities to prevent arrest or prosecution.

In cultures where women are not valued as equals to men, rape tends to be pretty common. Rape has a much worse impact on women and communities where women are not valued as equals, because a woman’s body and virginity are the way by which the majority of the society values them and how they are able to create livelihoods, not as prostitues but as wives. Rape damages their worth in the society and lowers the number of women considered viable for marriage even when the overall number of women is already too low. One would think that the act of rape would result in the worst possible punishment in communities that bases women’s values on their bodies’ worth as wives and mothers, and while India, the nation, is trying very hard to fight against rape, local governments are fighting against the tide to punish rapists to the maximum limit. The tide is shown below. It shows absolutely and without a doubt what rape culture looks like when it runs amok.

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The American Gaze

The average American has no idea about any of those issues in India. Feminists tend to know about it, and some other people have a general vague idea about these problems. But American news tends to focus nearly entirely on the United States. A person typically really has to dig to find out what’s going on in other countries. It’s not because interest in other nations went down. It’s that a wider American audience was wanted for the news so more US stories tended to get a wider view. So when most Americans hear about another nation, they tend to put an American cultural context on it. And the American cultural context is almost impossible to untangle from slavery, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement. The United States literally sees most things in Black and White, even though those aren’t the only races in the US, let alone the world. Sometimes jokes that are meant to be about regions are seen as racist against Black people. One great example of this is the Brittish conductor’s firing from an American music festival for making a joke to his long-time friend from the South about his possibly wanting grits. This friend happened to be Black. A White woman overheard the joke, which was long-running between the two who traded barbs on a regular basis about what the other one culturally was more likely to consume, assumed it was about his Blackness, then reported it. The music festival never once asked the person who was supposedly subjected to this so-called racism what he thought about it. Their administration made a unilateral decision and fired the conductor. This is far from an acceptable way of handling an accusation of racism. If one simply ignores the cultural differences between Americans and Brittains, but just looks at the fact they didn’t ask the Black person if it was racist, but decided for him that it was, that can be considered racist to the extreme. But the fact that the conductor was Brittish is important. We hardly acknowledge that other countries and cultures have a different and unique history with Black people, let alone consider the interplay between other races. We often don’t pay attention to those issues that affect other minority groups in other countries. We don’t hear about them either, because the US media focuses almost all its minority attention on how Black and White people interact in the US only. As such, the average American tends to apply this filter to all issues in all countries without knowledge or context. You can see such reactions to the attempt to protect women on transport through segregation below. I’m not sure if this will actually help, especially considering the aforementioned victim who died was also raped by the bus driver, but I understand that they are trying something.

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I appreciated the fact that more informed tumblrs were willing to share their information. But since we don’t know the sex of anyone on tumblr, we can’t say for certain that those who brought up segregation were all male nor that all of those who were informed were female. It’s surprising who is and is not informed of other nations’ issues and violence against women. To me, the funnist and most ethnocentric comment is that it reminds them of something “everyone” has learned in school. Do people truly believe that all the intricacies of US history is taught in all other countries in the world? Because that’s just ignorant.

Sense8’s Failing

My real issue with Sense8 in connection to all the above problems is that Kala’s story is whitewashed. It’s about a woman feeling pressured to marry an affluent man (something that still happens in the US) while she’s in love with another man (another thing that happens in the US) and dealing with a pharmaceutical company’s unethical practices (definitely happens in the US). We get a glorified love triangle. To not even mention the very real physical dangers that women in India face, when the show seemed to pride itself on showing the issues facing people of specific demographics around the world, is an unforgivable oversight. And if it was a conscious decision to do so, then the show wasn’t nearly as progressive as it liked to appear. We need more awareness of these issues in India, not to have them glossed over in a TV show that could have exposed a global audience to the gender violence in India.

Maybe they were planning this in another season, but the show was cancelled and I don’t believe that they were planning it, because it’s not even in the background. Kala behaves as if rape isn’t a possibility in her life, going to public places alone and without some kind of defensive device all the time. Even most of her clothes are very Western by comparison to what some of the women in India wear on a day to day basis. I just can’t help but think that this is a great disservice to the women of India. I’m not saying Kala needed to be raped on the show. I’m saying that it should at least have been a topic and fear that she had to deal with on daily basis. Instead, her experience and story feels very Western, and while Western women still worry about rape and rape culture still exists in Western societies, the degree to which Indian women must deal with both is in a much greater extreme. This needed to be shown. Realizing how much this subject was ignored in the show in favor of a love triangle really bothers me and I will most likely not watch the show again, as I have other cancelled or completed shows, because it is just plain bad writing, which is sad considering that Jessica Jones deals with rape in such a poignant fashion.

But What Do You Think?

Were there any other topics that you felt this show ignored that were ripe for showcasing? Were there other shows that ignored a major issue in a culture? Do think it’s purposeful or an accident? I’m interested in what you have to say on the subject.

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