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Vic: Orphan Black's Long Duk Dong
Orphan Black is the first TV show in years that I've liked: The exceptional acting, the captivating story, the action and suspense and the intrigue. It is, basically, an intelligent story. I'm blown away by Tatiana Maslany's ability to play multiple characters and make the viewer believe each one is a different person. Jordan Gavaris, who plays the protagonist Sarah Manning's foster brother, is incredible too, is fun to watch, and obviously has skills, putting on an English accent that even fooled his British co-stars. The interactions between his character, Felix, and the other characters are fun and sometimes riveting.
I'm trying to say that there's no doubt this show is good. But something kept bothering me about it. And I finally put my finger on it.
I don't like to run a tally of the number of minorities on a TV show. I truly do not like to dwell on such things as race, sex or class. But when a TV show appears to go out of its way to make these things issues, then I take notice. Even if it's all under the surface.
And I'd say, it's mostly under the surface.
Vic: Everyone's Favorite Brown Pincushion
Near the beginning of the story, we are introduced to Vic: Sarah Manning's supposedly abusive boyfriend that we are supposed to hate. Only problem is, I don't see how he is any more despicable than anyone else in the story. Still, he's relegated to a disgusting comic foil of sorts, enduring various forms of abuse and we're supposed to believe it's all justified.
His first outburst in the story centers on the fact that Sarah stole a pound of cocaine from him which resulted (eventually) in Vic getting his pinky chopped off by his boss. And somehow, out of all this, we are supposed to believe Vic is more despicable than Sarah. We are to assume that Vic and Sarah both have had it rough, and have resorted to crime to get by; the fact that they live in the ghetto is further evidence that their lives are less than perfect. Still, we are led to believe that Vic is more disgusting than Sarah.
I will grant that none of the characters have anything along the lines of redeeming qualities. Sarah is portrayed as basically sleazy, her brother Felix is a prostitute and all-around hustler, the other people surrounding them are in some way under-handed and, in various ways, cruel and cold. But Vic is singled out as the worst, in need of constant abuse and is portrayed primarily as a buffoon who deserves what he gets and should not in any way be taken seriously.
Now, to the Long Duk Dong connection. Back in the 1980s, it was perfectly acceptable to portray minorities in a bad light, in the movies and on television every manner of demeaning stereotype was acceptable. The epitome of this is the Asian character from the Sixteen Candles movie, Long Duk Dong: Horrible accent, portrayed as disgustingly ridiculous and oversexed, and mostly as the butt of jokes for the audience; constantly chasing girls and even though he "gets" a girl, it's still just part of him being ridiculous; really the audience is left feeling any girl would have every right to reject and demean him because he's a disgusting Asian. Certainly the lead character, played by Molly Ringwald, wants nothing to do with him. The character has been the source of "justified" racism for years.
Now, here we have Vic. His ethnicity is obscure. But we know he's a minority. He's definitely not white. I think it's no mistake that his ethnicity is uncertain. They wanted a minority in this part but not a readily identifiable one. It's one way to cover your tracks.
He is supposed to be disgusting. So, every rejection of him, every act of violence against him, physical or psychological, is justified.
It is hard to believe, but Canada has brought back the 1980s cruel racist portrayals of minorities, from Hollywood, back. Why?
Why this is so glaring and striking is that the other characters are not portrayed this way, though other males and particularly minority males, are portrayed as laughable, insignificant or, at least, secondary, and, basically, unappealing. Especially when measured against white males.
The Other Characters
First, let's look at Art. Admittedly, he is the "redeeming" minority male on the show. He's the black cop. Only thing is, this is the old stand-by: Throw in the token black cop to make everything alright again. Sorry, already been done, not falling for it.
Raj, the computer tech that works at the police station is both a minority and a nerd: Two strikes against him, he's almost another Long Duk Dong. Sarah Manning, under the guise of clone Beth Childs, totally takes advantage of Raj, uses him for his techie knowledge and treats him like garbage. When he shows interest in her, again, we are expected to feel her rejection of him is justified and he's just a brown, dorky nerd.
The two main white men in the story-line are infinitely superior to Vic. One is Paul, some kind of double-agent that comes off as strong, capable and handsome and the romantic interest. A far-cry from Vic.
Then comes Sarah's other love interest, the bearded, semi-hippie who lives in the country and is the father of her daughter. He is strong, kind and capable. Again, not Vic.
Next, we have the nerd that works with Cosima, the "smart" clone. He is initially totally rejected, and used, by Cosima and generally treated like garbage.
The common thread here is if the man has power, he is respected. If he has no power, and, in fact, likes you, you can exploit him and toss him away.
Cool stuff, eh?
Do you think Vic is treated unfairly?
I suppose my main problem with the weird and cruel caricatures and unequal treatment of characters is that I felt the show was smarter than this. The writers and the actors are on-point, mostly. So, why did they drop the ball on this one thing?
My hope is, that all of this, the caricature that is Vic, gets fleshed out; that they are actually going somewhere with it all and not just trying to be degrading and dumb. Hopefully it's not just about laughing at Vic's poverty and desperation and unconsciously despising his color while admiring Paul and Sarah's other love interests that portray the polar opposite of Vic; all the while celebrating Felix's exploits and Cosima's infatuation with Delphine. Seems all kind of lop-sided.
I mean, that can't be it. We are supposed to hate Vic, who is no worse than anyone else on the show, and leave him as a one-dimensional, stereotyped character that breeds hatred in the audience?
Guys, I'm truly hoping you're better than that.
Maybe, ultimately, we are supposed to see how cruel Sarah and Cosima are, how misguided, hypocritical and prejudice they both are. But it's not clear yet.
I look forward to finding out if any of this changes.