Monday, August 06, 2007

Zombie Racism: Part 2

Figures. Something interesting finally breaks out in the comments section and I'm away for the weekend. Ah, well.

For those just joining us: Back on August 1st, I offered up a few thoughts on the mini-controversy that was then just breaking out over the first-look footage from the game "Resident Evil 5." ( Featuring, as it does, a white lead character versus (seemingly) majority-black zombies and/or mutants in Africa (or possibly Haiti) a blogger over at "BlackLooks" pitched a fit, accusing the game and by-association it's potential audience of racism. Said potential audience responded in (mostly) appropriate measures, and more-locally a pair of readers took to hashing some finer points out in my comments section.

Now home, I'm inspired to respond to the both of them, but said thoughts are (typically) running a bit long, so I think I'll do it as this larger "sequel" post. For the sake of anonimity i.e. main-page vs. comments, any quotations used here will be attributed to "Reader A" and "Reader B" until I figure out (or Blogspot creates) a better way to do these things.

But first, to address one little thing: The word "racism" is being abused here, unsurprisingly considering it's one of the most chronically mis-used words in modern English parlance, and I'm guilty of it as well for not addressing it sooner. Here's the thing: In proper usage, words ending in "ist" or "ism" refer either to a belief or to a policy. In this case, "racism" refers to A.) a belief that the superiority/inferiority of an individual or group correlates chiefly to race or B.) a policy (institutional, personal or otherwise) correllating chiefly to race. See also: Sexism, Age-ism, etc.

Thusly, "racism" is technically a benign descriptive term which, correctly-applied, can refer to either "good" or "bad" people, things, etc. - while naturally admitting that in the modern world the "bad" options are MUCH more prevalent in this case. For example, "No Hispanics can live in this building" is, I think most of us can agree, BAD racism: A policy based on race which does bad. Please understand, this is NOT to say that I don't "get" that "racist" has become a mostly-appropriate shorthand for bigotry. However, consider: The United Negro College Fund (UNICEF) is technically "racist" because it benefits one set of applicants and excludes others based on race. It does a tremendous amount of good, is designed to assuage a historical wrong, and so on. So, then, oughtn't that be called a "good racist" organization/policy? And if not, what DO you call it? "Race-based?" Doesn't work, since the same description would still technically apply to "bad racism:" After all, what are the KKK but a race-based organization? Just asking.

Long story short: Whether or not the game "Resident Evil 5" is "racist" is neither here nor there. There's nothing inherently "racist" about a white character fending off zombies who, given the setting, are going to be primarily black, nor about the audience that will eventually play it. The issue is whether or not the game and some segment of it's audience are BIGOTTED, an entirely seperate issue. Anyway, to the meat of the thing...

Reader A:
"Perhaps it is pre-emptive (although I'm curious as to how that applies exactly)"

Pre-emptive in the sense that the blogger in question has not played the game, nor seen anything from it other than the same trailer everyone else has. It's a tiny fragment, and she's already starting from a position of "this kinda resembles a rough idea of a historical ugliness" and jumping ALL THE WAY to "the makers of this game, the game itself and it's players are bigots!" Is the potential there? Sure. If you turn on the game as Chris Redfield walks onto frame, recieves his mission and says "Africa? Alright, FINALLY the chance to blast all the black guys I want with impunity!!!" then yeah, we've got a problem. Until then, it's pre-emptive.

Reader A:
"but considering your example of Blade as depicting equality cutting both ways, can you honestly say you'd have no problem with it if history and entertainment for hundreds of years promoted the image of black people perpetrating violence against horrific savage white people in the name of peace and justice?"

No film, no deluge of black heroes and no LACK of black villians can undo or even properly "make up for" the horrible history of bigotry that is a scar on Western civilization to this day. You're not going to "fix" the legacy of European pillaging of Africa by loading-up on black action heroes, and you're not going to "attone" for Slavery by calling no-no on black characters as villians. Dr. King didn't dream of a world where the hero-to-villian role-ratio of his people had been retroactively "evened-out," his dream was of a world where we were judged not by the color of our skin by the content of our character. The blogger flipping her lid over RE5 is doing to exact OPPOSITE of that. What's the game about? Why is this guy the good guy? What's going on? She apparently doesn't care. She sees only race, digs no deeper, and that's that. Do I "get" why she might be initially "piqued" by the trailer? Sure I do. But the incidental reminder of negative events doesn't excuse or justify lazy analysis. Even of video-game trailers.

Reader B:
"1. The last entry in the series took place in ofay Europe where you gunned down countless Spaniards of the White variety."


Now this, honestly, is where this whole thing starts to get a little murky. It's also why that big linguistics spiel came first...

Speaking only for myself, I'd say that Capcom was "guilty" of employing a cultural stereotype in the creation of "Resident Evil 4." Rural old-world European backwaters have been imagined as monster-central in horror fiction since, well... pretty much as long as there's BEEN rural old-world European backwaters. In that respect, RE4 isn't really doing anything that Stoker et al didn't already do decades ago, the lone "innovation" being to use rural SPAIN (rather than the more common Teutonic settings) in order to, well... probably because Spanish supernatual goings-on allowed them to add more quasi-blasphemous Catholic iconography to the proceedings. So, did they exploit the "spooky to outsiders" aspects of a particular culture for shock effect? Yes, yes they did. Is that bad? Well, I suppose it's less-than-righteous... but it's the same principal at work in "Deliverance," "Straw Dogs," pretty much any "I'm out of my element" horror/thriller you can name... so better make sure you've got enough fingers before you decide to start pointing.

Is the same dynamic at play in #5? Sure seems to be. Poverty-stricken ghettos in Africa (or Haiti) are scary-ass places. You probably don't want to be there. If fact, you'd probably be scared to hell if you found yourself there. Is it "wrong" for a zombie-blasting game to "use" this in order to craft it's atmosphere? If it IS wrong, aren't all the others wrong, too? This is the problem: When you get into the area of saying we should exempt certain people/groups from "demonization" in fiction, where does it stop? If zombies can't be black because it's "racist," how long before NO ONE can be zombies? And then who will S.T.A.R.S. have to shoot at?

And what after that? Will Sonic be stopped from throttling Dr. Robotnik by Russian activists? Will turtle lovers rage against the Super Mario Bros.?


Striker Z said...

I'm gonna wax horror philosophical for a moment...Note that there will be all kindsa spoilers for various games and stories that most people reading this probably know to some extent.

Really, the story RE4 told is pretty much the same story that 'Call of Cthulhu: The Long-Ass Subtitle' would tell not that long later.

What do I mean by this? Well, CoC's story was taken from the old story 'Shadow Over Innsmouth'. And Innsmouth was Lovecraft's REAL zombie story. Most people will tell you that it was 'Herbert West', because, well, it has a mad scientist reanimating the dead. But if you look at the themes in EVERY SINGLE ZOMBIE MOVIE, you'll note that a lot of it is in 'Innsmouth' - a protagonist surrounded by a mob that wants to destroy him, suddenly realizing that he IS the mob. The big difference is that, while most zombie stories just show zombies as, well, the mob, or the common people, etc., Innsmouth focuses a lot of its horror on the outdated concept of miscegenation. No, not the mistreatment of women, the idea that there's such a thing as 'bad blood'. Like you said, this idea, of backwards, creepy communities, goes way back into horror. It was major in the old gothic days, and probably predates even that in people's minds. And, while it can be creepy to have antagonists speak cryptically about the 'old ways' and such, if done improperly, it just makes everyone feel awkward (See - 'Wicker Man'). Most people try to avoid it because of this - note, in another section of geek society, White Wolf removing Pict-descended shape-shifters as antagonists from their RPGs(though by now, I'm sure I'm way out in the geek deep end).

So, maybe if I weren't quite as well-versed in 'horror lore', gunning down a quaint backwards village in rural Iberia would have made me cringe a little. And, since RE5 looks to have a lot of similarities to RE4 (Capcom does love formulas), I can see the same concept being applied to an African or Haitian village as being enough to get some people upset. Though, if it is in Haiti, I imagine that the plot will be less 'Southern Comfort' (screw 'Deliverance') and more 'Serpent and the Rainbow'.

joe said...

I get your point about the exploitation of rural Europe in Horror going back to at least the 19th century, Horror as a genre is built around exploitation. I think that for the most part the blogger you linked to is just trying to start something though. I really can't see most people getting up in arms about it. Sure, some people get more pissed off then others about various things, I understand that. Kudos though to the other people commenting on their blog though, they seem to be just fine and rational about it all. They get the 2 major chill out points about the games origins.
However, if the RE games will not feature any more Zombies, then maybe the characters can battle those angry keep left signs from the Monty Python sketch.

joe said...

Striker: I think another of the major inspirations for RE4 was the Lovecraft story Dagon. Staurt Gordon made a pretty good movie about it awhile back, you should go rent it.