Thug Notes Be All Up In Y’alls Librizzle. Word.

Yo. This here Sparky Sweets, PhD. Join me as I drop some of da illest classical literature summary and analysis that yo ass ever heard. Educate yo self, son.

~ Thug Notes Facebook Page

Gentle readers, this week it is my pleasure to introduce to you a charming and insightful program devoted to bringing classic literature to the masses, aptly entitled Thug Notes.

Promo for review of The Hobbit. Image via Facebook.

Each episode of this webseries opens with a stately, elegant theme reminiscent of Masterpiece Theater. We join Sparky Sweets, PhD (played by co-writer Greg Edwards) in an elegant library filled with timeless literary classics. In the first half of the episode, Dr. Sweets summarizes the selected volume for his gentle viewers. In the second half, he delivers a brief yet impressively thorough analysis of the book’s themes and literary background, highlighting key quotes from the book and sometimes its literary influences onscreen. All of this is accompanied by delightful stick figure composite animated illustrations. The highlight, of course, is that with the exception of verbatim quotes, Dr, Sweets’ reviews are conducted entirely in the vernacular commonly associated with organized crime in urban America, i.e. “gangsta.”

Selected volumes may include  classic fantasy like The Hobbit, in which dwarves enlist the aid of Bilbo Baggins because “some dragon be shackin’ on their turf,”

Greek epics like Homer’s Odyssey, in which “[Bleep] be gettin’ real up in the kingdom of Ithica,”

Or even romances like Pride and Prejudice, in which Dr. Sweets says of Mrs. Bennet, “I ain’t sayin’ she a gold digger, but Bingley sure as hell ain’t no broke [bleep].”

You may recall me mentioning that the stereotyping of persons of Latin American ancestry as “thug” or “ghetto” is a cause of exceeding great displeasure to me. Such stereotyping is no less displeasing when applied to Americans of African ancestry. However, when a negative stereotype is satirized and subverted by a skilled comedian, that is quite another matter. Edwards and his co-writers are evidently people of excellent intellect, education, and refinement, a fact made all the more prominent by Sweets’ exaggerated thuggish persona. While the language and at times the subject matter of these reviews are unsuited for the workplace, Thug Notes are a worthy pursuit if one wishes to combine education with entertainment. Click here to peruse them at your leisure.

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Why Amy Santiago is my favorite Latina character on TV

“You’re all…articulate. And smart.”

“So are you! Wait, why does that sound like an insult?”

~ Rosa Diaz and Amy Santiago, Brooklyn Nine-Nine

A couple weeks ago I delivered a rant about how most Latina characters on TV tend to fall into a few basic stereotypes: maids, immigrants or the daughters of immigrants, from the ghetto, thickly accented even when the actresses playing them aren’t, and hypersexualized in contrast to the prim and proper WASPs around them.

Or all of the above.

Most of the Latina characters I like fall into at least one of these. Even the ones that, overall, are unique and well-rounded. I can’t overstate my love for Betty Suarez from Ugly Betty. Betty is Jess from New Girl before Zooey Deschanel made that kind of character cool. But a major plotline in that series is the discovery that Betty’s immigrant father is undocumented. Carla Espinoza Turk from Scrubs is serious, responsible, a leader in a professional career, and attractive without being overtly sexualized. But, again, immigrant backstory, though at least her family is legal. Santana Lopez, one of my favorite characters on Glee, starts out overtly hypersexual in contrast with good blonde suburban Evangelical Quinn, whose sexuality is safely hidden under a facade of chastity clubs and purity balls. Santana’s arc is somewhat salvaged when it turns out that her earlier promiscuity was her attempt to convince herself she wasn’t a lesbian. She’s actually been pretty restrained in that regard since coming out. But, even though early episodes established that her father is a well-off doctor, in later episodes Santana claims residence in seedy, violent “Lima Heights Adjacent.” Yes, even small rural towns have a ghetto, because where else are the Latin@s supposed to live? Gloria Pritchett from Modern Family is funny, likable, and to be honest, a character I identify with in some ways. But she is pretty much the embodiment of every Latina stereotype in the history of television.

I’m throwing pinches of wood and knocking on salt as I write this, because even after an awesome first season, I’m still afraid Brooklyn Nine-Nine is going to to make a liar out of me in Season Two. But so far, Detective Amy Santiago is possibly the least stereotypical Latina character I’ve ever seen on TV. Like, ever.

Melissa Fumero as Detective Amy Santiago. Image via TV Tropes.

Continue reading “Why Amy Santiago is my favorite Latina character on TV”

Star Trek Into Whiteness: Why I’m Glad [Spoiler] Was White

I finally got to see Star Trek Into Darkness over the weekend. Thanks to Tumblr, Facebook, and friggin’ Pinterest, I’d already been spoiled as to the real identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s villain, billed only as John Harrison prior to the movie’s release. Stop reading now if you haven’t seen the movie yet and are among the fortunate unspoiled few.

(SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER)

John Harrison turns out to be an alias for one of the most iconic Star Trek villains of all time:

KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!!!!!!!!!!!

Cumberbatch has proven a controversial casting choice. The controversy is understandable. The original Khan, who first appeared in the Star Trek television episode “Space Seed,” was a Sikh man played by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban. British actor Cumberbatch may or may not have broken a few world records for Whitest Guy Ever in the History of White Guys. This is known as whitewashing, and, as I cannot overemphasize, it is a legitimate concern. However, now that I’ve seen the movie, I think turning Khan white was the right call.

Before I explain why, let me share a bit about my perspective. I am Latina. I don’t speak for all Latin Americans, all people of color, all women of color, or all Trekkies of color. My POV doesn’t cancel out that of other people of color who were offended by the casting choice. But I want to establish that I’m not coming at this issue from a perspective of white privilege. In fact, while I was waiting for the movie to start, I was mentally composing an angry rant about a preview for Devious Maids. (Maybe you’ll get to read that review in the future if I ever subject myself to an actual episode.) I’m all for privilege-checking and political correctness. I’m fully aware that there’s a huge difference between recasting white characters as people of color (a decision I’ve praised in other works) and recasting non-white characters as white. So, I promise, this review isn’t going to be a kiss-up minority telling other minorities not to be so damned sensitive. Again, if you’re a POC and you were offended by Khan being white, I’m not going to tell you your feelings are unjustified or invalid. But, personally, not only did I really like Star Trek Into Darkness‘ Khan as a villain, I think I would have been offended if he had been brown.

Khan’s characterization in the original TV series and in the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan falls under “fair for its day,” imo. He’s arguably one of the more complex, sympathetic villains in the original series (hereafter referred to as “TOS”). And TOS gets major kudos for casting a person of color in the role of a superior human specimen. But like so many other elements from TOS that were edgy and progressive in the late 1960s, a lot of Khan’s characterization looks problematic when seen through a modern lens. Though he is the intellectual and physical superior of Captain Kirk, Khan is still portrayed as savage. Primal. Exotic. Other. He’s a mysterious warrior from a forgotten time (the 20th century, nearly 300 years in the past by the time he wakes up from his cryogenic sleep on the Enterprise). His name conjures images of a ravaging Oriental horde. Kirk describes Khan and his peers as “aggressive, arrogant [people who] began to battle among themselves,” which Spock attributes to “superior ambition.” To be fair, Kirk calls these people “Alexanders and Napoleons,” but the concepts discussed play into common fears about minorities rising up and seizing undeserved power from the white establishment. And Khan is part of a long tradition of people of color as villains matched against white heroes. Charismatic, sympathetic, complex villains beloved by the audience, maybe, but ultimately villains, who exist for the purpose of being tamed by the white heroes. In the TV series famously pitched as “Wagon Train to the stars,” it’s portrayed as just and magnanimous when Kirk essentially leaves Khan and his people on a reservation. This is all forgivable in a product of the 1960s, but in 2013, not so much.

Montalban’s Khan achieved genetic superiority through selective breeding. Cumberbatch’s Khan, similarly, is genetically engineered to be a superior human specimen. He’s Captain America without the biceps, pecs, or conscience. Like Montalban’s Khan, Cumberbatch’s Khan is Kirk’s superior and Spock’s rival in matters of intellect and strategic thinking. Still, he is an archetypical Ancient Warrior. Khan outright tells Kirk that his ally in Starfleet needed him less for his intellect than for his “savagery”. It was an excellently-written scene, and Cumberbatch played it to chilling perfection. However, I think if I had seen a Middle Eastern man who had recently emerged from a literal sleeper cell deliver this line to the white all-American hero holding him captive, I would’ve felt like walking out of the theater.

Let’s go back to that sleeper cell thing. Star Trek Into Darkness starts out with Khan orchestrating a major terrorist bombing on a trade center public archive. Shortly thereafter, he executes a second one on the Pentagon Starfleet Headquarters. We later find out that this man has been sleeping in a frozen cryogenic state for centuries, awakened when some military mastermind had use for him. He has over 70 crew members still frozen, still sleeping, whom he has hidden inside actual missiles. In case it isn’t obvious enough, terrorists sleeper cells suicide bombers Al Qaeda 9/11. It was a good storyline, and no more in-your-face than Gene Roddenberry’s endless Cold War allegories. But given J.J. Abrams’ choice to pursue this storyline, I’m glad the villain wasn’t someone who actually looked like his name could be Khan Noonien Singh.

Which brings me to a bit of subtext that is pure speculation, and that I’ll be interested to hear Abrams’ thoughts on in the future. Why the hell is this guy named Khan Noonien Singh? He looks way more like a John Harrison. My theory? Misappropriation. It can’t be a coincidence that he just happens to have a name most commonly associated with a historical figure legendary as both a ruthless conqueror and a military genius. I think his real name was Harrison and he named himself Khan. He likely chose the name for all the reasons it’s arguably problematic – the exoticism, the Orientalism, the romanticism, the mysterious otherness. The idea of a white Englishman appropriating a name/title from multiple Asian cultures in this way makes Cumberbatch’s Khan look even more villainous, imo.

So, that’s my take. I loved Cumberbatch as Khan. I loved this movie. I will see it again in the theater if I get a chance. I will own it on DVD. I will rewatch it many times, as I have its 2009 predecessor. And, like I did in the theater, I will quote the final lines of the movie along with Captain Kirk.

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.