Saturday, July 16, 2011

Sorry About That, Chief...

I admit it: I'm a die-hard Get Smart fan.

The original series, that is, though I also enjoyed the movie that came out in 2008, in spite of its many problems with characterization and plot.  Get Smart is, and always has been, one of the inspirations for my funnier writing; as ridiculous as some of the plots may seem, the writers, cast, and crew of Get Smart told great stories that somehow managed to have heart and soul as well as hilarity.  Sure, the gadgets sometimes seem a bit extreme and/or unrealistic, the laugh track is annoying, and the foreign accents are often unbelievable (any time they had someone on the show who was supposed to be from England, the accents tended to be particularly awful) and KAOS' plots seemed a bit ridiculous, but those things are nothing to the sheer entertainment value of the show.  I've loved it since I first saw it in reruns on YTV sometime in the early 90's, and even though there are other shows that I've come to love (those who know me will not be surprised if I mention The X-Files, The Vicar of Dibley, The Red Green Show, and Are You Being Served? as some of my favourites), Get Smart was the first show of which I ever really considered myself a fan.

And boy, was I ever.  I'd wiggle the erasers off the ends of my new pencils and pretend that they were secret communication devices.  My brother and I would play "spy" almost every opportunity we got.  (It certainly didn't hurt that at the time, there was a popular line of kids' toys called "Spy Tech"; we had a lot of fun with that stuff.)  I even tried to take apart one of my dad's work shoes to see if there was a phone in it; fortunately I had the presence of mind to do that to a shoe from a pair he'd just replaced because they were wearing out!  In the world of Get Smart, I found a lot of inspiration (and a lot of laughs) that helped me to get through the worst of my childhood years.  It truly is one of my favourite shows, and it always will be.

And yet, now that I see it with adult (and very feminist) eyes, I realize how very problematic that show can be for a modern audience.  Women barely have a role; Agent 99, who is never given a name besides her number, is the only regular female character for most of the series; all the others are informers of one type or another, KAOS agents, 99's mother, and various minor characters who are mainly there as scenery.  Oh, and there are a couple of female CONTROL scientists who are dancers at what's occasionally implied to be a Burlesque house of some sort as their cover.  (And yes, there are a few jokes about that "cover" in the series.)  And even though the Chief frequently talks up 99's bravery and intelligence, we don't always actually get to see her show these attributes; most often, she's the one screaming "MAX!" when some disaster befalls her and her partner, only springing into action on her colleague's orders or remembering some small detail that helps him come to the conclusion that saves their lives.  And once she and Max get married, her IQ seems to take a nosedive in a lot of episodes.  Sure, Max is the main character of the show, but would it have been too much to ask to see 99 take more of a leading role once in awhile or at least not lose her head at the first sight of a KAOS gun?

Of course, the original run of the show was from 1965 to 1970, so perhaps it would have been too much to ask, considering the time...

And then there's the treatment that marginalized racial groups get in the series.  The Chinese-born Hawaiian detective, Harry Hoo, who appears in two episodes is played by a blue-eyed white man.  (To be fair, he is a caricature of the ever-controversial Charlie Chan, who was also played by white men, most notably Warner Oland and Sidney Toler.  Somewhat parenthetically, the Chan films starring Toler are another of my guilty pleasures.)  Anyone who's supposed to be Latino/Latina or Hispanic has a strange sort of nearly Mexican accent, and they're nearly always KAOS agents or working with KAOS.  There's a highly stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans in an early episode (though Max makes a particularly good political point when, in an attempt to convince Chief Red Cloud not to launch "the second-biggest arrow I've ever seen" at the White House, he realizes that between the past abuses and persecutions of Native Americans by European settlers and the shoddy treatment that they were still receiving from the American government, Red Cloud actually does have a legitimate grievance and tells him to "Let 'er rip, Red Cloud").  Offhand, I can only remember one Black character, a highly stereotyped man who turns out to be a KAOS agent in disguise.  There are a handful of characters who are supposed to be from somewhere in the Middle East (apologies for the term; I don't know any better one for that region of the world, despite its problematic nature), and they're not all portrayed in negative ways (twice, they're actually princes who Max is supposed to protect), but again, they're highly stereotyped and rather obviously played by white Americans.  And, white or not, most characters with foreign accents of any kind will usually be KAOS agents.

Rather obviously, cisgender heterosexuality is the presumed norm in the series, though there are a couple of characters (most notably Charlie Watkins) who are played by women but supposed to really be men.  Occasionally there'll be a character who's implied to be gay by the use of a number of very tired stereotypes, and Max at one point protests that he's as normal as anybody else when someone refers to him as a "Homo sapiens".

So, while I love the show and I probably always will, the fact is that there are levels of privilege and other people's oppression (and even some of my own, considering the status of women in the Get Smart world) which shouldn't allow me to view the series as purely harmless entertainment.  And while I admit that there's no point in feeling guilt over liking Get Smart anyway, these things do bother me, and whenever I discuss the show I try to keep these things in mind.  But I can't help wondering sometimes if it's actually okay that I enjoy the show.

Whether or not it is, of course, is not for me to say.  But I suspect that even if allowances can't and shouldn't be made for the social climate at the time when it was made (after all, there's plenty of modern stuff that's just as bad and, in many cases, even worse on all of these grounds), it's not necessary to feel guilty for enjoying it or acknowledging its profound effect on my life.  Being aware of the problematic parts of the show, and being perfectly willing to criticise them and accept criticism of them, may be enough.

Provided, of course, that I don't let the privilege that allows me to enjoy the show to obscure the fact that these things are problematic and that they deserve to be spoken of as the problems that they are.

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