Sleepy Hollow, Assassin’s Creed, The New Heroism, & Them Old Pastimes

November 27th, 2013 by | Tags: , , , , , ,

I’m a few episodes into Sleepy Hollow, starring Nicole Beharie as Lt. Abbie Mills and Tom Mison as Ichabod Crane, who has rip van winkled his way to the modern day after being nearly killed around the time of the Revolutionary War. I like it. It’s cast from the same mold as Elementary with Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller, that kind of cute antagonistic buddy cop wave. (Almost Human is on that, too.) It reminds me of a Kamen Rider show in a lot of ways (stakes, approach to conflict, lighting, plot, more), only instead of a bug-dude riding a motorcycle you have a time-lost British guy.

I’m also a few hours into Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag, which is much less good than Sleepy Hollow, but a comfortably familiar sandbox murder simulator in a setting I’ve rarely paid any attention to. The fun isn’t where it needs to be, but the new is on-point enough that I keep messing with it.

Both works have a character type I only recently realized is fairly common. Ichabod Crane, upon meeting a black woman in 2013, excitedly asks her if she’s been emancipated and gets offended when he feels that she insinuates he supports slavery. “I’ll have you know I was a proponent of the Abolitionist Act before the New York Assembly,” he says. “Congratulations,” Abbie replies. “Slavery has been abolished 150 years. It’s a whole new day in America.”

Edward Kenway, rakish pirate captain and lead character of Black Flag, is similarly progressive. He frees slaves at will, forces his men to work alongside them despite their prejudices, and is generally a good and honorable guy, despite the theft and murdering.

This is a type of character I’ve seen elsewhere, too. They are generally men who have been removed from their time and placed in ours, though the character type appears in period pieces, too. Despite the time they come from, when horrific misogyny and racism were perfectly fine and accepted pastimes for men to indulge in at their leisure, they are staunch abolitionists or totally okay with giving women the vote or drinking from the same fountain as a…you know. One of those.

Captain America’s a great example of this, I think. I don’t mind it when it comes to him, since my favorite aspect of that character is how he represents everything America often isn’t, and that kind of dissonance makes the character a lot of fun for me. It’s elsewhere, too—Batman’s ancestors helped smuggle slaves to freedom, which is more than a little ridiculous. Even Jonah Hex, veteran of the Confederacy that betrayed their country because they thought chattel slavery was totally cool, has been updated to “hate everyone equally.”

Everybody’s a Schindler, nobody’s a Nazi.

I’ve been thinking about this pretty much ever since I saw Mison-as-Crane get offended that someone thought he’d be okay with slavery. Abolitionists existed, of course. Good, kind, loving people existed who rejected the mores of their time. But at this point, I feel like every guy we see from Not-Now comes off exactly like your average open, accepting, 2013-model White Guy. Sleepy Hollow likes to use Crane to complain about taxes, Starbucks, and bottled water. Kenway’s bootstraps-y “I’ll have any man, if he’s able and willing” philosophy feels like it doesn’t take into account the prevailing attitudes of the time at all. The average is off, tilted in favor of the suspiciously progressive and accepting hero instead of reality.

The characters in our stories, the sassy black women, inexplicably pan-Asian ninja, the gay BFF, nerdy hacker, sad white guy who just needs the love of a good woman, whatever whatever, are stories unto themselves. Whether directly or indirectly, these characters tell us things about ourself and how we view the world we live in. They don’t evolve out of nothing. They represent something.

I think the prevalence of this character type largely comes down to the shifting definition of what we consider a hero. In the past, this kind of anachronistic hero character wasn’t really necessary. I once picked up a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming that was casually and hatefully racist within the first paragraph. World War II was full of government-supported hateful art and propaganda. I have a joke book from the ’50s a friend gave me, and a few books of period pin-up art, and half the punchlines are “haha, women sure are whores, stupid, or both!” It was the times! You can find all types of racial stereotype sidekicks from back in the day, but that number is markedly lower now. Racial and sexual harassment aren’t dead, but we aren’t supposed to enjoy it any more, or as much as we used to, so it’s relegated to the villains, the bad guys, not our heroes.

Lois Lane can never have that moment where she clutches her purse on an elevator because a black dude got on. Being a bigot isn’t in the cool guy repertoire any more. We’re past that, even though there are plenty of good, moral people who are also secretly afraid of black people or occasionally slip and say something untoward about Asian people. Sometimes it’s unconscious, sometimes it’s learned behavior, and sometimes it’s just a slip, but we view good and bad as a binary, not a spectrum, so just one drop of bad taints you. As a result, we avoid and eschew it.

Funnily enough, this extends to the stories we tell about real people, too. The prevailing narrative around the Founding Fathers is that they were saints looking out for truth, justice, and the soon-to-be American Way. In reality, Thomas Jefferson had sex with his slaves and Benjamin Franklin, upon being asked for sex advice from a young friend, told that friend to go after older women and provided a list of eight reasons why, ending on “They are so grateful!

So you get Edward Kenways and Ichabod Cranes, men who came from a time when you could rape and murder people at your leisure, as long as they were inferior to you, being colored or of the fairer sex, but instead choose to be accepting and cool about everything. No awkward slip-ups, no uncomfortable conversations about why you can’t say things, just a lot of truth and justice. It doesn’t feel very true to me, exactly, it doesn’t feel very real, but I do know that if it were more real, I’d hate the characters for being human garbage.

The struggle continues.

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10 comments to “Sleepy Hollow, Assassin’s Creed, The New Heroism, & Them Old Pastimes”

  1. Re: Bond, I was similarly “why am I surprised” surprised when I read some Sherlock Holmes I got for my birthday. Those books are crazy racist.

    Batman’s ancestors seem like a great place to start, actually. Like you say, making Crane or Captain America more era-typical white straight men would make them shitty heroes, but why not have Bruce Wayne work to redress the sins of his forebearers?

    Come to think of it, the Brubaker/Fraction/Aja/Foreman Iron Fist had Orson Randall’s dad be a racist scumbo.

  2. I thought Tarantino did a nice job walking that line with Schultz in DJANGO–he’s progressive for the time, sure, but he still clearly sees Django as an inferior at the outset, and doesn’t seem to have a problem with (temporarily) engaging in chattel slavery as a means to an end.

  3. Watch old movies or cartoons for lots of “casual” racism.

    The Charlie Chan flicks (which featured White actors playing the elder Chan with Asians as his sons) had a sort of double-racism with White characters looking down on Chan (until he snaps the handcuffs on them), and Chan looking down on his Black chauffeur, Birmingham Brown, played by Mantan Moreland in extreme Steppin Fetchit mode.

    In terms of fictional heroes who actually were progressive when they were published, the most forward-thinking was Street & Smith’s The Avenger, who employed two Black aides, the husband and wife team of Josh and Rosabel Newton.
    They were Tuskegee graduates (Josh was Phi Beta Kappa) who could convincingly-play stereotyped Black service personnel (janitor, maid, busboy, etc) while gathering info from criminals who let the pair work around them because they thought Josh and Rosabel were too stupid to comprehend what the evildoers were discussing!
    And both could handle themselves when threatened!
    Josh was a better-than average boxer and wrestler and Rosabel was a crack pistol shot!
    Rather startling for the 1940s, when The Avenger series was published!

    The Shadow (also published by S&S) also had a Black associate, Jericho Druke, who went against stereotype (when not working with The Shadow, he ran an employment agency in Harlem), but he was not a regular character in the series.

  4. Pity we don’t have the patience as an audience to watch a character learn that his past beliefs were wrong and he grows from them.

  5. @William George: I’m not sure how well it was portrayed/handled, but this is what they did with Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue, I think.

  6. There’s a later episode, and minor spoilers here…

    where Crane, Mills and Irving discuss Thomas Jefferson. Some of those issues come up, where Crane believes the myth while the other two set him straight on Jefferson and his slaves. And he finds out that Jefferson took the credit for one of his quotes.

    But yes, the show has a tendency to paint its heroes progressively, even those from the past.

  7. @William George: Even though they never delved too hard into it, I love how Baron Zemo in Thunderbolts turned against the Nazi beliefs his father burrowed into him. One of my all-time favorite moments is how at the end of Thunderbolts #100, the reformed Zemo kisses Songbird and reveals to the reader that they’re a couple.

    Songbird is Jewish.

  8. I’m glad someone else found the underground railroad/Batcave thing from Batman Begins as ridiculously forced as I did.

  9. Actually, “Hates Everyone” was part of Jonah Hex’s DNA from the Albano run; it’s Jimmy “Comics should be fun, like the comic I co-wrote where Mr. Freezer murders a whole family” Pamlmiotti and Justin Gray who added the “Aw, he was nice to the Indians” origin.

  10. Fun fact, Gavok, the Franklin thing was actually repeated word for word by the version of him you meet on Assassin’s Creed 3. That being said, on the part where you talk about Bond, I’ve recently read a book about the adventures of Bulldog Drummond and it made me think that Alan Moore really toned down his racism while writing LoEG: Black Dossier. Not even Lovecraft books had that kind of virulent bigotry!