In Which I am Defeated by Racism

I've been watching a few “historical” shows – Copper, Hell on Wheels, and Boardwalk Empire. I also read a truly terrible book called the Sheik, which was written in the twenties. What do all of these things have in common? Enough racial slurs and racism to make me want to crawl under a rock and hide until humanity gets its act together.

I watched the first two seasons of Boardwalk Empire not for the gangster stuff, which isn't that interesting to me and has been done a thousand times before, but for the clothes and the sets and the glimpses of what Atlantic City was like when it was a tourist town, not a gambling destination. I was intrigued to see “attractions” like premature babies, which were on display for gawkers willing to pay for the privilege. I also watched it for Michael K. Williams who plays Chalky on the show. I was excited to see queer characters, but I'm sick and tired of seeing those queer characters killed off in popular culture. I'm sick of seeing overt racism and terrorism; which is usually passed off as “historically authentic.” Maybe it is, but I think it hurts everyone to model racist behavior. Maybe if we lived in a society where nobody was injured by racism we could look at it through a cool and critical eye, but we don't. I turned on the season opener for season three, watched a man beating another man viciously and decided I had had enough. I deleted it from my DVR. I'll probably miss some stuff I would have liked but I'll also miss horrors that make my stomach churn.

Copper and Hell on Wheels are similarly problematic, and are are just as sexist. They both portray women badly, for instance almost all of the female characters are prostitutes, who are murdered or hurt with alarming regularity. Don't even get me started on the racism displayed towards Native Americans in Hell on Wheels. I'm still watching these shows but they're in the danger zone.

The Sheik by EM Hull, was written in 1919 and inspired the Valentino film of the same name. It's a godawful story that is offensive on so many levels. It's racist, sexist and promotes rape culture. Diana Mayo was raised as an adventurer, more like a boy than a girl according to the mores of the time, and is coldhearted. She rejects every man who woos her – until she is abducted by a Sheik, who carries her off and makes her his slave.

She hates him at first, but is helpless against him, despite having been able to take care of herself while she traveled all over the world. The Sheik rapes her and constantly hurts her and she finally tries to run away. This results in the death of her beautiful horse and of course afterward she falls madly in love with the Sheik. (Stockholm syndrome or just horrible writing?) She can't tell him she loves him because he's the kind of “manly man” who is bored, bored, bored with women who actually want him, so she pretends she doesn't.

Then she is kidnapped by a rival sheik, at which point the kidnapping, raping sheik suddenly realizes he really loves her. Also surprise! He's not really an Arab, he's half English and half Spanish, making it socially acceptable for the two of them to end up together. How gross is that? The text is racist and sexist in other ways. Diana constantly calls the “natives” child-like and says they smell bad and are lazy and all kinds of other things. Oh, and when she is captured by the rival sheik Gaston, her sheik's valet, is going to shoot her in the head, to save her from a fate worse than death (I know) but he gets shot and doesn't have the chance. She thinks death over dishonor is perfectly reasonable and is sad he didn't get to kill her. Who knows why she doesn't do it herself. There is not one redeeming thing in this book. It's terrible from start to finish. I can only imagine what the film is like. No thank you.

If for some crazy reason you want to read it you can access it for free here: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/7031

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is going to require some time to fully explore. It's an XKCD the likes of which we haven't seen before. Click and drag and you will be able to explore an enormous, complex world. The details are amazing. http://xkcd.com/1110/