lizcommotion: A black-and-white photo of a Victorian woman (victorian lady)
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I ran out of new episodes of Orphan Black (which I enjoy but does make me so twitchy about eugenics and creeped out), so of course I watched seven episodes of PBS's Mercy Street last night. It's a period show set during the Civil War at a Union hospital in Alexandria, VA (though filmed in Richmond). I have mixed feelings. Spoilers within.

Okay, maybe my feelings aren't so mixed after all. Mercy Street spends way too much time on the feelz/backstory/lines of this poor Confederate family and their friends and their complicated feelz about the Civil War and protecting their property and honor and the loyalty oath. There's seven (?) major speaking roles with complex back stories. One has PTSD or war fatigue or whatever they called it then. They could have shown a Union soldier dealing with PTSD but...whatever. Um so all the trigger warnings if you have mental health triggers and you watch this show, fyi, also for on-screen suicide.

As far as black people? There are three people with speaking roles with developed back stories, one person who has a minor role and runs away, and some named that I guess are being introduced? There is super-explicit on-screen violence enacted against two of those three people, and the third is ... like, I am really hoping their goal is to invert the stereotype of the "mammy" character and show ways that people resist during oppression? But so far they have only edged a toe over that line.

As for Union people? I am all for showing that soldiers on any side can commit atrocities. But so far we've only seen Union officers do so. (We have not actually seen any Confederates in the field, only spies with back stories that we've already been set up to have sympathy for. Like, if you're plotting this espionage, it's because of Faaaaamily or because You can't force a Union with a War! Totes not because of slavery. Look, the Confederate dude has mixed feelings about slavery!) So uh. >.>

There's two characters on the Union side who are set up to be kind of the Anna and Bates of our story (so to speak). Both of them come from money, though. One is Miss White Savior Syndrome Abolitionist, the other is Mister I Joined the Union Even Though My Family Are Slaveowners. Probably they will end up fucking by the end of the show, or if that is not genteel enough, they will at least have simmering feelz for each other and even more intense debates about What the War is About. Also, race.

I know this is technically "not my lane" but um...who the fuck wrote this show? Is it supposed to be "edgy" or "gritty" because it's technically not Gone with the Wind and they got period clothing right (I guess)?

I think the part that bothers me most -- aside from the whole "o woe these poor rich Confederates just trying to protect their families" storyline which do we need to add more fuel to that fire? like I know there is nuance there but this show is not doing equal nuance -- is the on-screen violence towards black people.

Do white audiences need to see on screen violence to believe that it was bad? Do we need to see the ruins of a slave market?

Take something that is my lane, sexual assualt. Jessica Jones is super powerful because we don't need to see on screen sexual violence to know how effed up it is, or how it affects Jessica and all the people Kilgrave toys with. It's way better than all those pile o' dead body shows (like every retelling of Jack the Ripper ever).

In Mercy Street, we get to know black characters. Look, this one is even good enough to be a doctor, if only he could get training! But we also see him in a noose almost getting lynched, and then we see him get saved by a white dude and told to run away because since he confronted a different powerful (Union) white dude, he's not safe in Alexandria. We see a woman who is doing everything to be reunited with her child be sexually assaulted, repeatedly, and also nearly die from a self-induced abortion. (The good white savior people are instrumental in saving her, too, though the other dude is instrumental as well.)

Are these the only powerful stories that the writers could come up with? They couldn't have violence off-screen, because white people have to see it so we all know how terrible racism used to be a long long time ago? (Please note the sarcasm in that sentence.) Because it's totally okay that black viewers have to see that?

Possible alternate storylines:
  • something with Black Union soldiers
  • the Underground Railroad has a waystation nearby
  • ways people in vulnerable positions resist power without endangering themselves (working slower, breaking tools, spitting in food, etc.)
  • burying the "but black soldiers fought for the Confederacy too" myth in a giant fire
  • cameo of Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, etc (or at least a mention of them) -- I mean, they worked Lincoln in. Don't just show white people in positions of power or resisting slavery.
  • have a love story/family that survives or is reunited (they seem to be working on this, but there is a serious lack of character development)
  • I mean seriously how hard would it be for the white abolitionist lady to hand a copy of Frederick Douglass or even 12 Years a Slave to the Bates Dr dude and be like "this is part of what convinced me slavery is wrong." Or, I don't know, maybe the collected poems of Phyllis Wheatley?
  • Alexandria and Arlington both have <a href="http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/freedman-100104.htm">well-documented</a> <a href="http://library.arlingtonva.us/2015/09/03/remembering-arlingtons-freedmans-village/">African American</a> communities dating to the Civil War. Maybe use that?
Obviously, not my lane. But. In the same way that the Bury your Gays trope is harmful because it only shows gay life being horrible and tragic (while Historical Accuracy people are all "but wasn't it though?")...there is a balance between "let's show someone almost get lynched on TV" and "hey look it wasn't just white people who made slavery end! Also, survival is a thing and also endurance!"

Yet more reasons for making badass sci-fi shows where we could theoretically avoid the whole "bury your gays and/or minorities" debate, since the writers are creating the damn world and don't need to worry about period hoop skirts and/or racial genocide.

tl;dr However historically accurate or not Mercy Street may be, I did not like it and it made me shouty. It did keep me occupied during a pain flare but uh. Would not rec.
(this is a show where my partner looks at me and goes, "Why did you watch this?" and I go, "Um, pretty skirts? Filmed locally? Shouty historian? I...don't know.")
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