Recently, I was watching old episodes of Scrubs on Netflix and thinking about how good that show actually was. One of the main things I loved about it is that it addressed issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia. That’s not to say that Scrubs was a perfect show. It certainly had problematic moments, but what I find especially interesting was how the show acknowledged microaggressions and showed many of their lead characters exhibiting these microaggressions.
In TV shows today, if a character is shown to be racist, sexist, or homophobic, they are usually utterly despicable, villainous characters. And while some real people are like that, on a daily basis, most people are more likely to encounter casual racism, sexism, or homophobia (aka microaggressions) from others, rather than undiluted hatred. What’s even worse is we can encounter these behaviors in people we admire and even respect. Furthermore, if we critique such behavior, people almost immediately become defensive because they will believe we are insinuating that they are some villainous KKK member or something.
Instead of having totally evil, racist, sexist, and homophobic characters, maybe it’s time we
portray more characters who exhibit casual racism, sexism, or homophobia, and show them being critiqued, learning from their mistakes, and changing their behavior.
When I tried to think of geeky shows that did the same things as Scrubs, I struggled to think of anything. Daryl from The Walking Dead comes to mind, but he was blatantly racist, and slowly started to learn how his beliefs were wrong. And while that is a beautiful story that needs to be told, it does not address daily microaggressions. Darryl was obviously racist and everyone knew that he was. The thing that is so insidious about casual racism, sexism, or homophobia is that more often than not, the average viewer doesn’t really understand that what was being said was wrong, unless it was clearly pointed out by another character. People learn from media all the time—why not teach people that the “funny” sexist joke is actually not so funny, or that maybe you have more privileges because you are not a person of color?
The Harry Potter series attempted to do this in some ways with Ron Weasley. While I couldn’t find a quote from J.K. Rowling herself, many people are now claiming that Ron was meant to show someone who is casually racist. And when I think about it, I can definitely see it. Ron is not always sensitive to the fact that Hermione and Harry come from the Muggle world, and he often shows bias against other species like centaurs, house elves, and werewolves. Over the course of the series, he is shown slowly getting over his issues with these groups.
However, I feel that Ron often falls short of being a good portrayal of displaying microaggressions and being critiqued for them. If anything, I think Ron has the potential to make people comfortable with their casual racism, sexism, or homophobia. Ron often makes fun of Hermione for standing up for the rights of these other species. This is especially shown with the house elves. Ron acts as if Hermione is crazy for forming S.P.E.W. and openly mocks her for it. Hermione gives up on a hunger strike in which she refused to eat what was made by enslaved house elves, and Ron makes a snide comment asking if Hermione has dropped her silly cause. This is all compounded by the fact that Harry, our viewpoint character, never really stands up for Hermione in these instances. While I think the books clearly portray Hermione being in the right by the end of the series, the books never really show Ron having a moment where he acknowledges that he was wrong. We see him change his behavior, but he never apologizes for his past behavior.
X-Men is a an excellent source if you are looking for a comic that directly addresses issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia, but again, even X-Men does not do
as well at portraying microaggressions. Recent movies do it a little better, especially X2: X-Men United and X-Men: The Last Stand. In X-Men United, we have an excellent scene of Iceman coming out as a mutant to his parents in an obviously direct parallel to coming out as gay. His mother responds with a microaggression that is similar to what many gay teens have heard before: “Have you tried not being a mutant?” In The Last Stand, we are introduced to the mutant Angel and his father: he’s a wealthy man who obviously loves Angel, but thinks that helping his son means curing him. While this could translate to simply being prejudiced, there are many real people who think that if we could, for example, find a way to inject someone with “medicine” and make them straight, it would be a kind and loving solution. These people don’t want to hurt LGBTQ+ people or put them through torturous conversion therapy, but they hold the belief that a non-invasive cure would be “good”. Angel’s father certainly believes he is just helping, not realizing how harmful his actions are. However, once again we have no real moment where characters who commit these microaggressions admit they’re at fault and change their behavior. And I think that is key: it is not enough to only show microaggressions in pop culture. Because so many people might misinterpret these things as okay, these characters need to be shown being critiqued for their behavior, admitting fault, and then changing their behavior; otherwise, the message may likely be lost on people.
What geek culture and pop culture need in general are more shows like Scrubs, which has many examples of this to choose from. One of these occurs in Season 8, in “My ABCs”, where Elliot accuses Turk of being sexist. She accuses him of not even thinking about picking a female intern over a male one for a research fellowship because surgery is such a boy’s club. In the episode, Turk admits to being a little sexist, which validates Elliot’s complaints, and tries to do better. All of the characters in Scrubs throughout the seasons struggle with different prejudices that, over time, they are able to identify, and they change their behavior accordingly. They still fail sometimes, but then they realize it and attempt to change.
Racist, sexist, and homophobic beliefs are, sadly, a part of our society and we regretfully inherit many of those beliefs. You do not have to be villainous in order to make a racist comment; good people say, do, and believe bad things because they don’t know any better. Having characters who can recognize these flaws and be willing to change is something we need more of in our pop culture.