Escapism and Warfare

You might think, from the title of this post, that it will be about violent video games. Actually it is kind of the opposite: it is about dramas that are ostensibly escapist, but actually engage in real warfare.

What provoked me to write this essay is episode 12 of season 2 of The Orville, entitled “Sanctuary.” Television science-fiction, yes. With the goofball touch of Seth MacFarlane, and a most improbable song during the dramatic climax. This episode brings us deep into a surreal situation-comedy to show something brutally specific to our time. (There will be spoilers below, so I recommend watching the episode first.)

Science fiction is often dismissed as escapism; and a lot of it is. But the original Star Trek series had Uhura on the bridge, while the United States was just barely legalizing interracial marriage. It had Pavel Chekov at navigation during the Cold War, and Hikaru Sulu at weapons only 23 years after World War II. Like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Metropolis (1929), and Frankenstein (1818), Trek included very pointed social commentary. The Orville, in this tradition, engages in some very intense present-day cultural conflict.

I think a lot about conflict in my work. After seven months in Kabul I returned to California in 2018, to an American society sliding away from ‘argumentative civility’ towards warfare. The risk is unavoidable. We are in the midst of significant cultural change in the United States. Opponents of that change have called it ‘Culture Wars.’ There is some truth to the characterization; but the difference between a struggle and a war is the choice to engage in negotiations with people you disagree with, or to refuse communication and choose violence instead.

The changes we are working through right now are not so much like the civil rights and anti-war protests and riots of the 1960s. Instead, they are more like the shifting role of women in the 1970s, which turned out to be a far greater revolution. True, poorer women never left the workforce; so the changes in the 1970s were not quite the feminist ideal of progress towards equality. However, the cultural expectation of ‘men as breadwinners and women as homemakers’ was challenged and frequently rejected. Difficult and intimate negotiations within families often led to separation and divorce. But it also led to a widespread abandonment of the implicit—and unrealistic—expectations about gender roles in families. The struggle was about rejecting a set of normative expectations of what women should be, and moving towards recognition of actually-existing conditions and the actual humanity, agency, and personhood of women. The emotional stakes and consequences of this struggle cannot be overstated: it drastically altered identities and relationships, and tore apart many families. The 1970s was revolutionary in the true sense of the term: radical changes-of-mentality.

The struggle for women’s equality persists in 2019, now taking on harassment-culture and the gender gap in senior leadership positions in politics and business. At the same time, awareness and struggle over issues of racism and class-exclusion have become much more intense, much more openly discussed in the 21st century.

In this context, the Orville is the opposite of escapist. Not only does it highlight present-day struggles, it takes a strong position on these issues. In the story, female are not allowed to exist in Moclan society: children born female are “surgically corrected” to be male. In this episode, the crew of the Orville discover a maroon colony of Moclan women. Their struggle to gain recognition and rights during the episode clearly echoes the struggle for civil rights, the underground railroad, and arguments against female circumcision. Because it is science fiction, the situation can be ‘one step removed’ from our present reality and represent all of these issues through a slightly metaphorical mirror. But when MacFarlane chooses Dolly Parton’s “(Working) Nine to Five” as theme song of the dramatic climax, he does two things at the same time: (1) he mixes comedy with drama in the strange and remarkable way he has been doing with this whole series; and (2) he brings the issue directly ‘back to earth’—back to our present 21st century—by reminding us that women’s inequality is still a major issue of injustice today. This is not even a thinly-veiled critique of anti-feminists. This is an overt challenge to towards political and social intolerance.

Furthermore, MacFarlane does not simply portray this conflict as grand, abstract political drama. The social side is intimate, framed in the relationships between friends and lovers. He shows how injustice and significant changes in mindset affects families and friendships.

In Western tradition, the heart is the focus of love; but it is also the symbolic locus of willpower and intention. This is a story of the heart as the site of revolutionary change.

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