(It was after I started writing this that I realised just how long this post was, so I decided to break it up into two parts. Yesterday’s post focused on women in the show Penny Dreadful; today’s post focuses on people of color, specifically Chinese characters, in the show.)
People of Color
To begin with, let’s watch the clip of the Chinese people in episode 1.
That is it. They don’t get a line, they don’t utter a sound. Ives doesn’t even utter a freaking word in Chinese as a password to get in the door. The fact that the scene was set in a Chinese opium den has zero effect on the plot. There is no reason they are there except to pass through. It’s like the creators said “how can we make Victorian London as gritty and exotic as possible? Oh! Let’s throw some Chinese people in there.” They are props. They are nothing more than a background setting. They are completely objectified. It’s really infuriating. This kind of Orientalism was par for the course in actual Victorian London, but to see it today on television is simple racism and is totally unacceptable.
People (especially TV and film writers) also seem to forget that people of color existed in nearly every strata of Victorian society. There is a beautiful tumblr that features pictures of black people living in Victorian London. There were also Asians, including many Chinese, who lived, went to school, and worked in Victorian London. I have been scrounging the internet for pictures, but, alas, they are far less documented than blacks are. But I do know they existed. Prettier than Golden Flower was probably the most famous Chinese woman in Victorian London. She would attend parties balancing on her three-inch lotus feet. You rarely see Chinese people in period dramas, except for Westerns where there are Chinese men working on the railroad. There are three exceptions, though, that pop into my head.
- Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman
One of the best period dramas ever made, season 6 episode 16, “Life in the Balance,” featured a group of Chinese immigrants, even women with bound feet, passing through town. A young Chinese girl has some of the same aspirations as Dr. Quinn, the dream of bucking patriarchal society and being a doctor.
- Shanghai Noon
I love this movie. Of course, people focus on Jackie Chan in this film, but Lisa Ling is often forgotten about. Her character is really brilliant. The film focuses on the indignities Chinese immigrants faced during the 1800s, and Ling’s character Pei Pei decides to stay in America as an activist to help them. In Shanghai Knights, Chan’s character states that Pei Pei isn’t in the second film because her work in San Francisco keeps her so busy. Shanghai Knights is less innovative. Chan’s sister Lin is a typical dragon lady and the two of them are the only Chinese characters in the whole film.
- Ripper Street
Ripper Street ‘s season 2 premier, “Pure as the Driven Snow,” was a pleasant surprise. It features a Chinese courtesan, Blush Pang, working in London (perhaps inspired by Prettier than Golden Flower?) and involved with the Triad gang in Chinatown. Yes, London has a whole Chinatown in Ripper Street. Race isn’t just a backdrop here, but is important to the plot. Blush Pang’s subplot (she gets two plots!) is that her brother wants her to return to China. As a successful woman who escaped the subservient Chinese life destined for most women in China, Blush Pang is having none of that. If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out on Netflix.
All of these examples show that once again, Pretty Dreadful does nothing for the representation of Chinese people in media. Since we have had some good examples in the past, Penny Dreadful is just a huge step back.
The Chinese are not the only people of color dismissed by Penny Dreadful. The only non-white man is Sembene, Sir Malcolm’s butler. Men of color-as-manservant is a role they have not been able to escape since Bruce Lee played Kato in the 1960s. It’s also something we see over and over again on TV today. Right now, you can see black manservants on NBC’s Dracula and The CW’s Arrow.
I did notice that there was a black gentleman in the crowd of the seance party in Penny Dreadful’s episode 2, which is good. It’s nice to see middle- and upper-class black people in the Victorian age normalized, but he is only in the scene for 11 seconds while the scene lasts 12 minutes. He is also the only person of color there and you never see people of color included in any other group scenes, not even just walking down the street.
Like the representation of Chinese people, the treatment of black people in Penny Dreadful is archaic and unacceptable.
Do I like the Show?
I have said before that it is possible to enjoy a piece of media and be critical of it at the same time. Is that what I am doing here, critiquing it even though I enjoy it? I have to say that I was looking forward to the show but have been severely disappointed. The plot is slow, boring, and unoriginal. Dracula and Frankenstein together in one story? Like we haven’t seen that before. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was far more cutting edge. I’m going to keep watching it though; I would like to see if it does manage to do something interesting. And I like the actors. Timothy Dalton and Eva Green are very strong actors and Josh Hartnett has been a real surprise.
So what do you think of Penny Dreadful? Is it as bad as I say or am I too harsh?