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As you might have been able to tell recently with our coverage of the Desperate Housewives insensitivity, we at The Blaaag are pretty big television geeks. One of our favorite shows is Heroes, and while it may be for a variety of reasons, we all know one thing: it's got some pretty messed up stereotypes in its characters of color.

So here I'm putting up a piece I wrote in hopes of gaining a spot as Heroes episode-recapper on Carmen Van Kerckhove's blog Racialicious. Enjoy.

From its inception as a global innovation in the fall of 2006, the show Heroes has been inextricably tied to its international and multi-ethnic set of characters and, hence, tricky issues of race and representation that few television programs have had the power to delve into. And at times, Heroes have felt to us viewers a sight a little awkward to observe. After all, this is the show where a Hispanic painter uses heroin to unlock his powers, and a black father, as devoted as he is to his wife and child, escapes from prison on charges of robbery and murder. As viewers who are still getting used to the growing diversity on shows like Lost and Ugly Betty, we know there’s something false about a diversity that still vigorously perpetuates such worn-out stereotypes.

The position of Heroes in maneuvering through this mess of racialized television was no more evident than in what was said at a panel discussion of Heroes at the San Diego Comic Convention this past summer. (You can watch the videos of the panel here.) Here, the producers and actors talked about their visions and justifications for some of the qualities that have made this show so successful (and so problematic.)

Future guest writer Kevin Smith appeared on the panel for a few moments to discuss his aspirations for working on the show. He described a conversation with creator Tim Kring in which he described his initial fascination with the “two gay heroes” on Heroes. Passing off his conception of these “Japanese dudes” (“they’re gay, right?”) as misunderstanding, he incited wave after wave of awkward laughter. Kevin Smith, however, was just the tip of the iceberg. A few minutes later, one audience member eventually asked something conclusively more direct.

Regarding these two Japanese characters, he asked, “Hiro’s a great character… at the same time, he and Ando are arguably the least traditionally masculine of the male characters in the past… I think it’s relevant given Kevin Smith’s joke when he came in here.” More awkward laughter erupted all around, from the panelists themselves as well. The interrogator pursues, “I just feel like there are certain situations that the two Asian characters are put in, such as getting knocked up by that stripper, or being the only two male characters not shown on screen completing a kiss with a girl… I just think that’s closely relevant.”

Masi Oka, the actor who portrays one of the Japanese characters, had only four words: “Wait until season two.” Doesn’t say too much about the show’s sense of racial awareness or lack thereof, but Masi’s certainly got me hooked on the second season.

In addition to the Hispanic druggie and the black convict, these emasculated Asian men are far from the only characters that will have, in a year of casting and storytelling, been typecast into haunting clich├ęs. Two new characters for the second season include a pair of siblings seeking undocumented passage into the United States via Mexico and a black woman displaced by the Hurricane Katrina. The stereotypes don’t end with race; another audience member in San Diego asked if there would be any female leads not represented as “cheerleaders or strippers… or any other diminutive female stereotype”. After all of this, one could argue that there are few shows on television that stereotypically pigeonhole their characters as completely as does Heroes.

But the creators of Heroes might have offered a subtle rationale behind their choices during the San Diego panel. After receiving a compliment for assembling a multi-ethnic cast of actors, creator Tim Kring elaborated upon the meaning that national and ethnic diversity has for the story of Heroes. “We set out to make a certain statement about the world, and the basic premise of the show was … a true global event,” he said, “and so the idea of it happening to, you know, blonde-haired blue-eyed people in Southern California just seemed kind of disingenuous to the idea.” The pursuit of global representation of the human race definitely deserves kudos. Still, what vision of the world is Heroes offering us to embrace? Why does stereotype justify this higher meaning or goal?

To Kring, the world of Heroes is grounded in a particular reality that emphasizes our ability to relate to these featured protagonists. “People need to be able to relate to this show as though it could actually happen,” said Kring. “People look at these characters and have a sense that they look and feel like people that they know and went to school with.” While we might be able to see our friends and neighbors in these characters, as viewers we might realize something else. Our recognition of these characters stems inevitably from stereotypes already cemented in our imaginations by the media from which we have learned so much about our world in the first place. So would this “global” cast of characters truly remind us of classmates, neighbors, and friends? Unless we go to school on one continent and buy groceries on another, probably not.

Ultimately, this does not say that these characters bound by stereotype cannot transcend the limits of their expectations. Perhaps this is what Heroes attempts to do above all – to introduce to us characters we think we’ve seen before and, almost surprisingly, let us connect more with them than we had expected to. Certainly this doesn’t have to be done with stereotype after stereotype, but the end result – rising above a typecast image and showing what really matters – could just be worth the means. Let’s just hope first that Hiro the Japanese cubicle worker scores a girl soon.



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