Over the past couple of weeks I have been viewing back episodes of the British murder mystery TV series Midsomer Murders. Set in the fictional English county of Midsomer, the series revolves around the efforts of Chief Inspector Detective Barnaby, who is attached to the CID of a town called Causton, to resolve the murders that afflict the county.
A possible reason for the attraction is that the series is a loving dedication to the English countryside, and to the imagined English way of life. Midsomer Murders elevates what it sees as English reality with great aplomb. There are long loving shots of breath-taking English countryside. Added to this are the details that are worked into the stories: a focus on contemporary English villages, the age-old social institutions, the rituals of these institutions, the relationship between the gentry and the village-folk. So lovingly ethnographic is the gaze of this series, that despite the glut of murder and nastiness that fills these episodes one can’t help but feel how wonderful it must be to live in rural England.
After a substantial period of time, when I was more than a dozen or so episodes into the drama, a rather discomfiting thought hit me. The series contained an overwhelming number of white persons! It seemed as if there were no persons of colour in the episodes. That is when I started actually looking for people of colour and sure enough, not a single person in evidence!
Reflecting on this situation I was reminded of an article that discussed the problems of race in video games. Mounting responses to the standard apologies that one gets, the author Bao Phi phrased one that has remained with me ever since, and seemed particularly appropriate in the case of Midsomer’s disappearance of English people of colour. The apology normally reads “Games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Age are based in European folklore and there were no people of color in Medieval Europe.” Phi’s response is clever and hits the nail bang on the head: “Actually there were people of color in Medieval Europe. You know what? There were more actual people of color in Medieval Europe than there were REAL FIREBREATHING DRAGONS OR PEOPLE WHO COULD SUMMON MOTORCYCLES OUT OF THIN AIR WITH THEIR MAGIC POWERS.”
This response makes it so obvious that the constructions of our fantasies are not as innocent as we make them out to be, but invariably involve a choice. That there were more murderers in fictional Midsomer than people of colour suggests that the producers of the show wished to show was that there was no space for people of colour in real English life and the England of the imagination.
Something else that struck me about Midsomer Murders was the dramatic way in which it contrasted with American versions of the similar genre like Castle, or Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. In the episodes that I have seen, Chief Inspector Barnaby and his associate have practically never been shown with a gun. American versions of this genre, however, are replete with the presence, and use, of guns. It should be pointed out that I am unfamiliar with the way in which the police and detectives in England actually operate. It is possible that just as the non-depiction of people of colour highlighted the way the producers of Midsomer wished to imagine England, perhaps the depiction of a folksy and unarmed police detective is also far from English reality. However, what is important is the manner in which the ideal comportment of the police are depicted. As suggested earlier, just as with advertising, television series such as Midsomer Murders are important because they set up an ideal world that we then look for in real life. To this extent, Midsomer Murders suggests that the use of guns is an aberration, while the American series normalise the use of guns suggesting that the ONLY way in which law and order can be enforced is via the use of guns.
Because television is so ubiquitous in our lives it forms the basis of our expectations of reality. For the great Indian middle class that feeds off American television, American drama series offer a vision of what life in the USA is like. Seeing police with guns, all too often their demand is that police in India also be armed with guns. What they do not see is the kind of racist and gratuitous violence that is meted out by police in the US to persons of colour, and the fact that this violent tendency is aggravated by the carrying of lethal weapons. Of course, given the caste-based nature of the Indian middle class, it is perhaps something that they would not care too much about. Nevertheless, it bears remembering that once unleashed, the spiral of violence is difficult to contain.
It is not uncommon to hear howls of protest whenever social justice issues are raised vis-à-vis films and episodes on television. “Oh, but this is just fantasy” it is claimed. Another standard trope is, “but film is about stereotypes!” Indeed, televisual representation may be about stereotypes, but these representations also impact on our expectations of reality. It is for this reason that it is critical that the representations in film and television are not simply shrugged off as fantasy, but challenged not only to embody reality, but also embody a just reality that we would like to see translated to reality.
(A version of this post was first published in The Goan Everyday on 30 Aug 2015)