'Sleepy Hollow' Knows This is How You Handle Race On Television
If you watched last week's premiere of Fox's adaptation of Sleepy Hollow, you saw the amusing exchange that ensued when Ichabod Crane awoke after nearly 250 years, and encountered Lieutenant Abbie Mills:
Crane: You’ve been emancipated, I take it?
Mills: Excuse me?
Crane: From enslavement.
Mills: Okay, I’ll play along here. I am a black female Lieutenant for the Westchester County Police Department. Do you see this gun? I'm authorized to use it. On you.
Crane: If you’re insinuating I endorse slavery, I am offended.
Mills: Wait, back up, you’re offended?
Crane: I’ll have you know I was a proponent of the Abolitionist Act before the New York Assembly.
Mills: Congratulations. Slavery has been abolished 150 years. It's a whole new day in America.
Crane: Well, I’m pleased to hear it. I, on the other hand, remained shackled here.
After this brief exchange, the matter seems to be settled, and the pair moves on. If you happened to be distracted during those 60 seconds, or only paid attention to the "droll humor" of the dialogue, you may have missed the fact that the exchange heralded a "new day for race on TV." According to The Root, the moment's value is in, "acknowledging [race] without belaboring the point."
This may be a new day for race on TV, but it’s not a day I’ll be celebrating.
Nicole Beharie, the actress who plays Mills, aptly articulated the show's tactic, saying, "We are talking about the history of the United States versus modern times. What’s happening now, what’s happening then, the change in demographics and all that stuff, without really saying it. It’s there. I feel like it’s happening in subtle ways. We’re still having that conversation while fighting off monsters and the apocalypse."
Beharie clearly grasps that the dynamic of these two main characters has tremendous potential: Mills represents progress in terms of race and gender while Crane is a mouthpiece for the founding fathers, and the pair is bound (by fate!) to work together no matter their philosophical differences. They could be arguing about all sorts of contemporary political issues in a fresh and funny way. The trouble is that they never actually get around to having a real conversation.
They don’t just drop the ball on race. In episode two, Ichabod demands, "If I am charged with no crime, why am I under guard?" When he starts pontificating about the purpose of the law, Mills responds, "It’s a little early in the morning for constitutional debate. Have a donut hole." The tasty treat placates Crane, and his surprised reaction to it directs the audience’s attention away from the potential for a discussion about prisoners’ rights. Minutes later, the two are arguing again, this time about the insanity of Crane’s assertions. But for all of Crane’s God talk and his insistence that "belief is sanity," Crane and Mills never get to an obvious debate about the proper role of religion and faith in politics. Finally, in the squad car, they come very close to substantive sparring when Crane wants to talk about the outrageous tax on donuts, but Mills works hard to keep him on the subject at hand: how he could possibly have missed that his wife was a witch. You have to wonder why the show bothers setting up these openings, only to never follow through.
If you’re poised over your keyboard, ready to type something like, "this is entertainment, not a political platform," or "network TV can only do so much," you have a point. After all, this isn’t The West Wing, or True Blood, or even Ally McBeal. It's Sleepy Hollow, and in the words of Rolling Stone's Scott Neumyer, you really have to just, "turn off your brain for an hour and have some fun." Still, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking for more, or holding the folks producing our popular media to a higher standard.
If we’ve learned anything from the back and forth over "Blurred Lines" and the outrage over Miley Cyrus’ Video Music Awards performance, it’s that popular culture has the potential to spark meaningful and far-reaching discussions about important issues. Pop culture can bring folks to the table who otherwise might not think twice about sexism or racially loaded ideas about beauty. That’s why, all these weeks and months later, people are still talking about consent and whether white people twerking is cultural appropriation. Moreover, they’ll likely still be talking about these things long after dialogue surrounding more "serious" current events has faded.
Like it or not, pop culture has tremendous power to captivate our attention. Thicke and Cyrus should be called out for their cavalier, self-centered, and immature "haters gonna hate" reaction to criticism. Instead of saying "they’re only pop stars," we should challenge them to be thoughtful about, and engaged with, the ramifications of their message. The same goes for television shows. Instead of saying "it’s only network TV," we should lament the fact that Sleepy Hollow has squandered countless opportunities to make us think and react and discuss. Sidestepping the rare chance to discuss contemporary social issues and the ideology of our founders won't make for a new day, but for more of the same.