I was recently watching an episodic television show where the mystery of the week was that bodies appear to be going missing, and it turns out that they’re being stolen by a Chinese national. I immediately knew exactly where this was going — the only place it could go, really, on a majority-white show in a country that likes to ferret out ‘weird’ cultural practices and then turn them into something abhorrent and criminal.
I wasn’t wrong: The entire plot revolved around stealing bodies to send back to China for spirit marriages.
White Westerners seem totally luridly fascinated with spirit marriages (also sometimes called ghost marriages), in which people are posthumously married for a variety of reasons ranging from a desire to solidify an engagement agreed upon before death to wanting to address family superstitions. Sometimes one party is dead, sometimes both are. The version of the story that people can’t get enough of is one about young men who die alone and are paired through ‘matchmaking’ with dead women who can serve as their spirit brides. While people associate them with China, many cultures throughout history have had some version of this practice.
We are supposed to find this, I think, weird and creepy and kind of gross. It’s definitely leveraged for the squick factor and when it comes up in Western pop culture, it is almost always in the context of dealing in the bodies of nubile young women for dead Chinese men. It’s presented as an archaic and backwards cultural practice that only strange, backward people would engage in, because it’s not modern and cool and something that ordinary people do. It’s further evidence of cultural insufficiency, presented alongside footbinding and ancestor altars as a sign of primitivism.
I was supposed to see this storyline as further evidence that the bad guy was bad (which he was), because he participates in this bizarre cultural practice that nice normal people don’t engage in. And the story got me thinking about all the times I’ve seen spirit marriages used to either add colour to a bad guy, or create a sense of titillation for white viewers. Here, look at this weird thing that strange people do, because they aren’t normal. It’s either gross and bad or weird and fascinating, a ‘glimpse into another culture.’ This is the business of outliers and freaks, people who cannot be trusted to be nice, ordinary, regular people.
This kind of ‘unfamiliar and therefore weird cultural practice as a shorthand for badness’ thing comes up a great deal, and this episode got me thinking about the places I’ve seen it used. How people of colour and people of non-white, non-Western backgrounds show up extremely rarely, and when they do, they’re often laden with stereotyped cultural trappings. These things are used to rough in the edges of their characters as though knowing that someone sought a spirit wife for her dead son tells me something deep and complicated about her. Often, these things are cobbled together in ways that contradict and don’t even make sense, as though a mish-mash of cultural practices can totally build up a character.
Giving people uniform, dull, boring backgrounds that reflect the same cultural experience isn’t good storytelling and I wouldn’t ask anyone to tell stories and build characters that way. Drawing upon a character’s cultural background, though, requires really even, thoughtful research and a sense of responsibility. You have to know where a character is from, you have to know more about that character’s family, social, and class history, you have to be willing to do the work. You can’t just pull a random stereotype and use it to hang an entire character on, because aside from being racist, it’s bad, lazy storytelling.
All cultures do things that are weird and interesting and sometimes a little abhorrent to other cultures. ‘Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,’ Horace Miner’s startling and seminal work from 1956, puts this in sharp light. It’s possible to explore these things thoughtfully and with care, and with an eye to cultural imperialism and who dominates in society, and in so doing to tell great stories about interesting, multifaceted people. It’s also possible to cherrypick the ‘weird stuff’ and tell a very slanted, uncomfortable, untrue version of history, one in which certain ways of being and thinking remain privileged and superior.
When we rely on random samplings of ‘weirdness’ to add colour to characters, we also tend to reinforce stigmas. When a bad guy is arranging spirit marriages, you take away the notion that this practice is very strange and unsettling and why would anyone do that, but you also carry away the attitude that this is bad. Bad people do this, and it is evidence of their badness. And you add that little kernel to your body of knowledge filed under ‘China’ and also ‘spirit weddings,’ because it may be the first and only time you see it in pop culture, depending on the kind of pop culture you consume. From there, it starts to, so to speak, haunt you. It’s the thing you immediately think of when this subject comes up, oh, yeah, the bad guy on that one episode of that show was doing that.
Creators consciously seek out ‘weird stuff’ to make their content feel more compelling and interesting, but they aren’t so quick to take responsibility when their content is not made more interesting, but more troubling, through their creative decisions.
Image: Hell Money, toby, Flickr