Sometimes television makes history and, as such, makes (pop) culture. I’ve been thinking about one of these moments for months now.
Maybe the only reason I know about Star Trek in this capacity – as culture maker – is because my dad was the first nerd I knew and that show, the original Star Trek series, was the one that introduced me to fandom (though we never called it that). I inherited from him my bad eye sight, my enthusiasm for the franchise, for sci-fi, for all things nerdy.
So here’s the iconic television event: Nyota Uhura and James T. Kirk kissed on television on November 22, 1968. The much-hyped kiss in “Plato’s Stepchildren” was not the first on-screen interracial kiss. It wasn’t even the second. But it often gets labeled as such.
I’ve been thinking about that kiss a lot lately. Not because it’s been almost 50 years since the episode aired. Not because Taye Diggs is dealing with (and profiting from) his kid’s racial identity. Not because transracial isn’t actually a thing.
Honestly, it’s been on my mind since I took my kids to see Hotel Transylvania 2.
I was halfway through the movie when I got a hair in my ass. For those you unfamiliar with the pair of movies, these Adam Sandler vehicles are (be warned: spoilers for predictable-ass kids movie ahead) a barely veiled metaphor about race-mixing. The original is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner starring Dracula’s daughter, Mavis, and a hapless white backpacker named Jonathan played, of course, by Andy Sandberg. In the universe of the movie the monsters exist in a hotel where they are the dominant culture. No humans allowed. So ironically, and by ironically I mean ahistorically, Jonathan is presented as the minority. Their love is frowned on and challenged by everyone. But love prevails and…
in the sequel, Mavis and Jonathan are the proud parents of a is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-monster toddler. The crux of the second movie is how to prove the kid’s monstrosity or as I’ve come to think it, his racial authenticity. It’s a kids movie dedicated to policing the borders around race. [sigh.]
Except it’s packaged as though it’s about acceptance. So there I was, in the theater, looking at my kids instead of eating popcorn and watching Selena Gomez, who voiced Mavis, pretend she doesn’t hate her co-stars. Instead, I’m going through my mental files trying to remember the last time we saw a family like ours in casual television or movie watching. And after a few minutes, it dawned on me: we hadn’t. Not in any meaningful way. Not in any way that wasn’t insulting, dismissive, or erasing.
So, again, there I was trying to watch this movie as though the moral of the first movie – Dracula accepting the white human (ironically cast as the minority) into his family – still held true. I’m sitting in the audience, a Black woman of mixed racial heritage, going back through my memory thinking about how many times I’ve seen this disappointing humor and lesson at the expense of the mixed-race family.
Back to Star Trek for a moment though, I don’t care that it wasn’t actually the first on-screen interracial kiss. I care that what we don’t focus on is the nature of the kiss: forced and a tool of humiliation. Kirk and Uhuru didn’t choose to kiss in the episode. They were being controlled, against their will, by the Platonians. That’s one part of it. The other is that the network didn’t want that kiss to happen, so the actors intentionally fucked up every take that used the alternate non-kissing script, essentially forcing the network to use the only decent kiss-filled footage. The actors had an agenda that they felt was best served by getting the kiss on television.
It seems relevant to mention, now, that my parents were in love. That they got married despite opposition from family. That the opposition was not neatly resolved in 98 minutes. That I remember distinctly not seeing my family on television as a child.
But, back to Hotel Transylvania 2.
This is how you promote diversity? This is what a mixed race couple looks like?
It bothers me because it’s an exercise in palatability that I’ve seen before. On Star Trek.
I may be the only person in the world riding for Enterprise, but I liked the series. The final seasons (yes, there were more than one) focused, in part, on the relationship between T’pol and Trip. It’s another mixed relationship. This time it’s a human and a Vulcan. The thing is that I loved that series and even loved what they were trying to do, but the idea that a relationship that transgresses accepted social norms must be easy to digest makes me both sick and sad. It feels too much like giving me Rosa Parks when what I, in my heart of hearts, want is Claudette Colvin. I don’t need the packaging.
This is exactly what I saw and felt watching Hotel Transylvania.
Enterprise pushed a little further, though.
T’pol and Trip had a baby. Kind of. Sort of. Without their knowledge, consent, or physical involvement. Magical Mixed Baby appears as part of a plot to (deep breath) discourage race-mixing. And she dies.
She dies because the world wasn’t ready. T’Les, T’Pol’s mother, articulated this in an earlier episode when she asked, “Do you really believe that a human and a Vulcan can have a future together? Imagine the shame your children would endure, assuming the two you could have children.”
That’s the question isn’t it? The answer is that these babies, in this series and in the Sandler movie, pass. We can advocate and accept difference as long as it’s not so different. As long as the product is an acceptable shade of ethnically vague. I see you every Spock ever, looking Vulcan as fuck like you ain’t got a human-ass momma.
And I can admit that part of my relationship with this is a function of my age. As a kid, I grew up in a world where interracial romance started off as it did in Star Trek, as a humiliation, or as an act of force, or as comedy relief.
Let’s look at Commando.
By that, let’s look at the exercise in Stockholm Syndrome that was the first big screen interracial “relationship” I can remember.
Rae Dawn Chong is forced to help Schwarzenegger after being harassed (had her phone call listened to, followed to her car, and being called a whore for not being responsive to sexual advances) by one of the men that kidnapped Commando’s daughter. And, obviously, that is the start to a great love story. It may seem minor, but that is the first time I saw any “family” that looked like mine in a movie. And, no, my dad wasn’t dropping hilarious one-liners or killing people (that I know of), but it was black(ish) and white love. And I was glad to get those scraps. Because other than that, I had white buffonery as backdrop every time a family like mine was on TV. Let’s be clear that I’m not losing any sleep or spilling any tears or blood over white representation in the media. We all already know that history (and by history, I mean other white people) have been kind to white people in the media.
I’m specifically and only talking about the way the white people in interracial families are portrayed because of the way the children (of color) of those unions are affected.
For example, because of syndication, I got to hear George Jefferson tell Helen that the “only thing worse than being a honky was being married to one.” Welp. In the way that kids know things, I knew that being called a honky was not in any way equivalent to or as damaging as being called a nigger. But I was simultaneously aware that on some level my mother’s Blackness, and therefore my Blackness, was being called into question because of her love for a white man.I’d hear this logic again in the form of neo-Nazi rhetoric that distinguishes a race traitor (those who choose to love outside their race) from an abomination [takes bow].
Um, so The Jeffersons are clowning my family and my mom’s choices to a laugh track. And Adam Sandler and by beloved Enterprise are making weird oneloveonerace social commentary but only from behind a wall of distinctly similar faces? And that means that not enough has changed since the forced humiliation of the Kirk/Uhuru kiss.
So, I’m in the theatre with my kids wishing that I lived in a better world. And then I remember that in some ways, I do. And that it’s part of my job to validate for them the way their family looks and exists in the world.
Which is to say, nerds have offered me a few options that I really embrace.
First, I’m a little bit in love with Gina Torres, so to see her on Firefly in a family that looks like mine…
These were just two people in love. But they looked like my mom and dad (though if I’m being honest, my dad was both taller and goofier than Wash; my mom, though, was/is as tough and beautiful as Torres). So to see them love and argue and fight and debate starting a family and love – and love, y’all – was amazing. Because it was odd and felt unique. And I knew my family wasn’t unique in that way. So I was a space cowboy with all the feelings.
And things kept getting better.
There’s Maggie and (the death defying) Glenn.
There’s Jessica and Luke.
And I know there’s more and more lately. I’m not a comic book lady but even I know there’s Saga and Captain America and Thor. Hell even Adele is heartbroken over it. And Star Trek is clearly trying to win my love back with Uhuru and Spock.
But, while I’m not a nurturer, I’m not letting my kids watch most of this. Because constant death, zombies, and rape. And in the case of Star Trek, whitewashing, gratuitous nudity, and the very real horror of them talking through the best scenes.
So, for them, where can they see a family like ours?
There’s Sid the Science Kid. But doesn’t he still look like his father to the exclusion of his mom? And I know that happens, but [sigh] does it have to happen here?
There’s Daniel Tiger, too.
I’m sensing a pattern.
But I’m hopeful because it seems like interracial romance in the preteen, teen, and young adult markets are way ahead in this arena. A cursory Google search turned up list after list of teen shows and movies, but my kids are young and that’s not what I’m looking for.
Yes, there are books. And because I’m a booknerd, we own a bunch of these.
But what it boils down to for me is that my kids deserve to see the origin story of a family like ours before they hit double digits. Not because white actors need more roles. Not because Black families need less representation in the media. Not because I think I’m doing a bad job of providing them with healthy real-life models for a variety of family structures and configurations. Not because our family is a special and different and unique snowflake. But because it’s not.
Because people, all kinds of people, should be able to see themselves in the media they consume. Because more and more families are like mine. Because more and more kids are like me. Because my love takes nothing away from someone else’s. Because books are great but television and visual media fulfill a different function. Because since when has erasure ever helped a person of color?
I guess I can always gather up the family and just watch that Cheerios commercial on repeat.