Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders is a lesson on depicting and consuming culture responsibly
I'd like to think I have a love affair with India. After travelling through the country over the course of 15 days this year, I returned to Singapore and professed my undying love to my Delhi-born colleague, Natasha. "I love taking the tuk-tuks and the men are so friendly," I exclaimed. She laughed. Similarly, after my fourth time in Tokyo and having raved to my Singapore-based Japanese friend via text on how Japanese guys are so cool, Minami simply replied, "Rolling eyes".
My perspective of India and Japan is undoubtedly skewed and unabashedly touristy. When I close my eyes and recall those trips, what were my takeaways? Old Delhi: Noshing on Karim's seekh kebabs in Chandni Chowk, hearing the call to prayer from Jama Masjid and watching strapping Kasmiri men passing by. Tokyo: Indulging in the best slab of Wagyu at the Grand Hyatt, being swallowed up in whole at Shibuya crossing and getting catcalled at Roppongi. Were these my honest, accurate depictions of Tokyo and Delhi? Yes, I encountered them. Were they honest and accurate for an Indian and Japanese? Probably not — and that's okay.
We're what we consume, even if it's inaccurate
But the recent controversy surrounding the Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders boo-boo on its depiction of Singapore made me re-look at cultural perspectives and entertainment's responsibility to shape them. My love affair with India and Japan sits self-absorbedly well in a personal blog with all its bias and superficiality, but when an internationally distributed television show inaccurately depicts a city, it's bound to ruffle some feathers. Director Diana Valentine and writers Erica Messer and Matthew Lau, responsible for carving out the episode Cinderella and the Dragon have struck many a wrong chord. Within hours of its broadcast on AXN Asia, sites such as AsiaOne, Reddit, Straits Times and Geek Culture have dissected almost every inaccurate frame, tearing the episode to shreds.
We're what we consume on a regular basis, and as far as pop culture goes, it stands to reflect where society stands at this very moment. It's 2017, where distasteful Pepsi ads that belittle human rights protests exist, and where cultural appropriation begs for social justice warriors — referred to in the most non-pejorative way possible — to pounce at every chance. According to Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, Singapore still bans chewing gum, Americans can't forget the caning of Michael Fay and Geylang is an "overcrowded slum". To someone unfamiliar with Singapore, the 40-minute murder mystery is entertaining at best. To a Singaporean, it represents many things: A joke, a mockery, a generalisation. It captures Hollywood's biased, superficial perspective of a foreign city—just as my biased, superficial perspective of a foreign city is amusing to foreign friends.
Not surprised, but not okay
Am I at all surprised that Hollywood has — slow clap, please — gotten it wrong? Not a chance. Sofia Coppola's critical hit Lost In Translation depicted the Japanese as cold, one-dimensional supporting members in a movie about travelling through Japan. Television series Homeland depicted Islamabad as a dirty, Third World locale when in reality, it's structured with streets and modern infrastructure. Even Americans can't get their own homes right — in 2 Broke Girls, the New York City hood of Williamsburg is implied to be ethnically Russian and East Asian, when it's actually predominantly Italian, Latino and Hasidic. Let's not get started on entertainment's inaccurate depictions of Mars. Closer to home, local television show The Noose routinely reinforced stereotypes of Southeast Asians with a pole-dancing reporter and Filipino maid.
Here's where us social justice warriors should put a mirror upon ourselves. We (or at least, some of us) laughed at the accents and antics put on in The Noose. But to a Thai or Filipino, the pole-dancer and maid stereotypes continue to haunt them as oversimplified representations. They're just as pissed off by these characters just as how you scoffed at Hong Kong actor Tzi Ma's take on a Singaporean accent as a policeman. It wasn't okay for Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders to have a one-dimensional and inaccurate portrayal of Singapore, just as it wasn't okay for The Noose to portray those stereotypes. If you argue that it's done for entertainment and comedy's sake, remember that entertainment — hilarious, distasteful or otherwise — exists to reflect current culture, just as all text does. It's through F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby that we obsessed over S-shaped hair waves and flapper dresses of the '20s, and in Tupac Shakur's music that we learned of the hopeful yet tragic narratives of black Americans in the '90s.
I'm not surprised by Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders at all, just how the rest of the world isn't surprised by the inaccuracy of their countries' depictions. Writers, directors and set designers — and to some extent, actors — need to do their research, responsibly. Before writing the screenplay for the Oscar-nominated flick Lion, Luke Davies went on an extensive research trip to India to immerse himself in the characters as well as the places that were to be featured. "There was no way we were going to do some easy, emotionally manipulative Hallmark Movie of the Week," Davies said in an interview. "We were raw and authentic and didn't make India look like a Bollywood movie fantasy." Similarly, lead actor Dev Patel spent months riding the trains from Calcutta to Bhopal, writing in his diaries to aid in portraying a lost Indian boy who grew up as an adoptive son in Australia.
As culture consumers, what do we do next? How long do we have to complain about how wrong entertainment heads can be? Do we boycott shows? Complaining won't help, just as boycotting won't make a dent in irresponsible representation. While it's too easy to play the blame game on Hollywood, what we can do on a grassroots level is be responsible in our own consumption of entertainment, and continue to educate ourselves. Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders isn't the only depiction of Singapore out there, just as Lost In Translation isn't the go-to movie for a look into Japan.
Watch more movies, binge on television shows and listen to more music. Diversity is key — not only in entertainment providers' responsibility, but also in our own consumption. Want to pave the way? Write our own narratives, make our own opportunities, and hope that alternative facts remain in Donald Trump's world, and not ours.
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