Shana Mlawski is a native New Yorker who writes educational materials and tutors middle and high school students. She has written more than a hundred articles for the pop culture website OverthinkingIt.com, some of which have been featured in The Atlantic Monthly, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and Ms. magazine. Her first novel, Hammer of Witches, was published by Tu Books in 2012.
Bring up FOX’s Sleepy Hollow and you’ll probably get one of two reactions. The first is, “OMG, guys: black people! On network television! And there’s a Hispanic guy! And John Cho! It’s almost like TV has finally entered the twenty-first century.”
The second, more common reaction goes thusly: “Wow. This show is COMPLETELY RIDICULOUS.”
Both reactions work for me. Sleepy Hollow does have an impressively diverse cast: of the eight major characters in its lineup, five are people of color (POC). More importantly, the main character is a woman of color.
As for the claim of ridiculousness… well, watch this:
What’s most interesting to me is how the two reactions intersect. That Sleepy Hollow is racially diverse doesn’t make it unique. Want a show that isn’t all white people all the time? You can watch Scandal or Elementary. But Sleepy Hollow is something different, something rarely seen on mainstream television: a program with a non-white lead that is also a work of camp.
In her famous “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag defined the genre as “art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is ‘too much.’” Not a bad definition for a show that features a Headless Horseman carrying a machine gun. Sleepy Hollow takes itself seriously enough that it can quote Milton and Edmund Burke with a straight face, but its heroes also exclaim things like, “The answers are in George Washington’s Bible!” It may not be John Waters, but that sounds campy to me.
But Sontag’s definition of camp is more complicated than “so bad it’s good.” She contrasts the campy with “high culture,” which makes sense—no one’s going to watch Hamlet ironically. For Sontag, the main difference between camp and high culture is that camp is mostly about style, while works of high art tend to be “moralistic.” Classic tragedies, for example, punish the wicked and the flawed, while classic comedies reinforce existing societal structures.
Contrast these Important Works of Art with camp classics like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. That film may pretend to have some morals, but mainly it’s all about its over-the-top aesthetic and thumbing its nose at mainstream audiences. We don’t go to Rocky Horror to learn a lesson, feel inspired, experience catharsis, or say, “Oh! The gravitas!” Rocky Horror’s all about the silliness, the too-muchness.
Remember these differences, for I believe they explain why we rarely see non-white protagonists in camp works, particularly on television.
An Interlude on TV POCs
Resolved: On mainstream television dramas, characters of color frequently exist as moralistic figures. It doesn’t matter how good the show is. Non-white characters will often hang around to teach white characters or viewers a lesson. When they are supporting characters, characters of color may act as mentors (Rose on Lost), bad role models (the Mexicans on Breaking Bad), pitiable victims (Clara, the Drapers’ housekeeper on Mad Men), or helpful but super-bland friends (Bonnie on The Vampire Diaries). This isn’t always the case—some writers are good at giving non-white characters actual personalities—but these problematic tropes still occur often enough.
When the POC characters are the main characters of a drama, it’s generally a sign that the show itself is meant to be viewed as a moral text. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes get the feeling that shows like The Wire, Treme, and Orange Is the New Black are allowed to be full of black people, because their main point is to show well-off white viewers how much it sucks not to be well-off and white. These shows are the TV version of the young adult problem novel, a sociological treatise, or The Help. It’s not that I don’t love these shows; I do. It’s just that they seem to assume their audiences are privileged white folk who need poor black characters to teach them lessons about how the other half lives. This isn’t necessarily wrong. I, for one, am interested in how the other half lives. It’s just depressing that the few mainstream dramas about black characters are so, well, depressing.
In an interesting way, POC characters in mainstream sitcoms also have a moral purpose. They are generally second- or third-tier characters meant to show viewers how wrong it is to act differently from the norm. Consider the Delgados on Modern Family, Annyong on Arrested Development, and all the non-white characters on Two Broke Girls and Family Guy. In all these cases, the people of color are stereotypes mocked for their ethnic differences. The moral of these stories is, “Act this way and you will be laughed at.”
Of course, sitcoms are growing more progressive every year. Parks & Recreation, Community, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine are examples of sitcoms where characters of color are funny due to their individual foibles as opposed to their “foreignness.” But these sitcoms do not qualify as camp, because they, too, end with morals about the importance of friendship, and most viewers greet these morals with acceptance, not wry grins. But give it time. Maybe a decade from now Parks & Rec will be enjoyed with the same level of irony as The Golden Girls is today.
Back to the Point!
Once again, camp is when an entire show parodies itself, whether consciously or accidentally. The old Batman series with Adam West is the Ur-example; it’s so ludicrous you can’t help but watch it from an ironic distance. If Batman ever tried to teach us any lessons, there is no way they could ever be taken seriously. Who could take such lessons seriously in a show where this happens?
So: Camp cannot be truly moral and often does not try to be. Meanwhile, POC TV characters in the West are frequently weighed down with heavy moral subtext. No wonder the most famous works of TV camp—the aforementioned Batman, the entire oeuvre of Ryan Murphy, Melrose Place, Xena, Twin Peaks, some seasons of Doctor Who—are mostly filled with white people. Sure, there are some Uhuras, Martha Joneses, and Mercedeses hanging around the edges, but TV camp has been a predominantly white affair.
Until now. Sleepy Hollow (along with the dear departed Ugly Betty) has ushered in a new era in which POC TV protagonists are allowed to head the most ridiculous, campy shows out there. Sleepy Hollow’s Abbie is not a bland token, a symbol of black victimization, a mockable ethnic caricature, or a lesson for white people. She is the kickass action hero of an absurd, campy mess of a show that has little educational or moral value.
And ain’t that fab? Most TV writers still treat POC characters too seriously or not seriously enough, but our wonderful Abbie lives in a show that operates between those two poles. To be camp, a text must make audiences feel a mix of love and detached amusement, and Abbie is a character human enough to love even if she lives in a hilariously nonsensical universe.
So I salute you, Sleepy Hollow. By being completely unimportant, you’ve become one of the most important shows around.
Further Reading: People of Color in Once Upon a Time
An interview with Shana Mlawski on her book Hammer of Witches