Apr 30, 2020
Jar Jar, Ruby Rhod, and the legacy of Urkel
You’re going to have to bear with me on this one, because it was only just the other day that several different things I’ve been ruminating on for a couple of years now suddenly crashed into each other like a bunch of… crashy things, that are all interconnected somehow. I suppose the best way to start would be to just lay out my thought process step-by-step.
I was in a conversation where we discussed some of the casting controversies in popular geek movies over the last few years (Heimdall and Johnny Storm being played by black actors, Rue from The Hunger Games and Cho from Order of the Phoenix being played by actresses who were the same race as their characters in the books instead of the white girls “everyone” just assumed they were, etc.), when we broached the subject of how Lavender Brown, Ron’s annoying girlfriend in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, had previously been played by a black actress when she was just a mute extra in the earlier films, but was replaced with a white actress because nobody involved with the film remembered that the role had already been cast. (Either that, or Lavender caught the same debilitating illness that turned Billy Dee Williams into Tommy Lee Jones.)
I agreed wholeheartedly that this was pretty fucked up, but having jawed on it for a few minutes, I was at least able to see the bright side, which is that in doing so, they’d prevented the Harry Potter films from accidentally joining the ignoble ranks of films where a white guy leaves his annoying minority girlfriend for a perfect white goddess (see also: Scott Pilgrim).
I started wondering (again) just why the hell geek culture is so obsessed with race, to the point where people obsess over the fact that it’s being obsessed over. The answer I’m usually met with (since evidently I have this exact same conversation all the time) goes back to Jar Jar Binks.
I’ll just come right out and say it: I like Jar Jar. Out of all the impossibly perfect characters in The Phantom Menace, he added some much needed flaws, and well, humanity to a story that wouldn’t really grow any teeth until George Lucas decided to make the entire new trilogy an extended middle finger to the Bush administration. (I feel like this was ultimately the right way to go, but that’s a subject for a different article.)
These days, it seems like everyone just hates Jar Jar on principle, either because they thought he was annoying or hated the fact that a movie series that was meant for children intended to remain being for children. But when Phantom Menace was still new, there was a period where people were actually split on him. Kids liked him, while grown-ups hated him—kind of like how different age groups view the two trilogies today, actually, but we’re getting off-topic. Obviously, the people who hated Jar Jar couldn’t stand the idea of people not hating him as well, so they launched an all-out offensive. When just saying, “He’s annoying as fuck!” over and over somehow failed to prove their point, some of the haters stumbled on a more nuanced tactic: claiming the character was racist.
Now this was a point people were willing to bend on. After all, as the only character to show fear, and the only main cast member played/voiced by a black actor, it was easy, if somewhat reductive, to accuse Jar Jar of being the Cowardly Negro stereotype brought back to life, along with Space Jews and every other pulp sci-fi cliché that everyone but George Lucas had long since moved on from.
I’ll concede that debating the ethics of modeling the Trade Federation after ruthless Asian businessmen, or discussing whether Watto was more insulting to Jews or Arabs were both conversations that were worth having, but even in the largely pre-internet days of 1999, it was hard to miss the implication that the solution that fans were proposing to keep racist stereotypes out of their Star Wars movies was… to not have any other races in Star Wars.
Jar Jar, of course, became a much more important character in the later films (with reduced screen time to go with it), but I think cutting his scenes down were to the overall detriment of the series. Admit it: a little slapstick to break up the interminable Anakin/Padme love scenes would have lightened things up considerably.
Having reached this point, I suppose one could look ahead and follow the trend of summer movies deciding that “fun” belongs only in the dictionary between “fucking” and “futile”, but I find myself drawn further back. Phantom Menace came out right at the tail end of the ‘90s, a decade I guess I’m nostalgic for if only to shove it in the face of all these people who grew up in the ‘80s and won’t let the internet hear the end of it!! …Ahem. But yeah, the ‘90s were an absolute heyday for annoying sidekicks in action movies: Chris Tucker in Rush Hour, D.L. Hughley in Inspector Gadget, Kel Mitchell in Mystery Men, Dennis Rodman in Double Team…
Are you noticing a pattern here?
Now, I’m not saying that only minority actors played annoying characters back then. The films of the ‘90s had no shortage of cast members whose sole purpose seemed to be to piss off the audience as much as possible. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but you have to remember that at the time, being “in your face” was considered the most important quality something could have. That’s why everything from the decade is objectively better than the ‘80s, and may God strike you down were it to be otherwise!
However, something I’ve noticed among geek properties, particularly action/sci-fi, is that while there are plenty of annoying characters to go around, I honestly can’t recall a single example of someone claiming an annoying character “ruined the movie” when there wasn’t a non-white actor playing the role. Maybe the half-white Rob Schneider, but anyone who watches the Stallone Judge Dredd unironically is just asking for trouble.
After considerable thought, I settled on Ground Zero of this movement being The Fifth Element. You know, that one Bruce Willis movie you remember absolutely nothing about, besides naked Milla Jovovich, and this:
Ah, yes, the horrified moans of people who try to act like The Fifth Element is some thoughtful work of high science fiction being brought down by the shoehorned-in comedy bits. It is music to my ears…
We’ve all heard the bitching about Chris Tucker as Ruby Rhod, haven’t we? How he was good for one joke, and they kept him around for the rest of the film for no reason, and how having actual identifiable human reactions to his situation got in the way of Bruce Willis looking cool while shooting things, and why the hell was black people having blonde hair a trend at time anyway, and bitch bitch bitch. I’m sorry, but The Fifth Element is not the work of art you think you remember it was. It was a better than average action-comedy that’s been getting a free pass for almost twenty years because there really wasn’t much in the way of sci-fi going on back then, and the people who saw it when they were ten needed their generation to have its own Big Trouble in Little China.
(Huh. Another sci-fi action-comedy where people complain about its allegedly annoying ethnic sidekicks. What are the odds?)
But, yeah. We’re done, right? A too-cool-for-the-room flick with nothing up its sleeves earns the ire of a generation because one of the characters basically pops out and says, “Nope, those niggling doubts aren’t just you—this movie really is just damn silly!” And from then on, mouth-breathing fuckwits react negatively to the sight of any non-white actors for fear of, “Oh noes, our nerd porn might not get taken seriously!” Pavlovian response, right? We’re done!
No, we’re not. Because this goes back farther. It returns, as all things do, to Steve Urkel.
You see, another thing that the ‘80s and ‘90s did very well, or least produced a lot of, were shows about deviant behavior. Although TV of that era is (rightly) pegged for being conformist and existing solely to reinforce the notion of the nuclear family as “correct”, it’s often overlooked just how many of these characters from the era were, by no means, average. Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties was obsessed with conservatism almost to the point of eroticism, but lived among flighty liberals. Will Smith was an inner-city youth living among upwardly mobile buppies. Fran Fine was an injection of New York City Judaism into the old money home of a Broadway producer.
Someone like Urkel was only a matter of time.
Although nowadays, it’s regarded as an embarrassing misrepresentation of geek culture, at the time, Family Matters was considered a forward-thinking show, with a diverse cast of African-American characters of varying ages, interests, and levels of intelligence. Oh sure, it was considered “insulting” at the time to even suggest that black nerds existed (believe me, they were getting it from both sides on this one), but Family Matters was a breath of fresh air compared to the “black suburban family as the earthly manifestation of Jesus” vibes of The Cosby Show. Steve displayed what sociologists call “folkway violations” constantly throughout the show, and while it could and sometimes did get old, it was certainly more realistic than, say, Bill Cosby’s strict edict that no teenage boys could ever have long hair, for example.
Look, I know why Urkel gets on people’s nerves. He routinely let himself into the Winslows’ home without being invited, constantly flirted with their daughter Laura despite her having no interest in him (at least not until the final few seasons), he was often self-centered and flaunted qualities he didn’t have, was insensitive to the feelings of people around him, especially when they wanted him to leave, and frequently endangered the Winslows with his untested inventions.
I’ve seen the show. I know where you’re coming from.
It’s not like they intentionally set out to make the most grating character they could. On the one hand, the show made it clear that no matter how much the family might like Steve as a person, he annoyed the hell out of them, and they were probably better off without him. Laura, in particular, had her life disrupted by Steve, as he constantly chased off potential suitors, though he was often revealed to have done the right thing in the end. And yes, in retrospect, you probably could make the case that he essentially just sexually harassed her until she gave in, but going back and watching it play out in real time, it honestly doesn’t come off that way.
On the other hand, Steve was often portrayed as a lonely, depressed person whose own family wanted nothing to do with him, and for all his failings, he had a good heart. And most of Steve’s positive growth over the show resulted from him changing to meet everyone else’s needs, instead of both parties meeting each other halfway, so, you know, mixed messages.
I won’t lie to you, Family Matters wasn’t a great show. It came about in an age when the idea of releasing TV shows on home media was in its nascence, a cost-prohibitive process that rendered the idea of releasing every single episode of a show not only laughably unlikely, but an idea that would only appeal to rich hobbyists with no social life. As such, this was an age when sitcom writers had no guilt about reusing their scripts every three weeks or so. I actually sat down and counted this: in season four, there’s a story where Carl finally gets fed up and throws Steve out of the house for good, only to realize he actually does care about him, and we get this four separate times!
So, yes, it wasn’t that great of a show to begin with, and the fad that sprung up around Steve as a merchandising icon got old really fast.
Why are we still dealing with this?
Well, if Urkel can be said to have a legacy (as the title of this article would imply), it’s that Jaleel White was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back in regards to representations of geeks in the media. Jaleel White wasn’t a “real” geek, and neither were the writers of the show, so in typical overreacting fashion, people online tend to recall this innocuous family fun-fest as a “nerd minstrel show”.
Are we starting to see how all this is fitting together? Steve Urkel kicks off, in a big way, a backlash within geekdom where shows (and their fans) have to prove that they’re “real geeks”, and if they contain anything that reminds them of Urkel, or smacks of a geek property trying to reach a broader audience, by, oh, I don’t know, recognizing certain demographic shifts, you get shrieks from fanboys about how “Hollywood’s just not taking X seriously!”
That’s the word that really galls me every time this ignorant bullshit comes up: “Seriously”. Like everyone just assumed Idris Elba was going to spend his scenes in Thor making wisecracks the whole time. Putting black people in your nerd movie is only turning it into a comedy if you judge a movie solely on the comments the trailer gets on YouTube.
As we march towards a more inclusive society, there are a whole bunch of humps we all need to get over, but within the geekosphere, there are three specific things that we need to let go of: 1) Urkel is not as offensive as you remember him being, 2) The Fifth Element was not as good as you keep telling yourself it was, and finally, 3) without Jar Jar, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan would have been stuck on Naboo and the rest of the series would have never happened!
I’m not naïve enough to think that a mediocre sitcom about a kid with Asperger’s can make someone racist, but by holding onto these seemingly innocent bugbears, we sure are making it easier for people to stay racist. Food for thought.