Race and Gender: A Timeless Issue Nov08

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Race and Gender: A Timeless Issue

Promotional image from NBC's Timeless.
I expect a show about time travel to ask difficult questions like: “How much do we alter history?”, “Should we let people die just because they’re already dead in the future?”, and “Why can’t we kill Hitler? What I appreciate most about NBC’s Timeless is that it doesn’t shy away from dealing with the awful way women and people of colour have been treated throughout history.

The premise of the show is pretty simple: a terrorist, Garcia Flynn, hijacks a newly-made time machine from Mason Industries and attempts to alter certain events in American history. In response, Homeland Security tasks the show’s three protagonists—history professor Lucy Preston, Master Sergeant Wyatt Logan, and engineer Rufus Carlin—with following Flynn in a second time machine to preserve history and take him down.

In the first episode, Rufus is adamant that he doesn’t want to go, and tells his boss, “There is literally no place in American history that will be awesome for me.”

Every one of us wishes we had the freedom to tell off our harassers like Lucy does.

As a black man, Rufus is all too aware of how he will be perceived if he goes back in time, but as the only pilot trained to handle the time machine, he is required to go. The show is peppered with humorous quips (“The back of the bus was amazing!”says Rufus in 1937) and more poignant moments in which Rufus deals with a legacy of racism and marginalization.

In “The Murder of Jesse James,” Lucy, Wyatt, and Rufus track down the famous outlaw, who has been recruited by Flynn. To do so, they team up with Bass Reeves, the first black deputy U.S. Marshal. Reeves is thought to be the inspiration for the popular character the Lone Ranger, who fought outlaws in the Wild West with his Native American sidekick, Tonto (who has a problematic name, since “Tonto” means “fool” in Spanish). However, in the TV show, comic books, and movies, the Lone Ranger is white.

At the end of the episode, Jesse James is dead and brought in by Reeves. A reporter asks Reeves if he led the group who brought Jesse James to justice and Reeves says he didn’t. He begins to ride away but Rufus catches up with him and they have this exchange:

Rufus: You should talk to him. You should talk to a lot of reporters.
Reeves: Why?
Rufus: Because if you don’t tell your story, someone else might. Some white dick in a mask might end up the legend instead of you. People are going to want to know your story—today, tomorrow, maybe even a hundred years from now.
Reeves: I’m not doing this for them.

Reeves doesn’t know that one day his accomplishments will be attributed to a white man and Rufus is frustrated by that knowledge. Rufus’s current time in present-day America is still plagued with racism and marginalization everyday, and he struggles when facing opportunities to influence the past because he wants the future to be better for people like him.

As a woman, Lucy encounters her own set of challenges. She is often underestimated and treated with condescension. In the episode “Last Ride of Bonnie and Clyde,” she tries to open a bank account while Wyatt does some recon, only to be asked by the manager if she has permission from her father or husband.

In “Space Race,” while undercover at NASA during the Apollo 11 mission, Lucy experiences the casual sexism of the workplace. After she is called “sweetheart,” ordered to get coffee, and grabbed by a male colleague she says: “Trust me, you do not want to drink the cup of coffee I would bring you after grabbing me like that. And, by the way, my name is not ‘doll’ or ‘sweetheart’ or anything else that sounds like a baby. The women here have actual names. I’m sure you can learn their names. It’s not that hard, kind of like making coffee for yourself. You’re a rocket scientist; figure it out.”

A few other women watch with shock and delight as Lucy stands up for them. Unfortunately, women still experience sexism in the workplace everyday and I’m sure every one of us wishes we had the freedom to tell off our harassers like Lucy does.

There are so many stories of women and people of colour that have been ignored or forgotten.

Because of its format and diverse cast, Timeless is uniquely positioned to address historic wrongs while, at the same time, producing an entertaining hour of TV. It could very easily have an all-white cast, but the creators, Shawn Ryan and Eric Kripke, were intentional about casting people of colour. “I’m not trying to make a message or be overly earnest. I just want to entertain people,” Kripke told Revelist. “But we wanted to present an honest version of history. We want to say, if you’re a black man walking around in 1937 New Jersey, there’s going to be an honest reality to what that is, and we don’t want to sugarcoat it.”

History was recorded by the winners, who were usually white men. There are so many stories of women and people of colour that have been ignored or forgotten because they weren’t deemed important enough to write down. But Timeless goes out of its way to include many of these forgotten people, like Katherine Johnson, a mathematician at NASA who was also a black woman, and Sophia Hayden, an architect and the first woman to complete a degree at MIT.

I don’t know if it was only the voices of the fans that encouraged NBC to renew the show after it had been officially canceled, but support for Timeless was overwhelming and it’s getting a second season. This gives me hope, because content that challenges racism and sexism helps normalize the conversation and educates viewers; if we are vocal about our need for media to address these issues, people might listen, and these conversations can spread.

Kyla Neufeld

Kyla Neufeld

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Kyla is a poet, writer, and editor. She writes about various sci-fi and fantasy series, and is interested in the intersections between geek culture, feminism, and social justice. She lives in Winnipeg with her husband, the Sith Lord, and her daughter, the Nazgûl child.
Kyla Neufeld

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