The Weekly Pop: Episode #9: The Trojan (Race) War

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Episode 9:  The Trojan (Race) War

Title slide for The Weekly Pop

So, it’s been awhile since my last episode.  Life got in the way and well, that’s all I got.  But I’ve had a couple episodes in that I’ve been thinking about so we’re getting down to this first one!

So I want to talk about Troy: Fall of a City today because it gave me all the feels and also, a lot of frustration.  This was a BBC production that dropped on Netflix in April of 2018. Tales of The Iliad and The Odyssey always fascinate and excite me.  I enjoy these stories and that has as much to do with my upbringing in a white, Western, middle-class patriarchal world as it does with enjoying the storytelling and appreciating a good mythological tapestry such as Greek mythology has to offer.  

I went through this 8 episode series pretty quick and enjoyed some of the takes on it. I think in some ways, it’s a powerful retelling in that  it works to tell as many of the stories around the Trojan War as possible into a coherent whole and it shows why the Trojan War as a film has never succeeded--there’s just too much going on and too many different stories to do it justice.  The result is that they often just focus on one or two characters (such as Achilles) and we lose the depths of everyone else.

Well, this series gave us many different characters to trace throughout the series and that part was done well.  The execution of the tale and the ways in which the passions, vices, foibles, and earnestness of each character also shows through.  I really enjoyed it. They did that well. In fact, I hope they decide to do season 2 with the Odyssey or maybe, The Oresteia. It could all work quite effectively.  

But this show isn’t about just praising, rather unpacking and I want to unpack the use of race in this show, because well, to say it’s complicated, undersells it.  First let me say, they integrate people of color into this version of the Trojan war, which is not only great but in all likelihood--historically accurate, given the trading, socializing, and interconnections that occurred in the Mediterranean Sea, where the tale is set.

So kudos for not backing away from that since historically, most visual depictions of the Trojan war do...also, kudos for including people of color as both leaders, soldiers, and yes, even gods (Zeus and Athena).  And the main star of the Trojan war, Achilles and his best man, Patroklos are also people of color.

All of this is great representation on the one hand and problematic portrayals on the other and I want to unpack that in today’s episode.

Quickly, let’s deal with Zeus and Athena as gods and goddesses of color.  Check out this clip of the beauty contest of goddesses:

Ok, so Zeus is black, but Athena--whose birth was to spring forth from Zeus’ head is still black but significantly lighter.  Now, Athena is the goddess of wisdom--should we take this to mean that wisdom is a much whiter concept?

Then there is the case of Aphrodite--she’s nearly alabaster and vivid red hair, which seems strange since she is the child of Zeus and Hera.  Also notice, that Aphrodite, the pale-skinned goddess that she is--gets to be defined as beauty. A version of beauty that more aligns with the UK where it was produced than where it actually takes place.  So as you can see, within the first few minutes of the show, it has raised some problems with how it presents race.

But Achilles is the character that we need to talk about.  He is the character that there is so much to talk about.

Our first introduction to Achilles is when Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks and others are trying to keep him busy because Agamemnon is about to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. Iphigenia was originally pledged to Achilles but in order for the Greeks to go to Troy, Agamemnon must sacrifice, Iphigenia, his daughter in order for the winds to carry them.  So the betrothed Iphigenia is killed by Agamemnon so that they can go and get Menelaus’s wife who left him. Hold that in your head, we’ll come back to it.

We’ll jump ahead an episode.  At one point, Achilles sneaks into Troy and into Helen’s bedroom. Here, he threatens her with violence and rape.

I should warn viewers--yes, there is some violence towards women that implies sexual violence in this clip.  

Again, hold that in your head.

Later on, Achilles, the loved and powerful warrior and leader of his men, we see him commit a raid wherein he takes two women: Chriseis and Briseis.  Chriseis goes to Agamemnon, where he rapes her repeatedly and treats her like a slave. By contrast, Achilles is kind and gives choices to his slave, Briseis.  

Then, we have a strange, beautiful, and highly problematic scene with Achilles.  

While the hints have been there previously about Achilles’ sexuality, we get this scene that on one hand is one of the more tender moments among lovers.  Again, there’s much to unpack here, but I just want you to think about this one.

The next morning, we find Agamemnon demanding that he takes Achilles slave because he has had to give up his own.  Rather than fight over it, Achilles obeys war commander but then refuses to fight anymore.

While Achilles is sidelined, the Trojans attack the supply lines and Patroclus, Achilles’ first officer and lover, decides to lead Achilles men against Hector and the Trojans.  And well, that doesn’t go so great. Just another heads up--this scene depicts violence and death:

In this scene, we watched as the predominantly white Greeks sit around and watch Hector kill Patroclus.  Achilles is the only other visible person of color here and Hector’s comment belies blame upon Achilles as if it is his fault that Patroclus is dead.   Think about the visuals of this scene as we go forward.

Next, we see the battle between Achilles and Hector, and Hector raised as the salvation of Troy--the last great hope--only to die by Achilles’ hands.  To this point, we see that Achilles is either a passionate lover or a enraged fighter, playing into the stereotype of the hypersexualized and rage-filled person of color.

Heads up:  This scene as well includes violence, dismemberment, and death.

We then find Priam beseeching Achilles to allow him to bury his son and allow for 12 days of mourning.  Achilles accepts this and confronts Agamemnon who continues to be outraged by Achilles who is there to be seen, not heard.  Achilles’ demand for honor is met with a derogatory “bastard”.

From here, things get more funky.  Agamemnon decides that waiting is not sufficient and so he sets up a plot wherein one of Achilles men is killed by other Greeks but blamed on the Trojans.  This rallies Achilles to fight with the Greeks and attack. Filled with rage, Achilles clears a path through the Greeks, only to find himself confronted by Amazons to which he slaughters them quickly.  Again, the following scene--lots of violence and death.

So it’s after this, that Achilles gets close to the city’s gates and finds Priam.  As they fight, Paris arrives and shoots him from behind through--his Achilles heel, of course.  As he dies, Achilles realizes that he has been tricked.

One more time with feeling:  This scene includes violence and death.  

So, let’s recap.

  • Agamemnon kills his own daughter so they can go off to war rather than have her marry Achilles.
  • Achilles threatens Helen with rape.
  • Agamemnon rapes his own slave & must return her because the gods demand it.
  • Achilles engages in a menage a troi with Patroclus and Briseis--who, as a slave, can’t give consent.
  • Immediately after, Briseis is taken from Achilles for Agamemnon’s pleasure without Achilles doing anything besides refusing to fight.
  • Patroclus is then killed.
  • Achilles faces off against Hector and wins.
  • Achilles is tricked into fighting by Agamemnon and Odysseus.
  • Achilles is killed.  

Now, on face value, there is not much to say about this, but in casting person of color in the role, well, it gets complicated because historically, the intersection of masculinity, sexuality, and race have usually been a place with which to further marginalize people of color and in many ways, this holds true.  

First, Agamemnon would rather sacrifice --kill his daughter--than have her end up with Achilles.  Then, we have the menage-a-troi. This scene was so frustrating. The first is that it decides that Achilles cannot be gay but must be bisexual.

Well, so what, you might argue--they all were back then.  But Achilles is the only one depicted as such and he ends up dead.  Also, the idea that he might be bisexual and we know this because he has a ménage à trois further perpetuates stereotypes about bisexuals.

But in his tenderness towards both Patroclus and Briseis is wonderful to see, yet again, all three of them end up dead.  Helen doesn’t. Agamemnon doesn’t (though he gets his in the Oresteia--sort of). Menelaus doesn’t. But the bisexual black male does.  

There’s also the relationship between Achilles and Briseis.  She is a slave; Achilles may be kind to her but she is not free.  We see this when he tells Agamemnon to “take her.” And if she isn’t free, then that means her ability to give consent is drastically diminished.  While the scene is tender and implicit with consent, Briseis, ultimately has agency only if Achilles allows her. Thus, we get the perpetuation of the idea that there were “good slave owners”--inevitably ironic because we have a black man as the kind owner.  

Then, we also have the scene of Patroclus’ death.  All these white men standing around, watching and cheering a black man get murdered. It has all the echoes of lynchings, wherein the assumed threat of a black man is enough to justify his death (in this case, it is the assumption that Patroclus is Achilles).

And, of course, we have Hector the hero facing off against Achilles.  The battle again, reminds me of Jack Johnson and the Great White Hope. Again, there is this idea that Achilles represents such great physical prowess and ability that he alone--the black man--is what the elite, sophisticated and largely white Trojans fear so much.  In fact, after Achilles’ death, they now fully believe they can win.

Finally, we have the fooling of and betrayal of Achilles by his very own people.  Here again, we see that we’re meant to appreciate Achilles for his fighting and rage, but that he can be easily fooled and tricked.  He is a weapon to be used and abused by his white commanders--or masters.

I’m hoping by now you can see that the use of black identity with Achilles opens up all sorts of questions and plays upon all sorts of stereotypes in place about people of color.  I don’t know whether this was intentionally done or not. If they did it intentionally, I feel like they could have done more to make viewers think about how portraying Achilles as a person of color does change our understanding of the Trojan war.  However, I’m more inclined to believe they chose Achilles for the convenience--he is after all, a terminal character within the Trojan war--as important as he is--he dies; so just like with horror films, this series manages to present itself as presenting a diverse cast but then largely those who remain to lead, were the white Greeks.  

One note: Aeneas, a Trojan hero is also a person of color and he is largely kept in the background throughout the 8 episodes, brought forward at the end to continue the legacy of Troy.  But his lineage and how he ends up being a person of color and still first cousin to Priam seems as utterly confusing as Aphrodite’s genealogy. All of which is to say--he defies the logic of the story and feels tossed in with little thought (which is not a reflection of the specific actor or any of the actors that I’ve talked about here--more about the writing, casting, and directorial decisions.).    

Now, to be fair, I realize that even if they switched out people of color with the gods & goddess or Achilles with others--say Odysseus, it could equally be spun critically to say, “Look, you made the most manipulative of the bunch into a person of color.”  Therefore, one might argue, “you’re damned if you do; you’re damned if you don’t.” Maybe there are kernels of truth to that, but I think it’s more a matter of they wanted to pay lip service to this idea of being racially integrated rather than thinking completely through and that continues to be the criticism that media never seems to get right.  They want to talk a big game about diversity and they certainly profit from it, but they rarely want to actually embrace what an inclusive mindset looks like.

So that’s my thought for today in pop culture.    All right, that’s all for today. Have you seen Troy: Fall of a City?  What did you think of it? What do you think about their portrayal of race?    I’d love to hear your thoughts or if you have other good examples!

In general,  I’d just love to hear from you about the show!  So, please post them in the comments below or hit me up on Twitter.

See you next week!  Keep popping; keep thinking!

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