Sleepy Hollow and the Issues of Diversity and Antisemitism

MV5BODk0Nzg3OTAwMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDM0OTIzMDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_At this time last year I was elated. I had a new favorite TV show—Sleepy Hollow on FOX. Based on Washington Irving’s stories The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, Sleepy Hollow is a TV show with a humorous, yet respectful, take on the American Revolution in the 21st century. What made Sleepy Hollow stand out from other shows was the updated premises of these three narratives by introducing a diverse cast, unparalleled on TV.

Sleepy Hollow‘s season one was fun, exhilarating, and groundbreaking. In contrast, season two has lost its direction, white-washed its core cast of characters, and given air-time to antisemitic prejudice.

The Issue of Diversity
The two main characters of Sleepy Hollow are African-American police officer Abigail Mills (Nichole Behari) and Caucasian Oxford history professor Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison). Ichabod and Abigail have been chosen as Witnesses who need to work together to stop the End of Days. With a team of allies, Ichabod and Abigail take on the demon of the week to prevent evil from taking over the world.

In season one, the people surrounding Ichabod and Abigail were
Jenny Mills (Lyndie Greenwood). Abigail’s sister who, unbeknownst to Abigail, for years had been working on preventing the End of Days by becoming an artifacts expert.
Frank Irving (Orlando Jones). Police captain of the town of Sleepy Hollow and Abigail’s superior.
Luke Morales (Nicholas Gonzalez). Abigail’s colleague and ex-boyfriend.
Andy Brooks (John Cho). Abigail’s colleague who has joined the dark side and is working towards the End of Days.
Katrina Crane (Katia Winter). Ichabod’s wife who is imprisoned alive in purgatory.
Henry Parrish (John Bishop). A Sin Eater who helps Ichabod and Abigail solve mysteries. In a plot twist typical of season one, Henry turns out to be Ichabod and Katrina’s son.
Cynthia Irving (Jill Marie Jones). Frank’s ex-wife.
Macey Irving (Amandla Stenberg). Frank’s daughter, confined to a wheelchair after being hit by a drunk driver.
The Headless Horseman (several credits). The first horseman of the Apocalypse, the Horseman of Death.
Of these characters four are African-American, one is Asian-American, one is Latino, and two are Caucasian.

Jenny Mills (Lindy Greenwood)

Jenny Mills (Lindy Greenwood)

From a point of view of diversity, my two favorite episodes of season one are Necromancer and The Vessel. In Necromancer, Ichabod and Abigail work together with Jenny and Frank to capture the Apocalyptic Horseman of Death and convince Andy to be the Horseman’s interpreter. In The Vessel, Macey is possessed by a demon. Jenny and Abigail perform an exorcism that frees Macey of the demon, while Ichabod, Frank, and Cynthia stand watching.

In season two, the people surrounding Ichabod and Abigail are
Katrina Crane, who has been liberated from purgatory.
Henry Parrish, who has become the second Horseman of the Apocalypse, the Horseman of War.
Frank Irving, who is incarcerated at a mental institution for a murder he didn’t commit.
Jenny Mills, who has joined Ichabod and Abigail’s team after reconciling with Abigail in season one.
Leena Reyes (Sakina Jaffrey). Sleepy Hollow’s new police captain.
The Headless Horseman/Abraham van Brunt (Neil Jackson). The first Horseman of the Apocalypse, The Horseman of Death. Also, Ichabod’s best friend and Katrina’s former fiance.
Nick Hawley (Matt Barr). An expert in occult artifacts.
Of these characters, four are Caucasian, two are African-American, one is Latino, and none is Asian-American.

Frank Irving (Orlando Jones)

Frank Irving (Orlando Jones)

Throughout season two, each episode centers on Ichabod, Abigail, Hawley, Katrina, Henry, and Abraham. Jenny, Frank, and Sheriff Reyes are pushed to the side. More energy is spent on the love triangle between Katrina, Ichabod, and Abraham than on the actual fight against evil. Hawley becomes the go-to person for artifact expertise instead of Jenny. Frank manages to escape from the institution where he is held only to be shot and killed in the mid-season finale.

In other words, Sleepy Hollow has turned itself into a white-washed soap opera where persons of color are disposable spectators.

 

The Issue of Antisemitism
Frank’s death is not the only issue that needs to be discussed regarding the mid-season finale of Sleepy Hollow‘s second season. Because not only is the only black man on the cast killed, the words and deeds of Henry Parrish are steeped in classic antisemitism.

The mid-season finale was divided into two parts. In the first part, the demon Moloch enters our world from purgatory. In the second part, Moloch attempts to take over the world.

Moloch enters our world when Henry, in accordance to the Book of Revelations, sounds a trumpet. In Sleepy Hollow, the trumpet that Henry sounds is in fact a shofar. A shofar is a ram’s horn used during the synagogue service on Rosh HaShana.

A Temani (Yemenite Jewish) style shofar makde from a horn of the greater kudu. Photo: Olve Utne

A Temani (Yemenite Jewish) style shofar made from a horn of the greater kudu. Photo: Olve Utne

In Judaism, the blowing of the shofar symbolizes many things. For example, it symbolizes the human heart calling to God and God hearing that call. The shofar also symbolizes calling for the future and the arrival of the Messiah. The fact that the shofar is made from a ram’s horn alludes to the Biblical story of the Binding of Isaac, admittedly one of the most controversial and difficult to understand passages of the Bible. Instead of sacrificing Isaac, God gave Abraham a ram to sacrifice. In other words, the shofar symbolizes the close connection between the Jewish nation and God.

When Henry blows the shofar to summon Moloch, the symbolism of the shofar is perverted. Instead of the human heart calling to God and God hearing that call, Henry’s evil heart calls to Moloch and Moloch hears him. Instead of calling for the future and the Messiah, Henry calls for the end of the world and a demon.

In the second part of the mid-season finale, Henry speaks of the Binding of Isaac. He twists the story and speaks of the Hebrew God as being a cruel God unworthy of the faith of human kind.

The actions and words of Henry Parrish call upon centuries-old antisemitic prejudice and hate-speech towards Jews. Using the shofar to summon Moloch is an example of the antisemitic myth that Jews practice black magic. Sleepy Hollow is not the only example of this happening in entertainment. For example, Ingmar Bergman used this myth in the movie Fanny and Alexander, where a Jewish father and son practiced voodoo-styled black magic on a doll to rid Fanny and Alexander of an abusive stepfather. But seeing it in Sleepy Hollow, a show that has made its name from being culturally and ethnically diverse, is shocking.

Henry’s twisting of the Binding of Isaac and denouncement of the Hebrew God stems from the antisemitic interpretation of the Christian idea of the Second Covenant. The First Covenant happened at Sinai, when God gave the Jewish nation the Ten Commandments and the Torah. This covenant was annulled with the arrival of Christ, whose death for the sins of mankind marked the beginning of the Second Covenant. The core idea of the Second Covenant is that the God of the Jews is cruel and damning, while the God of the Christians is loving and caring. It is the idea of the Second Covenant taken to its extreme that lies at the roots of the pogroms in Europe throughout the centuries, including the Holocaust.

Henry’s blowing of the shofar to summon Moloch and his twisted interpretation of the Binding of Isaac, combined with the white-washing of the cast and the shooting of Frank Irving, has made Sleepy Hollow one of the most racist shows on American television.

Season two of Sleepy Hollow picks up again in January 2015. What do I think about that? Well, to continue on the theme of racism in entertainment, let me quote Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources
James Carroll Constantine’s Sword. The Church and the Jews. A History (Mariner Books, 2002)
The Meaning of the Shofar Part 1
The Meaning of the Shofar Part 2
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Sleepy Hollow (2013– )

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Sleepy Hollow, Starbucks and the American Revolution

In the preview for the upcoming TV-show Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane, newly awakened from a slumber lasting more than two hundred years, reacts to the number of Starbucks there are. It is clear that what surprises him isn’t Starbucks as such, but the large amount of coffee shops on each block. The historian in me immediately asked, how plausible would it be for Ichabod Crane to be familiar with the concept of Starbucks? Then I realized the stupidity of my own question. Of course Ichabod Crane would be familiar with it. It’s a coffeehouse!

The TV-series Sleepy Hollow is loosely based on the story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, written by Washington Irving (1783–1859). Irving is best known today for two of his short-stories of which Sleepy Hollow is one, the other one being Rip Van Winkle. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle were first published in the same story collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819–1820), and are based on themes found in German folktales.

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Portrait of Washington Irving (1809) by John Wesley Jarvis (1780–1840)

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow tells the story of the not-so likeable schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane, who moves to the small town of Sleepy Hollow. Being poor, Crane’s purpose in life is his own self-advancement. Therefore, he begins courting Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter and heiress of a local, wealthy farmer. Crane’s rival is Abraham Van Brunt. Knowing that Crane has come to believe in the local lore of ghost stories, Van Brunt decides to play tricks on Crane. One late night, on his way home from Katrina Van Tassel’s, Crane is pursued by a seemingly headless horseman. This incident is so distressing for the schoolteacher that Ichabod Crane is never seen in Sleepy Hollow again.

The_Headless_Horseman_Pursuing_Ichabod_Crane
The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane (1858) by John Quidor (1801–1881)

Washington Irving published The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in 1819-1820, but the story is considered to take place in the 1790s. Although not much of the original story seems to have been brought into the upcoming TV-series, the fact remains that the Ichabod Crane, who reacted to the amount of Starbucks on each block, is a man who lived during the eighteenth century. Him being able to relate to the concept of Starbucks is therefore not a surprise.

The reason for this is that in eighteenth-century North America, the coffeehouse was an integral part of the social life of free, white males. It was at the coffeehouse that such men gathered to gossip, to socialize, to debate, to do business and to receive the latest news.

The North American coffeehouse is part of a way of socializing, introduced into Europe with the introduction of coffee, which came from the Middle East and North Africa by way of Venice. Not long after coffee had been introduced in an area, coffeehouses began appearing and came to play an important part in politics and business. For example, the world’s largest insurance company, Lloyd’s, began as a coffeehouse in London.

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Roasted coffee beans
Source: GOELE

The North American coffeehouses were important during the struggle for Independence from the British Empire (1776–1784). Because of their function as arenas for politics, debate, business and socializing, it was at the coffeehouses that decrees from the British government were read to the public. And it was at the coffeehouses that the public voiced their concerns regarding these decrees. Moreover, once the Declaration of Independence had been signed, it was first read to the public at the Merchant Coffee House in Philadelphia.

Today, the continuation of the tradition of the North American coffeehouse as a public arena for business and socializing can be witnessed in places such as Starbucks. When you walk in to order your hot beverage of choice, you will see people engaged with their laptops, college textbooks or attending a business meeting. If the North American coffeehouses of the twenty-first century will become arenas for the initiation of a revolution is doubtful. However, drinking coffee is in itself a revolutionary act. The Patriots of the eighteenth-century chose coffee over tea to demonstrate their opposition to the British Empire.

I will watch Sleepy Hollow when it begins airing on September 16. The preview looked interesting enough to give it a shot. Also, John Cho is part of the cast, which of course is a bonus.

If you are interested in the role of coffeehouses as meeting places for revolutionaries, go to the blog post Lenin Never Lived in Vienna.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Benjamin L Carp Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution (Oxford, 2007)
Britannica.com Washington Irving
Britannica.com The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Britannica.com Ichabod Crane
Britannica.com Coffee
International Coffee Organization The Story of Coffee
Sleepy Hollow

Note:
The images in this blog post have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.
This blog post is featured at Suvudu Universe.

Update: From Bruce Lee to John Cho

When writing, especially fiction, the subconscious has a tendency to play tricks on you. You have an idea that you wish to convey and you have created a setting that will help you in this endeavor. But once the story begins to take shape it is as if you are channeling a part of you that somehow functions independently from you. That is how I ended up with a love story where the male protagonist is Korean.

What is surprising to me in this development is that I have no connection whatsoever to anything Korean. After wracking my brain, trying to figure out how my male protagonist could come to life in this way, I have begun to suspect that it could come from three Korean-American actors whose work I appreciate, namely Daniel Dae Kim, Steven Yeun and John Cho.

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Daniel Dae Kim at 2008 Emmy Awards.
Source: Greg Hernandez, Flickr

I know Daniel Dae Kim (b.1968) mostly from his work on the TV-show Lost (2004-2010) where he played the Korean businessman Jin Kwon, who is married to Sun Kwon, played by Yunjin Kim. Throughout the seasons of Lost, Kim portrayed Jin Kwon in a great display of his skills as an actor. Unfortunately Kim has not been granted this opportunity to the same extent on the show where he currently can be seen, Hawaii 5-0, which in many ways is a show inferior to Lost. What Lost and Hawaii 5-0 do have in common is that in both shows Kim is a member of an ensemble cast led by Matthew Fox and Alex O’Loughlin, respectively.

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Steven Yeun at the Detroit Fanfare 2011
Source: Tony Shek

Steven Yeun (b. 1983) portrays one of my favorite characters in the on-going TV-series The Walking Dead, Glenn Rhee. Just as with Kim’s portrayal of Jin Kwon, Glenn’s story arch is a formidable one, where his relationship to Maggie Greene, played by Lauren Cohan, gives added depths to the character. Unfortunately, we don’t know that much about Glenn’s background. In Lost, the characters’ lives before the plane crash are shown through flashbacks. This narrative strategy is not implemented in The Walking Dead. After three action-packed seasons we still watch the zombie apocalypse through the eyes of the show’s lead character, Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln.

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John Cho at TV Guide panel, San Diego Comic-Con 2009
Source: Melody J Sandoval, Flickr

John Cho (b. 1972) is probably best known for his work as Hikaru Sulu in the rebooted Star Trek franchise. I first became familiar with his work through the cult classic Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle (2004). Unlike the characters portrayed by Kim and Yeun, Cho’s character Harold Lee does not experience a dramatic story arc. That privilege is given to Kal Penn’s character Kumar, although most of this development takes place in the second movie, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008). What sets Harold Lee apart from Jin Kwon and Gleen Rhee, is that Harold is in fact a romantic leading man. Harold has a crush on Maria (played by Paula Garcés), who lives in the same building as him and Kumar, and in the end Harold actually gets the girl.

800px-Bruce_Lee_Stencil
Bruce Lee wall painting, Tbilisi, Georgia
Source: Giga Paitchadze, Flickr

In the documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey (2000) it is stated that after Bruce Lee (1940–1973) there has not been an Asian actor cast as a romantic leading man in a major motion picture. The same year as the documentary came out, one such film did hit the screens, namely Romeo Must Die starring Jet Li and Aaliyah (1979–2001). Therefore, the statement about Bruce Lee can be modified, but only slightly. Since Bruce Lee, there have been two Asian actors cast in romantic leading roles: Jet Li and John Cho. However, neither of these movies are what you can call mainstream. Romeo Must Die is a martial art movie where certain fight scenes are still branded into my brain, although I haven’t seen the film again since it came out. Harold and Kumar are more in the line of Cheech and Chong and Pineapple Express than anything else.

If there are any other major motion pictures, or TV-shows for that matter, starring an Asian leading man in a romantic role, I would be interested to know. To my, admittedly limited, knowledge, there are only those I have discussed above.

Source:
http://www.imdb.com Daniel Dae Kim
http://www.imdb.com Steven Yeun
http://www.imdb.com John Cho
Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey (Directed by: John Little, 2000) http://www.danieldaekim.com

Note:
Images of Daniel Dae Kim, Steven Yeun, John Cho and Bruce Lee have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Update:
After publishing this blog post, the following blog has come to my notice: http://asianvibe.blogspot.se/2013/04/why-hollywood-wont-cast-asian-actors-to.html
Thank you, Sara Ellis Nilsson, for the tip. The views of the blog are not mine but they point towards the argument made in this post.
Furthermore, I would like to clarify that when I talk about “major motion pictures” I am referring to mainstream films produced for an American audience.