The LXD: Where are the women?
How am I supposed to feel when a piece of entertainment is a huge step forward for one kind of much needed diversity, but about three steps backwards for others?
This question arose when I finally started catching up on the superhero/dance web series The LXD, which aired on Hulu back in 2010-2011. There's a war brewing between good and evil, and gifted dancers can generate and control special power. The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers is the force for good, and they're up against two separate factions of supervillains. The series starts as new members are being recruited for the Legion, while the enemy is also gathering its forces.
I saw raves from various bloggers at the time it aired about how groundbreaking this series was for diversity, and I like both dance and superheroes. So I bought the DVD of Seasons 1 and 2 as soon as I found out it was available... and then lent it to my mother in law and didn't get it back for a couple of years. (She's a fan of So You Think You Can Dance, I should have realized that was a risk!)
Now that I've watched the DVD, though, I have extremely mixed feelings about seeing Season 3 which is only available online.
For racial and ethnic diversity, The LXD is indeed a breath of fresh air. Its casting actually looks like reality. There are some white folks, of course, but there are also a LOT of people of color. As a bonus, any doubts I had about the dancers = superheroes setup being cheesy were washed away. There's a little awkwardness here and there where it feels a little silly, and the over-the-top narration that introduces each episode gets tiresome pretty fast. But beyond that, the premise really works. The first season shows us the dancers who become recruits gaining their powers in all the classic ways that superheroes do: inherited from their families (Trevor Drift), exposure to a contaminant (Jimmy Angel and Justin Starr), an accident that requires lifesaving surgery (Sp3cimen), finding an artifact with special powers (Elliot Hoo), hard work (Stereo, Phono, and Minijack), and pure talent, possibly fueled by some anger issues (Copeland).
They're predominantly people of color.
Not a single one of them, though, is female.
At the end of the first season, when the eight recruits show up for training, C-Man said "Are you sure LXD doesn't stand for Legion of Extraordinary Dudes?"
There are female characters in the first season. There's a girl that Trevor Drift thinks is cute. She mostly watches him be awesome. The Dark Nurse dances on pointe a little bit in one episode without saying a word. Sp3cimen's wife gets a dance, as a puppet under the Dark Doctor's control. Miss Harlow, the secretary, gets a few lines at the beginning of one episode. There are a couple of girls in the crew with Stereo, Phono, and Minijack, but they are sidelined in the dances and not selected for the Legion.
And there's one full dance that features Ninjato, the only woman we see who's a member of the Legion. Her dance is about lost love. She gets kidnapped and used as bait. Who saw that coming, right?
In the second season, the new recruits enter the Legion's training school, where all of the teachers are male. We see a couple of female students. One of them is an appreciative audience for Trevor Drift. One of them does a little bit of dancing in the hallway. Trevor goes on a date with his girl and she wants him to quit the LXD.
We also learn more about both of the evil factions. The Dark Doctor's forces are completely male. The Dark Nurse gets to say a couple of sentences this season. We get a few lines from the Dark Doctor's mother in a flashback. The other evil faction, Organization X, has 2 or 3 female members, and mostly they get to look goth and spin some candles during one of the scenes where half a dozen guys are dancing. Then late in the season, the sexy evil mermaids show up. Yes, sexy evil mermaids, who sneak up on the poor innocent recruits while they're trying to enjoy a nice night out at the club. They were surgically altered to have legs long ago, you see, and now they're mad and give good guys quasi-lap dances and drown them on dry land.
In the last episode of Season 2, predictably, the LXD folks go to rescue Ninjato. They get their asses handed to them. In the last few minutes, the Legion's approximately 8-10 elders show up to bail them out. ONE of the elders is a woman.
If my listing out all of the gals makes it sound like there are a lot of women, then I have done something wrong. I list them out because I'm grasping at straws.
The Step Up films all follow the same basic formula: take forms of dance that have historically come from communities of color, cast pretty white dancers in the lead roles + people of color in a majority of the supporting roles, and write one of your white leads as a rebellious teenager from the wrong side of the tracks. The rebel helps the other white lead find his/her true artistic potential, while the non-rebel white lead helps the rebel calm down and integrate a little better into society. They outshine and often "save" all the other dancers by establishing the true meaning of dance, etc. Also they kiss each other a lot.
I hoped that The LXD would be able to move past this pattern because it was NOT produced by a major motion picture studio, though PUMA was a sponsor. What would Chu do with more freedom?
Giving credit where credit is due, he did a lot. The LXD rips out the "white leads + romance" part of the Step Up formula, placing people of color in positions of authority and mastery throughout the LXD organization. The team of new recruits is a true multicultural ensemble, and if anyone's being pushed toward the front, it's probably Trevor Drift who reads as Hispanic. Several of the dancers in The LXD were in Step Up 2 and/or 3D and they get more of a chance to shine here, rather than playing second fiddle to white dancers.
BUT! Chu also worked with LOTS of extremely talented female dancers - especially women of color! - in Step Up 2 and Step Up 3D, and even Step Up Revolution which I try not to admit I've seen. You can barely find a group of dancers in any of those films that is not integrated by background/identity and by gender despite the white savior plotline. Where did all these gals go? Were Mari Koda, Danielle Polanco, Telisha Shaw, and all the other amazing female dancers from these three films' combined casts busy with other jobs that year? And all other female dancers too? (That would of course be awesome, if that's what happened.)
I was also turned off by the repeated use of "insane asylum" imagery. Wild-haired patients in straightjackets, foaming at the mouth? Not cool! It's imagery that perpetuates negative stereotypes of people with mental illness. Very disappointing. I'm not sure how to explain the wrongness of this kind of portrayal if you don't already get it. So I went and found some good pieces that cover aspects of this topic. Try Nobody Wins When Horror Games Stigmatize Mental Illness (applicable to all media) and Mental Illness: How the Media Contributes To Its Stigma.
No media is perfect, of course, or we wouldn't need blog posts like How to be a fan of problematic things. The LXD does one thing very well, despite its significant failings in other areas, which still sadly puts it ahead of many other films and television shows. If I were using the Heroine Content ratings scale (my old film blog), though, I'd only be able to give it 2 Stars meaning "So Close."
And we shall see if I make time to watch Season 3...