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Racial Screening in "Seeing Red". The Depiction of Whiteness and Otherness in the American Crime Series "The Mentalist"

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2017 26 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Sonstiges


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The Depiction of Ethnicity in "Seeing Red": Whiteness and Otherness
2.1 The Delineation of Otherness: Racial Stereotyping in "Seeing Red"
2.2 Irish Americanness
2.3 Asian Americanness

3 The Persistence of Whiteness in "Seeing Red"
3.1 The CBI’s Headquarters in Sacramento: A Cultureless Vacuum?
3.2 Whiteness vs. Asianness: Of Recreational Ethnicity and Biracial Buddy Cop-Teams..
3.3 Mentalist vs. Spiritual Advisor: Manipulation for the Benefit of the WASP

4 Conclusion

List of Works Cited

1 Introduction

Recent Hollywood- and prime time television productions frequently engage in the depiction of ethnicity and interethnic relations. Examples of this practice can be found in movies such as I, Robot, My Big Fat Greek Wedding or the Fast & Furious as well as in TV-series such as The Big Bang Theory, Grey’s Anatomy or Arrow. All of these filmic depictions contain scenes in which personal and professional relationships are built by individuals of different ethnic backgrounds. Ryden and Marshall thus conclude that there are more and more movies and series on the market that “show integrated friendships and workplaces without mention of racialized subject positions” (2). The multiethnic society that dominates the modern U.S.A. also serves as a donor of inspirations for contemporary movie and television producers. Their depictions „constitute a rich and varied tapestry woven by several generations of moviemakers responding to the world around them“ (Friedman 32). Accordingly, the multi- facetted American society, which is characterized by a huge variety of different ethnic influences, serves as an inspiration to these producers. In order to illustrate the direct impact the U.S.’s rich ethnic diversity has on the practice of moviemaking, producers seek to engage in cultural categorizations. Hence, film and television have provided Americans with a variety of ethnic images, and while the pictures change, stereotyping has been a consistent feature of prime-time ethnic-American ones. (Holte 101)

Yet, the employment of stereotypes can function in different ways. While it may be true that there are examples of American mainstream television productions whose goal is mainly to explore the ‘immigrant other’ in contrast to the “culturally dominant”, there are, way more productions that focus on a different point of view (Anagnostou 139). In this context, my Big Fat Greek Wedding can be mentioned as an example of an exploration of the relationship between the ‘immigrant other’ and the “culturally dominant”. With regard to the second kind of portrayal, it should particularly be noted that deploying representations of ethnicity in their narratives to “superimpose Americanness as a self-ascripting category whose value orientation totally dominates any primordial ethnic conditions” forms an integral part of their filmic conception (Friedman 22). As a consequence, these productions highlight the social and cultural standards that are related to the WASP and propagate an ideal of cultural uniformity adhering to these norms. Following this line of reasoning, the norms and values of a society are no longer based on an embrace of ethnicity, but rather center on ideological factors.

Analogous to this ideological orientation, stereotypes and overgeneralizations are often used to ridicule traces of Otherness and to underline the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant of British descent’s (WASP) domination at the same time. As an example, movies such as Gran Torino, Avatar, The Blind Side or The Help feature storylines that glorify the role of whites. In order to demonstrate how this principle works, it can be mentioned that The Blind Side tells the story of a young black boy from a poor neighborhood, who is rescued and cared for by a white upper middle-class family. In Avatar it is a white soldier who basically saves the rather primitively portrayed inhabitants of the fictional world of Pandora from dying. Consequently, the ideology hidden behind these narratives in these movies always includes the propagation of white supremacist-structures.

One serial example focusing on ethnic inquiry is presented by the episode “Seeing Red” of the mystery detective series The Mentalist. The series was created by British writer and producer Bruno Heller and it first aired in 2008. It tells the story of Patrick Jane. Having worked as a clairvoyant in his past, he attracted the attention of the serial killer Red John. After this killer murdered Jane’s family, he starts to work as a consultant for the California Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in order to find Red John and to perform his revenge. In the course of his work for this agency, he helps the team solve various other crimes until he finally finds Red John. Even though this episode might at first sight be simply overlooked as another prime time crime series, a critical analysis of the production reveals its complex structure. This structure consists of interwoven social and ethnic relations that are delineated in various ways. Especially, great emphasis is put on Asianness, Irishness, and Whiteness and the way these ethnic groups socially interact with each other. Thus, this paper aims at exploring the filmic deployment of Whiteness and Otherness in specific contexts. The central hypothesis discussed in this paper is that although at first glance, the conception of “Seeing Red” seems to propagate multicultural postracial ideals of contemporary US American TV- series, it secretly serves to perpetuate the legacy of the superiority of the WASP.

In order to serve this purpose, the paper will first take a closer look at the way ethnicity is depicted in “Seeing Red”. In the center of attention are Irishness, Asianness, and Whiteness and how they are portrayed in this episode of The Mentalist. The second part of the paper will then demonstrate to what extent the employment of stereotypes in “Seeing Red” serves to perpetuate and reproduce WASP-related structures. To encode the underlying racial notions that advocate white supremacist standards, the chore cast of this episode is analyzed from a critical point of view. Lastly, the paper concludes by summarizing the main findings and giving a brief outlook on points of inquiry for future research projects in this specific context.

At this point, it is necessary to stress that this paper exclusively examines in how far the structures of social and ethnic relations in the U.S. are criticized or commented on in “Seeing Red.” To be more specific, this paper solely centers on the filmic level. In other words, the aim of this paper is by no means intended to generalize the main conclusions with regard to American social and ethnic relations.

2 The Depiction of Ethnicity in “Seeing Red”: Whiteness and Otherness

On the one hand, the main topic of “Seeing Red” can be found in the solving of criminal cases by a specific team of agents working for the California Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in Sacramento. On the other hand, I argue, the depiction of different cultural backgrounds and their (sometimes) problematic encounters also represent core issues of this episode. The storyline of “Seeing Red” focuses on solving the case of a hit-and-run murder of a middle- aged white widowed mother. In the course of the CBI’s investigation, a number of persons is interrogated. Amongst these witnesses and suspects, there are the victim’s spiritual advisor, her children and her lover. To solve the crime, the CBI-team takes every measure necessary and even takes the spiritual advisor’s Irish supernatural abilities into consideration. Although at first glance, the conception of “Seeing Red” seems to propagate multicultural postracial ideals of contemporary US American TV-series, it secretly serves to perpetuate the legacy of the superiority of the WASP. My claim is, that it does so by glorifying white standards and by simultaneously ridiculing ethnicity. Hence, this episode of The Mentalist contains a number of elements and scenes, which are on the one hand commonly associated with ethnicity and the embracement of cultural diversity. On the other hand, it also features scenes that can be identified as an instrument used for covering up WASP-coded structures and practices. As a consequence, the following chapters serve to illustrate in how far whiteness persists and “the racial status quo” is bolstered in “Seeing Red” (Bonilla-Silver 6).

In order to detect cultural differences and to illustrate to what extent whiteness still exists in modern American TV-series, it is necessary to analyze this episode with regard to features associated with ethnicity as well as WASP-coded practices. In “Seeing Red” these elements are mainly to be found in stereotypes. Such stereotypes are widely used as cultural categories, which help to differentiate between various populations on the basis of aspects and features which are commonly assigned to specific social groups or communities (Agnastou 148). Such stereotypes can for example be found in the classic filmic depiction of Irish
wearing green clothing, carrying crosses or having green eyes and red hair. Another example of such a stereotypical portrayal of ethnicity can be mentioned with regard to Asians. In films their stereotype is commonly defined by a passive, obedient, cunning or highly intelligent character. Accordingly, the analysis of visible features of stereotypes as well as those that might not be obvious at first sight, represents a core medium for the detection of ethnicity - in this also referred to as “Otherness” - and whiteness[1]. Hence, the next chapter will examine the filmic representation of cultural categorization and the reinforcement of “racial boundaries” (Bonilla-Silver 6) in “Seeing Red.”

2.1 The Delineation of Otherness: Racial Stereotyping in Seeing Red

In this episode of The Mentalist, a team of four agents working for the California Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in Sacramento, assisted by an independent consultant, not only examines the murder of a woman, but the analysis of their figures also serves to show how Whiteness and Otherness are represented. This CBI-team consists of senior agent Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney), the agents Grace Van Pelt (Amanda Righetti), Kimball Cho (Yla Timothy Kang) and Wayne Rigsby (Owain Yeoman) as well as their consultant Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) (see fig. 1).

At first sight, the team itself seems to mirror a diverse set of ethnicities. Kenny claims that this kind of ethnic diversity can be seen as a portrayal of the microcosm of a “multiracial, multi-ethnic society” (259). This microcosm is created through the deployment of stereotypes. These stereotypes are explicitly mentioned in this episode in the form of visual markers as well as implicitly depicted in the form of character traits and different modes of behavior and interactions. The imagery of a microcosm full of stereotypes corresponds in some way to Frye Jacobson’s idea of an “ethnic revival” (Roots Too 3/ Whiteness of a Different Color 7). In his conception, ethnic markers, no matter whether they are carried as visible signs or expressed through one’s behavior, identify individuals as belonging to a specific ethnicity and intentionally separate them from the culturally dominant white Anglo-Saxon protestants (WASPs). The idea is that they are now being carried as “badges of pride”, which are not only used to define a specific kind of Otherness, but also to show the pride of having rediscovered one’ one ethnic roots (Roots Too 2). These badges and the pride of carrying them are frequently demonstrated in “Seeing Red.” Especially characters of Asian or Irish descent frequently demonstrate signs of their ethnicities as the following chapters will show in greater detail.

Although the mention of a multiethnic team seems to point at an era of TV-series­making that does not exclude ethnicity from the screens, in this case its depiction serves to show how negative difference to the WASP is to be understood. Accordingly, the purpose of these markers seems not to be found in the demonstration of the multiple facets of ethnicities in the modern American society, but rather in a consolidation of “whiteness by toying with the idea of a multi-ethnic society” (Banerjee 412). Hence, my claim is that ethnicity and “a ‘post-white identity,’” as it is described by Brayton (82), remains a myth in “Seeing Red.” Accordingly, the following passages describe the depiction of ethnicity in “Seeing Red” while the chapter thereafter will reveal in how far the employment of stereotypes actually supports a coded racial ideology that is closely connected to WASP-related practices and structures (Park, Gabbadon and Chernin 163).

2.2 Irish Americanness

The most dominant ethnic group being constructed through stereotyping in “Seeing Red” are the Irish. Adhering to the common practice of making “the policemen Irish”, the majority of agents in the CBI-team are depicted as people of Irish descent (Holte 104). According to Heinz, Irishness is a popular ethnicity used amongst filmmakers “to enrich whiteness with notions of innocence, community, and origins” (91). In “Seeing Red”, the CBI-team works together and each member supports the others as well as he/she can. Containing a strong Irish influence, the CBI-team could consequently be identified as a strong community. Moreover, the fact that this team is working in public safety service and solves crimes, puts emphasis on Heinz’ notion of innocence. This innocence is expressed through an exemplary law enforcement and the maintenance of social order. Walter (38) explains that the depiction of Irish-Americans as members of the law enforcement have a long tradition in the film industry. Furthermore, he says that Irish-Americans are usually playing “active and heroic roles” (Walter 38). The notion of heroism once more corresponds to the aspect of innocence as sacrificing oneself for the sake of the community’s protection as it is the case in detective stories, can be interpreted as an act of honorableness. Apart from the stereotypical detective setting, certain traces of Irishness can be detected when taking a closer look at agent Rigsby’s (Owain Yeoman) speech acts. In his case, Irishness is demonstrated in a rather direct and obvious way as he speaks with a broad (fake) Irish accent. A distinct example of this practice can be found in his pronunciation of the word “murderers” which reveals a strongly rolled ‘r’ (00:11:22) and a specific intonation that resembles Irish speakers of English.

In addition to this, senior agent Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney) for example carries a necklace with a cross that can be seen as an expression of her Irish Catholic ancestry (Meany 257). This assumption is based in the fact that in the context of stereotypical depictions of Irish in movies and TV-series, this specific group of people is often overgeneralized and limited to “persons of the Roman-Catholic faith” (Akenson 126). Applying this stereotypical image of Irish-Americans to the analysis of agent Grace Van Pelt (Amanda Righetti), it becomes clear that she also carries visible signs of Irishness. These signs are for example to be found in her fair skin, her red hair and her preference for green-colored clothing (00:17:42). The color “green” in this case, can be associated with Irishness because in today’s stereotypical description of Irish people, green seems to be a popular symbolic color to refer to Ireland, its inhabitants and people of Irish ancestry in general (Ignatiev 31). This association is based on the historical and political development of Ireland, which is also closely related to Catholicism and Irish nationalism and can for example still be found today in the green stripe of the Irish flag or the symbol of the shamrock (Cronin/Adair 232).

Furthermore, the different “shades” of Irishness Lisbon and Van Pelt mirror can also be found with regard to their behavior and beliefs. While Lisbon expresses her faith by carrying a cross, Van Pelt even shows faith in supernatural religious powers by defending the self-proclaimed psychic and “spiritual advisor” of the victim (00:02:20) when Jane (Simon Baker) attacks her credibility by saying “Or maybe, just maybe, she has a rare and precious gift and is trying to help us.” (00:17:42). By defending the psychic Christina Frye (Leslie Hope) and her claim to be able to communicate with the dead, Van Pelt acknowledges her belief in a life after death. This could also be interpreted as a feature of Irishness as contemporary American television series often tend to stereotype Irish as “gypsies”, “tinkers” or “Irish travelers” who live in alternative communities off modern cities and strongly believe in the occult, mystic or supernatural (Burke 241).

Although Jane distances himself from supernatural powers and their very existence by claiming that taking them seriously is “like believing in the Easter bunny” (00:18:25), he nonetheless shows some signs of ethnicity that are associated to Irishness. In “Seeing Red” Jane’s confrontation with his past via flashbacks reveals his Irish ancestry. This past is defined by a gypsy lifestyle and the work of a con man (00:20:37). Having earned his money as a clairvoyant by pretending to be capable of fortune-telling and communicating with the dead, again the imagery of a stereotypical tinker is evoked (Burke 241).

This imagery of a fortune-telling Irish-American is even more dwelled upon in the case of Christina Frye (Leslie Hope). Although she is neither a member of the CBI-team, nor a consultant such as Jane, she plays a central role in this episode of The Mentalist. Frye works as a self-professed spiritual advisor who counsels her clients on very private and intimate matters by using her abilities as a clairvoyant. Her abilities are based on what Jordan (372) denotes as “ethnic folklore.” The specific cultural heritage that is relevant in this context is again the one of a supernatural knowledge that is often appointed to the depiction of Irish travelers in TV-productions. Following her “profession”, Frye also spiritually advises Rosemary Tennant (Nancy Stafford). The latter is also the victim in “Seeing Red.” Rosemary Tennant, a middle-aged white, tall, blue-eyed, blond-haired upper middle-class woman, is shown in the first seconds of the episode leaving Christina Frye, Healing through Clairvoyance” (00:00:26). The music accompanying the filmic representation of Fryes “Temple of Harmony” is a vibrant, harmonious, spiritual instrumental music, which creates a mystic and enchanted atmosphere. This atmosphere is abruptly destroyed when the front door to Frye’s house is opened and the client, Rosemary Tennant (Nancy Stafford), leaves the house furiously screaming at Frye (00:00:34). In this very moment, Frye is shown for the first time. Emphasis is immediately put on her Catholic- Irish descent as she is depicted with her hands folded in a manner that is typically shown in Madonna and Christ sceneries (see fig. 2). The camera movement from a broad, full screen, low angle perspective to a close-up centering on Frye’s upper body parts supports the saint- and statue-like image that is created. Besides her posture, stereotypical traces of Irishness can also be found in her facial features such as her fair skin, her freckles, her copper-colored hair and her blue eyes. This stereotype corresponds to popular images of the time when the first

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Fig. 2. Christina Frye at the front door of her “Temple of Harmony”, screenshot, "Seeing Red.” The Mentalist: The Frye’s “Temple of Harmony” that is “Devoted to Complete First Season, created by Bruno Heller and Gary Glasberg, Primrose Hill Productions, Warner Psychic Wellness, Under the Guidance of Brothers 2008.

Irish arrived on U.S. soil. It was specifically centered on the depiction of Irish immigrants as cross-bearing, red-haired persons who like to tell long stories (Meany 257). Regarding Frye, the telling of stories receives a new meaning as the information she shares with her clients represents the stories dead souls tell her.

Moreover, her way of dressing, wearing a short dress, a huge ring on her left hand and an even bigger pendant around her neck, create an image of strong femininity that can be interpreted as a threat to the predominant patriarchic structures. These patriarchic structures are based on an ideal of iconic masculinity. This specific model masculinity is used to perpetuate the social dominance of the physically strong, an assumption that is also socially constructed. Not every man is stronger than every woman. In the same way, if a man is physically weak, he is still identified as a man. Accordingly, iconic masculinity is of course only the stereotypical conception hidden behind the notion of strong men. Frye’s independence is for example reinforced by her uninvited appearance on the crime scene and at the office of the CBI-team and the fact that she does not give in when Jane accuses her of being a fraud who is involved in the murder (00:02:14; 00:41:01; 00:02:58):

Kristina: We had finished a session. We had contacted her husband.

Lisbon: Her dead husband?

Kristina: Oh, he knew this was gonna happen to her. He warned her that she was putting herself in terrible danger.

Lisbon: From whom?

Kristina: I don't know. I'm merely a channel.

Jane: A channel for what?

Kristina: For the energy of the departed souls. Jane: Okay. Oh, so you knew that this murder was gonna happen?

Kristina: I didn't know. Her husband knew. I just passed the warning along to Rosemary.

Jane: Okay. Got it. Uh, by her own admission, she's either, uh, a channel for the energy of the departed souls or she's involved in this murder. So you got a choice. You can call ghostbusters or we can take this lady downtown. (00:02:58)

Although Frye is clearly being called a fraud in this context, she does not stop supporting the team and keeps on supplying the team with information. This information contains for example the place where the victim’s car was dumped after the hit-and-run murder. This can be interpreted as a strong resentment to the negative attitudes shown towards her by male characters such as Cho or Jane. Hence, Frye represents a challenge to the established male
hierarchical system advocated for in “Seeing Red”.

Another example of a woman challenging the established system of white iconic masculinity can be detected in the case of Lisbon. In general, a WASP-dominated society adheres to a hierarchy that only appoints leadership to the physically strong, which are commonly identified as male individuals. Lisbon as the head of the CBI-team, a senior agent of Irish descent, deconstructs male whiteness in “Seeing Red” by taking over the leadership position and thereby altering the strong patriarchic influences on hierarchical systems.

2.3 Asian Americanness

The only member of the team of agents who is not showing any traces of Irishness can be found in Kimball Cho (Yla Timothy Kang). His Asianness is not only expressed through visual features such as the constant wearing of a neat suit and tie, a military-styled short haircut and his facial features that mirror his Asian ancestry such as black hair, dark almond eyes and a rather small statue. In addition to these obvious ethnic markers his comportment that depicts common stereotypical elements of Asianness displays a “passive, obedient, invisible Asian American male” (Hillenbrand 52). His invisibleness can already be detected within the first two minutes of this episode (00:02:00). When arriving at the crime scene of a hit-and-run offense that lead to the death of Rosemary Tennant, his superior, senior agent Teresa Lisbon, seeks the contact to the police deputies who arrived there first. While the rest of the team follows Lisbon and waits for instructions, Rigsby and Cho slip on white gloves and Cho silently examines the dead body (see fig. 3). The fact that he does so unnoticed in the first place and is then addressed directly by one of the policemen reporting to Lisbon, not only shows how he makes himself invisible in a way, but it also exemplifies how much his competence is valued by his fellow colleagues. On the one hand, “responsibly investigating the crime” without having received explicit instructions shows how his obedience to higher authorities is already internalized in the uninstructed following of orders given by his superior (Park, Gabbadon, Chernin 164). On the other hand, this shows his expertise in the field. According to Bucholtz, Asian Americans in TV-series are “ideologically positioned as the nerdy minority, skilled in scientific and technical fields, but utterly uncool” (87). The feature of “being a nerd” describes the intelligence and skillfulness of this specific group by engaging in a rather negative and contemptuous way. Using such rhetoric could also be interpreted as an instrument of WASPdefenders to oppress ethnicity. Hence, the claim that Asian Americans are often represented as an “uncool” minority puts emphasis on the social status of this ethnic group in modern TVproductions. Moreover, the fact that Cho represents the only individual of Asian ancestry in “Seeing Red” and is depicted as a stereotypical “nerdy,” emotionless and serious character, seems to confirm the theory that the dominance of whiteness persists in American TV-series.

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Fig. 3: Cho examines the dead victim’s body, screenshot, "Seeing Red." The Mentalist: The Complete First Season, created by Bruno Heller and Gary Glasberg, Primrose Hill Productions, Warner Brothers Television, 2008


[1] In the context of this paper, the term “Otherness“ is used as a synonym for “Asianness“ and “Irishness“. Considering the fact that “Otherness” carries a rather negative connotation, the term seems appropriate speaking of the depiction of ethnicity in “Seeing Red.” As ethnicity is frequently ridiculed and appointed with negative associations in this episode, using the term “Otherness” seems to be justified.


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racial screening seeing depiction whiteness otherness american crime series mentalist




Titel: Racial Screening in "Seeing Red". The Depiction of Whiteness and Otherness in the American Crime Series "The Mentalist"