MacGyver 2016: Representation Matters

Shannen Murphy Shannen Murphy
January 9th, 2017

I'm a writer and blogger who's been focused on analyzing representation of LGBT and disabled folks in superhero, sci-fi, and fantasy media since 2014.

MacGyver 2016: Representation Matters

Disability and LGBT correspondent Shannen Murphy discusses the 2016 reboot of the 90s classic TV show MacGyver, and how the new show successfully orients itself straight at their demographic: young people who care about media representation.  They also talk about what the show can do to become even better in that regard.

So, the 00's and 10's have been defined by reboots, sequels, and adaptations, at least on TV and in the theatres.  Star Trek, Star Wars, X-Men's soft timeline reboot, Daredevil, Spider-Man -- every time you turn around, some established property is trying to make a comeback, or maintain hold on a genre.

So it seems reasonable, then, that MacGyver should get in on the action.

For those not in the know: MacGyver was a TV show from the 90s starring Richard Dean Anderson.  You've probably heard someone use the name as a verb when fixing something with something that you don't usually use to fix things; culturally, Mac has left a legacy, if not a particularly dedicated fanbase.

So, CBS decided to reboot the franchise, casting Lucas Till (X-Men: First Class, Monster Trucks, Wolves) as a younger, sexier Angus MacGyver, who goes by Mac.

This new MacGyver, I feel, is laser targeted at me as a viewer: it's action-packed, sort of cerebral, emotionally honest, and best of all, it's the kind of show that has the same ideals in terms of what TV could be as I do.

To start with, let's talk about everything the show does right.

Subverting the Norms:

The first thing I have to say: this show is unusual.  In a genre that's historically way white and way male, MacGyver chooses to subvert those sorts of expectations at pretty much every turn.

This starts with the casting.  There are as many recurring women of color as there are recurring white guys, which is something that I've never seen before.  Additionally, in most one-off roles where you'd expect a white guy -- corporate criminals, Army officers, bomb technicians -- they're not there.

The show literally defaults to casting POC, and it's amazing.

Additionally, the show chooses to kick toxic masculinity in the groin.  Within the first 11 episodes, MacGyver cries twice, most of the emotional labor in the show is performed by Jack Dalton, another white guy, and Bozer, Mac's best friend, is about as emotionally expressive as they come.

I want to talk a little more about the emotional labor thing I mentioned.  Jack is the oldest member of the team, besides possibly the team's boss, Patricia Thornton.  He's funny, flirty, and basically cuts the figure of someone who, in his younger years, would have been the stereotypical action hero.

But he's the one who comforts Thornton when Thornton loses an agent and blames herself for it.  He's the one who, when Mac is struggling to deal with his evil ex-girlfriend's betrayal and disappearance, both supports him emotionally and also reminds him that she's not Mac's problem anymore, on a number of occasions.  He also, generally, does all of the emotional labor a love interest would do for Mac, because Mac doesn't have a female love interest at this juncture.

I love that subversion of expectation, but another one that I love even more is the way the emotional journeys and struggles of characters of color are centered just as much, or even more than, the white characters.

Riley Davis, the hacker on the team, gets to talk about her time in prison with honest frankness, and we know that she suffered.  Thornton, we find, is painfully affected by every agent she loses, and she personally goes out and seeks justice for one in one episode.  Bozer gets to learn that everyone close to him has been lying about what they do for a living for basically the whole time, and struggling to accept that makes up the emotional bulk of one episode.  Finally, in the midseason finale, we see the lengths that Riley is willing to go to to protect her mom.

I really appreciate the way that this show handles relationships in general, actually.  Mac doesn't hesitate in his narration to use the world 'love' in reference to his friends, in specific Jack, during times of stress.  It's another way the show doesn't truck with toxic masculinity.

Another way it does this is that it actually addresses the consequences of commitment issues -- Jack used to date Riley's mom, but broke up with her and vanished.  He said it was because Riley was angry at him for fighting her abusive father.  But we come to find out that that was an excuse: he was becoming a father figure to Riley, and it scared him how much he cared about her in that respect.  Riley and Jack actually hash out this lingering emotional scar during the midseason finale, and it's incredibly compelling television.

Overall, I really appreciate the way the show handles emotional trauma.  Like I said before, it honestly deals with Riley's response to her time in prison, with Mac's response to his ex's betrayal, and with the tense dynamic between Jack and Riley because of their shared past.

Finally, something I deeply appreciate is how the show never veers into gross territory in situations where the easy thing, the lazy writing, would be to do so.  In an episode where Mac infiltrates an 'inescapable' prison, for example, I sat on the edge of my seat waiting for what I was afraid would be an inevitable 'prison b---h' joke.  It never came.

That's the most obvious example of that, but there are others: Jack is very flirtatious and talks a big game about dating around a lot, but he never seems gross or creepy about it.

Anyway, this is why I freaking love MacGyver.  That said, no show is perfect, and I have a few suggestions for stuff I feel it would be easy for the show to add to make it even better.

My MacGyver Wish List, Essentially:

There are two things that MacGyver is really missing, for me, and the first of these is LGBT representation.  As a queer person, seeing LGBT rep on my favourite TV show would be a blessing -- especially given that it's a show I watch together with my partner, and she loves it for what we see as potential subtext in how we could get LGBT representation, if the writers and producers so choose.

Specifically, I would really like to see Jack Dalton be bisexual.  Jack is a Texan ex-CIA agent who listens to country music, and his role on the team is to drive cars, shoot things, and make sure Mac doesn't get himself killed.  He flirts a lot, like I've said before, and he drinks beer, and Mac got him a Dallas Cowboys snuggie for Christmas this year.

It would play against the traditional 'type' to have him be bi.  But it would work.  It would be easy enough to work in, too: we've already met two of Jack's exes, and he seems to have a lot of them.  It wouldn't be such a big deal if another one of his exes appeared in the show, and that ex was a man, and nobody made a big deal about it because everyone he's friends with already knew he was bi.  It would just be normal.

I would also love to see Thornton be revealed to be a lesbian, just because I get a vibe that she has a wife stashed away somewhere, and again, there's no reason not to do it.

Finally, in the LGBT representation vein, if they could manage it, I really believe they've laid excellent groundwork for an endgame Mac/Jack romantic pairing.

They have scenes that narratively mirror Riley and Bozer's -- and Riley and Bozer are presently the major romantic subplot of the show.  Again, Jack does all the love interest emotional labor for Mac.  He actually points out to Mac during one episode that one of the reasons his own relationships have failed is because he's had to lie about where he works to keep those people safe.  The implication there is that no one on the team can really have a lasting relationship with someone who isn't in on what the Phoenix Foundation does, which, you know, kind of cuts down the dating pool to about 6.5.

Jack's commitment issues, too, could prove to create compelling drama.  He's clearly committed to Mac, though, saying at one point when Mac is in clear and present danger, and Jack wants him to stay behind in their secure headquarters:

"I can't do my thing if I'm worried about losin' you every minute.  The last thing I need is your death on my conscience.  That'd kill me.  Don't do that to me."

Despite this, I feel like a change in the technical nature of their relationship would freak Jack out a little, since neither of them has had great relationship experiences up til now, and I get the feeling that losing Mac to a breakup would be almost as hard for Jack as actually losing Mac.

I totally get it if the studio is nervous about taking this route, but I honestly think it would be the most compelling direction to take their relationship, and it would definitely play against the genre conventions present in action spy thrillers.

Moving on to disability representation.  As a disabled person in a relationship with another disabled person, disability is something I think about pretty often, and something I definitely don't see enough of in media.

But there is one very easy way that MacGyver could make a huge difference, both for me and for a lot of people:

Make Mac explicitly autistic.  All the symptoms are there, and I would know -- 80% of my social circle is autistic, and I'm undiagnosed but show most of the symptoms myself.

His special interests -- something that an autistic person is really, almost obsessively interested in -- would be science, engineering, and bombs.  He has trouble dealing with people he doesn't know if he doesn't have a script or a story for the situation, and he can't fall back on talking about his special interests.  Also, nuances and grey areas, especially morally, are really hard for him to navigate in regards to his own behavior and the behavior of people he loves.

Finally, that thing he does with the paperclips?  Totally a stim.  A stim is any repetitive movement or action that is engaged in to calm someone down or let them focus.

For example, one of my stims is that when I'm standing still or waiting for something, I tend to rock back and forth.  Not a lot, just sort of swaying on my feel, like the idle animation for a video game character.  Another one is always needing to be doing something with my hands if my brain is engaged elsewhere, which is sort of what I think Mac does with the paperclips.

There's also an episode where, when Mac visits his hometown, he meets a little girl who reacts to science and engineering the same way he does.  They get into a back and forth conversation that gets rid of Mac's nervousness in dealing with talking to children -- that's something that I can viscerally relate to.  If I get to talk about my special interests (usually, media representation and/or superheroes) in a potentially stressful situation, I immediately start to calm down.

At the end of that episode, Mac brings the little girl, Valerie, to his old tree house from when he was a kid, bequeathing it to her, and he tells her,

"Someday you'll understand why you think the way you do."

That line hit me like a ton of bricks.  As someone who's not diagnosed autistic but for whom learning about the symptoms was learning how to understand why I think the way I do, that was a massive implication that my interpretation of MacGyver is right, or at the very least, intentionally implicit in the text.

And if they take that implication and make it explicit to the show, that would be a huge deal.

Because Mac's the protagonist of the show.  He's the title character.  And more than that, he's attractive, likable, compassionate, and has friends who he cares about deeply and whom care about him just as deeply.

I can't think of a single canonically autistic character on TV who is represented this way.

Generally speaking, the narrative for autistic, or autistic-coded characters in pop media is that they're really smart, socially incompetent, and sometimes nonverbal.  Some of them are outright a----les, like Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes.

Seeing a happy, heroic, successful, socially stable autistic protagonist would mean literally everything to me and to my circle of friends.

It would be a recognition that we're more than a stereotype.  It would fly in the face of the assumptions people make about us based on that stereotype.  And it might just be the way some autistic kid figures out why they think the way they do.

And I can say from experience, that that is life-changing.


Okay, so, to recap, because this article is longer than anticipated: I freaking love MacGyver.  It's laser-focused on everything I love to see in action TV, basically.  It represents people and emotions in an honest, understanding way that I don't get to see very often, and its commitment to inclusiveness and diversity is clear not just from the show itself, but from the ways the writers engage on social media.

That said, if the show stays the course and keeps adding to its commitment to diversity, it has the potential to become something truly important and completely amazing.

I hope it does.  I really do.

airs on CBS at 8pm on Fridays, and returned from hiatus on 1/6/2017


Shannen Murphy is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow them on Twitter: @_murphyleigh

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