The Importance of Subcultural Signifiers in Popular Media, or, I Watched NCIS Last Night

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Since I’ve been getting on CBS’s case recently for their exploitation of minority religious and ethnic groups, I figured I should tune in to last night’s episode of NCIS that promised a Satanic theme.  I’m glad to say that my pre-episode hopes were fulfilled.

I’m still holding out hope that NCIS will buck the trend, after all, the show includes a positive goth character, so maybe the Satanic thing is a red herring, a misdirection from the true nature of the killer. One can only hope.

That turned out to be exactly the case. While I won’t give away the ending, I can say that all the ritualistic elements were explained away, and the Satanic/cult angle was indeed a red herring. They even had the goth-styled Forensic Specialist Abby Sciuto (played by Pauley Perrette) specifically debunk the “Satanic” pentagram on the victim’s back.

Not the same pentagram.

This points towards the power of representation in popular media. Because NCIS has a “goth” character whose mandate is to “defy the negative stereotype”, the writers are forced to (at least partially) consider her perspective. It stands to reason that someone who goes to goth clubs, drives a hearse, and listens to Industrial music would have met a few Satanists in her time, and know they aren’t ritualistic killers (and that many of them don’t even literally believe in the entity of Satan). So writers are then, if they have any talent, forced into either explaining why these ritualistic killers are an abberation from the norm, or debunk the supposed “Satanism” invoked in the episode (which is what happened here).

Compare this to The Mentalist, where there are no characters who act as subcultural signifiers. Indeed, the main character is a “reformed” outsider (sham TV psychic) who now uses his powers of observation to debunk and mock the world he once inhabited. It’s little wonder their “Wiccan” character was a string of negative stereotypes, what was holding the writers back? Certainly not anticipated outrage from the Pagan community, we’re far too small to scare away advertisers (half of America hasn’t even heard of Wiccans if some surveys are to be believed) or garner national press for every insult. Fair treatment towards outsider views in popular media can only be expected when the outsiders are involved (whether in front of, or behind, the cameras).

Obviously, this isn’t a perfect solution, Criminal Minds was recently criticized for some ugly stereotypes about Gypsies, and they have two “outsider/geek” characters, but they do have a far better track record than most of debunking stereotypes concerning outsider and subcultural groups (I know they specifically addressed “Satanic Panic” in an older episode). This doesn’t mean I think shows should start shoehorning Pagan and Wiccan characters into their ensembles, only that visibility and involvement can make the difference between being the Furries on CSI or the goth girl on NCIS. So hats off to that show’s writers for avoiding some bad stereotypes, and including a positive “outsider”.

ADDENDUM: You can watch the entirety of this episode of NCIS online.