Riley. Riley, Riley, Riley. Do you know Riley? She’s an Icelandic main character in the hit Netflix show ‘Sense8’. Riley is not like a single Icelandic woman I know, but she is the embodiment of every preconception of what an Icelandic woman is—and I know what the preconceptions of what an Icelandic woman are, because foreign men with IGF (Icelandic Girl Fetish) have mansplained it to me many, many times.
Riley is a Manic Pixie Disc Jockey. Though even I can’t deny the cliché of Riley’s profession—I can think of seven female Icelandic DJs that I know personally, just off the top of my head. Iceland is legitimately lousy with them. Riley even speaks with a soft-spoken lilting accent that I sometimes put on for foreigners as a joke, when they tell me I don’t sound Icelandic enough to them.
Maybe, I wonder, what nags at me is that Tuppence Middleton, the actor playing Riley, isn’t actually Icelandic? We’re cool enough to portray, you see, but not cool enough to cast in the lead. But just as I reach peak bitterness, it hits me. This rage has revealed to me my staggering privilege. Before now, I’ve never had to contend with how my culture, how people from my country and my culture are depicted by Hollywood because we’ve been flying under the radar so long.
Turns out, it sucks to have your culture reduced to a wildly overrated kind of yoghurt and drone shots of lava fields. And before the Icelandic Skyr Lobby comes after me and my family, let’s just agree to disagree, and no one needs to burn my house down.
What a luxury it is, to complain about Riley. Meanwhile, Sun, the Korean martial arts genius, certainly lives up to a trope or two about Asian characters. The single black lead, Capheus, lives in a Nairobi slum with his mother who’s dying of AIDS; Africa, CHECK! And of course the brainy Indian woman trapped in a loveless “love match.” By comparison, Riley is practically an example cultural of appreciation, not cultural reduction.
Still, here I am, using my national platform to complain about this show. Why? Because this is the kind of pain that a fan feels. Because believe it or not, I love ‘Sense8’. I fucking love it. Despite its problematic stereotyping it gets so much right—the show’s trans protagonist Nomi, for example, is a triumph. In a world of superhero movies and endless reboots it’s a beautifully shot and inclusive sci-fi show. It wants to show that cultural barriers are brittle, that we can break them. That people all over the world have more in common than not, that we can share our skills. That’s a message I can get behind.
It might have been cool, too, if that message included an African biochemist or a Korean cop and maybe an Icelandic martial arts genius.
But maybe I’m asking too much. Could the Wachowskis have sold this pitch to Hollywood ten years ago? Probably not—even with stereotypes it’s a progressive show. Maybe we Icelanders should just be grateful to be invited to the party and not look too hard at the price of admission?
Either way, I really hope the Skyr Lobby don’t burn down my house.