Monthly Archives: November 2013

Catching Fire and the Limits of White Imagination

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After watching Hunger Games: Catching Fire this weekend, I was pleased to see that Beetee, the brilliant inventor and electric genius from District 3, was played by none other than Jeffrey Wright. I was also pleased that I didn’t hear any muttering in the theater about the fact that Beetee was black. We all remember the disgusting racist backlash when the first installment of the film cast Amandla Stenberg, a young black actress, as Rue (despite the fact that Rue was indeed black in the book). But my pleasure didn’t last long. The next day on the bus, I overheard a young woman and her friends—who had just come from the film, apparently—exchanging their thoughts about what they had just seen, and the young woman said, “I thought it was awesome. Well, except for Beetee. Why the f*ck did they make him black? Beetee wasn’t black.”

Folks. Let me tell you something. You might want to sit down, because this could be a shocker for you. Here it is. Are you ready?

The Hunger Games is not real. (gasp) I know. Stunning. This dystopian world in which children are sent into an arena to fight to the death is, in fact, fictional, imaginary, fantastical. And you know what that means. That means that the appearances of the characters therein are also not real. That is, they are subject to the imagination of the reader. Katniss is described as “olive-skinned,” which can be interpreted semi-loosely, but Beetee? He was merely described as having “ashen skin” and black hair. Lots to play with there. Right? It’s a book. He looks different to all of us in our heads.

But that’s not what this is really about, is it? After hearing this young woman’s comment, I jumped on Twitter and searched mentions of Beetee’s name. I came across the usual racist vitriol, but there was the occasional tweet that looked like this:

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I saw more of the same in comment sections on various articles around the web—Never read the comment sections, guys. Really.—and it has led me to believe that the problem isn’t that Hunger Games purists who believe that Beetee looked a certain way were disappointed that the film strayed from that representation, it’s that white audiences in America are afflicted with a certain limitation of the imagination when it comes to the representation of characters they are fond of. Something that struck me as very interesting was the following tweet:

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It is difficult to imagine benevolent geniuses as black, it seems, but quite easy to imagine villains as black. This is telling, isn’t it? Telling that the white imagination, when provided in a book with descriptions of a “good guy”—intelligent, valuable, kind, even gentle—imagines that character as white (like themselves) but when provided with descriptions of a villain, a killer, a dangerous maniac…imagines that character as a black man. Morgan Freeman. Who has overwhelmingly portrayed “good” characters in his career as an actor. He even played God once, if memory serves. What is it, then, that causes the white imagination to provide his face as a stand-in for what they imagine as a ruthless child killer in a fictional world?

His blackness. And only that.

As white people, we are used to representations of ourselves crowding the covers of magazines, crowning the posters of newly released films. The good guys are white, we have learned, after eons of our faces being plastered under cowboy hats and in impeccable Bond suits. White men are Superman, we have learned. White men are Ethan Hunt and Neo and white men are hobbits. Bad men, we have learned, are black. They’re gang bangers and thugs and talk loud and sometimes deliver funny lines where we laugh at their Otherness. Black men aren’t heroes, we learn. Our imagination and subconscious are so saturated with white supremacist notions of goodness, beauty, and heroism, that when confronted head-on with an image of a black man who is brilliant and kind and normal and who saves the day, we transform into robotic versions of ourselves: Does…not…compute. Hero…must be…white. It’s this line of thinking that turned Disney’s Princess Tiana into an animal for 95% of the movie. The collective white imagination had difficulty imagining a black girl as a princess…and so she became a frog.

This isn’t about staying true to the book. Suzanne Collins was vague (I believe purposefully so) with the descriptions of her characters, so when we say “I didn’t picture Rue as black,” or “No, Beetee was white,” it is not the text that is leading us. We’re following a different illogical path of logic, one in which everything we believe about ourselves as white heroes and heroines is being contradicted. The notions taught by patriarchy and white supremacy do not only effect our day-to-day encounters in reality; they shape our imaginations and our expectations, our intangible realities.

But unlike the tributes who enter the arena in The Hunger Games, we have a choice. We can choose. We can choose to step aside on what we’ve been taught is our pedestal of greatness and acknowledge that there is room for more. We can choose to transform our ideas of heroes and who can be good, and kind, and brave. The alternative is bleak. If even our imaginations are irrevocably bound to what patriarchal and white supremacist doctrines prescribe, then we’re in trouble. The moment we kill the thing in us that imagines change and difference and growth is the moment we kill any hope of a better world. The world in The Hunger Games may not be “better,” but how much worse is it really when it can imagine a genius hero who is black…and we can’t?

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Why The Best Man Holiday Isn’t “Race-Themed”

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I wasn’t even going to blog about The Best Man Holiday. I was going to go in and watch the glorious reunion of Nia Long, Taye Diggs and company and just enjoy it. But after what USAToday tweeted about the film’s success at the box office, I realized I had to. Here’s the tweet in case you missed it:

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Race-themed. When I think of race as a theme in film, I think of it as the way theme is defined. Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines it.

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“The main subject that is being discussed in a piece of writing, a movie, etc.” Themes are what a film is about. If a film is race-themed, then it is about race. So imagine my surprise when I saw USAToday describe The Best Man Holiday as race-themed. Forget “race-themed”: I struggle to see how the film is about race at all.

Like its predecessor, Holiday focuses on the intertwining lives of  a group of men and women: authors, football players, mothers, fathers. It’s about the bond of friendship and the tests of its strength. Financial worry. Parenthood. Marriage. Grief. Forgiveness. But what exactly does race have to do with grief aside from the fact that, in this instance, the people struggling with grief are black?

Well, nothing.

What USAToday’s tweet reveals is that white audiences are unable to see black people as beings separate from their blackness. A movie featuring a black cast surely can’t be about universal themes that any audience can relate to, this line of thinking goes: the subject matter must be about mysterious black things that only black viewers can comprehend; it must be black inside-jokes; black references; black experiences. Black movies are for black people—not for everyone. Black people are defined by their blackness and so are their films, and USAToday’s tweet tells us that explicitly.

Every day we are bombarded with movies and television shows in which white faces, white families, white marriages are plugged as the “default” experience…and no one would say that these films are about race. No one would say, “Oh, that’s an all-white cast. It must be about what it means to be white in America.” No one. Black audiences go see these films, despite their almost entirely white casts, because if black audiences only went to see films in which the cast looked like them, they’d see maybe five movies a year in mainstream theaters. Tops. Why not the same for white folks? Why was I the only white person in the theater for Best Man Holiday today? What is it about a black cast that is off-putting to white audiences? Do we really need to see ourselves reflected endlessly back at us to enjoy a film? Why did white audiences flock to see Django and 12 Years but not Holiday? Why can you relate more to a film about chattel slavery than you can about nine affluent people and their families? These are questions that need answers.

This is not to say that films with black casts are never race-themed. Of course they are. If a film is about race, then it’s about race. But Best Man Holiday is not. A film’s themes do not become about race simply because its cast is not white. Not only does this notion bind black actors to their blackness, it Others non-white experiences, casting white films as default, and everything else as “everything else.” Films with white casts are then provided with the benefit of universality: free to be any genre, take on any subject matter or theme. A film with a black cast, no matter its story, is “race-themed,” tied to the race of its actors simply by virtue of their blackness.

If we describe Best Man Holiday as “race-themed” we must ask ourselves the following questions.

Is football race-themed?

Is pregnancy race-themed?

Is marriage race-themed?

Is trust?

Is cancer?

Is friendship?

Is God?

Because these are the things that Holiday is truly about. Universal lessons of brotherhood and faith, the tests of love and the frailty of the human heart: these things are no more about race than love itself. To say this film is about race tells black actors—and black audiences—that no matter their experiences, their heartbreaks, their vows, their tribulations…at the end of the day, before they are human, they are black. This violent oversimplification of black roles not only dehumanizes black lives, but it perpetuates in white people the idea of their Defaultness and the lie that all experiences are relatable through whiteness.

We’ve all had our hearts broken. We’ve all been in love. We’ve all had a best friend at some point in their lives. How stunted is your imagination, how crippled is your notion of life, if the people on screen with broken hearts, the people in love, the people mending their friendships, have to look like you in order for you to feel a connection with their humanity?

Oh, and by the way…in case you didn’t know…

This blog actually is race-themed.

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Male Bonding and Gang Rape: The Socialization of Men in Rape Culture

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When we talk about patriarchy and rape culture, the conversation is generally about women and the effects on our minds, bodies and lives: our socialization in the classroom of rape culture and the ways in which our identities are deformed by it. The place of men in the discussion tends to be limited. In some circles it is understood that men are also certainly victims of rape culture, especially in discussions around the prison industrial complex. But what we don’t talk about is the way men relate to one another within the confines of rape culture and patriarchy.

In these two classrooms, men are taught what is valuable about men and women. In men, violence, strength, toughness, and hyper-masculinity are rewarded, admirable characteristics, as is evidenced everywhere from the portrayal of heroes in Hollywood to the value we place on some of the highest-paid men in the country: professional athletes. Be like them. Don’t cry. Don’t hug—that’s gay. Don’t trust bitches (women). Support your family. Bros before hoes. These are only some of the things men learn under this doctrine. Vulnerability is a woman’s trait. Sex is a sport with no emotional value. Don’t be “gay.” Don’t be “feminine.” The list goes on and on. Thus the corner of the box in which men are allowed to exist is painted smaller and smaller; their identities allowed less and less room.

Among all these teachings are men’s relationships with women, and, of course, their relationships with one another. Women—despite the system of constant passive aggressive competition and backbiting that is encouraged by patriarchy and which many women struggle to overcome even as adults—are allowed more spaces in which bonding can occur. The teaching that “girls are nice,” however damaging in other aspects, does encourage our togetherness: sisterhood is a word we use to define the emotional space we are able to share. Divine Secrets of the the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Waiting to Exhale, Bridesmaids: the films about our bonding experiences are gentle and tear-jerking and are generally centered in some way around men—that’s an entirely separate blog post. What about men? For men, movies about brotherhood are usually in the context of war/violence and/or sexual conquest. Think American Pie, The Hangover, Wedding Crashers, Lethal Weapon. Google “movies about male bonding,” “movies about male friendship.” Male friendship, it seems, is fostered in the context of exploitation of women and in the context of someone getting punched in the face or shot.

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Where is the gentle space for male friendship? (And especially for black male friendship: other than The Best Man, which is positive for men in many ways but fails in its representation and expectations of women, I saw very few films listed about relationships between black men.) “Gentleness,” “tenderness,” “intimacy,” “vulnerability.” These characteristics are kryptonite to the hyper-masculine persona patriarchy creates. If we ask where the safe space is for men to create tender, intimate, vulnerable friendships with one another, the answer is that it barely exists. “Gentle,” “vulnerable”: these are words reserved for women and (goes the logic) gay men. The limits created by patriarchal society are taught to men and are then reinforced by media of all kinds, but especially by Hollywood. If you are male, men learn, this is how you socialize: in the context of violence and in the context of sex, and never in the context of intimacy. Especially not with other men.

Under this law, there exists a deep chasm that separates men from one another. The chasm of male isolation and masculinity; trenches dug by untouchable, invulnerable laws of manhood. Studies on the connection between masculinity and loneliness tell me that men are often starved for contact with other men: not sexually, but physically and emotionally. Decades of fathers hugging daughters but not sons. Handshakes instead. Men, then, bond where they can and in spaces deemed acceptable by the patriarchy that programmed them. Strip clubs. Bachelor parties. Sports. It’s been said that some of the most powerful relationships between men are those between soldiers and athletes/teammates. Perhaps because those are two of the only arenas in which male intimacy is not only encouraged, but unchecked.

We must also think about sex in this context: the male experience and perception of sex within the confines of a culture that socializes for violence and invulnerability. I have written (or perhaps just tweeted?) previously on the effects of this teaching on the potential of sexual harmony between men and women—we’re teaching girls that their bodies are temples, and we’re teaching boys to be Raiders of the Lost Ark—but what about the male experience and perception of the act of rape? If men are socialized to bond in contexts of sex and violence, it seems rape culture has created, in gang rape, a space that men see as a space for brotherhood.

Many of us have learned that rape is not a sexual act, but an act of dominance. We have also learned that, in rape culture, women’s bodies are not owned by women; but exist as mere objects of male consumption. We are not surprised, then, by the idea of gang rape as a bonding activity: men dominating that which they have been taught is dominatable, alongside brothers who are otherwise unreachable except in these contexts of sex and violence, and—it must follow—sexual violence. Women’s bodies, here, are merely props in the context of a masked ball of male intimacy.

This is not to say that all men raised in a patriarchal rape culture will participate in gang rape. Of course not. But it does help explain the mentality of those that do. Those that do are treated with this societal astonishment, more so than individual rapists, as if we have never seen the likes of anything before or since. Steubenville, of course, comes to mind. Not exactly a “gang” of male individuals, but two boys participating—together, with witnesses—in the sexual assault of an unconscious girl. How could they do it, the nation asked, horrified. What is wrong with those boys? Not gang-y enough for you? What about the case in Texas where as many as ten men raped a thirteen year old girl, cheering and filming the attack? In Cambodia, groups of men admit that gang rape is for fun. Just as shocking was the efforts of men (and women) to protect these rapists: a mutation of the “boys will be boys” mentality, condemnation of the thirteen-year old victim as a “spider” luring the men “into her web.” In the case of Steubenville, rampant attempts to cover up the actions of the boys. Rape isn’t a crime, the people involved with the above examples would say, it’s just something that men do. Sometimes with other men.

Are we really surprised? Are we really surprised that when we socialize men and boys to value violence, invulnerability and hyper-masculinity in one another, that they actually gravitate toward contexts that encourage those behaviors? Are we really surprised that when we socialize men to bond in the context of sex (a la American Pie) and violence (every war movie ever) that they bond in contexts of sex and violence? I’m not just talking about rape. How can we wonder about the chasm between men and the isolation of the male experience without looking to the teachings of patriarchal rape culture as a source? Something is deeply wrong with what we’re teaching boys about women and consent when they can participate in/witness a gang rape and cheer for it as if for a basketball game.

But what that means is that something is also deeply wrong with what we’re teaching boys about how to be a boy and how to bond with other boys. Would we rather our boys bond over rape, or with gentleness, vulnerability, and tenderness? Would we rather our boys find friendship in the context of violence, or in the context of behavior that our damaging definitions of masculinity might condemn as feminine or—“worse”—gay? Violence and sex cannot be the only two paths across the chasm of male isolation. Let’s build other bridges.

Why I’m Not Here for #WhiteGirlsRock

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The Black Girls Rock! Foundation was founded in 2006 as an organization dedicated to the empowerment of young women of color; a foundation committed to helping black and brown girls overcome the myriad of obstacles a misogynoiristic society places squarely in front of them. The Black Girls Rock! Awards are now featured on BET as a way of recognizing role models, encouraging teachings of self worth, and emphasizing the talents of extraordinary women of color who are otherwise unseen in American media.

Let me emphasize that last part. “Women of color who are otherwise unseen in American media.” We need Black Girls Rock! because black girls and women are almost invisible in American media. Because if you were a black girl growing up in this country, watching TV and movies and reading magazines like every other kid, looking for some representation of yourself as something beautiful or heroic, you would be sorely disappointed.

  • Black Girls Rock! is necessary because when you Google “beautiful women,” this is what you see.
  • Because when you look at the covers of Vogue, this is what you see.
  • Because when Vanity Fair printed their Hollywood issue, they put the black actresses on the back cover.
  • Because when a dark-skinned woman is put on the cover of a magazine, this is what is done to her.
  • Because Pixar has never made a movie featuring a black cartoon character.
  • Because a black actress has never won a drama series Lead Actress Emmy. (Although Kerry Washington will change that, I am certain.)
  • Because in 39 years, only three black women have been part of the cast of SNL.
  • Because, until Scandal, the only real place you could find black women in leading roles on television was Real Housewives of _______.
  • Because the “first black Disney Princess” was a frog for 95% of the movie.

I could go on. But I think you get the gist. What it comes down to is that black girls are missing representations of themselves in positive contexts. When they turn on the TV, they are missing. When they are looking at the cover of magazines like Vogue and Elle, they are missing. When they go to the movie theater, they are missing. For black women’s faces to appear in mainstream films, it seems they must be either wearing a maid’s apron or chains. So when Black Girls Rock! appears on the scene, ready to uplift and empower the girls who are so tragically neglected in American media, ready to showcase women of color who are smart and fun and beautiful and accomplished and positive, I am so here for it.

But let me tell you what I’m not here for.

I’m not here for #WhiteGirlsRock. The hashtag appeared on Twitter in an apparent response to Black Girls Rock! that aired on Sunday night with typical nonsense such as:

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And

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Let me tell you something, white folks. From one white person to another.

You are in everything. 99% of Hollywood movies feature your faces. 99% of magazine covers are covered in you. The Emmy Awards and Oscars are almost entirely you. If you Google “beautiful people” the screen is covered in white faces. Black girls (and boys) are taught from birth that there is one version of beauty, and it is you. Many black girls go their entire lives thinking they are ugly, thinking they need to be lighter, straighter, whiter in order to have value. Everything that you see every day that reaffirms your whiteness; every commercial that has a nice white lady embodying the perfect “mom;” every magazine that has blue eyes and bone-straight hair; every Hollywood blockbuster that has a leading lady with skin never darker than Halle Berry….all of these things are reinforcements of your identity that you take for granted.

You may be fat. You may have hair that curls up at the ends. You may even have acne. But your face is everywhere. Your people are everywhere. What in your heart recoils when you see Black Girls Rock? What bone in your body sees empowerment for black girls and thinks “that’s not fair”? Where is your bitterness rooted? What do you think has been taken from you when women of color are uplifted?

All of the things you take for granted are what you’re protecting when you shout down Black Girls Rock: your whiteness, the system that upholds your face as the supreme standard of beauty, your place in the center of a culture that demands people of color remain hidden in the margins, present but only barely and never overshadowing the white hero/heroine. Your discomfort with black girls who rock tells me that you prefer the status quo: you prefer for black faces to remain hidden, you prefer for America’s heroes to have white faces, you prefer for black actresses to wear aprons and chains.

This is not to say that white girls don’t rock. I’m white. I kind of rock. But this conversation isn’t about you, it isn’t about us. Why must everything always be about us? It doesn’t have to be. And it shouldn’t be. From one white person to another….please sit down. Queen Latifah is on and you’re blocking the screen.

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