Sunday, February 26, 2012

Cracked Tackles Racism and Sexism in Film


I sometimes a read Cracked. I tend to stay away from Cracked for the same reason I like to stay away from TV Tropes - I value my time, and I find that if someone links me to Cracked or TV Tropes, I can pretty much sign off on a few hours of my life easily. If I'm bored and I can't find anything to read online, however, I will certainly take a spin down the rabbit hole. I've actually learned some things from Cracked - but only because I was able to go back and double check the sources (okay, call me anal about it. I don't care - I don't like using Wikipedia as a primary source. I prefer to use their sources, which they've so neatly categorized as the bottom of the page for me).

I keep an eye on racism and I talk a lot about racism at length. As I get closer to releasing my novel, I find myself keeping a close eye on the discussion of race in the media. I always find it interesting when, in what seems to be the sea of sewage and  nerdy white-boy American privilege that is the Internet, something rational and sensible raises it's head. It's even more interesting when that something is on a rather large site like Cracked, which is actually part of that nerdy white-boy American privilege on the Internet.

Thus, we arrive at two Cracked articles - 5 Old-Timey Prejudices That Still Show up in Every Movie and Hollywood's 6 Favorite Offensive Stereotypes.

First, a note about Hollywood.

Conservatives like to rail on about "Liberal Hollywood" and how "Hollywood likes to shove liberal values in everyone's face." All you need are two functioning braincells to see that this - sadly - isn't the case. Hollywood is corporate owned and operated by large studios. Corporations tend to be either very flexible and progressive or staid and conservative. Banks and financial institutions tend to be staid and conservative. Tech companies tend to be flexible and progressive, although maybe not in the ways that we would like them be progressive. Biomedical companies are progressive. Pharming tech companies are usually fairly progressive, although businesses that are into marketing usually are not.

Guess where Hollywood falls on that?

If you guessed that Hollywood was fairly conservative, you're right. The Hollywood corps that run the show do not like to take risks. If they have a formula that they know works they don't want to take risks with it - why fix something if it's not too broken? - and will milk it for all it's worth. Now, Hollywood isn't conservative in the sense that it takes the same view of sex as a five-year-old (like many conservatives), but it's conservative in the sense that it panders to a population dynamic that is viewed as the majority, and has continued to do so because it's worked. The bottom line out-weights entertainment value and the humanity of the characters presented there in. Anything not geared to the "majority" (White males - majority is in quotation marks because 49% of the population is not a majority) is considered either a "niche" market or a risk that only smaller studios take on, and therefore, don't get the pull that the larger, big budget movies get.

Hollywood is not liberal. There is nothing progressive at all about Hollywood. Oh, sure, it can pander movies that on the surface appear to be progressive, but we progressives need to watch it. Otherwise we can find ourselves caught in the Kansas City Shuffle TV Tropes calls a Reactionary Fantasy. One of the ways of avoiding getting tripped up in this ("What do you mean women are over-sexualized in comics? Men are too! Look at how powerful and strong and masculine Namor is in his thong and rippling muscles, and marvel as I miss the point of the whole statement to begin with, because boy wouldn't I want to look like that!") is to be aware of privilege and where you stand in the social order, and even then, that's not an entirely foolproof way.

It's why it's important to listen to other people. We can't know everything, and we listen to others and hear what they say about these issues. They may see it when we didn't.

Cracked does a good job about pointing out a lot of the more blatant ones. What's funny is even though these things are really goddamn blatant, and people have expressed outrage over them before, Conservative Hollywood apparently doesn't listen (doesn't that sound familiar? That could be any corporation or government on the face of the planet). Say hello, Avatar: The Last Airbender.

In the first article, 5 Old-Timey Prejudices That Still Show Up in Every Movie, Cracked swings the baseball bat at a few of the more common "tropes" that feature prominently in major motion pictures. I'm not going to do them all - just the ones that jump out to me, and dissect the points myself.

#5 - Interracial Dating

Here's a quick way to tell if you're racist and sexist as a white man. How do you feel about a white woman dating a black man? If it doesn't bother you, then you've already made a few big steps into the world of understanding how both sexism and racism operate (but it doesn't mean you aren't either; it just means you've made some big steps away from them), even if you're not privy to the jargon that gets used in race and gender studies. If it does bother you, stop and ask why. Odds are, we both know what the answer is. Now here's another one - How would you feel about your daughter dating a black man?

This one is ugly, because it invokes both racism and sexism and double standards. A white man can go around the world and fuck any woman he pleases, regardless what color she is. It's his "privilege", and he expresses that by bedding any pretty woman of any race that he finds. Only the white man can do that now, mind you. If he's black, he better damn well keep away from our white women (notice: the possessive pronoun. The women belong to "us", with "us" being a stand in for "white males"). White women are not allowed to make decisions for themselves. Non-white women are blow-up dolls that get fucked by the white protagonist. That black man better stay the hell away form our white women, and just deal with women who aren't white. The privilege of being white and male is on full display. Women of color must submit to the mighty white penis. The white woman must submit, but that's because she's the property of the white man, and being such, only the white man can fuck her. I'm being vulgar here, but this is a very vulgar trope, so it deserves it. This has white privilege painted on it, was dunked in it, and was beat to death with the white male privilege stick.

This is not progressive at all. This is the ultimate reactionary fantasy. It's a very ugly reactionary fantasy, too. This is one I've been aware of for some time; because of it, I made Renee's mom white and her dad Korean. I'm well aware of how that fantasy plays out, because I've held it at one point. I can't begin to examine the many different ways this clusterfuck of misogyny and racism ties operates. Women are property, and white man can go out and steal any other piece of property that he wants so long as those men of color aren't stealing his. It makes me ill. As a white man, these women - whether white or not - are not there for me to mentally fuck or live through the action of this offensive stand-in for me. Let me say this again, to all of the white man out there who aren't aware of this or haven't read it before: women in general, not just women of color, are not stage props in the play of life for you to fuck. They are people. Why the hell is this any different in movies? I can't even begin to get into the ways this makes me ill. Maybe I'm being too blunt. Or maybe I'm not being blunt enough.

Displaying an interracial couple - a black man and white woman - in a movie where the movie isn't about the fact that they're interracial would be a very progressive thing, and the first step towards moving away from the rampant racism and sexism in Hollywood.

#4-3: Women and their sexuality

Chalk this one up to men making excuses about female sexuality: "It's so hard to understand what women are saying, you know?" No, I don't know. Part of it is because I fucking listen. It can be difficult to understand what anyone is thinking, not just women, if you're not listening. Women don't come with a brain any different from the one males possess. It's got different levels of the same chemicals, but the chemicals themselves don't change. Women don't speak this cryptic code that men need their own code-cracker to understand. Furthermore, and most importantly, women are not a monolithic group. What is true of one woman may not be true of another, in the same way that while some men are ass-enema fratbois, others are not.

Figuring out female sexuality is not hard. It works just the same way that male sexuality does - I want to feel good, too. Ultimately, that's why we have sex as a species. Because it feels good. It's not hard to understand. And even this may not be true in some cases - it's not because women are complicated, but because people are complicated. Men can be just as complicated, if not more complicated, than women can. Men have a lot more hangups. Men are lot more sensitive about sexuality. A lot more possessive. Their sexuality gets embodied in the media through negative traits - men can't help themselves, men don't have self control, etc - and men are raised to believe this. But even then, men are not a monolithic group, either. This is just another example of how feminism helps men like it helps women; moving beyond this notion that these are traits that make up the core of male sexuality. It's not just because I'm GQ and I identify as both sexes, or either sex at any given time. It's just not that complicated. Stop painting women like they're a monolithic group, and stop pretending like all men have difficulty communicating with women and like there's this huge gap between the sexes, and this problem will usually go away.

4 represents a different aspect of sexuality. I like to look at a pretty woman as much as the next man does (although I don't mind looking at nice looking guys, either), but Hollywood has one standard of beauty (the airbrushed, photoshopped light-skinned standard) and everyone is expected to hold to that standard. Once again, I should hope that men know they're more complicated than that, and that they hold varying degrees of standards - "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Because Hollywood holds this one standard of beauty and society is expected to hold to it, it becomes sexist. If society acknowledged that there was more than one standard for beauty, guess what? This stops being sexist (so long as the women aren't the only characters dying or they aren't being killed off in spectacularly malicious ways).

#2 and 1 - white people only want to see white people

This is one that I've been aware for a long time, and it's insulting. I wouldn't mind seeing a movie with a POC in the lead role (in fact, I want them to remake the Spiderman movies with the current Ultimate Spiderman - a half-black/half-Puerto Rican young man - in the lead role. That'd be awesome). I find interesting that they'd bring Will Smith out as the exception, because it's true - he is the exception. Smith is a good actor - Roland took a risk with Smith in the movie Independence Day (a movie with plenty of other problems, but lots of stuff blowing up, which is good) when he made him the protagonist. It's sad to say it was a risk, but ultimately, it paid back. I liked him a lot in Men in Black and Men in Black II, and I think other people see he's talented, too.

But this is what I was talking about with Hollywood being staid and conservative. They took the risk once - okay, but they don't want to do it again. They're too scared to. In their minds, the audience is white male, and obviously white males only want to see other whites as the protagonists. Anything else is niche. This is incredibly offensive because you're assuming something about me, being white, that simply isn't true. This is true a lot of times, and there's more than a few people who agree with me, but Hollywood hasn't gotten the memo yet. And they likely won't change - which is why smaller, indie studios and home-made movies are going to be the way of the future. They'll appeal to an increasingly variable demographic, while Hollywood continues to appeal towards a demographic that's dying off and going away. It's like what the Republicans have done, but Hollywood has a little longer to last because most of their demographic aren't in their 60s, using walkers to get around, and taking medicine for osteoporosis.

The next article deals with a bunch of stereotypes, as you can tell by the title. A lot of them have you looking around and saying "wait, they still use that?" But like all reactionary entertainment, if you're not careful, you won't notice it.

- The Magical Negro
This is an old trope, and it's brought about mostly by white liberal guilt. Here's this black man, who's old, who has no ambition at all but is more "earthly" and "wise" than the white man he's acting with. He's very forgiving, and he works to try and make the white man better. This is the liberal guilt fantasy. Never once does he get in whitey's face for all of the shit that he goes through on a daily basis. Never once does he bring up the ugly history, and rightly point out that he owes whitey here nothing because, after all, when did it become his job?

This is just as racist as any other trope, and it's sad to see so many liberals fall into it. I feel guilty because I'm white and liberal, and therefore, I'll create this magical fictional character who is better than my white protagonist, more down to earth, but at the same time is patient with him and forgiving with him and will never get in his face or get angry with him. *Glares daggers at Stephen King*

It's not just black people who this is restrained too. I've seen the Magical Queer variant, and I've seen the Magical Native American. In all cases, it's the same thing - straight white male needs to be taught a lesson by minority individual who is patient and forgiving and doesn't tell him "go find it your own fucking self." This is trope is probably one of the reasons why so many men are put off in discussions of race and feminism. They come in expecting to be treated with patience - just like they see in the movies - and get told that they need to go learn themselves because nobody is obligated to teach them jack (which is 100% true), and they get uppity. That's not the way this supposed to turn out. That's how this is supposed to happen.

Where's the Magical Negro/Queer/Woman who's going to hold my hand and patiently explain to me why I'm an asshole? This is putting the responsibility of educating whitey for all of his privilege on the individual who doesn't have any, which is an insult to say the absolute least.

- The gay psychopath
Cracked does a really good job with explaining all the ways this one is wrong. Just because someone doesn't fall into the typical spectrum of what's expected of men doesn't mean they can be used for cheap thrills to undermine what is expected of male sexuality. And just because they flip the stereotype of male sexuality the finger doesn't mean they're deviants. While I'm not against having gay villains (I'd like to see more gay characters. Well written gay characters), when "Being gay" is their sole character trait, we have a huge problem. And far too often, being a sexual "deviant" is a trait of villains. This short hand is an ugly stereotype that needs to go away.

- The Latina Maid
This one ties into the business of interracial dating in more recent movies. I attempted to unravel that clusterfuck of racism, sexism, unhealthy sexual views and privilege further up-post; I don't have any desire to rehash that. Instead, let's look at what else this carries with it:

While there may be some truth to it (there's also truth to the fact that there are white house keepers too, but you rarely see those), it shows POC as being in a position of servitude for the white protagonist of the film. And if you don't think there's anything wrong with that, when it's shown over and over and over and over again, it's going to impact the way that people view those POCs - especially when those POCs don't have any protagonists of their own in mainstream entertainment.

I have two Latin characters in my novel. Maria, who's Sephardi, and Maggie, a bottom-rung FBI agent that the team later starts working with. Neither woman has an accent when they speak English, and neither woman ever steps down from their position of authority over the protagonist - in a sense, they the two authority figures, and are the face of responsible, even-handed authority in the novel. The Party has all the white men in the world running it, but Renee doesn't worry about them. She's held accountable by her adopted mother (Maria) and her "supervisor" (Maggie).

So there you have it. Even Cracked has the potential to be progressive at times. I know, surprising, right?

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