Skip to content

The problem with the future is that it keeps turning into the present. - Watterson

At least the costumes have colors…

July 3, 2010
Superheros

The Hulk is green - does that count?

Try to think of a Black superhero. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Let me guess: if you thought of one, it was someone played by Halle Berry.

I did this little experiment myself earlier, except I broadened it to try to think of non-white actors in any superhero movie I’ve seen. (Please note that, while I do enjoy watching movies based on comic books, I don’t read comic books myself – so any observations I make will be based on movies, not the original books.) I was able to come up with a few: Halle Berry’s Catwoman; Halle Berry’s Storm in X-Men; Agent Zero in X-Men Origins: Wolverine; will.i.am in the same movie; and Kato, the Green Hornet’s sidekick in the upcoming Green Hornet movie.

But these aren’t the superheros we dream about, are they? With the possible exception of Catwoman, they are fairly minor characters in their movie worlds. We still haven’t had a non-white actor play one of the “big” superheros.

That’s why I was disappointed to hear the casting of the new Spiderman this week. To be honest, I wasn’t really excited to hear that there is going to be a Spiderman reboot anyway – didn’t we just do that? – but a few weeks ago when I realized that Donald Glover’s name was at least being tossed around for the part, I got interested.

Donald Glover

Donald Glover as Community's Troy

Glover stars on “Community,” which is quickly becoming my favorite comedy on TV. For his age, he’s an accomplished comedian, with writing experience from 30 Rock. Moreover, he is an African American actor, so casting him as Spiderman would have been new and (in my opinion) very exciting.

It also would have been uniquely possible for Spiderman. After all, Spidey is from Queens. Statistically speaking, according to the 2000 Census, the Peter Parker of today would be more likely to be non-white to be white.

Which is why, when Colombia Pictures announced that the British actor Andrew Garfield was cast as the new Spidey, I was disappointed. I’ve never seen anything with Garfield in it; I’m sure he’s a good actor. The new movies may be very good. But they won’t be different.

Yeah, they may do things that haven’t been done before. Yes, they will be 3D (like practically everything else nowadays, it seems). Sure, they’ll tell us that this is completely different from and better than the Tobey Maguire version.

And people will argue that a Black Spiderman is just too risky. It’s too chancy to change that much about a character. But I don’t buy it. It wasn’t too much to change Wolverine’s signature stature and yellow Spandex to fit with the times (hello, Hugh Jackman!). Heck, the latest Star Trek movie changed Kirk’s entire backstory (from what I can tell; again, I’m really not familiar with the canon). Are you telling me that Spiderman fans are more rabid and picky than Trekkies??

For me, at least, and I imagine for others, having a non-white Spiderman would have made this particular superhero movie stand out from the rest. It would have given me a reason to go see it. In a world where audiences are segmented by demographics, it would have appealed to the all-important “urban market.”

But it wasn’t to be.

Advertisements

Talking out Loud with Librarians

June 30, 2010

Here’s my final project for Race, Gender and the Media. This was my first attempt at a video, so be kind!

Stepping out of the classroom

June 27, 2010
A door in the air

A door in the air

One of my favorite books is Prince Caspian, one of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. At the end of the book, Aslan builds a door in the air. One by one, the Telmarines (people who had originally come from our world but had taken over Narnia and, at the end of the book, had just been thrown out of power) walked through the door in the air and disappeared. They walked out of Narnia and back into our world.

On the first day of my race, gender and media class, the professor drew a similar door in the air. One by one, we “opened” the door and stepped out of our little boxes. It was symbolic, sure, but it also had a point. Physically stepping out of our comfort zones meant something.

I came into this class vaguely aware that there are disparities in the way people of difference races and gender are treated in the United States and, indeed, around the world. In the past three weeks, though, I have seen how these differences play out in reality and in the media.

I have talked to a girl with whom I work about her experiences as a mixed-race child in America, and learned how painful prejudices can be when they are held against you by your own family.

I have interviewed another co-worker who, less than 40 years ago, became the first African American to teach in the Norman Public School system. I was saddened by how recently the schools really integrated – and then I considered that, to my knowledge, the school I attended still has not had an African American teacher. Or an Asian American teacher. Or a Hispanic teacher. And I realized that I had never, not even for a moment, considered this.

I have had the preconceptions of my classmates that I had on the first day blow to pieces.

I have learned that the legacy of racism and prejudice in the U.S. extends far beyond the blatant acts of racism that we hear about on the evening news.

I have learned that racism itself isn’t racist. Where racial differences are defined, there will be racism – not matter what the colors are.

I have talked about race and privilege with people I would never have considered talking about that to before this summer. Doing this, I have learned things about myself and my family that I never knew before.

I’ve looked at race and gender in film, and even called Disney out on a few things.

I have realized that not mentioning race is not the same thing as not seeing race. If we are ever going to get to the point that we don’t acknowledge “race,” we first have to talk about it.

So, my prognosis at the end of this class? A class like this is completely merited. Our ideas of race and gender are, in large part, constructed by the media. They are certainly reinforced by media. Whether it is news, entertainment or advertising, media content plays a huge role in determining how we view and recognized racial and gender differences. If we are to be news makers, news writers, news casters or even news consumers, we need to recognize this role, and we need to realize what we can do to change it.

Outside the box

Oh, that's easy.

Of course, it’s easy enough to say that in class, or on a blog, or even out loud, after three weeks of talking and thinking about race and gender. But now that I have stepped out of my classroom, what will I do? Stepping out of my box in the company of a dozen other students who were doing the same thing is one thing, but staying out of the box in the company of the world is quite another matter.

I honestly don’t know if I will stay “out of the box.” I’d like to think I will. I’d like to think that I will keep seeing the things I’ve seen this month, that I will keep learning more, that I will somehow make a difference. But I don’t know. Because you see, Dr. Flippin Wynn isn’t Aslan, and the door she drew isn’t one-way. I can turn back, and I know that it’s an easy thing to do.

To get back in the box all I have to do is nothing. It’s staying out that’s the hard part.

One final note: while this is my last “official” blog, I’ll be adding at least one more to share my final video project with the world (and maybe more after that; we’ll see).

Diversity? I don’t buy that.

June 24, 2010

This week, I looked through two magazines I’d never looked at before. I read some of the content, but mostly, I looked at the advertisements. Moreover, I looked at the ads in a way that I don’t usually look at ads: I looked at them to see how they portrayed race and gender. Here’s what I found:

We all know on some level by now that sex is used to sell everything. What I realized this week, though, is how ridiculous this really is in some cases. For example, an ad in Interview for Jil Sander’s spring 2010 clothing line was a full page spread of a print by the Japanese artist Leonard Foujita. Since Sander is German, this is interesting culturally, but the picture itself is of about twenty naked men and women in various poses. Keep in mind, this is an ad for clothing – and there are no clothes in the ad. At all. Also interesting is the fact that though both men and women are depicted in the piece, the women are completely exposed, while the men are always placed more modestly so that their genitals are not exposed to the world. The women, in effect, clothe the men, while they are themselves left naked. Perhaps they could contact Sander for some clothes?

Danica Patrick Peak

The PEAK ad, minus the text

Another ad I found, this one in Sports Illustrated, also made me reflect on how silly it is to use sex to sell some things. This piece was advertising antifreeze, which may be one of the least sexy products ever. But here, antifreeze is very sexy! Because Danica Patrick is holding it! In a clever(ish) play on words, the ad makes it clear that Patrick is present to add a sexual touch, not to give her professional opinion. The brand is PEAK motor oil, so next to Patrick’s softly smiling face is the slogan “when you peak, you win.” Now, I Googled the phrase “woman peak” to make sure that I don’t just have a dirty mind, and found that no, it’s not just me: all but two of the results of the first page and the vast majority of results on the next few pages were about women’s sexual peaks. See for yourself.

I also noticed what Jean Kilbourne mentioned in Killing Us Softly. At one point, she talked about how many advertisements show women covering their mouths, with their mouths not showing, or with text that implies they should communicate without speaking. In a two-age editorial spread advertising various pieces of jewelry, this was so clearly shown that one can’t help but wonder if it was deliberate. Reading the text, however, it becomes sadly clear that no, this wasn’t an ironic spread. Jewelry becomes a mask to hide behind, the caption reads, a shield from the prying eyes of the world. Gold on gold, diamond on diamond, metal on metal. It’s all about excess – don’t be afraid to make your point crystal clear. It’s a good thing the jewelry in the pictures speaks for its wearer, because her mouth is either missing, covered, or otherwise engaged in six of the eight photos. In one, she covers her face from they eyebrows down with a jacket; in one she shields her face from view with her ringed hand; in one she peaks over her shoulder, hiding her mouth with her hand; in one she sucks provocatively on the end of her necklace (a cross, ironically); in two more she covers her entire face with her hands. It is actually not possible to tell if all eight photos are of the same woman or not, because so much of her face is missing in each photo. Even in the two where her mouth is visible, her features are indistinct: in one, the photo only shows her open mouth, the rest of her face is cut out; in the other, she is looking down to watch as she gropes her own breasts. The point that she – or her jewelry or the creators of the spread – is making is that she is valuable only because of her sparkly accessories and generous physical endowments.

Gap ads

Four ads from Gap's holiday 2009 campaign

Those three ads were pretty depressing. Lets move on to something happier, shinier, full of smiles: a holiday Gap ad. Is there anything more uplifting in the advertising world than a Gap ad in December? This particular ad is a photo of seventeen young people, from toddler to college-aged, forming a pyramid. They are dressed in colorful clothes and smiling – but the clothes are really the only color in the ad. This was interesting to me; I first looked at the ad and thought “wait, they didn’t use any non-white models?” Then I looked closer and realized that in fact almost half of the models weren’t white. Gap clearly went out if its way to put together an ethnically diverse group of models … but in my opinion, they missed the point. The skin shades vary slightly from bright white to what a romance novelist might refer to as “light mocha,” but the features are all very similar. For all the real difference portrayed in this ad, Gap might as well have photographed seventeen white models and Photoshopped in a (very) little color to the faces.

Why is this? Why is sex (meaning, usually, a woman’s body) used to sell everything from clothes to jewelry to antifreeze? Why do even ads which try to be diverse end up looking like “Variations on Tan?” Part of the problem, of course, is that “sex sells” is a cliche for a reason: these ads work. Part of the problem is also the fact that the agencies making these advertisements are themselves often variations on tan, as DiversityInc’s annual review of advertising agencies shows. Until ads selling women’s bodies as well as the products on them (or under them, or beside them, or not present at all) stop working, until advertising agencies start looking more like the consumers looking at the ads and less like the people in the ads, this sort of advertising will keep appearing.

It will keep appearing because we will keep putting up with it.

I’ll make a stereotype out of you

June 20, 2010

I’ve been anxious all semester to talk about Disney movies with respect to race and gender, so I am excited about this blog assignment! I’ve heard for years about Disney’s bad reputation on race, especially, but I was still surprised at how much I found when I started thinking about my favorite Disney movies and re-watching parts of them.

Mulan

Mulan "paler than the moon" and au natural

First movie up: Mulan. I really like Mulan, in large part because she was one of Disney’s first princesses with what I see as a real personality and some spirit. Watching some of the clips, though, and especially my two favorite songs – man. Obviously, “I’ll make a man out of you” is an interesting one; from the lyrics and actions, it is clear that a “man” is one who is focused entirely on fighting. Emotions have no place in a man, or in war, for that matter. Women, as the embodiment of emotion, definitely shouldn’t be around war. Even at the end, when the soldiers dress as women to enter the palace undetected, the hyper-masculine hero of the movie keeps his uniform on. Moreover, “a girl worth fighting for” is one who is a good cook, fits the ideal image (interestingly, she is “paler than the moon” in Disney’s version of ancient China), and admires her man’s muscles. She certainly doesn’t have brain or speak her mind. And, of course, the only woman who could love the only man in the montage who isn’t a muscled soldier …. is his mother.

Oy. That wasn’t what I was expecting to find in a movie I had always seen as a “good” example of gender in a Disney movie. I also found it sadly interesting that even here, female beauty is tied to skin color.

Pocahontas

Is it just me, or does she look really white here?

Next up: Pocahontas. Here we go, Disney’s first Native American princess. A great opportunity to show the reality of European conquest of the American continent. What did we get? The Noble Savage. The Native Americans are depicted as simple, idyllic people guided by the spirits of the earth. Pocahontas herself is the noblest of the noble savages; she is the only one who can see past her narrow, “uncivilized” upbringing and bring peace with the white men. In one way, though, the movie does a good job of portraying the reality of racial clashes. During the “Savages” number, the white leader sings that “they’re not like you and me, which means they must be evil;” the Native American leader answers that “they’re different from us, which means they can’t be trusted.” This, in a nutshell, is the reality of race in America. On the gender side, Disney makes Pocahontas significantly older than she really was in order to fit her into a romantic relationship with John Smith. This implies that at least as far as Disney’s profit is concerned, a princess is only valuable if she has a prince.

So, after all that, here’s a brief run-through of a few other Disney favorites. In Snow White, the first full-length Disney movie and the first princess movie, the heroine is beautiful, again, because of her pale skin. In addition, she has to have a prince to save her – even though this prince is a non-character in the movie, with no personality and nothing to motivate him beyond Snow White’s pretty face. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle is an outcast because of her brains, but is still pretty dumb at times (“hey, I’ll walk through this scary dark part of the castle and touch things I obviously shouldn’t”), and the beast and Gaston fight over her like two mobile mountains of testosterone. In both of these movies, race isn’t even an issue, because there are no non-white characters. At all. Not even a cameo by an African slave. This is also true for Cinderella, my personal favorite. In Peter Pan, the Native Americans (the Injuns) are people who became red because of an event – they had to have been white at some point. From my experience with Native Americans, too, I can say that I have never met anyone the color of those Indians. The women are shown as simultaneously domesticated and hyper-sexualized (at least compared to Wendy) and the men are bloodthirsty when provoked and tame and funny when at peace. They aren’t even capable of rescuing their own princess from the villain; the perpetual boy has to do that. I could go on, but suffice to say: Disney doesn’t have a good track record on this issue.

The other half of this blogging assignment, I wasn’t really looking forward to. This is the hip-hop post (cue scary music). I’ll be up front about it: I’m not a fan. Not being a fan, I didn’t know where to start, so I randomly picked an artist (Lil Wayne) from the list provided, typed it into YouTube, and watched the first video that popped up. Imagine my surprise to find that Prom Queen isn’t a rap song. Oops. So I tried again, with more success.

It was my first real foray into rap, so all of my comments are based on the few songs I listened to/watched for this assignment. One of the things that struck me was the way both men and women were reduced to body parts and sources of money. In Lil Wayne’s Lollipop … well, do I really need to go further about that one? In T.I.’s whatever you like, even while he is treating the girl really well in the dream sequence, the reason is that he wants her body, while she wants to be with him (pretty clearly) because of his money.

I wasn’t surprised about that. That was the stereotype of rap that I had. What did really surprise me was the way rap artists integrated other genres of music into their songs. When Travis McCoy’s Billionaire started playing, I really did a double take to make sure I hadn’t somehow typed in “Jack Johnson.” In the same way, Drake’s Find Your Love was completely different than I expected.

This post is already way too long, so I’ll sum up by saying: I had a very stereotyped idea of rap. And it was wrong.

Does this commercial make me look fat?

June 16, 2010

Killing Us Softly 4We watched Killing Us Softly 4 this week in class. In it, Jean Kilbourne discussed how advertising depicts women and what effects this depiction has. She made some very interesting points – for example, how young girls now aim to be a size zero, to figuratively (and as close as possible to literally) become nothing. She also discussed the growing bombardment of women with weight-loss advertisements and women’s obsession with losing weight and striving for the ever-smaller ideal.

The next day, or maybe the same day, I watched a TV episode online. During that particular program, the commercial breaks were all Slim Fast ads. Now, we could talk about how the very fact that weight loss programs are advertised constantly is an effect of advertising and entertainment’s emphasis on thinness and impossible beauty, but that’s been talked about.

No, what I noticed that day wasn’t that Slim Fast was being advertised, but the way in which it was being advertised. The newest campaign is a set of three commercials, all featuring female stand-up comedians joking about weight loss. They are mildly funny, but something stood out. Watch these and see if you notice anything.

These women? They aren’t overweight. They pretty clearly don’t need to be losing weight. But here they are, talking about needing to drop weight fast to fit into a bridesmaid’s dress or a bathing suit. One even jokes about her weight-loss counselor looking like a matchstick, implying that she doesn’t think she looks anything like a matchstick.

To be fair, Slim Fast has featured women of more normal/healthy weight in their advertisements in the past. In the one below, at least when the woman refers to her jeans fitting her booty, she has a booty.

Why is this sort of advertising any worse or different than other commercials featuring super-thin models? For one simple reason: these women aren’t presented as the ideal, they are presented as the pre-ideal. They are the before picture. At least two of the three women in the newer commercials are significantly thinner than the woman in the earlier commercial, and she was the “after” version!

Bikini ReadyThen I looked in the mirror and wondered about myself. I’m not overweight. I’m within the “normal” range of weights for my build. But I have issues. I deliberately avoid scales between doctors visits because that way I can truly say I don’t know my weight. I, like practically every other woman over the age of 15, broadly interpreted my weight at the DMV when I renewed my drivers license. I’m with the woman who is concerned about bathing suit season – in fact, just today I got an invitation to a pool party my church young adult group is having and started thinking of ways to get out of it. I’m a sucker for Internet articles on losing weight, though I’m (1) way too fond of food (2) way too busy (3) way too lazy and (4) way too cheap to follow most of their suggestions. I still click on the links on MSN telling me how to get my “best butt ever!” or offering the “best bikini workout ever!” even if the picture with the article is of a woman so thin you can see the outline of her sternum.

My point is that I now recognize how sad it is that weight loss products are being marketed to women of normal or below normal weights, but I also recognize that there is a market there. I am the market.

I also can’t help but wonder how a woman who is overweight would react to these commercials. If women the size of these comedians still need to slim fast, is there any point in heavier women even trying? This is one of the (many) dark sides of this sort of advertising: rather than encouraging women to get to their healthy weights, these advertisements may lead the women who do need to slim down a little to give up, while at the same time leading women of healthy weights to go to great lengths to become, in honesty, unhealthy.

It’s not a good option for anyone.

Longer Bootstraps

June 15, 2010

Yesterday in class, Kate mentioned the “American monomyth.” What I thought she talking about (I was wrong, but still…) was the American belief in rugged individual, in the Horatio Alger story, in the ability and duty to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps.

Lucchese bootsNow, don’t get me wrong. I believe in this myth, which has its roots in reality, as much as anyone. I come from a long line of self-reliant and strongly independent ancestors. But the fact is, I and my ancestors (most of them, at least) had an advantage in pulling ourselves up: our race. I guess you could say we had longer bootstraps. And realizing this makes me…uncomfortable.

Most of these long-in-the-bootstrap ancestors of mine were European: mostly German, with a dash of English and maybe a little Scottish thrown in. I do have several Native American ancestors, but we don’t know much about them, mainly because they and their biracial children decided to self-identify as white. So that is my identity: I am a white woman descended from a long line of white Americans (we know that at least on one side, my ancestors first came over in the late 1600s).

But what does this identity mean? What is the legacy these ancestors have left me? Well, there are lots of things they have passed down. An inability to tan, for example; and a strong heritage of faith. But they have also passed down a privilege that my Native American ancestors and millions of other racial minorities did not have.

In a post last week, I defined privilege as “a group of ‘extras’ which have been bestowed upon me because of characteristics (race, gender, religion, age, appearance, etc.) which are most pleasing to those in the majority or those in power. Privilege is a sort of silent understanding between the majority and those in power, an acceptance of ‘how things ought to be’ for those in the majority.” In terms of racial privilege, these extras are bestowed because I am white.

I want to state up front that last week, I understood privilege on an intellectual level. Today’s class, discussion, and musing helped me begin to understand it on a deeper level. Tim Wise pointed out several instances of white privilege: that whites are privileged to live in areas where we are not poisoned by toxins in our air, water and homes; that whites are privileged to be able to buy houses virtually anywhere without being discriminated against by sellers; that whites will not be singled out by race as suspected terrorists (even though there is not now nor has there ever been a shortage of white terrorists); that whites – this one really shocked me – have, on average, 12 times the accumulated capital and assets of blacks. These examples brought the idea home to me in ways I’m still trying to untangle and verbalize.

Last week’s post has a list of privileges. After today, I’d like to add one more. Wise suggested and Race Traitor agrees that the white race’s “most wretched members share a status higher, in certain respects, than that of the most exalted persons excluded from it, in return for which they give their support to a system that degrades them.” So here’s my addition to my list:

13. I may be white trash, but I can rest assured that being white trash will be considered by many to be better than being non-white just-about-anything.

HRedneck Weddingere, again, media come into play (fitting, since this class is all about race, gender, and the media). Consider for a moment how the lowest classes of whites are depicted in media: trailer trash, rednecks, hillbillies. Now consider for a moment how the lowest classes of non-white people are depicted in media: drug abusers, thugs, gang members. At least in a legal sense, lower class whites are “higher” than lower class non-whites in media: they may be ignorant, but at least they aren’t criminal. Of course, this is a generalization, but doesn’t it ring true?

So how can media help? Can they? Well, as Dr. Flippin Wynn suggested, the connection may be that media can either help or hinder us as we walk in each other’s boots. The example above is a way in which media work with and exemplify white privilege. Can media work against it, as well? Can media make us think about how we can equalize bootstraps?

I think so. I hope so. But the real question isn’t what can the media do, it’s what can I do, what will I do? What will you do?