Gender, Race, Power and The Beguiled

How do White women perpetuate gender and racial inequality in film? A new adaption of the 1966 novel and 1971 film, “The Beguiled,” is hitting the silver screen. The original story opens with a limping, dirtied White man, John (also nicknamed “Mr B”), played with relish by Clint Eastwood. The audience knows the violence and lies he’s capable of, as we see flashbacks that contradict his charm. He is an Unionist soldier injured in battle towards the end of the American Civil War. He staggers his way to a secluded boarding school for girls and young women, where he is nursed back to health by the older women, a mixed group of begrudging and bemused ladies who are stifled by their secret desires. The 2017 version has already built up high praise, with director Sofia Coppola being awarded Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. This is the first time the prestigious award has been given to a woman. Coppola explains why she chose to erase the character of Hallie, a slave woman who features prominently in the original. I emphasise Whiteness in her language below. Whiteness is a concept describing how White people don’t acknowledge how their race is central to their worldviews and contributes to racial oppression:

“I really thought it was interesting because it was a group of women all living together, all different ages with different stages of maturity, and how they interact. It’s a group of women kind of isolated in the world… I’m definitely attracted to stories about female characters, and characters that I can relate to. I’m interested in stories of groups of women together…  At the heart of the story, it’s really about the power dynamics between men and women that are universal, but that are sort of heightened in this kind of premise.”

Copolla makes two points in this interview:

  1. She loves women’s stories (read: White women’s stories).
  2. By saying she chooses stories that she relates to, and having omitted the only Black woman from her script, she is saying she only relates to White women.

This may seem “natural” to White people: why would a White woman relate to a Black woman character? This logic is how Whiteness works: by taking for granted the power dynamics of race. Continue reading Gender, Race, Power and The Beguiled

The Gender Pay Gap and Race

Actress Natalie Portman is the latest White woman celebrity to talk about the gender pay gap in ways that demonstrate tunnel vision on the intersections between racism and gender inequity. From Patricia Arquette’s highly misguided attempt to discuss the wage disparity during her 2015 Oscars speech, to Jennifer Lawrence’s essay calling for equal pay, White actresses have a very skewed view of the inequities faced by “women” in the entertainment industry and in everyday life.

What does the gender pay gap look like when viewed through the intersections of gender, race and other social categories? What do we learn about mainstream feminism’s vision for equal pay, when we become more conscious of Whiteness and White privilege?

Continue reading The Gender Pay Gap and Race

Not “Playing Ball” With Hollywood Racism

Not “Playing Ball” With Hollywood Racism

This article was first published on Medium on 2 March 2015.

Director Lee Daniels thinks that acknowledging race would invite racism and exclusion. He is very mistaken. The idea that racism only materialises because we confront it actually goes against the definition of racism. Racism rests on relations of power. What people say and do about race, including their inaction, all contributes to racist relations.

Daniels went on CNN to respond to recent claims by actress Mo’Nique that she was “blackballed” by Hollywood. Mo’Nique says Daniels explained that acting opportunities were being denied to her because she refused to go along with studio requests to join the press junket to the Cannes Film Festival for the film Precious, which he directed and she starred in 2010.

When asked whether Mo’Nique’s situation in Hollywood can improve, Daniels explains:

Daniels: I mean if she plays ball. You got to play ball. This is not just show. It’s show business. And you’ve got to play ball, and you can’t scream — I don’t like calling the race card. I don’t believe in it. I don’t believe in it. Because if I buy into it, then it becomes real.

CNN host Don Lemon: Some people call that selling-out…

Daniels: Selling-out? I guess I’m a sell-out then. Call it what it is. But I’m not going to not work, and I’m not going to not tell my truth. And I’m not going to call people out on their bull. So whatever that means; sell out, okay! [Laughs] I’ll see you in the theatres! [Laughs]

He goes on to share a touching background story about a storyline in his TV show Empire, based on his father’s violent reaction to his early queer identity. Speaking with Out, Daniels links his coming out experience to the ongoing violence faced by queer Black youth today. So while he can see a connection between race and homophobia, he seems unwilling to address race as having an impact on his career. Continue reading Not “Playing Ball” With Hollywood Racism

Latinas on Screen

Latina actress Gina Rodriguez, star of Jane the Virgin, has won a Golden Globe for Best TV Series Actress – Comedy or Musical! She said in her speech:

“This award is so much more than myself. It represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.”

This win is especially important given the research on Latin people on screen which shows that Latins are relegated to unnamed roles, and playing to the stereotypes of criminals, blue collar workers and sex objects.

Continue reading Latinas on Screen

Sexism and Racism in Film: Straight Outta Compton

A new film is in development which documents the rise of American rappers N.W.A. The Straight Outta Compton bioepic casting call came under heavy criticism for being racist, as the casting agent was asking for four different “classes” of “girls,” which were organised around skin tone. I argue that the casting call is not simply racist; it is also sexist, and reflecting colonial relations. The focus on lighter skin tone of Black women as an ideal of beauty has a long and profoundly damaging history. This racist ideology continues to the present day and problematically positions darker skin tones as less beautiful, and attaches additional stigma to Black women. As we’ll see in this casting call, even in a film about successful Black men, being a “dark” Black woman is analogous to being “out of shape,” unattractive and poor. There is an interplay between racism and class in this “colour code” which is further implied in the casting call, through the focus on hair. By stipulating that the “beautiful class” of women should have straight hair, and that the less desirable “classes” have weaves, there is a racist, sexist and class exclusion at play that penalises Black women’s femininity.

The most noticeable aspect of the objectification of Black female bodies in rap videos.. is the colour caste system gets reintroduced and affirmed. -bell hooks
The most noticeable aspect of the objectification of Black female bodies in rap videos.. is the colour caste system gets reintroduced and affirmed. -bell hooks

Continue reading Sexism and Racism in Film: Straight Outta Compton

Untangling Pop Culture’s Obsession with the Milgram Experiment

Photo: Millgram Experiment participant. Via Pacific Standard.
Photo: Milgram Experiment participant. Via Pacific Standard.

The Milgram Experiment, which supposedly shows that all human beings are capable of participating in torture under the watchful eye of an authority figure, has captivated popular culture for half a century. Why is that, given that there are finer social science studies out there? This post describes the experiment as well as another famous psychology experiment, the Stanford Prisoner Experiment. I critique these studies as well as exploring the public’s fascination with them, despite their methodological flaws. I provide a case study of how popular culture reproduces the Milgram Experiment as a universal “truth” about humanity’s innate propensity towards “evil.” The truth is that the Milgram Experiment is highly flawed and it tell us very little about our genetic predisposition for torture. What the Milgram Experiment does show, however, is that storytelling falls back on simplistic narrative about good and evil. Social science, in this case psychology and neuroscience, is just another plot device to reproduce the basic notion that “good people” can be made to do “bad things.” The social reality is much more complex and disturbing because it forces us to re-examine the relationship between obedience, culture and social interaction.

Continue reading Untangling Pop Culture’s Obsession with the Milgram Experiment

Noble Savages and Magical Pixie Conquests: Colonial Fantasies in Film

Via Wiki: Detail from Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe (1771). This painting is an example of an idealised vision of the “noble savage” in North American art.

By Zuleyka Zevallos

I wanted to do a follow up on my post from a couple of months a go, on Hollywood racism. I analysed George Lucas’ claim that big Hollywood studios were reticent to back his film Red Tails because there were no white leading actors in the script. I used the idea of the Magical Negro Trope to explain how mainstream Hollywood films stereotype African-Americans as either thugs or benevolent, self-sacrificing figures who exist only to teach the white character a life-affirming lesson. I showed that this trope extends to other minorities who are people of colour, through the Noble Savage Trope. Today I want to focus on the sexualisation of Noble Savage trope. The Noble Savage is a term describing the over-simplified stereotype of Indigenous people on film. I will focus on gender and sexuality issues in big-budget Hollywood films depicting Indigenous and minority cultures during early colonial and “frontier” times.

Today I will draw a comparison between Avatar and other Hollywood films that depict Indigenous and minority women as savage conquests. Women in general are rarely cast in complex roles in big-budget Hollywood releases. They are usually romantic or sexual diversions to help portray the male lead in a sympathetic light. Minority women are even more simplified, especially in stories involving Indigenous cultures. Indigenous and women of colour exist largely as Magical Pixie Conquests:  they are painted as feisty, though ultimately submissive, pawns that help white male characters to dominate the “native tribe”. The fictionalised version of the “Pocahontas” story epitomises how Hollywood both fetishes Indigenous cultures and perpetuates patronising postcolonial fantasies.

Noble savages and magical pixie conquests

Continue reading Noble Savages and Magical Pixie Conquests: Colonial Fantasies in Film

Hollywood Racism: The Magical Negro Trope

By Zuleyka Zevallos

Adam Serwer reports in Mother Jones that George Lucas’ latest film, Red Tails had trouble getting made, partly because the “studios weren’t willing to finance a film without a White protagonist as an anchor”.  Lucas’ claim can be put into wider historical context by examining the entrenched racist practices of big Hollywood studios. In particular, the idea of the “magical negro trope” puts things into perspective. This term refers to the way valiant Black characters in movies exist only as a narrative device to teach the White protagonist how to be a better person. I also delve into other variations of the “magical negro” and the gendered dimensions of these characters. Hollywood studios bemoan that paying audiences have stopped going to the cinemas. Is it any wonder, when big productions treat us all as if we’re stuck in some arcane mono-cultural bubble?

Hollywood Racism: The Magical Negro Trope
Hollywood Racism: The Magical Negro Trope

Continue reading Hollywood Racism: The Magical Negro Trope