Gender, Race and Ableism in ‘Joker’

Arthur is in full Joker make-up. His face is painted white with crass red lips overdrawn over half his face. He has large red eyebrows painted high on his forehead. His eyes are framed by two blue triangles. He smiles and raises his eyebrown as he exhales

Let’s talk about representations of gender, race and ableism in Joker and how to situate a critical reading in the local Australian context. I saw the film last night in Newtown, Sydney, where the mostly White audience erupted in rapturous clapping. We’ll explore this reaction.

Spoilers ahead.

Arthur is shirtless, with his back to the audience. He is watching Thomas Wayne, a White man in a suit, speaking on television‘Joker’ presents a racialised and gendered view of class. Thomas Wayne (Gotham’s White male, super rich aspiring Mayor, played by Brett Cullen) is the antagonist. Wayne refers to protesters with contempt (jokers) and he punches Arthur (before his reincarnation as The Joker, played by Joaquin Phoenix) while he’s emotionally vulnerable. Whiteness prevails in this exchange, because the conflict between the two men is not really about class, as the film attempts to position. Their tension is about masculine power.

Masculinity

Arthur has his face painted white with blue triangles above and below his eyes. He uses his fingers to force his mouth into a grotesque smile

The Joker’s rise as anti-hero is celebrated as revolutionary in the film. It isn’t. Lower class White men view equity movements as encroaching on their social status. Joker simply re-legitimises White male anger as a political tool, which it always has been.

Arthur kills White affluent dudebros, an obnoxious White male talk show host (Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro), and a mean White male colleague. This inspires a revolution in Gotham, where men in clown masks riot. The film pitches this as social commentary, when in fact, it’s just White male ‘aggrieved entitlement.’

A White man with curly hair pulls Arthur's wig off his head. Arthur has his face painted like a clown. He looks upset and his arms are close to his side

How does this translate to Australia? In Newtown, a gentrified suburb on Gadigal land, young White men around us physically jumped in glee, some acting out the punches on screen. Visceral responses to films are fine! But why might Joker feel like liberation to these young men? For one reason only: hegemonic masculinity.

Hegemonic masculinity reflects how some representations of masculinity win out over other expressions of manhood. The film industry (and other cultural institutions, like sport) assert narrow ideas of what it means to be ‘a man.’ The state uses overt forms of violence to establish and maintain power, but social institutions also use ideas to gain the public’s consent about the status quo. Hegemonic masculinity works by reproducing images, narratives and other symbols of masculinity to keep authority with dominant groups, especially White men. Joker dresses up Arthur’s escalating violence as emancipation. White men are invited to feel elation because the ‘under dog’ (Arthur) claims his rightful place at the top.

Joker - Arthur has his face painted white, with blue diamonds over his eyes and red big lips. His hair is dyed green and hangs down his face. He is dressed with a red suit, yellow vest, green shirt. He smiles as he brings his hand to his mouth. Police run in the opposite direction behind himEnvironmentalism is one example of counter-hegemonic masculinity. The movement preaches (though does not easily achieve) gender equality. Two weeks after the historic climate change march (held on 20 September), where a record 300,000 Australians joined students in protest, there is still an audience keen to cheer Arthur’s destruction and misogyny.

Can you be an environmentalist and still enjoy Joker? Yes! But as bell hooks tells us, we can savour films but remain critical. Let’s continue our exploration. Continue reading Gender, Race and Ableism in ‘Joker’

Spanish Film Festival 2019, Part 2: The Good Girls, Ana by Day, Carmen y Lola, The Chambermaid, The Longest Night

Jump in for part 2 of my film reviews for this year’s Spanish Film Festival! All of these films are centred on women and issues of class, as directed by non-Indigenous, non-Black women. But there are other themes of intersectionality that I will draw out.

We start with The Good Girls, a much-celebrated tale about greed and White femininity during the 1982 financial crisis in Mexico. Ana by Day starts from an interesting premise – a White woman comes home to find someone else already in her home: her doppelganger. What to do? We move through risque escapism, as envisioned from a place of class privilege. Two of the strongest films of the festivals follow. For the most thoughtful exploration of patriarchy, sexuality and race I’ve ever seen on film, Carmen y Lola is unsurpassed. It was an engrossing story of a young, lesbian Gitana minority woman in Spain, falling in love in a context where ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ and its complex ties to culture and family are unpacked. Another highlight is a methodical and complex look at the lives of Brown Mexican women who service hotels. If you think that sounds mundane, The Chambermaid will floor you with its poignant study of a woman who has always made herself small to survive. She finds subtle ways to subvert servitude. Finally, with its weighty ideals and harrowing topic of human trafficking, The Longest Night is superb filmmaking but utterly horrific for anyone committed to women’s rights. Let’s find out why.

(Read Spanish Film Festival 2019, Part 1)  Trigger warning: discussion of depicted sexual violence, family violence. Continue reading Spanish Film Festival 2019, Part 2: The Good Girls, Ana by Day, Carmen y Lola, The Chambermaid, The Longest Night

Spanish Film Festival 2019, Part 1: The Realm, Tremors, Champions, Crime Wave, Rojo

It’s an exciting season in Sydney, with multiple festivals concurrently keeping us entertained from April to the end of June. First up is one of my favourites, the Spanish Film Festival. I bought a pass to see 10 films, mostly from Latin America and half by non-Indigenous, non-Afro women directors. We have a long way to go with stories reflecting the writing and direction of minorities. The festival has, however, included stories with disabled, queer and/or other ethnic minorities as protagonists. Those are the films I’ve predominantly chosen. The rest are political stories. Today, I bring you the first of two posts reviewing films from an intersectionality perspective. The festival began in Sydney on 16 April and ends 8 May, before travelling to all metropolitan cities.

Let’s take a look at the political thriller, The Realm, which sweeped this year’s Goya Awards (the ‘Spanish Oscars’). Tremors is the compelling but distressing story of a devoutly religious gay man from Guatemala. Champions is a highly successful Spanish movie featuring an ensemble cast of disabled actors playing a famous basketball team. Crime Wave takes a serious premise (an emotionally abusive man is murdered) and turns it into a cascading set of comedic deaths. Yikes! Finally, another political drama, Rojo, swells from the early days of the devastating Argentinean coup. The players ponder: under which local conditions do national tyrants rise? The answer is from ordinary towns, where people are too polite to notice men arguing and boys “disappearing.”

Central Park Mall, where Palace Cinemas Central and Platinum is hosting the Festival

Continue reading Spanish Film Festival 2019, Part 1: The Realm, Tremors, Champions, Crime Wave, Rojo

Roma: Film Review

 

Roma is a beautiful film that covers issues of gender, race, class and violence in Mexico. Dedicated to, and based on, writer/ director Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood nanny and housekeeper “Libo” (Liboria Rodríguez), the film follows Cleo (the sublime Yalitza Aparicio), a young Mixtec woman employed by an affulent Mexican family. She has lived with them since the children’s birth, herself perhaps still in her 20s. She is beloved by the children, but is still treated like a servant.

Her woman employer, Sofia, also tells Cleo she loves her at a pivotal point in the film, even as we see how she flies into rage, diminishes Cleo and blames her for insignificant details. Sofia’s mother also lives in the household, mostly indifferent to Cleo, until tragedy strikes. At one stage, having been on her feet all day working, Cleo sits on the ground, holding the children’s hands, as the rest of the family sits comfortably on the couch watching TV. Sofia then directs Cleo to get her husband a drink after Cleo is settled.

These are women separated by race and class, but who are bound together by the men in their lives who neglect and mistreat them. The men are a wreck. Everyone, including Sofia, call the philandering husband ‘The Doctor,’ his status, vanity and whims disrupting everything around him. Continue reading Roma: Film Review

bell hooks on Critical Thinking

“I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody else’s whim or to someone else’s ignorance.” ― bell hooks

Black American cultural theorist bell hooks’ distinguished contribution to sociology has been to unearth the intersecting issues of cultural difference, race and knowledge within feminism. Starting out as a literature professor, hooks would go on to challenge cultural studies in the early 1980s with books such as Ain’t I A Woman?: Black Women and Feminism and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre. Her work shows how women of colour have been marginalised by power structures in society as well as by White feminists who purport to speak about the universal struggle of all women. hooks argued that mainstream feminism silences experiences of race, ethnicity and class.

For the past three decades, hooks has explored the representation of race in popular culture, and how this affects social relations and public education. In the seminal Cultural Transformation video series, from 1997, bell hooks explains the importance of critical thinking for women in general, as well as for racial justice. Her work has been adopted by feminists and cultural theorists around the world. Let’s take a look back at this work and its prevailing resonance two decades later.

Gif of bell hooks talking. Quote reads: 'Critical thinking is at the heart of anybody transforming their life.'

Continue reading bell hooks on Critical Thinking

What Keeps You Alive: Film Review

I have a rule of faith when it comes to film festivals – I don’t watch trailers or read reviews. I read the program and decide to see movies based on the blurb. I make an effort to see movies written or directed by women first and foremost (documentaries or dramas especially), or about minority groups and women in general in the second instance. Third, I try my hardest to see horrors because they’re rarely released in Australian cinemas. ‘What Keeps You Alive’ hits two of three: a movie about two (White) women and a horror flick. Directed by Colin Minihan (of Grave Encounters, which I disliked) was not what I expected. What I knew about the plot: Jules and Jackie are celebrating their one year anniversary in an isolated cabin in the woods. It is a horror. That’s it! The leap of faith paid off. It was so strong! Great characters. Lots of bad decisions but cleverness too. I won’t say more. Slick 7/10.

(Postscript: Now on Netflix) 

A Vigilante: Film Review

TW VAW: ‘A Vigilante’ at the Sydney Film Festival is an affecting film about a woman who has survived intimate partner violence and now rescues women and children from violence. Written and directed by an Australian woman, Sarah Daggar-Nickson, it is a bleak but visually arresting story. Sadie (excellent Olivia Munn) lives a solitary existence and accepts little payment for her services. Most of the violence occurs offscreen or it is retold by survivors – the latter is devastating. The group counseling scenes where women share their stories of leaving violence are painful to watch, but told with great love, respect and care. These are common tales but society turns away from this reality. It was heartening that financial abuse was part of the story, as this is one of the many complex reasons women cannot simply leave. The scenes of violence showing Sadie’s husband are harrowing and triggering because the dialogue and cruelty are vivid. As a story of empowerment, it is difficult to reconcile: most women cannot turn to violence to escape violence. In a superhero origin story perhaps the narrative might be seen as an origin story. But the film is not that. It is presented as a hyper real revenge tale. As a feminist statement, however, this ultimately feeds into the cultural expectation that women need to save themselves or be saved, when the fact is that violence against women and children is a structural issue requiring massive social changes. Regardless, the story treats survivors with compassion. I’m ambivalent about its aim and resolution. I’m glad I saw this and you should also watch it. Then read up on the tireless work of survivors, case workers, shelters, and advocates for whom violence and its aftermath is a daily reality. 7/10

Woodpeckers: Film Review

Another Cine Latino film: Woodpeckers (Carpinteros). Unsettling but excellent Dominican film entirely focused on Afro-Latino characters. Julián (Jean Jean) is awaiting sentencing when he’s put into one of the “less hellish” prisons in Najayo. That is to say, an overcrowded, filthy and violent place where many prisoners sleep on the concrete floor. Julián is second generation Haitian-Dominican. In a terse exchange with his brother, we learn he is an entrepreneurial “low level” criminal who doesn’t want to be locked into a low-paid menial job.

Julián quickly earns a job communicating with Yanelly (Judith Rodriguez), the girlfriend of another high-profile inmate who is banned from an open area. Men and women communicate across prison using invented sign language which changes often to stop guards from learning conversations. Julián is soon captivated by straight-talking Yanelly.

The guards and inmates are all Black, and while it’s not ideal to have yet another film focus on crime, it is a story with complex characters. The film is highly violent and it deals with sex, anger and high octane emotions in a compelling way. The film is billed as partially depicting true events and the extras are all prisoners. The film makes for a searing sociological study on social norms and institutional functions. One long, continuous take as Julián walks tautly across the prison is utterly breathtaking.

All the actors are tremendous, but Rodriguez as Yanelly will linger in your memory.

Photo: The Other Sociologist. [Entrance to a cinema with the word “Palace” over the doorway. A man looks at his phone in front of the door.]

You’re Killing Me Susana: Film Review

At CineLatino, the Latin American film festival, I watched, You’re Killing Me Susana, starring Gael Garcia Bernal. As always, his performance is charming and the movie has lots of affable comedy. But his character and the story is not endearing. He is an unfaithful and selfish husband who does not take any interest in his wife and her writing. He is disparaging of her teaching, which supplements her writing aspirations. He has repeatedly talked his wife out of going away on writing trips because he is suspicious and jealous. Continue reading You’re Killing Me Susana: Film Review

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