The National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, is currently showing an exhibition of two monumental artists, Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei, whose work and interests often intersected, even though they were working in different eras. As Weiwei was still studying in the 1970s and early 1980s, a time when Warhol’s star was meteoric. In this post, I only focus on Weiwei’s work.
Ai Weiwei shares Warhol’s scepticism for “high art” and authority, as evidenced in his 1995 classic artwork, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” which he redid in 2015 with legos (featured in my photos below). Similarly his two installations, Chandelier with Restored Han Dynasty Lamps for the Emperor and Forever Bicycles (both 2015) make a comment on the cultural artefacts that are revered at a later point in time, even though they were once everyday household items with little value.
While people rush to defend Taylor Swift’s racist appropriation of Black female bodies in her latest video, Shake it Off, because it’s presented as “fun,” it’s worth remembering that “satire” is no excuse for whitewashing of racism. First, satire requires cultural context to be clever; it matters who is delivering the joke to whom, when, and for what purpose. Second, racism is not simply about interpersonal insults. Racism describes a system of domination where White people benefit directly and indirectly from the status quo.
Taylor Swift has positioned herself publicly as a feminist, though her enactment of these ideals was already not without problems. This video shows she has little understanding of the history of feminism and the cultural struggles faced by women of colour. Not coincidentally, White feminism is still largely resistant to racial issues. As sociologist Jessie Daniels notes, it matters that White women are at the centre of both pop culture and the feminist movement:
White feminism, without attention to racial justice, makes an easy partnership with White supremacy.
From Miley Cyrus to Iggy Azalea who profit from brandishing certain aspects of Black culture, to Lily Allen who similarly used Black women in a video to critique White women pop stars, Swift has added her name to an ever-growing list of rich White women in pop music who use the exploitation of women of colour to make “feminist” statements. This stands in contrast, but along a similar continuum, of White pop stars such as Gwen Stefani, Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne who commodify the culture and sexuality of “Asian” women. Asian femininity is sexy in a “cute,” clean and submissive way; while Black and Brown women’s sexuality is dangerous, dirty and untamed. Either way, White women’s cultural appropriation of minority cultures conforms to familiar tropes where White champions dominate the uncivilised Other.
The fact that White celebrities do not set out to be “intentionally racist” is beside the point. Racism does not require your intent, as racial bias often goes unexamined. In fact, the way Whiteness works is to place White people at the centre of culture so that they are protected from the everyday consequences of race relations. (And no, there is no such thing as reverse racism.) Not recognising how racism works, such as failing to understand how and why cultural appropriation and stereotypes are damaging, is an outcome of White privilege.
Many people understand that celebrities are not health experts, yet the media persist on giving them a public forum to share their health and lifestyle advice. Journalists insist on printing celebrity musings without critical insight. This is dangerous. We see this in the anti-vaccine movement, but it’s pervasive in other ways. Over the next couple of days I’ll present a couple of case studies focusing on why it’s especially damaging to present celebrity ideas about women’s health without consideration to the social impact.
First up, I show the problems of presenting scientifically invalid ideas about vaginal health. A popular young American actress, Shailene Woodley, has reportedly suggested that genital yeast infection and other genital conditions can be cured by exposing vaginas to sunlight. She says she read this advice in an article by “an herbalist.” The media has repeated this advice and even recommended it with relish.
Young women who have limited access to sexual health education and who may not understand their bodies do not need to be exposed to pseudoscience. The individual musings of celebrities can be ignored at the individual level. At the social level, however, the media have cultural authority and a responsibility to inform readers about health issues. This is done by drawing on expert advice, not egging on damaging celebrity endorsements.
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 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.
Melbourne private school teacher and literary curmudgeon Christopher Bantick argues that Gen Y don’t understand “serious” Australian culture. Writing for The Age, Bantick believes that Gen Y’s engagement with popular culture over the classics will lead our nation to decline:
The vanity that is lauded as virtue pervades the culture to a corrosive extent. Young people have lost the capacity to actually know when something is art, and worthy. Instead, they hang on every word of their latest celeb mouthing inanities….
So who’s at fault? Schools need to do more about bringing a little elitism back into the awareness of culture. High culture: fine art, opera, serious drama and music that requires patience and understanding needs to be embedded into the curriculum.
In Australia, elitism is a dirty word. But maybe our jingoistic egalitarianism has gone too far with the sense of cultural equity. Who knows what a sonnet is, a partita, a motet, or who was Goethe or Christopher Marlowe? As for ballet, forget it. There are many other examples.
Paper People is a short Australian documentary film by young aspiring film maker Francis Haddid. It centres on teenager Jessica Barlow’s advocacy to change the way magazines portray women. Barlow started The Brainwash Project to provide alternative stories about girlhood that aren’t reflected by mainstream commercial media. Barlow was inspired by American Julia Bluhm, who petitioned Seventeen Magazine to stop photoshopping pictures of women. Consequently, Barlow led a Change.org campaign to get Cleo Magazine to stop using digitally altered images of young women. She met with the editor Gemma Crisp in Sydney, showing her the 20,000 signatures she’d collected. Barlow reports that the meeting was strange and she wasn’t sure that Crisp was listening to everything Barlow had to say. Continue reading Compulsory Heterosexuality
In mid-July, David Karp appeared on The Colbert Report. I’m going to tease apart Karp’s brief appearance because it came after the announcement of Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr. The interview touches on issues of digital equality, the hijacking of “cool,” and privacy. Colbert is clever and hilarious as ever. His comedy is about making fun of his guests, so unsurprisingly, during the exchange, we see that Tumblr is dismissed as a frivolous waste of time, mostly because of its reputation as a site for porn. A sociological perspective sees that even the most trivial dismissals, even during in a short comedic exchange, carries social messages that need critical exploration.
Tumblr is a fun way to spend one’s time. Yet Tumblr stands for something more: it is a popular way for young people to interact online, particularly those between 18-29 years, and it is especially used by minorities. Data from America also shows that Tumblr is unique in its gender breakdown. Unlike Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, which are more popular among women, and Twitter which is slightly more popular among men, Tumblr has a near equal split between male and female users. There are no data on non-cis gender users, but Tumblr’s transgender and queer tags are popular, suggesting Tumblr is an important blogging platform for LGBTQI youth. Tumblr also draws a slightly higher proportion of urban and educated users.
Given its unique demographics, it’s useful to place Karp and Colbert’s discussion in a broader socio-economic context. Much of their jokes centre on porn use on Tumblr, but underneath, this is a conversation about digital privilege.
During a recent concert, Madonna lent her support to the re-election of USA President Obama and praised his support for gay rights. All highly commendable. The problem is that she reproduces the myth that Obama is a “Black Muslim.” Madonna’s heart seems in the right place; she is encouraging voting and, on the surface, “tolerance.” Unfortunately, her lack of awareness about the politics of race in America has led Madonna to inadvertently buy into the “birther” movement. Birther conspiracy theorists argue that Obama is hiding his true birthplace from the American public. Obama’s “foreign sounding” name (read: non-Anglo sounding) and the fact that his father was born in Nigeria helped fuel the the idea that Obama was born overseas and that he is Muslim. Birthers demanded the President show his birth certificate, despite the fact that he was born in the American state of Hawaii. By claiming him to be a foreigner and a Muslim, birthers hoped to remove Obama from office. By inadvertently perpetuating an element of this discourse, Madonna displays an alarming disconnect with American politics. My argument is about the deep seated power of racism – which creeps into every day consciousness as taken-for-granted “facts.”