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The Help- A Critical Review

In Uncategorized on June 30, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Before delving into the complexities of The Help, I find it important to acknowledge it as a worthy piece of entertainment. Despite sitting stone-faced throughout much of the movie, I was able to recognize its charm. The acting is superb; the story is moving; and it is successful at showing us how far we have progressed as a nation in terms of race relations, but I digress…

To be released in theaters on August 10, I attended an early screening of The Help back in June. It took me a while to absorb and digest the movie and decide what items were most important to address. I walked away from this piece many times conflicted, hurt, frustrated, angry, and defeated. The Black maid/slave/servant-white “employer” narrative is so convoluted, rich in history and meaning, that it is impossible for one post to encompass it all. There is the narrative itself, both as book and film; there is the personal narrative of the author, Kathryn Stockett, whose wealthy Jackson, Mississippi family employed their own Black maid growing up; there is the south’s nostalgia for the antebellum past; there’s also Hollywood’s general obsession with whitewashing history. Of course, all of that can be summed up by simply acknowledging that the commercialized mainstream media culture is only able to address the United States’ racist past, racial tension, and racial inequality if it absolves white guilt/complicity, valorizes whiteness through history, mythologizes that history, or ignores historical accuracy all together. And it seems the only way the mass American audience is interested in seeing films that explicitly involve relationships between Blacks and whites is if it does those aforementioned things.

For those unfamiliar, The Help was adapted from Stockett’s 2009 bestseller of the same name. The story, told from the point of view of “Skeeter” Phelan, Aibileen Clark, and Minny Jackson, takes place in early 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. Having recently graduated from Ole Miss, Skeeter, a young white woman, wants to be a writer. She finds her break when she’s inspired to anonymously transcribe the experiences of the town’s Black maids, all who work for white families. Originally, Clark is the only maid reluctantly willing to share her stories, later joined by Minny, until eventually a dozen or more maids come forth with tales of abuse, prejudice, and in some cases, love, at the hands of their white employers.

While the delusional marketing powers that be pose this story as a tale of sisterhood (instead of servitude), where “three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step,” more realistic people have recognized it as another example of the “white messiah” appointing him/herself as the savior of the poor, oppressed, uneducated Black people. As Hollywood and other large cultural outputs have made it known they love a good “white salvation through Black (brown, red, yellow) liberation” narrative, it is not surprising that The Help franchise continues to be successful (still high on the New York Times Best Sellers list); nor is it surprising that it was made into a major motion picture; and even less surprising is the fact that Touchstone Pictures, a Disney entity, is responsible for distribution. Disney, as we all know is the reigning champ of purveying a white, heterosexist ideology where Blacks and other props of “diversity,” including women, are only as useful as their ability to maintain the status quo.

As evident in the successes of Gone With the Wind, Imitation of Life, Driving Miss Daisy, Fried Green Tomatoes, Tyler Perry’s the Family That Preys, The Princess and the Frog, Steel Magnolias, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, The Blind Side, and many more, Hollywood eats up movies based in the south and/or movies that involve the close “relationship” between Black women and white women. If a movie can combine the two, like The Help, it is guaranteed box office gold. These movies are how Hollywood and the dominant culture deal with the United States’ violently racist past. The benevolent relationship between Blacks and whites in these movies generally take on the tone of a kindly, God-fearing, Jesus Christ-loving Black person, placidly letting whites work out their awkwardness regarding race. Eventually both groups realize how similar they are after all, and come to the conclusion that racism is an action of the individual person also hurt by life’s misfortunes, a conclusion mutually exclusive of racism as an institutionalized system that stands to demonize and oppress people based on the color of their skin and the location of their ancestry.

Very much aligned with the book, The Help attempts to dismantle some of these idealized tropes that run rampant in popular culture by showing what was actually lost and who gained from sustaining the image of Scarlett O’Hara and her Tara. What detracts from that noble goal are covert ways the movie eclipses historical white racism through the absence of white men, the blind innocence of white women, and the religious obligation of Black people to heal white people’s wounds and forgive.

The Men

Admittedly, as the movie focuses on sisterhood and friendship between Black and white women, the presence of men would seem rather unnecessary. However,  the passivity and near absence of white men in this movie diminishes the influence, impact, and existence of white male power and domination during that time, especially as we know that power in our collective psyches. While the assassination of Medgar Evers occurs during the story, there is a distinct separation between the white nationalist group who committed the murder and the innocuous husbands of the women in the Junior League. Naturally not every white man living in Mississippi between 1954 and 1968 was in the Ku Klux Klan or a white supremacist, but these indifferent, acquiescent men paint a grossly different picture than what was shown in the nightly news footage we’ve all seen where countless, nameless white men (women and children) venomously screamed and terrorized the lives of anyone working toward social progress, integration, and human rights. Hilly Holbrook, the hateful antagonist in The Help mentions Ross Barnett, then governor of Mississippi, as someone worth listening to because he’s “the Governor.” Ross Barnett was one of the most hateful politicians of that time who strongly supported segregation and ordered the Freedom Riders arrested and sent to the Parchman State Prison Farm to work on a chain gang, alongside hardened criminals. It’s unclear whether the screenwriters referenced Barnett to be tongue-in-cheek or to revise one of the most tumultuous times in Mississippi history for mass audiences, but whatever their motivation, it treads on dangerous territory.

The (white) Women

There are five white female characters that propel The Help. One is the savior, Skeeter Phelan; another is Hilly Holbrook, the racist “Queen Bee”; Elizabeth Leefolt, Holbrook’s lapdog; Celia Foote, a hapless Marilyn Monroe-type, teetering around in stilettos; and Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte, the quintessential Southern mother. Again, a common characterization in Southern themed movies, The Help uses Hilly Holbrook’s character, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, as the vehicle through which all racism and intolerance are enacted. The other women, minus Skeeter and Celia, are so overcome by desires for class elevation and acceptance from Hilly that they cannot express their discomfort with her need to terrorize “the help.” As Hilly pushes for white families to build separate bathrooms for their Black maids (because “they carry different diseases” than white people despite those Black people cooking their food, cleaning their houses, and taking care of their babies), her fellow bridge club members and Junior League hopefuls awkwardly avert their eyes or nervously titter alongside her instead of speaking out. Like their husbands, these women are not to be judged as prejudiced, racist, or bigoted against the Black citizens of Jackson because the inequality they profit from and perpetuate is not labeled as such. Instead, they are going along with simply how things are, which we are led to believe is no fault of their own. That is where Skeeter, the young educated liberal looking to change things, or at least question why those things exist, comes in.

It is important to note that as a Black woman, Aibileen could not tell the stories of other Black women and the book be received as well as The Help has. If a Black author wrote the book, or if the story allowed for Aibileen to be in charge of her own freedom, The Help would be relabeled as “African- American fiction” or a “Black movie,” marginalized by its topic and not half as successful. Having Kathryn Stockett express her interpretation of Black southern dialect to channel these women sells more; it’s more fascinating to that dominant culture to see a privileged (through wealth or class status) white person engage in “Black things,” like seeing Gwenyth Paltrow rap. Allowing for Miss Skeeter Phelan to opt out of whiteness in favor of the truth is more shocking to our culture systems because we know there is no better place than wealth, prestige, and whiteness, and for someone to give all of that up for a few Black maids, must truly be the messiah. Unfortunately though, this construction is self-serving for those who buy that story, including Stockett, because while Skeeter gets to leave Jackson, move to New York, and presumably begin a fabulous life, Minny, Aibileen, and all the other maids are stuck to face the wrath of her doing. However, the audience is left with closure courtesy of a Mary J. Blige song and Aibileen walking down the street towards her bright future.

The Help

Originally conflicted over risking her life and her job to assist Skeeter, Aibileen is persuaded by a moving speech from her pastor about loving thy enemy as the way to healing. To a packed congregation, the young preacher asserts, “If you can love the enemy, you have your victory.” Not completely a stereotype, it is common knowledge that the mass of Black Americans are faith-based people. Playing on Blacks’ religiosity in this way is very intentional, and again, treads on dangerous territory. Not only does this scene suggest that it is the moral responsibility of Black people to move past race and racism, it also frees white people, in and outside of the movie, from self-accountability and equally investing in the fight against systemic and individualized racism and prejudice. That is the most significant way multiculturalism works in popular culture and media: apoliticize racialized people, encourage them to forget or ignore the institutionalized system that fosters their marginalization, and have them assimilate to what mass society deems appropriate. It becomes dangerous for Black people to buy into these narratives of moral obligation as Christians because it creates a false sense of importance that only the dominant culture profits from. Offering forgiveness is not generally bad advice on its own, but what’s done in The Help, however, suggests that Black people are morally obligated to love, accept, and in essence, cherish, white people, especially the ones relishing in all their oppressive, supremacist, prejudiced glory. When the movie shows Aibileen having a moment with her “last white baby,” May Mobley, telling her, “You is kind; you is smart; you is important,” the audience is so overcome by the clear love “Aibee” has for this baby (and vice versa), that it eclipses her other lived experiences as a Black maid living in Jackson, Mississippi. The message then becomes, “Black women are all of our mothers. They love(d) that responsibility and took/take pride in caring for whites.” These images are what propel this notion of an inherent sisterhood or bond existing between Black women and white women that The Help tries to promote. Obviously Black women and white women can, have, and continue to build lasting, sincere friendships and allyships, but not under the pretenses that the movie offers. That “natural” or “inherent” bond often propagandized in Hollywood only exists in movies because in real life the supported superiority of one cannot be at the expense of another’s assumed inferiority. Kathryn Stockett’s current lawsuit is evidence of that mentality, even if on a subconscious level.

Conclusion

Leaving the theater, I heard a few Black women say, “This is the story people need to know because they (presumably, white people) don’t know that history.” While I am not the resident authority on the lives of Civil Rights era Southern Black women, I can confidently say, this is not the story people need to know because while thoroughly entertaining, it gives the audience the message: “See?! Things weren’t really that bad. There were just a few bad seeds who made it rough for Blacks, but it’s really because they were hurting inside, not because they were racist. White people really did care about Black people; and black folks loved taking care of those white babies.” And maybe some of them did, but walking around thinking that The Help somehow adds to a national conversation about race and that history in this country is trite and grossly optimistic.

Most likely because I grew up in the Atlanta area and know the south intimately, I possess a certain degree of hostility toward these type of narratives. Spending much of my formative years in the land of Dixie, I lived in an environment where there was, and continues to be, an undeniable nostalgia for the antebellum south maintained by a number of white people; a kind of nostalgia that can be seen on almost any campus at a large southern university. For those caught in the rapture of that nostalgia, where slavery has been made to look like a little dark spot (no pun intended) on the otherwise glorious south, I believe exists a particular level of complacency where the common sentiment is, “that’s simply how things were back then. That has nothing to do with things now.” I believe it is safe to label these folks as apologists.  Aside from the obvious racism, prejudice, and bigotry of some, that nostalgia and reframing of history is a product of the romanticized idealism of “the South” supported by Hollywood.

Everyone’s favorite character out of that Hollywood construction is the illustrious southern belle. Her panache has been so completely mythologized that it’s provided the South with a PR campaign so effective that we can watch these movies or read these books, and thoughts of slavery, Black women being pulled away from lunch counters and protest sites by their hair, Black men being marched to their deaths, young, hopeful college students murdered on dark Mississippi roads, oppression, gross inequality that still affects us today, and violence as a way of life easily never enter our minds. We’re too lost in the costumes, accents, fried chicken and Crisco, sweet tea, magnolia trees, and a big-bosomed mammy to reflect on the lives of those actually affected.

Despite many Black folks supporting these  narratives, it is important to question this type of work while we enjoy it because mainstream culture keeps looking for these kinds of stories to tell. The more of these stories we hear, the more historical accuracy becomes a nonissue. The Help is neither groundbreaking nor revolutionary in what it offers audiences. This is the only way popular culture wants us to talk about history. Because these one-sided narratives won’t die tells me that for Hollywood and the masses of people who find pleasure in these stories know that the tumultuous Black American experience is real and not a matter of us “playing the race card.” To eclipse that history with something like The Help is an admittance of guilt and the need to cover up. The more we see these stories where only one bad white person brought harm to others, we can not only distance ourselves from the past and from the truth, but also become complacent with the seeming progress of today. Instead of slavery, the KKK, Ross Barnett, segregationists, the underlying message of the tea partiers (including the misinformed Black ones), tales of campus racism, gross wealth and education disparities among Blacks and whites, gentrification, etc, being symptomatic of a larger societal ill that continues to permeate our culture, many people look at racism as something of the past; especially when we currently live in a world where the most beloved woman (Oprah) is Black and the most hated man (LeBron) also happens to be Black. Those are markers mistakenly used to show that equality has been reached.

While I understand the desire to indulge these types of movies, we as consumers must be mindful of who is selling us these products and what their motives and intentions are. Like the straight male blogger who decided to create “Gay Girl in Damascus,” Kathryn Stockett, Disney, and others who’ve helped The Help get to where it is, enjoy taking on the struggle of Black/brown people without actually handing in their whiteness; without distancing themselves from the problem that is at the root of our oppression. These people often say, “I just wanted to shed light on the situation,” yet they do not even share the financial or societal wealth resulted from their “altruistic” deeds. Instead, they valorize themselves where they become the heroes and not the people who have worked for progress and continue to live that experience every day of their lives. I’m not completely confident that well-meaning white people will stop making these kind of movies or writing these kind of books (and blogs), but I hope at some point they do what a Salon.com reader suggested upon reading about Stockett’s lawsuit: “From now on all authors should simply contribute a portion of all profits to some black [sic] charity. We’ll call it the Sally Hemmings [sic] Tax.”

(And because the internet works so serendipitously sometimes, I was led to this looking for an image of The Help’s movie poster. This post is dedicated to her; for she represents exactly why I’ve committed myself to being a cultural critic.)

Happy Beautiful Monday

In Uncategorized on June 13, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Responsibility has hounded me these last couple of weeks, forcing me to lock myself away and write about uninteresting things, like how Disney, as a cultural institution, functions like a celebrity (in the sense of Joshua Gamson’s theory on the production of celebrity), thus maintaining its power and influence over mass audiences and mainstream society…..blagh. So! As much as I’ve wanted to weigh in on Rihanna, Kreayshawn, Rep. Anthony Weiner, and other little pop culture shidigs, I had to focus on the tasks that’ll get me graduated. I’m taking a day or two to let my brain decompress and then I’ll be back with a nice round-up of those things I missed out on…

In other news, Chicago is a bit under the normal temperature (per usual) for this time of year, but the day is beautiful nonetheless…and I feel inclined to share with you a few musical gems from today’s playlist that are making this day even more glorious…

 

William DeVaughn: “Be Thankful For What You Got”

Janet & the Jays: “Hurting Over You Boy” (a video of someone playing the record doesn’t do it justice, but hopefully you get the idea)

The Spinners: “I’ll Be Around”

BeyBey, What Are You Doing?!

In Uncategorized on May 25, 2011 at 7:37 pm

Three key arguments have arisen out of the release of Beyoncé’s latest single and video, “Run the World (Girls).” Some are advocating that she could be the face of contemporary feminism. Others are saying that her lyrics and imagery are giving young girls and women the false impression that there is more gender equality and space for women to hold power than what actually exists. And finally, there is concern from other observers that the video for “Run the World (Girls)” takes a somewhat empowering message and turns it into one that says we, as women, must use our bodies to gain power, and that those efforts would prove effective.

I am not Beyoncé’s biggest fan; in fact, I kind of have an unnecessary love/hate relationship with her…probably because too many people act as though she’s the second coming of Christ, and as fabulous as she is, she ain’t JC. I can, however, accept and enjoy Beyoncé as an entertainer, because that is what she is, and she’s phenomenal at it. She makes a lot of women feel fantastic about themselves. That does not mean I don’t recognize that much of the work she puts out there is extremely problematic, especially as it relates to long-held perceptions of Black women, and really, women at large, in popular culture. I have never heard Beyoncé call herself a feminist or characterize her new single as the feminist anthem of 2011, but I would argue that as someone who appears to construct her performative image, literally, through the lens of the (white) male gaze, she is definitely not one. Antithetical to one of the baseline principles of feminism, Beyoncé not only seems to express her autonomy through her body, rather than her words, but there seems to be little authentic agency in those bodily expressions. While there have been movies and cultural references made about bold and beautiful Amazons who rule the land with their fierceness and sexual prowess, women cannot actually dismantle patriarchy and take over the world through the power and mysticism of vaginas. I’m sorry, BeyBey.

Lyrically, “Run the World (Girls)” is weak, but has a well-intentioned message. The video, however, is much more problematic, as it engages in complexion politics and uses female sexuality to suggest that’s how “Girls! Run this motha.” I have never heard an interview with Beyoncé discussing her creative vision or process for her videos, so it is difficult to determine how involved she is in the casting and drawing up the storyboards. However, as an entertainer and the face of the products she puts out there, including her own body as a product, she is complicit in the messaging and social cues that result from her videos, songs, and endorsements. As it becomes more apparent how much lighter and blonder Beyoncé is made to look in photographs, commercials, and videos, it is difficult for me to believe that she is completely unaware of the historical and political implications that manifest from allowing such decisions to be made through her body and appearance.

Though some Internet folks have questioned whether or not Beyoncé has been physically altering the pigmentation of her skin, I’m going to remain hopeful that it’s just the power of Photoshop. No matter her methods, Beyoncé looks to be achieving greater levels of whiteness as her career marches on. Use her latest video as an example. “Run the World (Girls)” opens with Beyoncé’s back to the camera, riding on a horse, dressed in all white with long blonde tresses blowing in the wind. From this point of view, she could easily be Shakira, Gaga, Ke$sha, Christina, Britney, or any other nonBlack pop singer. Throughout the video, it becomes apparent that special lighting, camera angling, and coloring are used to ensure that Beyoncé is the lightest and brightest on set, and not simply to let everyone know that she is the star.

still shot from

Another great example of Beyoncé’s participation in upholding whiteness is her music video for “Video Phone,” featuring Lady Gaga. In a number of scenes, Beyoncé dances between two extremely fair-skinned, possibly white, fully dressed male models that have cameras for heads. As she dances and writhes around, the two “videohead” men watch her intently; she performs for their satisfaction. Juxtapose those images with other scenes in the same video where a clearly dark-skinned man and another brown-skinned man, not wearing shirts, have bags over their heads, while she points guns at them. Unlike the other suited models, these particular models/dancers are reduced to their bodies, which are controlled by a gun-wielding Beyoncé, and they are physically denied access to view her. That type of imagery is loaded with colonialist implications.

It seems that Beyoncé has been given license to play with, or engage in these type of complexion politics because she has been so incredibly successful throughout her career; she has turned out so many hits, puts on amazing performances, does great philanthropic work, and now she has a seal of approval from First Lady Michelle Obama. If these types of differential racialized images were present in any other artists’ music video, it would raise concern, and rightly so.

It seems almost blasphemous, especially if you are a Black woman, to question or critique Beyoncé in any way. In contrast to what some have argued, I do not see the work that Beyoncé produces as somehow undoing the hundreds of years of damage created by how Black womanhood and femininity have been represented in America and abroad. What Beyoncé offers mainstream society and culture has always been an acceptable mode of entertainment for Black women to engage in. Think Josephine Baker, and though she was definitely not a performer, Sarah Baartman was forced to become one, because mass society had a desire to see her body on display for their pleasure and consumption. As long as there is no indication that a Black female entertainer is attempting to disrupt the status quo or patriarchy, she is free to hump the sand and shake her ass all around the stage, all day long. I must question why Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, or even Jennifer Hudson are not being publicly hailed as role models for young girls and women. Folks wanted to see Erykah Badu prosecuted for walking through Dallas naked for her video, “Window Seat.” I’m not a social psychologist, but I would argue that besides a thin layer of glittered fabric, what makes it acceptable for Beyoncé to shake and shimmy all around our TV screens, and an “only naked for 1 minute” Erykah Badu can’t record a video is a matter of group ownership versus individual ownership of the body. Historically having existed as someone else’s property, Black women still have a difficult time gaining spaces to let our actions, behaviors, and subsequently, “performances,” be of our own self-determination. With her top 40s hits, fair skin, and blonde hair, Beyoncé is the people’s champ, so to speak. Fluctuating racial ambiguity allows her to have a certain level of universality. That ends up making her apolitical, where all people can and feel comfortable in having a stake in her success, and her body.

I have heard Black folks argue, both men and women, that because there are so few positive images of Black women in media, we (as Black people) should be pleased and supportive of Beyoncé and anything she puts out there. As we work from the bottom up to slowly regain control of our image, it is often easier to interpret any non-welfare queen representation of a Black woman as “progressive.” Instead of us resigning ourselves to the possibility that Beyoncé is the only person who can uplift young Black girls and women’s self-esteem and spirit, we should be demanding for more positive representations of Black women in television in media. It simply cannot be Beyoncé, NeNe Leakes, and Basketball Wives or nothing at all.

Young girls and women do not need any more messages or imagery that suggests our power lies between our legs. The focus should not be on bodies; sex sells because that’s the only option we’ve ever been given. The sexualization of young girls and objectification of women runs rampant in western society and needs to stop. Before girls and women can sashay around thinking, “we run this,” we need to focus on building our spirit, self-esteems, confidence, and intellect outside of the desires of men. Our pop stars are not helping with this cause (not even Lady Gaga, y’all). I don’t believe anyone is advocating that Beyoncé should not have done “Run the World (Girls)” but the larger problem with the message and the accompanying video is that it says to young girls and women, (and by default, men) that our power and ability to overthrow male domination lies in our lady parts. Those assets may grant a woman attention, and possibly a job, but not any long-lasting systemic change comes out of those practices, where women could actually run the world, or at least, have an equal say in how it functions. I understand that Beyoncé singing about her business acumen in smart sensible shoes and a pantsuit would not make for a great pop song, but there are ways to empower young girls and women that would truly help us gain a stake in running the world, instead of just the dance floor.

Just Fine

In Uncategorized on May 20, 2011 at 7:18 pm

This week has been all about restoring/maintaining/strengthening/acknowledging Black women and our resilient spirits. Two events this week that have made the aforementioned tasks necessary are, of course, Pyschology Today‘s prejudicial post on the physical attractiveness (or lack thereof) of Black women (which I wrote about earlier this week) and a scheduled (now cancelled) appearance by “Shirley Q. Liquor” at Hydrate, a local gay bar here in Chicago. A testament to the power of the internet in its ability to mobilize folks, multiple groups, including one I was involved with, reached out to our networks and communities to call on Hydrate to cancel a two-night performance spot featuring Charles Knipp, a gay white male who performs in blackface and drag as “Shirley Q. Liquor.”

This Friday I am celebrating the power of the people. From the mass of outraged readers that held Psychology Today accountable, to Kanazawa’s article being taken down from the pressure, to the 120,000-strong student body at LSE calling for his resignation, to some amazing activists around Chicago and beyond disrupting misguided racist comedy, it is clear that we have a voice, and we have the power to demand it be heard.

As I shed the foolishness of this week, I’m calling on Ms. Mary J. Blige to remind us all that, despite the nonsense folks try to push on us, we are and will continue to be “just fine.” 

Physical Attractiveness Across Racial Lines According to ‘Psychology Today’

In Uncategorized on May 16, 2011 at 4:28 pm

Disclaimer: As I sat down to rip apart an article posted this morning on Psychology Today’s website, titled, “Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?” it mysteriously disappeared, only to reappear hours later with the headline, “Why Are Black Women Rated Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women, But Black Men Are Rated Better Looking Than Other Men?” and then disappear again for good. After receiving who knows how many angry letters to the editor, Psychology Today misunderstood people’s problem to be with the title, and not the study or the article itself. Whether looking at how the study was conducted or how its findings were presented in the article, it is important to explore exactly what offering such information to the general public signifies.

As a country that fertilized its soil with the blood of America’s native people, and built its wealth off the backs of Blacks, the United States will forever be tied to race; despite it now deemed a “post-racial society.” With the Obamas in the White House, it may be difficult to constantly look to the past for an explanation for why journalists, scientists, and American institutions believe they can continue to produce work fueled by a racist, colonialist agenda, as this article clearly was, but that is where our answers lay. While some prefer to further remove us from slavery by the day, and place our nation’s multiracial beginning in the age of Martin Luther King, that is simply not the case.

Instituted by racist propaganda presented during slavery, popular culture and media has given itself the task of upholding the continued devaluation of Black femininity, beauty, and womanhood. I do not know what variables or constants were used to conduct this study reported by Psychology Today or even what their motives were, but Black women have always been found “physically attractive” by countless men and women across all racial lines. The greater concern is, who has been willing to publicly admit that attraction? We can pick up a Thomas Jefferson biography, or read Harriet Jacobs’, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, or talk to anyone about Beyoncé (despite her increasingly fairer hair/skinned features) to get some confirmation that Black women have always been found attractive. Consistently hyperbolizing Black women’s anger, unhealthiness, or desirability as being far greater or below, respectively, than that of other women, maintains various forms of supremacy. Whether that supremacy is founded in class, gender, or race, it serves to destroy Black women’s self-esteem, personhood, and humanity, forcing us to question our own worth and place in this society. To be constantly inundated with messages, images, statistics and studies posed as facts that claim Black women are everything but the right thing leaves mainstream audiences handicapped from questioning the validity of these pieces of (mis) information.

Unfortunately, the missing Psychology Today article is not an isolated instance of poor science or journalism, but instead reflective of a widely accepted practice in popular culture to demean Black female beauty. Here is a small sampling of the campaign to dehumanize Black women just within the last few years:

  • John Mayer made disparaging remarks about his lack of sexual attraction to Black women. Despite Mayer equating his penis to David Duke, mainstream media and audiences became more fixated on comments he made about Jessica Simpson and his “nigga pass.” The lack of outrage from nonBlack female audiences suggests a particular level of comfort and acceptance in dehumanizing Black women among the greater American public.
  •  Rush Limbaugh seems to have taken special interest in exposing Michelle Obama’s physical “flaws” at every turn, from critiquing her weight to her right to wear bright colors.
  • Pepsi broadcasts a Super Bowl ad that shows an emasculating, angry Black woman abusing her husband, and later knocking out a white woman with a Pepsi can.
  • Chris Rock’s Good Hair, explores the significance hair has in many Black communities, but does so in a way that suggests any Black woman who straightens her hair or adds extensions must be self-loathing.
  • In The Princess and the Frog, Disney makes its first Black princess completely undesirable to her Prince until the movie is three-quarters of the way over.

It is wonderful that Psychology Today renamed the article to reflect, assumingly, what the study really investigates (despite removing it all together); it’s great that John Mayer apologized for what he said (though it’s unclear about which parts he was truly sorry for); and the dozens of other apologies that have come from fashion magazines and other popular cultural outputs that have engaged in subtle racist practices, but it still shows where our collective heads are when it comes to perceptions of Black women and desirability in America. To produce a study or an article that suggests the whole of Black women are objectively less physically attractive than other women is beyond racist; it’s negligent, sloppy, and offensive.

Only offering images of Black women behaving badly, or like big-bosomed mammies, allows for less-critically engaged individuals to sincerely believe that that is Black womanhood. This leads to Black women being perceived as less physically attractive or desirable than other racial groups. While Black men are often presented as thugs in popular culture and media, they are also the “Old Spice Guy” and our most beloved athletes. Black men’s supposed thuggery is forgivable because the constant presentation of the attractiveness and physicality of their muscle-bound bodies also makes mainstream America money. Look at this other Psychology Today article that claims another study finds Black women to be invisible. Popular culture and media are constantly telling American society and abroad that Black women are not worth anyone’s time or desire. What other results do we expect from a study like this?

While there is a greater demand for Black women, and Black people as a whole, to “behave” accordingly and not fall into racist and stereotypical trappings that give studies such as these validity, it is equally important  (and seems like the more obvious and necessary option) to not use science to support already-held racist assumptions about Black womanhood or our beauty.

Until those necessary societal changes are made, we have this:

White Noise

In Uncategorized on May 12, 2011 at 10:14 pm

Yesterday, while indulging in a late afternoon nap, I was awakened by a phone call from a dear friend inviting me to see “White Noise: A Cautionary Musical” at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago. Produced by Whoopi Goldberg, and inspired by real-life singing white separatist twins, Lamb and Lynx Gaede, better known as Prussian Blue, the musical explores what happens when Max, a ruthless, money-hungry record label executive, commissions Jake, a young producer, to turn a beautiful, blond-haired, blue-eyed set of small-town white supremacist sisters (and a skinhead boyfriend) into America’s most beloved pop act, White Noise. The rise and somewhat fall of Eva and Eden Siller is juxtaposed with that of their label mates, the Blood Brothas/ers, Dion and Tyler. Ivy League graduates, the brothers want to make family friendly, Will Smith-esque rap music, whose themes err on the side of American patriotism. As young Black men, Max believes they’d be more marketable (read: profitable) if they were spun into “gangsta rap” artists.

Chronicling the highs and lows of White Noise and Blood Brothas/ers, the musical attempts to address three points. First, pop music artists are nothing more than well-constructed manifestations of record label executives’ capitalist dreams. Second, we as consumers will blindly accept any bit of music that has a catchy beat and an addictive chorus without giving any thought to the message or where the artists’ politics may lie. And third, racism is real, and still exists in America. While points one and two ring true about the current state of pop music and how many of us digest it, the third point fails in the greatest way a message about racism can fail. The problem with Goldberg’s “White Noise” is that it approaches racism in the way that most Americans already understand and acknowledge it; an ideology only practiced by poverty-stricken, skinhead white supremacists living on the fringes of society in small towns, trailer parks, or the backwoods of Oregon (apparently). Exposing audiences to this type of racism is problematic because it does not address the real, everyday, sometimes unknowing, racism that many of us experience, witness, and possibly practice. Positioning racism as something that only neo-Nazi, white separatists/supremacists adhere to distances the rest of us from the real, everyday problem of racism; the type of racism that influences laws, public policy, popular entertainment, sports, and daily interactions. “White Noise” makes it seem as though the messages that the David Dukes and Lamb and Lynx Gaedes of the world tout are individualized occurrences and bear no reflection on mainstream society. That misidentification allows for Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh to have highly successful broadcast programs, politicians with covert racist platforms to continuously be elected into office, mothers to get charged with a felony for lying so their children may have a better education, and teachers to hold mock slave auctions with little to no repercussions.

Another problem with “White Noise” is that it tries to show racism as cyclical and not as cause and effect. After the climax of the musical, the Siller sisters’ mother tries to express the moral of story by exclaiming, “We hate them! They hate us! They hate us! We hate them!” as if racism has no beginning and no end, this abstract that no one can explain. Racism is not simply about hate; it is also about a perceived entitlement to power and control, and rudimentary supremacy. The musical attempts to show commonality between a fictional white supremacist pop group and “gangsta rap,” by suggesting both are founded in racism. Creating a “gangsta rap” group to conflict with a white supremacist pop act shows exactly how out of touch and ill-informed the writers and Whoopi Goldberg are about hip-hop and pop music. The Blood Brothas/ers hit song, “Nigga Gonna Shoot the White Boy” blatantly speaks to the NWA-era of commercial rap music, which brought an onslaught of hysteria among mainstream (white) America, who saw rap music as responsible for the perceived destruction of (white) American values. The various rap artists and their messages that Tipper Gore and other privileged individuals took issue with in the 90s was not about Black racism (or “reverse racism”), but instead a frustrated political response to the racism they were experiencing by LA County police officers, and a society that continues to implement systematic practices to demean and marginalize racialized Americans. Though it acknowledges its existence, the musical does not reinforce enough who is in charge of the music industry and what fuels it. It also does not speak to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that allowed for media conglomerations like Clear Channel to prosper and monopolize popular music and radio play. Rap and hip-hop are clearly not without fault with their frequent themes of misogyny and violence, but the equivalency is not a group of Hitler-quoting Oregonian white kids singing “Niggers Suck,” “Welcome to Auschwitz,” and “Mexican Vacation.”

Not to take away from her experiences as a Black woman or instances where she feels like she has been slighted by Hollywood for her racial identity, it is difficult to fully accept lessons of racism from Whoopi Goldberg as someone who has also defended Mel Gibson as a non-racist. Listening to the beliefs of neo-Nazis in musical form for two hours is not the way for Americans to begin a dialogue about race in the United States. It’s more of a way for disengaged individuals to pat themselves on the back for acknowledging the existence of racism in America, and recognizing that it is inherently bad, without actually having to become invested in changing the course of racial inequality and how we perceive difference in this country.

Side note: As part of its “Teaching Tolerance” project, the Southern Poverty Law Center partnered with ‘White Noise’ to create a study guide related to the musical.  (insert *side eye*)

Love Train

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2011 at 2:52 pm

As the first post of AprilScissors.com, it is important to establish that everything I do is founded in love: a love for community, a love for humanity, and a love for just simple understanding. The analyses that will develop as this blog develops are intended to highlight our collective humanity, a collectiveness that sometimes gets eclipsed by perceived unforgivable differences and power struggles. I can find no better way to express that sentiment than to post this video of beautiful Soul Train dancers grooving to The O’Jays’ 1973 classic, “Love Train.” For me, the 70s are representative of so many social movements in the United States; a time where folks felt empowered, ready to speak, ready for change, and willing to rely on one another to, again, build some collective humanity. In this case, they’re building that collectivity on the dance floor, but the message of the song and images are no less symbolic of that universal need for collective love (peace, and soul). -AS