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Archive for January, 2010

This week the comedian/actress Mo’nique won a Golden Globe award for her portrayal of the abusive, horrifyingly ‘out-to-lunch’ mother in Lee Daniels’ Precious. I saw the film the weekend before I was scheduled to discuss the first chapter of Mo’nique’s 2004 memoir Skinny Women Are Evil in my undergraduate humor seminar. I wanted to give it another read before class. It was tough. Actually, it was impossible. I skimmed a paragraph here and there, then gave up and began flipping through the book, stopping at the photographs in order to remind myself that Mo-nique was not the woman she played in the film. Mo’nique‘s worst-mother-of-the-year performance as Mary Jones was torturous: referring to her Down Syndrome grandchild as an “animal,” kicking Precious continually in the head as she lay on the floor about to give birth, and, of course the creepy and truly haunting “Mommy-needs-you” masturbation scene. Mo’nique forced me to struggle with the distinction between character and actor to a greater degree than I have in quite a long time, just as she has challenged us to confront body image bias and dominant conventions of beauty in her comedic performance. (Having “neglected” to shave her legs for the Golden Globe Awards, she promises to provoke us even more in the future. Anywho, the Daily Mail  seems sure that she “won’t be winning any awards for her personal grooming.” FYI, Daily Mail reporter, many black women do not shave their legs and do not consider unshaven legs to be poor “grooming.”)

Still, the color politics of Precious are troubling: all the folks whose lives are wracked with dysfunction are medium brown to dark-skinned and all the good-hearted, social worker types are fair-skinned. Even as I celebrate another victory for a black female actor, the reemergence of the film has reminded me of the “lost” news story of the past week, the latest blown-out-of-proportion racial ‘incident.’ Remember Sen. Harry Reid’s comments about how “electable” President Obama was based upon his “light skin” and ability to speak both standard and black English (although Reid clunkily referred to it as “Negro dialect”)? Oh yeah… that was just a little over a week ago. Reid’s poor word choice aside, I think he did us a favor by giving us (non-white folks) a glimpse into white Americans’ thinking about skin color. Not that we are surprised that white Americans are “colorstruck,” so to speak, or that such prejudice constitutes an important means by which racism thrives in this U.S. I’m just surprised that a white person put it out there into the public discourse. In fact, I think Senator Reid did us a favor by exposing something that I think most whites aren’t comfortable discussing for fear of being called a racist; that is, how the politics of “shade” structures their assumptions about morality, authority, leadership qualifications, etc. And we all know that many blacks haven’t “come to terms” (whatever that means) with their own color consciousness and, in the absence of a vibrant anti-racism movement, perhaps never will. For many of us, the scene in which Precious fantasizes about a fair-skinned boyfriend with “light eyes” and “good hair” is a moment of painful and inarticulable recognition.

The emergence of the tag phrase “Haitian orphans” in the news this week serves as an indicator of our newest, highly problematic reification of racial sentiment (sorry, jargon and cynicism). CNN has reportedly been bombarded with requests to adopt Haitian orphans this past week. According to the U.S. State Department, the numbers of Haitian adoptions have been on the rise over the past five years (i.e., even before last year’s hurricanes and recent earthquake ). Almost all of those children range from chocolate brown to midnight black. If colorism structures how we dole out political power, as Reid suggests, then what does it say about the politics of affect? If we are not capable of electing a dark-skinned president, then how can we sympathize with girls like Precious and how do we explain this clamor to adopt dark-skinned babies? In fact, how can we feel empathy for black babies if we cannot do the math that enables us to associate dark skin with all of those positive qualities that Americans supposedly value. While I’m not one of those people who believe that only black parents can raise black children (you have to be super committed to pursue a Haitian adoption), I am feeling very conflicted about this sentimentalization of black children by Americans (which, btw, is a historical phenomenon in the U.S.). I confess that I have felt the Madonna baby-knapping urge quite a lot in the past week. Watching children being shipped off to adoptive parents and other safe places has given me a huge sense of relief: all children need a loving family. But at the same time I feel a visceral, historically-engrained anxiety about children being taken out of an almost all-black environment and brought into predominantly white ones. I also worry about black children being raised in black homes where they are made to feel inferior or ugly because they are dark-skinned.

Perhaps we need to do a rewind and use Reid’s racial Turrets to help us reexamine this broad-based empathy for Haitian children within the historical context of a pervasive colorism against darker-skinned people in this country. This colorism crosses the racial spectrum, it cannot simply be dispelled by racial finger-pointing. And when I look at Gabourey Sidibe, I have to wonder if she’ll ever really work in Hollywood again.

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Perusing the shelves at Blockbuster the other day, I noticed that quite a few remakes of horror films from the late 70s and 80s have appeared in the past few years.  Halloween, Friday the 13th, Prom Night, Black Christmas, Last House on the Left, and When a Stranger Calls, among many others, have been remade or reimagined in the mid-to-late 2000s.  And remakes of Fright Night and Nightmare on Elm Street are in the works.  My question that day in the video store: Why this particular cultural phenomenon, why now, and what does it all mean?  Why are these stories being reintroduced into popular culture at this moment in time?  How might we interpret this trend? 

One way to read the original versions of these films is as a commentary on generational failings.  80’s slasher flicks focus on teenagers who are typically killed soon after their ethical/moral transgressions.  For these celluloid kids, having premarital sex, doing drugs, or shirking job responsibilities will result in some kind of blood-and-guts punishment.  Many of these films similarly feature an elderly character who tries to warn the teens not to go into the house, or into the woods, or into wherever, but the kids always ignore that elderly person.  Read against the backdrop of the Reagan era, these films become an interesting commentary on the unsuitability of the rising generation to take on adult responsibilities.  The films essentially rearticulate a 1980s moral majority critique of the reckless, immoral sixties hippies who “ruined” America.  I realize it’s odd to think of horror movies as conservative, but arguably there is a consistent ideology embedded in these films that reflects the broader society’s culture wars and generational divides in the late 70s and 80s. 

Given this particular interpretation, what does it mean that these films have been remade in the 21st century?  Is this generational critique being recycled?  Perhaps these films resonate with our current discourse about “Generation Me,” or the “entitled” generation that supposedly populates our high schools and colleges today.  According to some social scientists and cultural critics, this rising generation is narcissistic and discourteous; a whole slice of our population currently believes—as a result of permissive parenting and schooling—that they are all “special” and deserving of anything they want, whether they work for it or not.  Hence the popularity of slasher films redux, depicting the slaughter of the self-important youth of today, with a new slew of ignored warnings from old folks telling them not to go in the woods.  But I deserve to go into the woods, these kids seem to say.  Perhaps this explains, in part, the currency of slasher remakes right now.

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I recently pulled my copy of Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking off of my living room bookshelf and reread sections that I had marked off when I first read it two years ago.  Didion’s book about the death of her husband is a beautiful meditation on loss, grief, faith, and enduring.  I started thinking about the year the book was published—2006—and realized that death was a prominent theme in American culture at mid-decade.  That same year saw the publication of Philip Roth’s novel Everyman, a stark reflection on aging and the human body’s inevitable deterioration that begins with the protagonist’s funeral on page one.  The HBO television show Six Feet Under, a drama about a family that owns a funeral home, ended in 2005 after five seasons.  Also in 2005 the indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie released its album Plans, which featured several musical ruminations on aging and death (most notably “What Sarah Said,” with its haunting closing refrain, “Love is watching someone die.  Who’s gonna watch you die?  Who’s gonna watch you die?”).  I can’t help but try to connect dots everywhere that I see them, and I started contemplating the meaning of this convergence of four serious cultural meditations about death, all appearing in the mid-2000s.     

My initial thoughts are that these serious treatments of aging, dying, and death emerged in the years after 9/11 and the start of the war in Iraq, and in the midst of Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami, and even the much publicized debate about Terri Schiavo.  For whatever reason, American culture seemed to take death seriously at mid-decade, with literature and popular culture encouraging audience reflection on life, mortality, and saying goodbye.

I can’t help but contrast these realistic, sober cultural offerings of five years ago to our current pop culture plate.  Much of our mass culture today is devoted not to the dead but to the undead—to zombies and vampires and people who never seem to die.  At decade’s end, we hungrily consume stories about lives (and loves) that transcend death, be it True Blood or Twilight or Zombieland.  Does this mean that 9/11 has receded too far from our memory?  That in the idealistic age of youthful Obama we are more concerned with possibility and new beginnings than with decline and the end (death panels notwithstanding)? 

Or maybe the rhythms of our culture simply reflect what we as human beings experience in our daily lives: there are moments when our contemplation of death is intense, other moments when we feel we will live forever, and many other moments when we simply don’t think about death at all.  I happen to be experiencing the first moment these past few months—thinking more about mortality as I enter mid-life—and perhaps that’s why I am even seeing these connections in the first place.

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To wit: This week’s “Education Life” Section of the NY Times, where the cover article is called: “Making College ‘Relevant‘” I appreciate the quotation marks in the title, but the article seems to focus primarily on how to translate a BA into a J-O-B. This is a question that those of us in the humanities and social sciences get with some frequency. And our response is often couched in terms of “critical thinking skills” or “cultural analysis” or “nuance,” “subtlety,” “tensions,” or “cultural politics.”

But the question isn’t really if what we do is relevant, but rather why the job hunt and the endless pursuit of wealth and “practical knowledge” seems to have controlled the conversation about “relevance.” Why are those of us so gifted at cultural analysis often so poor at explaining its “relevance” to our students? Or, maybe more importantly: why is it such a challenge to provide frameworks for our students to recognize the relevance of what we’re doing on their own? Surely, relevance isn’t only about capitalizing on skills you can market through your “personal brand.”

Frankly, if relevance were judged by making money, the NYTimes would be in worse trouble than our universities.

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