I think this type of blog by Aydrea Walden is a great way to begin a conversation about what racism looks like in 2012:
It’s as simple as this: “For each trailer, I note what white people get to do and what non-white people get to do.” Hint: most of the time, white people get to do loads of interesting stuff, while black people and people of colour get to do either nothing or very limited activities in the service of white people’s advancement in the film and/or as part of a stereotype. In other words, Hollywood fails again and again to even approach, let alone achieve, racial diversity both on-screen and behind the camera.
Another sort of diversity litmus test that I tend to apply in my viewing of trailers and movies is the The Bechdel Test, which offers a ‘passing’ grade to a movie if: 1) It has a least two [named] female characters 2) … who talk to one another 3) about something other than a man. Hint: way too many films fail this basic test.
But of course, these tests are just a starting point for understanding mere presence vs. absence along race- and gender-lines. They are very crude measures—we’re not even talking about whether the story lines or characters are particularly nuanced. We can’t just evaluate the quantity and call it a day; we have to also evaluate the quality of the race and gender representation in films. You might say we need a mixed-methods approach…. For example, if the main protagonists or entire cast of a film is made up of people of colour, that doesn’t mean a passing grade overall. You then have to ask about the quality of the portrayals. It may well be that the film revolves around a stereotype you’ve seen before (e.g., black ghetto criminal), or a particular re-telling of a story (e.g., white saviour complex in Dances with Wolves, the Help, Blind Side). For a real intersectional approach, it’d be great to have a Trailer Trashing-Bechdel Test mashup… 2.0, where we also look at diversity (or lack thereof) in terms of sexuality, ablebodiedness, age, and many other categories of representation.
So why do I bother with this? My point is that movies are a sociological “text” that are open to analysis because they tell us something about the world we live and the everyday practices of people. In turn, our consumer dollars spent in ticket and dvd sales tells the movie studios to keep ‘em coming. The world is full of very interesting complicated people, but Hollywood (as but one example of a powerful sector that is implicated in “meaning-making”) would have us believe that the only people worth hearing stories about are white, English-speaking, ablebodied, hegemonically attractive, heterosexual men and to a much lesser extent women. This is what privilege looks like—when we have a vastly diverse population, only a tiny fraction of which can see or imagine themselves represented in films, books, music, politics.
What I like about the premise of the Trailer Trashing and Bechdel Tests is that they give us an easy way to ask certain questions and really begin the conversation about how inequality is reproduced in things like our entertainment. You could easily apply these types of questions to things like news and sports broadcasts, fiction books, tv shows, and the history textbook assigned as reading in class. That’s why me and my colleagues count those things as our “primary sources” and our “data” in our research. We take seriously the “everyday” as a site for ideological production and the operation of power. Power inequality is not something we factor out or in with a confounding variable like “SES” or “ethnic identity”—it is the object of study and the context for our study.
And I know what many of you want to ask me some variation of this question: Is everything ruined for you now that you are such a critical thinker? You mean, does it suck the joy out of everything from listening to music to socializing? At first, I used to say, “YES. It’s exhausting and I wish I could turn it off!!!” But now, my answer is a resounding no. I am grateful that these ‘everyday’ things open the door for a more accessible discussion about what it is I study and why I study it. AND, my critical thinking has brought me to a place where my politics match my everyday activities and consumption. I’ve discovered a whole world of “alternative” movies, books, music, podcasts, food, clothing, news media, etc.—you have to sort of seek them out or have friends in the know, but it’s soooo worth it. Plus the internet makes it easy to find more of the same things even if you just have one search item, simply because of how inter-textual it is. I watch one trailer to a seemingly unknown indy film on youtube, and a bunch of similar ones are linked, then I google the writer and see upcoming projects. I read one alterntive news article from AlterNet, and notice that the author has their own blog and twitter feed, and so on and so forth. There’s this whole world where I don’t have to ever watch Fox news or a Michael Bay movie ever again.
On the topic of movies, I find that my relationship to mainstream Hollywood films is sort of like my relationship to candy, or maybe even beer. The candy and beer is everywhere in the shopping aisles and advertising. I can’t ignore it. And sometimes I convince myself that it’ll be good this time, so I buy it. And usually it’s a big let down. I’m either hungry for more food or feeling sick and wanting to retreat into a hole. And in the time that I ate the candy or chugged the beers, I could have been eating a decent meal or capped it at one drink or abstained altogether. I admit it, sometimes I just want to watch a crappy movieliterally accompanied by candy and beer—I want to zone out and I want to know exactly how the story ends.
But most of the time, I want the option that will feed my soul and expose me to new possibilities. At a very basic level, it simply feels better to view entertainment that doesn’t rest on the oppression or unfair representation of certain people. In other words, we deserve to set the bar a bit higher for what counts as a “good” movie (or whatever the text in question is). “Good” should not mean I have to ignore a bunch of racism to get to the supposedly “good” part.
And if we have the means (financially and time-wise), we can choose to support these underdog films. So… buying or renting is sort of like voting. I vote for what I want to see more of, and I withhold my money from things I’m tired of. Bridesmaids is an excellent example: audiences were given the opportunity to appreciate women as comedians carrying a film (it took until 2011 to do this???), and Hollywood executives had no choice but to pay attention to the fact that audiences paid to watch women being funny. Hollywood is overwhelmingly old, white, male, and rich, especially as concentrated in the upper echelons of studios and censorship boards (watch: This Film Is Not Yet Rated to learn about how some amazing films are doomed from the start because of the skewed rating process). [And It’s not about to change spontaneously, nor does it have to be “this way”.] No doubt, the cards are heavily stacked against any films that go against the grain. That’s the quantity side of things.
The quality side is that we need to find ways of rethinking what constitutes “against the grain” — in what society or culture would a movie featuring women being funny constitute “against the grain”? A sexist one, to start. In what society is it okay that the only time women of colour are likely to be awarded an Oscar is when they portray unfit mothers, abuse victims, or maids to white people? A racist and sexist one.
The more you start to fill your life with things that would initially be counted as “alternative” or “against the grain,” you start to see these patterns of inequality, and in turn, you see how necessary such inequality is to the definition of “normal”. The good news is, then you can start to get frustrated and angry and fed up! You can do something! Because you, in small ways each and everyday, have the opportunity to acknowledge and resist the fact that’s what counts as “normal” tends to only feel as such (i.e., comfortable, taken for granted) by those people with relative privilege and power. You can choose to “go against the grain” until maybe one day, we collectively redefine “normal” to be at least implicitly about promoting diverse representation and equality. We all deserve that version of normal.
Think about that next time you pick your entertainment…