Friday, April 29, 2011

Refracting Media Images, Keeping it Moving

Refraction Instead of Reflection

As a follow-up to The Daily Show post, I want to think about an issue that has been with us at least since the consciousness-raising efforts of feminists and advocates for racial liberation in the 1960s and 70s: specifically, positive and negative representations.

These conversations are usually framed around the idea that a certain mass media image is positive or negative based upon 1) its accuracy and 2) its tendency to confirm or disrupt stereotypes. While I understand that this whole movement came into being to combat mass media images that helped justify rigid and unequal roles for people of different races, nationalities, and genders, I have to admit that some versions of this critique bore me. It's not by a long shot that the critique is no longer necessary. It's just that it needs refinement to fit changed circumstances (not the least of which is that the rules have gotten so loose that any group can claim they are the victims of media smears. It's hard for me to see how, for example, Christians are now a persecuted group in the United States).

So, I want to propose a new way of thinking about how racial and gender identities are depicted on-screen. Rather than demanding a "faithful" reflection, I think its time we started asking for refraction. As you'll recall, reflection is the return of light to its source, whereas in refraction, light enters a new medium at an angle. The eccentric entry and the change of medium bend the light. What one sees is not the source light, but it is related to it. 

Switching to refraction helps with a number of issues. For example, the old argument in the 80s was whether or not The Cosby Show was a 'real' portrayal of a black family. Some said that it did not reflect the reality of black life in the 1980s: the ravages of the crack epidemic, the rollback of civil rights gains, the grinding effects of poverty. However, in celebrating the 25th anniversary of the show a year or so ago, Phylicia Rashad expressed pride that the show was the first to "depict an African-American family in the light of truth."

So, which is correct? Which is the more accurate reflection? Well, it's a preposterous question, honestly. All it does is set up a street-authenticated black culture against one that has more high-toned aspirations. This, I think, is a false distinction. Both of those stances are responses to the predicament of being black in America--namely, the problem that someone--anyone--thinks you are black and that they know all that means before you open your mouth. 

When all the dust settles in the long-standing arguments between the mythical combatants (Negroes v. Blacks; Integrationists v. Nationalists; Ghetto v. Bourgie; House Negro v. Field Negro), what we are left with are people united by a shared predicament. How to respond to the accumulated weight and presumptions that accompany native-born black American identity: does one try to 'disprove' the notion of black inferiority, or does one embrace it, rather than continue begging for basic human consideration? 

It's a vexed question. But I would say very few of us choose one or the other. Instead, we vacillate between the two as the contradictory requirements of being a so-called minority continue to shift... Be Different! Stop Being so Different! Forgive me for my majority status! Berate me for it! Exonerate me! Give me a special pass to come slumming! Show me how articulate you are! Give me a dose of that earthy, simple wisdom you people specialize in!

It's funny as I write this how much overlap there is in the various contradictory roles that (to be crude) women, minorities, and gays are asked to play.

Given this array, it's not surprising that marginalized groups would tend to be virtuosos of reinvention. Some call it code-switching. In slavery times, it used to be called "puttin on ole Massa." So, really, how could there be a simple reflection of this kaleidoscope, this funhouse-mirror-mode of existence.

The other cool thing about refraction is that it takes notice of the medium through which the light moves. We all know from parodies like I'm Gonna Get You Sucka!, Scream, Not Another Teen Movie, Community et al, that TV and film have their formulas. Why would we expect any "real person" to enter the medium of television or film and not be "bent" by being translated into its forms? Blaxploitation, rom-com, horror flic, Southern Gothic: we all know the basic formulas for these genres. Some art transcends these genres, blends them, performs a critique of them, but most does not. My problem actually comes in when shows that are simply using stock characters pretend that they are reflecting reality. I don't care whether the character is a good witch or a bad witch, I care about the boring repetitiveness of it all. Compare, for example, Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation to Donna (yes, the black woman, and, yes, I had to look up her name). Tom is all over the map in terms of his interests (owning a bar, patenting a fragrance), his racial identification (never Indian, but veering from his Anglo name to claims that he looks like Taye Diggs), his moods and personalities. You never know what you will get from him. 

Donna, on the other hand... Well, if you've ever seen Nurse Roberts in late episodes of Scrubs or Mercedes on Glee, you know the one note you tend to get from Donna. Sassy fat black woman. Lots of lip-pursing. This is a failure of imagination. I think this is because representations of African-Americans (especially black women) are still stuck in a mode of reflection. But a reflection is only one moment in time. Reflection doesn't capture the movement across space, time, and media. That would tend to produce refraction. I would love to see some black women characters who bend their characters as skillfully as Aretha bent the notes in her prime. (While we're at it, it'd be nice to see the same out of more Asians and gay characters, too. Harold and Kumar was a good start, but that's been a while). Aretha's soulfulness never came from singing it straight but always from bending, swooping, circling.

With that in mind, can we say enough with being real if being real means standing in one place, reflecting either static black dignity or unending black degradation (Precious)?

This movement, from beauty to ugliness, tears to laughter, is the essence of refraction. Not keeping it real (static), but keeping it moving.

A Pleasant Return: The Daily Show Integrates

I have had to take some time off to handle other writing that has taken my full attention. I thought, though, that I would return by talking about something else to which I have recently returned: The Daily Show.

It has probably been about three years since I regularly watched Jon Stewart. I had long been a fan but suddenly I found myself tired of it. Mainly, it was the show's inability to see its own complicity. As Stewart called for more civility on all sides, I began to see him as simply wimping out. Sometimes the truth isn't in the middle. Sometimes, one side is lying, conniving, and wrong.

I think I was especially dismayed by the way the Daily Show skewered the GOP as the party of old white guys but seemed incapable of noticing their own weaknesses in this regard. These were the years of Rob Corddry, Jason Jones, Rob Riggle, Ed Helms, and Stephen Colbert (before he had his own show). Now, as much as I enjoyed these guys, one would have trouble denying the show was, as the kids say, a sausage-fest. You might hasten to add that Samantha Bee was a correspondent in those days, and a damned good one at that. I would agree. But it should be noted that her husband is Jason Jones. It might be that her acceptance into the boys' club was through her husband. (Or, if my suspicions are wrong, he got the job through her). Nevertheless, these were certainly the days of a certain white nepotism. Before the show hired another female correspondent--or anyone who wasn't white--they hired Nate Corddry, Rob's younger brother. Surely, of all the funny people in New York, you cannot tell me that the only comedian you could find was the younger brother of some dude you already had on staff?

All white casts--and all-male casts--don't bother me in and of themselves. I'm all about making a good product. So, I never had a problem with lily-white Seinfeld, any more than I do with the great bulk of August Wilson's all-black plays. The legacy of our segregated worlds is that many scenes ain't rainbow-colored. My problem is with bad art. And when The Daily Show made fun of the Republican Conventions--and of the mainstream media's feigned inability to understand Sharpton's 2004 Democratic Convention speech--well, the irony just got a little too thick for me. Or perhaps the urge was too strong then, when I was still living in New York, to throw a giant portrait of Angela Davis, fist-raised, through their studio windows. I stopped watching. I finished my dissertation.

Happily, I can now turn to The Daily Show and see an array of entertaining comedians of both sexes and many races. Now, that alone does not endear me to a show (see Glee). The first and most crucial thing is that these people are funny and the show uses them well. When Larry Wilmore first appeared a few years ago as the "senior black correspondent," the skits tended to fail. Badly. He played a pretty straightforward role of educator, informing Jon of what black people think about x, y, or z. Humor has to have surprises, and nothing surprised me. Perhaps he ran out of material during his strong stint writing for the Bernie Mac Show.

The new Wyatt Cenac also plays "black correspondent" at times, but the range he traverses is far wider. (Whether this emerges from his writing or the writing staff's conception of him, I'm not sure). He recently appeared as a person from the future as predicted by fallacious early election polls, wearing a weird combover hairstyle he called the Giuliani. Here, he wasn't limited to being black and speaking about black things. He did it, but that was one among many bases he covered.

Same with his fake-news reportage on the brouhaha regarding an attempt to surround an area on Long Island with string to allow Jewish people to conduct prohibited 'work' activities on the Sabbath. When he does adopt the role of 'black correspondent,' he is likely to say outrageous and absurd things rather than supply real information about what black people think. It's great, because he shows how preposterous it is to have any single black person attempt to represent such a broad opinion. This is a major step forward for The Daily Show--and for television in general.

Similarly, the recent "special report" by Olivia Munn on the Tiger Mom phenomenon combined reference to the realities of being a second-generation immigrant with hilarious family dynamics. Rather than simply play on clichés about Asians, she played them and made nonsense out of them as well. Munn and Cenac are not trying to avoid race and they're not limited to it. It's one of many aspects of their comedic personalities; one of many wells that they draw from.

If this is the direction of our entertainment industries, I will be happy. It would be foolish and unrealistic to detach performer's from their identities. (Certainly, Jon Stewart is never asked not to be male, Jewish, married with kids). However, it would be equally foolish to think that those identities are narrow, unchanging, and predictable. Humor has to be based in truth, but truth is simply its springboard. I'm happy to be able to return to a Daily Show that has recognized the truth of its own position, opened the doors, and stayed funny.

Now, some things to think about:
Why, in recent television and film, have male comedy teams been the norm? The Apatow movies; The Office; Seinfeld/Larry David; Dave Chapelle and his co-writer Neal Brennan. It is interesting that cross-racial male comedy seems to work but we have fewer male-female teams on the old Lucy and Desi model--or even Hepburn/Tracy.

I have begun to think the dominance of men in comedy is because so much humor derives from humiliation. And you have to have status in order for the loss of it to be funny. Men are supposed to have status. Therefore, when they lose it, there can be humor. I suppose its a bit like the Freudian understanding of castration: since men have the phallic power, they have something to lose. Since women have already lost it, they really can't do much but play the "straight man," as it were, or the shrew (See Pam and Angela on The Office, US version). A few women have gotten out of this conundrum, but not many. And certainly very few women of color.

By the way, I'd also like to register my rebuttal of the ridiculous notion that "TV is sexist toward men now!" Sure, most fathers on family sitcoms are doofuses; wives are smarter and better at running the house. This has been true at least since Cliff and Claire Huxtable. However, if we go by the understanding that humor often results from a loss of status, one could say that every joke about the husband's loss of face simply reaffirms that he has face to lose--stature that (even though it is not earned by displays of competence) is always there, replenished at the start of each episode like a renewable resource. And if that ain't phallic power, I don't know what is.

Friday, April 1, 2011

An Economy of Disease and Dis-ease, or The (Self-) Hate that Hate Produced

Bitter earth
What fruit it bears.
What good is love
That no one shares?

If you know the famous Dinah Washington (or early Aretha Franklin) rendition of "This Bitter Earth," I hope that you won't think the jurisdiction a lovelorn song covers only a black woman singing the blues about some man. For these kinds of songs ("Please Send Me Someone to Love" comes to mind as well) speak of more than the romantic pair, they express a broad-based longing to matter, to be worthy of protection, consideration, care, and remuneration on this earth, in one's own society. We can begin, then, not with eros, but with agape....

Last night, I thought I'd catch up with my favorite Fake News hosts, and so I watched several episodes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart  and The Colbert Report in succession. Hulu is a heluva drug. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health appeared on Tuesday's Colbert Report to talk about epidemics. Declining to predict the newest pandemic, he instead reminded viewers of an older one that has not disappeared, discussing the high rates of seroconversion (HIV infection) among African-Americans and sub-Saharan Africans. The reason? While mentioning lack of health care and education--even dropping the charged word "disenfranchised"--Fauci gave the most airtime to a cultural explanation. The "black community," he lamented, stigmatizes gayness more than does the white community.

I ask, in all sincerity, Am I Missing Something? I know that I am a Humanities scholar. I work with logic, text, documents, and interpretation--not with alleles, centrifuges, statistics, and standard deviations.* Since I don't use focus groups, I can't even claim to be in the social sciences ! However, even allowing for the fact that Fauci probably has a more precise way of presenting these variables and causal relationships, something smells illogical in the Hermeneutic Circle...
I might have been a mathematician, but for the Miseducation of This Negro, which I detail, in part, below

1) Is there reliable data suggesting that black queers find stigmatization from homophobic black people less common and hurtful than being stigmatized, ignored, or maligned by white people, queer and otherwise? (This is not to even begin the comparison of the occurrence and impact of intimate violence--likely from a black neighbor--with those of state-supervised violence including police and prisons--not to mention the slow violence of persistent deprivation).

2) Do white people really talk about themselves as comprising a 'white community' comparable to what they imagine as The Black Community? Despite the widespread use of the phrase 'black community,' there is certainly no unanimity of opinion among us on any issue--including the existence and extent of racism. Still, the notion of a 'black community' is slightly less fictive than a white one because segregation, even in suburbs, tends to group us with each other rather than as individuals. You might say we often share space and predicaments, if nothing else (Angela Dillard almost commiserates with black conservatives who--while attempting to argue that other black people exaggerate racism to excuse their own laziness--find themselves with no explanation but racism to explain their own marginal position within the Republican party).

3) As I recall, black women were among the most likely groups to seroconvert in the US. Even if every single woman who has contracted HIV slept with the proverbial down-low brother (which would only be possible if AIDS were a "gay disease"), that would still make homophobia an inadequate explanation. Fauci would still have to account for the incidence of high-risk behaviors in heterosexual coupling. I fear that we would hear the conjoined twin of "black people are more homophobic"--namely, "black people believe in more traditional gender roles." Funny, how does that belief (often expressed) square with the persistent accusation from white observers that black people lack traditional family structures? At this point, I'm shaking my head and referring you to any competent black feminist thinker.

I know that I've been on about homophobia for some weeks now, and I shall MOVE ON DOT ORG (after slipping in the last piece already in the pipeline). However, tonight my target is not homophobia. I'd like to think instead about the economy of stigma. One tends to think of the causes and effects of stigma in an emotional register: disgust prompts rejection, resulting in alienation. Like the scarlet letter, stigma seems a mere affixation-- insulting and shaming, to be sure, but with little material effect. It is a label to be applied or removed. Stigma, one is told, has nothing to do with salaries, credit ratings, and joblessness. Similarly, disease--especially when sexually transmitted--would appear a simple consequence of behavior. Don't screw (around... too much); don't suffer. But any practitioner or patient will tell you that the preservation of personal health can hinge on available monies and administrative decisions--a truism that does not depend on how one fell ill.

Simplistic accounts of stigma and disease create an interesting parallel between the 'cultural' explanations for black poverty and the 'cultural' explanation for poor health outcomes in black communities.

According to the 'culture of poverty' dictates, the black 'community'--however its borders are defined--produces homophobic stigmata entirely of itself. Black homophobia springs, like Athena, from a communal black brain. It is merely a belief, a disembodied conception with no need for the nutrients supplied by an umbilical cord . In this myth, the growth and impact of black homophobia do not vary with policy funding faith-based institutions and governing school curricula, media content, access to counseling services, sexual education, and prophylactics. Seroconversion becomes a simple result of a black cultural belief system that does not value health, sexual propriety, financial responsibility, or most other civic norms.**
**That sounds like Paris Hilton to me... So why has she not (to my knowledge) seroconverted? 

To get away from these curiously detached sociological myths, to recapture the interconnectedness of culture, politics, and economy, I try to imagine the other life I might have had. This alternate story is all the more pertinent since, with my Obama-accented English and PhD, I am a person who would be touted as a success story of an increasingly colorblind America (Pardon me. It was "colorblind" in my youth. I know we have traded this term for post-racial, which means precisely the same dishonest thing). Yet, not much would have had to go awry in order for me to have gone to jail rather than to Yale--well, to the Harvard of the Midwest. Go Bears!

Let us begin this alternate adventure at the first event that made me an Angry Black Man™. In the second grade, the teacher and principal at the expensive-ass private elementary school my parents were paying for told me that I wasn't the gifted mathematician my 100% average said that I was. It is not hard to imagine that (if my parents hadn't the resources to switch me to another private school) the daily migraines and corked frustration that threatened to explode my head would have led me to reject school. Rather than a blackademic, I would have been at least a truant and, most likely, given the devil's delight at the sight of idle hands, a delinquent. 

Statistics show that, unlike my peers in wealthier neighborhoods, I would have been more likely to be stopped, frisked, arrested, and incarcerated--even without cause. If I wound up in the 'justice' system in Florida, I would have lost my right to vote as a convict. If incarcerated in New York state, despite the fact that it would be difficult for me to vote in my home district, I would have counted toward the population of the majority-white area in which I am imprisoned, strengthening their representation in legislature and their capacity to lobby for more prisons, prisoners, and attendant jobs in their region. 

If I had been convicted unjustly, or incarcerated comparably longer than a wealthier white person who committed a similar infraction, my capacity to vote the bums out would be sorely limited not only by my criminal record but by my lack of a stable mailing address with which to register. I do not doubt that I would, today, feel hopeless in the face of economic and police forces that make decisions in venues to which I have little (and lessening) access--except, perhaps, as a janitor or caddy. 

People tormented by internal demons commit suicide. Is it truly surprising that people who have the additional burden of legitimate paranoia commit the various small acts that amount to playing craps with their lives?

I suppose that if one ignores these trends in post-civil rights America, then high-risk sexual activities are simply a problem internal to the ethnic enclave of the black ghetto, the consequence of their backward ideas and utterly inexplicable penchant for destruction of self, neighbor, and communal space. But from what sources and events might they have determined that their lives are not worthy? Is it so inexplicable, to devalue one's own life when one's country has done it so thoroughly?

Might it be that a fitting analogy for high-risk sexual behavior among the unemployed and disfranchised of the inner cities is the susceptibility to alcoholism on Indian reservations? I can't say for certain, because my parents (due in part to the GI bill and the governmental push for affirmative actions to stimulate hiring of nonwhite persons) had both the financial basis and the optimism to raise me in hopeful circumstances. However, in my estimation, the cultural failing, the stigmatizing of others, the loathing of the self are "the hate that hate produced."

After journalist Mike Wallace interviewed Malcolm X on a news special with this incendiary title, "the hate that hate produced" became a popular way to describe the alleged hatred of the Nation of Islam for European colonists and white American segregationists. But what I am getting at in my title is the (self-)hate that hate produced. This might be seen as the response of a colonized or conquered people who know that Dickens's Scrooge articulated their identity and the fate of the involuntarily idle with cold precision:  "If they would rather die, . . . they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." Though never stated now so baldly, this is undoubtedly the public message marginalized people receive. Anything to the contrary is likely a precious private utterance, from a religious figure, a parent, a committed teacher, a fierce friend, or a media figure who is meaningful but untouchable.