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.


  1. I agree: we have to divorce representations from the "real," if only because no one really knows what reality is anyway, and reality is impossible to reproduce in any given text.

    I do think about it in a slightly different way, but in a way that might jive with your thoughts here. I think we need to start thinking of representations holistically, as part of media ecosystems; i.e., 'The Cosby Show' was not the only representation of the black family in the eighties or nineties (think reruns of previous shows, side characters on other shows, films, etc.), nor is Donna the only black woman on TV today. Most people do not watch only one type of media; they watch in clusters. Like the "real," which negotiates competing claims to legitimacy (think: blackness' relationship to class), individual representations exist alongside others: if you watch both 'Community,' '30 Rock' and 'Parks' (I imagine it's basically the same audience), you get three very different kinds of black female characters (Donna, Angie, Shirley--yes I had to look up their names). Taken individually, they're all stereotypes (one sassy suburban, one sassy urban, one church lady with a sassy past), but together they reflect a more complex reality. And that's just three shows! I haven't even touched reality TV, film, literature, music. None of this is static!

    This isn't really what you're talking about, but I do think we do a disservice to the process by which people consume representation when we evaluate individual ones against reality, instead of understanding these representations are constantly in motion and in conversation with each other.

  2. I like the cluster/ecosystem model, but I don't think the three shows you chose suit an argument for complexity. The fact that we can't keep track of their names is just the least of the problems.

    Observing a recent Fbook war involving partisans of Tyler Perry and of Spike Lee, I found that viewers were still very insistent on using a single character or narrative as a sample, so I'm not sure that viewers are thinking in the way that you suggest. In fact, the most common simple criticism of media images use such moments as incidents of patterns -- Spike Lee's women always x; black women are always portrayed as x (or y); why are there so few roles for black women, but so many for black men in drag...

    Although the simplicity and generalization sometimes bother me, I am in line with the primary observations. It seems to me that television clusters do indicate patterns. The Donna/Angie/Shirley/Mercedes/Nurse Roberts bloc is a very strong one. In fact, I would not have a problem with most of them if it weren't for the pattern.

  3. I should always note that Nurse Roberts of Scrubs was more interesting in the beginning than she became. In fact, it is the inconsistency of these women I find the most troubling. It's not the good kind of inconsistency that shows change over time. It's the kind that shows that the writers know a genre of black character better than they know how this specific one would react in any given situation. That's why I actually like Angie best of the black women on the Thursday bloc you mention. She seems a good match for the character of Tracy Jordan and she has a certain internal consistency and integrity. I guess that's what makes a character real, truthful, or artistically satisfying. (So, to my mind, even Wilhelmina Slater fits into this bloc, even though she's thin, light-skinned, and a fashionista. The incoherence of her motivations and of other characters' reactions to her tends to suggest writerly sloppiness. And I'm just noting that it's funny that such sloppiness tends to accumulate around black women characters, few though they are).

  4. Specifically with regard to the black women, I've gotta imagine that is at least partially a writer driven issue (i.e. no black women sitcom writers - now there is a niche). Wanda Sykes character on the New Adventures of Old Christine (the Julia-Louis Dreyfus vehicle) probably ran further from any traditional type as I recall.

  5. You can delete this comment, I haven't even finished reading the entire thing (at which point I may or may not comment). Just wanted to focus on this paragraph:

    "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."

    Much of the baggage I was referring to yesterday, can be found in this paragraph. It's the historical controversies that we carry with us. They're real, but they don't always have to define individuals. And I think what I was saying yesterday, is that I don't always like living by anyone elses definition.

    Now, the issue I raised isn't exclusive to the black community. I think any community shares a similar form of baggage. My point, tho, was that I simply noticed that with the African women I date, they tend to be more open minded in general because they're dating somebody outside of their culture. At the same time (and what I intentionally didn't mention) was that many of those women are escaping the same "baggage" concept. What I mean is, there are a lot of African women I know who refuse to date anyone of a shared nationality, because of all of the assumed drama that comes with it. As we date each other, there is none of that. I'm learning about her (and presumably her culture), and she's learning about me (and presumably my culture, or at least the aspects of my culture from which I choose to keep).

    Did I articulate that well yesterday? Probably not. The blog was originally addressed to a friend (who didn't even comment), and then I discovered that my thoughts were more layered than originally intended and so I had to add some vagueness and brevity to at least provide intrigue to what in truth, wasn't really a substantial blog. Like I mentioned in my comment, the topic makes for a much better conversation that it does for an essay.

    In case you haven't noticed, I've actually gone back to read each of your blogs from the beginning. And yes, I read the ones on black homophobia, but I'll be honest, there was a lot of content, a fair amount that I must admit went over my head. Good stuff, tho.