Miss(ed) Representations, Parts Two and Three: Black in America 4 and Miss Representation

By Sexual Correspondent Andrea (AJ) Plaid

I really, really wanted to like CNN’s Black in America 4: The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley (which premiered last night) as well as Miss Representation, a documentary currently airing on OWN. Both, however, left me feeling the same way, which looks something like this:

A couple of synopses before I state why I felt this way:

Black in America 4 explores the rarely discussed facts and stories of Black people in digital technology, especially those who are inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs. Host Soledad O’Brien frames this through the stories of eight African American entrepreneurs who move into together as part of digital business owners Angela Benton’s and Wayne Sutton’s NewME Accelerator program, which provides Black entrepreneurs time and (relative) quiet space—and possible connections with venture capitalists—for their business ideas.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s Miss Representation connects some of the dots between the stats, the personal stories, and media images about women and how those images affect not only those in the media— Margaret Cho recounts the fatphobia and other drama around her 1994 comedy All American Girl — but also those consuming the media, meaning the rest of us.

Now, I know that both shows are, respectively, very much Black Studies and Women’s Studies 101, presented as and for those who may know very little to nothing about either Black tech innovators and owners or media literacy and feminism. So, I can see both try to provide a “hook” for their audiences with that in mind. However, the way their respective creative teams frame their stories does both topics a disservice.

When I asked O’Brien about the aim of this installment at a preview screening, she said, “First of all, [Blacks] are clearly using the technology, but we’re not innovating the technology. And Silicon Valley keeps saying how colorblind it is. So, this part of the series examines that statement.”

Watching BiA4, I felt like I was watching O’Brien trying to mash a news report with a reality show. (“Watch what happens when tech-y Black folks get real…with Soledad O’Brien!”) I can understand that the NewME Accelerator was a good (and, from a seeing-news-as-a-business standpoint, a fiscally feasible way) for CNN to gather a group of Black tech business owners (and the non-Black people who attempt to help and/or comment on them) to tell a relatable narrative about the dearth of Black people in the field.  (BiA4 states early on that less than 1% of digital entrepreneurs are Black. The majority, it says, are white, young, Ivy League and first-tier university drop-outs, which, as pointed out in the post-screening Q&A screening I attended, is a privilege unto itself as far as starting businesses.) But I actually think a better way to tell both stories is to decouple them. If I could reconstruct the story, I would have had O’Brien, say, follow one or two Black digital entrepreneurs in depth as they attempted to get investors and utilized Benton and Sutton as pundits— along with angel investor/philanthropist Mitch Kapor, who directly refutes Michael Arrington’s claim of the digital ownership as “meritorious.” Or I would have followed the NewME Accelerator crew as the main subjects of a full-length documentary to air on CNN.

Also, another questionable point is how Asians and Asian Americans are considered in this report. The show starts off by saying that the tech-innovation worlds are “white and Asian.” Though the presence of Asians and Asian Americans should not lead to Arrington’s erroneous conclusion that the tech world is, therefore, “colorblind,” the presence of Asian and Asian Americans shouldn’t be discounted as failing to bring racial diversity to tech communities. The more subtle equation BiA4 makes, however, is “Black=racial diversity.”

At least BiA4 addresses, albeit imperfectly, race and racism in the tech field, Miss Representation — for all of the visually racial diversity (you see Cho, former Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice, Dreamworlds director Sut Jhally, media-literacy advocate Malkia Cyril, and Newark, NJ mayor Cory Booker, among others) — fails to talk about the issue of race and racism. When I asked why at a post-screening Q&A, the response was “We only had 90 minutes, though we’re planning a second movie to deal with race.” (Refer to image at top of this post.)

However, there were places in the film where race and racism could be mentioned, and it would have taken about 30 seconds. For example, a young Black woman talks about her hair and how media images make her feel about it. The narrator could easily say something like, “Far too many images we see in the media are of white women swinging long, flowing hair. Imagine how that would make a woman of color, whose hair may not do that, feel?”

I timed it: the quote took all of 15 seconds to read out loud. (I’ll be generous and give it about 30 seconds to account for dramatic voiceover.) Or even acknowledge that the majority of media images—both in the film and in entertainment itself, from news to shows to porn—are mostly of white women as both idealized and in variety of roles…and these are, quite a bit of the time, functioning in tandem. Again, all of a thirty-second voiceover or a statistic that could be one of many the film uses to further its argument on how the media hurts women and other people. The silence about race (actress Rosario Dawson is the only person who explicitly mentions “people of color”) — as well as class, gender identity, sexual identity, and  and physical ability, though the film does give a nod at how the media, especially television, fails to acknowledge women above the age of 35 as an audience or as characters — flattens the documentary’s discussion about women to the category of “woman,” as if female-presenting people all suffer from media images the same way. Of course, we don’t.

And I just quite can’t with Black in America 4 and Miss Representation.

Image credit: Bossip

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  • http://www.facebook.com/tatpeck Tatianna Peck

    I guess I’ll add my echo, too.  I agree-I too, was waiting for some explicit address of race in Miss Representation and I was bummed it just ended up hanging on the margins.  Yeah, it’s great to talk about how representations were altered by WWII, and the impact of so many women joining and being forced out of the workforce.  But you know, there are some bodies in this nation that have ALWAYS had to work, and media narratives of domestication might affect them differently.  Also, there was a lot of nostalgia for the developed film roles women used to have, for actresses like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford etc, but what about Butterfly McQueen or Anna May Wong?  Do we seriously want to feel nostalgia for the roles these women were allowed to portray?  It’s not that I didn’t like Miss Representation, but I definitely felt its limits…

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  • Anonymous

    I disagree with your statement that k.eli’s comment was an attempt at some “Oppression Olympics” for, even with the attempt to create some empathy with k.eli’s struggles as a non-white woman, the white women making the comments don’t acknowledge the racial privilege(s) that wouldn’t make such a statement true, which, therefore, causes it to lose its empathetic intent. As someone observed on Tumblr: 

    we here on tumblr have found every single way imaginable to admire white girls. soft white girls, fat white girls, dreadlocked white girls, naked white girls, bicycling white girls, hairy white girls, clean white girls, white girls in shower, white girls catching butterflies, white girls cooking, white girls cooking naked, white girls with babies, white girls with kittehs, white girls with tats, white girls in catholic school girl dresses, white girls with hippy clothes….what fucking other ways in heavens green earth and jesus can we find to admire white girls?

    ….and yet i still see a whole lot of “admire my hotness” white girl shit. 

  • Anonymous

    I think a better presentation about race, gender, and videogames is the documentary Moral Combat.

    As much as we talk about pop culture and its net effects on racism around here, I’m not going to completely dismiss Miss Representation‘s arguments about gender and video violence out-of-hand…but, hey, do you.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Watching Miss Representation reminded me of other documentaries about women’s portrayal in the media that I watched in the past. Meaning it was still about white women’s portrayal through the media and the impact it has on them (of course their idea of “diversity” is to throw in some versions of black women’s portrayal too but then not examine how those portrayals plus the predominantly white-centric portrayals affects actual black women). It’s like they can’t think outside the box; other experiences will complicate the simple narrative they’ve created for themselves (women’s experiences in America = white women’s experiences). What I’d like to see for example as a Muslim American woman  is how negative portrayals of Muslim women in American media (both news and popular media) affects actual Muslim women living in America. But of course that may be too far out there for them to depict properly…

  • Silvena Chan

    I really wish that someone had told the makers of (Miss)Representation that you can’t just have lots of faces of color to meaningfully engage with diversity.  What about actually engaging with the diversity of experiences and dominant discourses that define the oppression of women differently across race, ethnicity, SES, etc?  So over this second wave feminism!  Yeah, yeah, we’re all women, let’s just all like experience that the same way through cool graphics and quotes!  
    PS. Here are some men who can act as experts about the experiences of women in the industry (provide the “insightful” analysis), here are some white women who can experience it as the men describe, here are some women of color who can do the same but for much shorter amounts of screen time (and mysteriously disappear when they try to talk about people of color, who edited these interviews?), and then here are some folks who don’t conform to the gender binary (oh wait, that didn’t happen).

  • Truwizdom

    And they say we are living in a post-racism society?!  Hahahahahahaha.  Miss Representation is a great example the ludicrousy of that statement.

  • k.eli

    I saw Miss Representation and felt exactly the same way. I kept waiting for the point in the doc when they would at least mention that hey, WOC have the doubly whammy of neither being men nor white but the moment never came. I was once again left with the realization that the struggle of WOC in this society still does not merit even the most basic level of acknowledgement in a doc on feminism for goodness sake!

    It reminded  me of those times when I would hear overweight white women say that they can understand how I as a black women feel because the beauty standard in our country marginalizes them as well. I wanted to scream, however, because I was like, you can lose the weight and fit right back into the standard; I can’t change my ethnicity.

    • Anonymous

      “It reminded  me of those times when I would hear overweight white women say that they can understand how I as a black women feel because the beauty standard in our country marginalizes them as well. I wanted to scream, however, because I was like, you can lose the weight and fit right back into the standard; I can’t change my ethnicity.”

      Yup, mitigated privilege–like white female privilege–pretty much works like that.

    • Anonymous

      “It reminded  me of those times when I would hear overweight white women say that they can understand how I as a black women feel because the beauty standard in our country marginalizes them as well. I wanted to scream, however, because I was like, you can lose the weight and fit right back into the standard; I can’t change my ethnicity.”

      Yup, mitigated privilege–like white female privilege–pretty much works like that.

    • Mickey

      One time Janice Dickinson told Tyra Banks that she considered herself an “Honorary Black Girl” because when she first started modeling, modeling agencies rejected her for having dark hair in favor of blondes, stating that it made her look “too  ethnic”. Tyra argued that it was not the same thing since, as a white woman, she can easily change her hair color. Janice also missed the mark on mitigated privilege.

    • SA

      While I 100% agree with you that white women comparing experiences of body size to experiences race is pretty fail-y and is evidence of unexamined privilege, I disagree with your assertion that fat women can just “lose the weight.”  Pretty much all available evidence suggests that actual weight loss is the outlier when it comes to evaluating the results of weight loss programs.  And even if you do lose weight that doesn’t mean you “fit right back in” – the standard of “success” for a weight loss intervention is losing 10% of body weight (and for some drugs it’s lower).  Which would take me from 200 pounds to… 180 pounds.  Still fat!

      • k.eli

        My apologies. It wasn’t my intention to suggest that losing weight was easy. I know it’s not, especially for people with certain genetic predispositions. The point I was trying to make was that the only thing holding back an overweight white woman from fitting our society’s beauty ideal is her weight whereas for women like myself, it doesn’t matter how much we weigh because society has already dictated that our hair/noses/skin color/etc. are ugly and undesirable.

      • k.eli

        My apologies. It wasn’t my intention to suggest that losing weight was easy. I know it’s not, especially for people with certain genetic predispositions. The point I was trying to make was that the only thing holding back an overweight white woman from fitting our society’s beauty ideal is her weight whereas for women like myself, it doesn’t matter how much we weigh because society has already dictated that our hair/noses/skin color/etc. are ugly and undesirable.