Why oh why does the King Kong image and its attendant suggestions of pure white goodness and evil black barbarism keep on rearing its ugly head? Sent to us by reader Ruth, this photo is one of a series done by celeb art photographer David LaChappelle, for special editions of Lady Gaga’s new album. See the whole series here.
Or you may remember it and its ilk from the Amanda Marcotte/Seal Press debacle, where Seal Press used images such as the following to illustrate Marcotte’s book, It’s a Jungle Out There:
Or you may remember this image from this:
The list goes on.
In September, I linked to another Gaga/West image, which features a white lady (Gaga I assume) and a black person (West I assume) humping around. I suggested that the image dehumanised both players in a sexist and racist way. Mostly the reader response was: yawn.
This new King Kong photo of Gaga being the white virgin for West’s primal altar is problematic just to look at: a naked blonde woman with a perfect body is being stolen by a dark-skinned tropical heathen with dead eyes. Aiyeeee.
But the shot is even problematic in the context of the Iconography of Gaga.
On her blog, Deepa D. posted about what she calls the “Slumdog Shooting technique,” using this video from Greenpeace about climate change:
Ishan Tankha, photographer…sitting in casually imperial isolation on one of the many historical monuments peppering Delhi…
Meanwhile every other shot? The gaudy, public, and exotically poor street life of Delhi. At most we get some middle class women shopping, some Metro commuters, and Ishan riding his bike in front of the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
But even as he is saying climate change spans all classes, there are no other young, upper class people like him, no rich people, no half-naked out of fashion rather than poverty women, no fat cat industrialists or cavalcade-riding politicians, no indication that there are any of the Westernised English speaking people on the streets, even though Ishan has been chosen spokesperson.
I’m calling this the Slumdog Shooting technique – use English because you don’t want to alienate your Western audience with subtitles, but keep the local colour full of attractive yet needy children, crowds that look struggling, and picturesque poverty.
Most people talk about the fans. They are typically teenage girls screaming, crying, fainting at the sight of the pallid Robert Pattinson (who plays the Byronic hero Edward Cullen, a vampire who strives to avoid his bloodthirsty desires for the sake of preserving humanity). Now with the post-pubescent buffing up of another of the film’s protagonists, Jacob Black, a werewolf of indigenous heritage whose newfound strengths provide him with the ability to preserve a treaty to quell violence between the werewolves and vampires (played by Taylor Lautner), there’s a new boy on the block for inducing total fan chaos. But with the onslaught of abs and a new love interest for Bella Swan (the pathetic protagonist and central female love interest played by Kristen Stewart), there is a recycling of roles for actors of color that are far from new.
If anything, the title itself adds an ironic twist to a tale that spirals into a stereotypical narrative to which we are all well-conditioned by now, both in films and other more readily-available media in our every day lives. Have you ever heard something along the lines of “dating someone who is [insert ethnic/racial group] ok, but you’d better not marry one!” or “Native Americans are so in touch with nature!”? Have you ever seen a film or tv show that relegated the person of color as the trusty sidekick, loyal friend, or temporary romantic plaything, only then to have the white hero enter in medias res and get all the praise and attention? Have you ever seen a piece from an ad campaign or historical policy discussions in which non-white people are portrayed as animalistic, in both their behavior, thought processes, and athletic ability? Have you, as a person of color, or if you are not, any of your POC friends, ever complained of feeling that their societal value was reduced to their physical appearance or a specific body part?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above, you have already seen New Moon. Continue reading →
I think I overestimated my capacity for brevity and so what was supposed to be a three part series will probably end up spreading out further as I try to unpack and look into the long relationship between race and cinema.
Last time, I established the tension that existed between the actual craft of the actor and the need for verisimilitude in mainstream entertainment cinema. Obviously, this interacts with race in that, while as actors, by craft, should be able to portray characters not their own race, the demands of needing what is seen to match consistently with the reality unfolding on the screen, the actor portraying the role should actually appear to be same race as the character.
While this might seem rather common sense, we find that, in the history of cinema, the actual representation of race in film doesn’t necessarily hold to the demands of cinematic verisimilitude. Ultimately, in film (and later, television history), there is actually a long history of casting of characters of color with white actors and ignoring, eliminating or marginalizing characters of color. The former is a rather extensive topic and so I’ll be focusing on that first.
One of the main mechanics by which (usually) white actors would perform characters of color is using makeup and prosthetics to approximate stereotypical racial characteristics, the most famous applications of which is called blackface. However, as the racial spectrum was rather wide and the ideas of whiteness morphed and changed over time, not only were black characters subject to this process, but characters of any ethnicity not considered white at the time were. Hence, due to the rather broad range of colors used to describe this technique, I’ll be calling it colorface here.
Protesters in Little Rock, Arkansas, (1959) declared that “race mixing” (or school integration) was “communism”:
A reader at Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish argues that accusations of communism then, and socialism now, are not only about the redistribution of wealth. They are about the redistribution of privilege of all kinds, including white privilege.
You already know I was hesitant to get my hopes up, and that hesitation was warranted.
I am not one to complain about any and everything. However, as someone who would’ve sold my little brother and my first born child for the newest Barbie when I was a wee lass, I expected Mattel to come better than this. You know why? Because I know they can do better.
When I was about 13 years old, my mom bought me Barbie’s special edition Kenyan Barbie from their their Dolls Around the World collection. My mom didn’t give a damn what I did with the other “chocolate” covered Barbies. She cared about this one, and she was and still is prized. She was the first Barbie doll that I felt accurately reflected my features and aesthetics. Sure, I had black and white Barbies, but they all looked like the white Barbies, except for her.
I was so excited that Mattel had put in that work. I always hoped they would strive to make black Barbies look, well, black. It never really happened, as those Barbies always had something that “exoticized” them.
I remember looking at one of them and thinking, “Okay…so she must be mixed then?” It was alright, I guess. My grandfather has blue eyes, and he’s very dark-skinned, so I figured the Barbies had the same background as him. However, I do not have blue eyes. I didn’t have long, wavy hair that had little no kink in it (unless I relaxed of course). Naturally, black Barbie’s appearance was something that stuck with me, and I wished I could look more “other” than I really was. Continue reading →
by Guest Contributor Yu Zun Kang, originally published at No More Lives
There are many feelings that rise up when I think back to the first racial slur that was directed at me—but none of them, strangely, are malicious or sad. At the time, my family and I lived in a mid-sized town in the northwest region of Germany, near the Netherlands border. Even though we didn’t live in a metropolitan area, my first grade class represented the changing racial demographic in the German workforce and society: there was the Korean kid (me), the half-Turkish kid, and one of my best friends whose parents immigrated from Portugal to open an ice cream store. Like those kids, almost all my friends were Germans—my best friend lived three blocks from me above the bicycle business that had been passed down in his family for generations; and my first girlfriend came from a tight-knit German family that had a big backyard for all the messenger pigeons they raised.
The slur the kid used actually had a catchy rhyme, one that I heard occasionally wherever I went while we lived in Germany:
Ching Chang Chong Chinese Eierkopf und Kase
(rough Translation of the last line: Egg-shaped head and cheese-colored skin)
I don’t think the slur had an immediate effect on me. As a child, you react from the gut. Insults are insults—there is no sociological or racial theory that a child can conduct in his or her head to yell injustice. But why didn’t I say anything at the time? Here was the problem: how do you make fun of someone who bases the normal and ideal off his or her features? How do you, as the stranger looking around and seeing that you are the anomaly, take away his power to define you in those terms? How do you mock “perfection?” How can someone not feel powerless in that kind of situation?
I tell this story to make a point—words are never merely words. These ordinary words, “egg” and ”cheese,” are meaningless and powerless until you give them meaning and context. If you come from a position of power or a position of majority, then you have the power to define a word. And if you have the power to define a word, then you have the power to define the person at whom it is directed. Through that word, you can own and control the other person’s identity.
In a measured and thoughtful response to the Scribblenauts “sambo” controversy, Ian Bogost, while expressing his disapproval behind the use of a word loaded with a history of degrading and institutionalized racism, asks his readers to consider the game’s purpose: that “Scribblenauts is a game about what words mean and do when mustered in particular situations.” More importantly, he asks “what if this is the experience? What if messy quandaries about the ambiguity of “sambo” is precisely the sort of thing that Scribblenauts was meant to bring us?”