‘If I never see another naked, enslaved, raped black woman on screen, I’ll be happy’

Last week, four black feminists participated in a panel discussion hosted by the New School titled: “Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body.” The talk– an in depth discussion about the influence of imagery and narrative on our culture and its role in creating our actual reality– went on for almost two hours. Yet, out of all this, the media reduced trenchant analysis into a sound byte, pitting one black woman against another: “Feminist scholar bell hooks calls Beyonce a terrorist.”

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I encourage you to watch the whole talk. I know you probably won’t, because, as I wrote, it’s two hours long. I didn’t intend to sit through it all myself, but I was so excited and fascinated by what these women were saying, I couldn’t stop listening to them.

These 4 women are creating new narratives and images, beyond woman as victim, sex object, slave. The discussion about Beyonce, specifically her Time cover where she’s shown in her underwear (which totally bummed me out as well when I saw it– why, why, why, the issue is about the most influential people and she’s practically naked, do you know how few women make it to the cover of Time?) is a few minutes of a larger, important talk about women, power, and the nature of reality.

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Here’s how bell hooks began the discussion:

Part of why I’m so excited and proud to be here today is that I’m up here with black women who are all about redefining and creating a different kind of image, liberating the black female body

Not a fan of “12 Years a Slave,” hooks says:

If I never see another naked, enslaved, raped black woman on the screen as long as I live,  I’ll be happy.

 

YES! I could not agree more. I am so sick of watching women get raped. After the talk, someone in the audience challenged hooks, saying she felt conflicted about hooks’ reaction to “12 Years:’

we still need to have those conversations about rape and violence on stage…how can we have those conversations, the role of slavery and colonization on women’s bodies? Can we make space for both?

 

Here’s how hooks responded:

Because we have been so saturated, I mean, I think one of the big lies that’s going around is, “Oh, we never talked about slavery, oh, we don’t have images of slavery.” We had “Roots” and more “Roots,” and there’ve been all these different books and productions, so that I think of that as a kind of myth building thing when people say, “Oh, we don’t have images.” Notice I didn’t say I don’t want to see anything about slavery. I don’t want to see those same tropes over and over again.

 

hooks speaks about some narratives that involve slavery she’d like to see, for example, when John Wollman and the Quakers met and decided they could not support slavery and believe in the god they believed in, that in fact, they owed back wages to slaves.

that would be an interesting film for me… more interesting to me as an image, as an idea than the repetitive image of victimhood, and I think that they’re all kinds of images and stories out there that could bring us into a different level of understanding.

 

hooks was making exactly the same point about Beyonce. She was referring to the repetition of sexualized images of women and how the inundation is an assault on our brains, especially for kids:

I see a part of Beyonce that is, in fact, anti-feminist, that is assaulting, that is a terrorist, in especially terms of the impact on young girls. I actually feel like the major assault of feminism in our society is has come from visual media… The tirades against feminism occur so much in the image making business…What I’m concerned about constantly in my critical imagination is why is it we don’t have liberatory images that are away from, not an inversion of, what society has told us, but our own sense of: what am I looking like when I am free?

 

That, right there, is what my whole blog Reel Girl is about. What does gender equality look like? Do we have any idea? Where do we see it, even in the fantasy world? If we can’t imagine it, we can’t create it. There is no good reason for the fantasy world– especially the fantasy world created for children– to be sexist, to put males front and center again and again, while females are literally marginalized and sexualized, stuck on the sidelines if they get to exist at all. To repeat, hooks says:

The tirades against feminism occur so much in the image making business

hooks wants new images. She says:

I would never want my child to see “12 Years a Slave” because it’s the imprint of the black, female body as victimized.

 

Again, totally agree. Obviously, “12 Years” isn’t a movie for kids, but I see endless books and movies, supposedly feminist ones where girls are mocked for being girls, then they rise above it and prove everyone wrong. Fuck that. I hope in children’s media I never have to read about or watch another girl dressing up as a boy, fighting or cooking “as good as a boy can,” from Mulan to Tamora Pierce to Elena’s Serenade to endless Minority Feisty. The reason this trope is awful for girls– and boys– is because before your child can understand the narrative, she needs to understand sexism. Instead of having Colette in “Ratatouille” give a whole speech about male dominated kitchens, why not make a movie with a female top chef and her best friend is a female talking-cooking rat? Audiences will buy that a rodent can run a three star restaurant but not a female? Like hooks says, we are saturated with this same old, same old. If we weren’t, it would be a different story (ha.) The slavery narrative in all its forms has its place, but we need a break. It’s too dominant. There are many other stories to tell.

By the way, hooks walks her talk. She wrote Happy to be Nappy for kids in 2001, and in this discussion, she says she includes it in her most important, favorite works.

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Another speaker on the panel, Shola Lynch, is a filmmaker whose most recent production is a documentary about Angela Davis.

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In referring to her film as “a political crime drama with a love story at the center,” she reframes Davis’ narrative. Next, Lynch is making a movie about Harriet Tubman, who she calls an “action heroine.” Can you believe there hasn’t been a movie about Harriet Tubman? Lynch says that even though Tubman’s story is true, people don’t “believe” it. The same phenomenon happened with the Davis movie. About selling that film, Lynch says:

So then I have conversations where somebody’s like, “Oh, it’s a great film as a documentary, but the only reason I would support it is I have to know who the main male characters are because it’ll be flipped to be a narrative, women’s stories don’t sell”… Her story is true, but not possible. People don’t believe it. But it’s all true.”

 

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Talking about why she would rather make movies about heroes than victims, Lynch refers to “symbolic annihilation:”

Symbolic annihilation is two things: not seeing yourself, but it’s also seeing yourself only denigrated, victimized etc, and what that does to you. We can talk about all the things that denigrate us, but I’d rather shift the camera, shift my gaze, and look for the images and the people and the places that feed me. I really do think, you talk about children, the more we create our culture, our cultural images– the books you write, the films I make, the alternatives, that these are artifacts that live, and they speak to people whether we’re there or not, bodies of work, and that is critical. I want to give one example. My daughter, she’s 4. She’s never known me not working on the Angela Davis film which took 8 years. She was so excited when I could show her the trailer. ..The trailer is like 2 minutes long and she watched that trailer over and over and over again…She would point out all the characters, she loved going ‘That’s Angela’s mom.” So she created Angela’s family and a sense of community just by watching this thing over and over again. But that’s not what I wanted to share. So she’s a little girl, she wants to be a princess, I’m trying to convince her she wants to be a warrior princess, that’s blonde and poofy and glam. She woke up one morning and her hair was all out, just like, you know, big, out, out, out. Usually it’s like, “Oh mom, my hair is too puffy.” This morning, after watching the trailer over and over again, she said, “I have Angela Davis hair.”  So I thought I was making this political crime drama with a love story at the center etcetera, etcetera, etcetra, but I was also making another image for young people to see and to perhaps relate to. And I was blown away, because I can tell her she’s beautiful all day long. I’m her mom, doesn’t count. The more we create the alternative universe which then becomes the universe.

Another panelist, writer Marci Blackman, echoes Lynch’s point:

My characters are the people who I grew up seeing every day who I don’t see, not just in literature, I don’t see them on TV…They weren’t there in the worlds that I was inhabiting when I would sit and go to the library and read, so I decided I wanted to write them, and I wanted to write people like me who I wasn’t seeing in the books either. I wanted to create these characters and put them out there, and I think what you say about self-representation and putting it out there to count as a counteract against these other images.

 

(This happens to be the second blog I’ve written about this talk. The earlier blog was all about Marci Blackman, who spoke about how she was stopped and searched by TSA agents because they couldn’t tell if she was male or female. No media outlets that I know of covered that discrimination story either.)

hooks ends the talk with this statement:

The journey to freedom has also been so much about the journey of imagination, the capacity to imagine yourself differently, counter-hegemonically, and that’s why the imagination is so important because Shola imagined Angela Davis in a different way from the images we had of her. That imagination of oneself, I would like us to end on that note and people can speak about creativity, because it is striking to me and I didn’t think about this when we were putting the panel together that for each of us, creativity and the uses of imagination have been what led us into the freedom we have. It has been what enhances my life every day. To be able to think and create and leap and jump beyond where I feel like we have been told, theoretically, intellectually that we should go.

Imagination inspires reality inspires imagination in an endless loop. It’s magic. That’s the point bell hooks was making about Beyonce. If you still don’t get it, here’s one last quote from hooks and then watch the video for yourself.

We can gather strength from the diversity of people’s stories, the diversity of people’s imagination.

 

Update: I just saw “Belle.” It’s such a great film that has to do with everything I blogged about here. Please go see it! Read my review here: “Belle” most extraordinary movie of the year, take your kids!

 

TSA agents search passenger: ‘We can’t tell if you’re male or female…ma’am.’

Feminist scholar bell hooks is all over the media for calling Beyonce a terrorist. But that’s not the shocking part of the New School hosted debate. Writer Marci Blackman was on the panel, and she spoke about being stopped by TSA agents while returning from Florida last week because they couldn’t tell if she was male or female. Gender ambiguity is clearly offensive and dangerous to America, right? The TSA’s discrimination and abuse of power ought to be making headlines today. Here’s Blackman’s story as told to bell hooks (transcribed by me because I couldn’t find it anywhere else.)

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After I come out of the body scan, they ask me for my boarding pass again, which they’re not supposed to do. And I give the man my boarding pass, and he waves over a female TSA agent who comes over and pulls me aside for a pat down search, and I asked why. And they wouldn’t say anything to me, and I said, “Look, I need to know why.” And so the first response was: “Well, we always search everybody three times.” And I said, “Well that’s clearly not true, because the ten people before me just walked right on through and got their bags. So why me? What is it about me that made you stop? Did something go off in the scan?” And finally she said, “It’s because we can’t tell if you’re male or female…ma’am.” So now, not only am I not in this box that I can’t find and that I wouldn’t want to get in anyway, but now, I’m a criminal, because I’m not walking or sitting or fitting or squeezing myself into this box that’s defined for me by somebody else.

Watch the video here, Blackman’s story is 23 minutes in.

‘Epic’ features cool heroine, celebrates matriarchy

My three daughters and I loved “Epic.” The central heroine, M.K. is smart, brave, funny, compassionate, and independent. I loved her look, too. She’s dressed in a hoodie with a messy ponytail. She doesn’t have a Barbie face, I’d recognize this girl in a crowd.

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M.K. narrates the movie. YAY. Do you know how rare it is to get a female narrator in an animated movie for children?

There’s more good news. Queen Tara is another brave, powerful female in this movie who is central to the narrative. Please note QUEEN, not princess. Not only that, GOOD queen, not evil. And…she’s not white. This may be a first, but let me know if there is another animated film with a good queen of color.

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Queen Tara is played by Beyonce, and the movie concludes with an awesome song about the matriarchy. The matriarchy, people! It’s so fitting and perfect because the whole movie is about protecting the heir. I was super worried that the next ruler would be male, especially because the evil character, Mandrake, keeps referring to said heir as his “dark prince.” Luckily, the evil dude is wrong, and just after you find that out, the matriarchy song comes on. I laughed when I heard it because I felt like Beyonce was saying to me, “Don’t worry, Margot, I got the girls covered.”

I do have some complaints. I wish M.K. was in the movie more. Much more. You cannot deny she is the protagonist– she is the narrator, she has the quest, and she goes through the transition. M.K. acts, takes risks, and makes choices. She is such a great character, but based on lines and screen time, “Epic” is pretty much an ensemble movie. Most of the other characters are male. The Queen dies early. M.K.’s mother is also dead. The central relationship in the movie is with M.K. and her father.

The evil character is male and he has an evil son. M.K. pals around with two male heroes, so in most of the action scenes, the same old Minority Feisty gender ratio is in your face. Speaking of, M.K. is riding bitch most of the time. Her position “makes sense” in the story because she’s the visitor to the tiny world, but still, writers can make anything happen. I am sick of sexism making sense in plots, and I had hope for M.K. taking the lead here. At one point, she gamely hops on a bird and says, “Come on, let’s go!” Nod, the young male hero, hops on behind her, but in the following scenes, Nod is the one in the driver’s seat again. Argh.

There’s an army of Leafmen, and from what I could tell, they are, in fact, men: 100% male. Comic relief is a male slug and his BFF, a male snail. That pair kind of reminded me of the male krills who steal the show in “Happy Feet 2″ or the meerkat/ warthog duo in “Lion King” and countless other cartoon buddy boys. It would be so nice to see a couple of females being friends and being funny in an animated movie.

Finally, I wrote I love M.K.’s look and I do, but both she and Queen Tara are super skinny, and why not give her a blue hoodie, or brown, or red, or any goddam color in the entire universe but pinkpurple?

M.K. is prominently featured on many of the posters seen around San Francisco, another total rarity for children’s movies. Though I didn’t see this one, I want to order it for my kids.epic

Reel Girl rates “Epic” ***HH***

 

 

Black hair and feminism: Beyonce, Willow Smith, Chris Rock, and Rhonda Lee

After I posted about Rhonda Lee, a meteorologist who was fired after defending her “ethnic” hair on Facebook to a racist and sexist commenter, I was thinking about black hair.

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Right after I started Reel Girl, I saw an excellent documentary by Chris Rock on this subject called “Good Hair.”

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The film begins with stills of Rock’s two young daughters. (I love that this film was inspired by these girls.) While we look at their pictures on screen, we hear Rock:

Those are my daughters, Lola and Zara. The most beautiful girls in the world. And even though I tell them that they’re beautiful every single day, sometimes it’s just not good enough. Just yesterday, Lola came into the house crying and said ‘Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?’ I wonder how she came up with that that idea?

The film goes on to document just how these little girls got the idea that their hair wasn’t good enough.

In the film, actress Nia Long tells Rock:

There’s always a sort of pressure within the black community, like, oh, if you have good hair, you’re prettier or better than the brown skinned girl that wears the afro or the dreads or the natural hair style…The lighter, the brighter, the better.

 

Comedian Paul Mooney explains the phenomenon to Rock most concisely:

If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If you hair is nappy, they’re not happy.

“Good Hair” ends as it begins, with images of Lola and Zara shown at a playground while Rock muses: “So what do I tell my daughters? I tell them that the stuff on top of their heads is nowhere near as important as the stuff inside of their heads.”

A few months after I saw “Good Hair,” I watched nine year old Willow Smith bust out of the gender/ race matrix, exuberantly celebrating her hair and her independence with her hit song and video, “Whip My Hair.”

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Willow sings:

Whip your hair back and forth,

Don’t let haters keep me off my grind,

Keep my head up,

I know I’ll be fine.

She explained the song to MTV:

Whip My Hair’ means don’t be afraid to be yourself, and don’t let anybody tell you that that’s wrong. Because the best thing is you.

Just a couple weeks ago, when this picture of Willow, now 12 years old, made the rounds on the internet, her mother, Jada Pinkett Smith, was derided for bad parenting.

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Jada responded to the criticism on her FB page:

This subject is old but I have never answered it in its entirety. And even with this post it will remain incomplete. The question why I would let Willow cut her hair. First the ‘let’ must be challenged. This is a world where women, girls are constantly reminded that they don’t belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own, nor their power or self determination. I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit and her mind are her domain.

Willow cut her hair because her beauty, her value, her worth is not measured by the length of her hair. It’s also a statement that claims that even little girls have the right to own themselves and should not be a slave to even their mother’s deepest insecurities, hopes and desires. Even little girls should not be a slave to the preconceived ideas of what a culture believes a little girl should be.

How cool is that? And how different is Jada Pinkett Smith’s public message to her daughter, and about her daughter, than the more conventional and ubiquitous “good mom” message from this Elizabeth Arden ad?
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And speaking of beauty, there are few factors more obvious to reveal that what we call “beauty” is indicative of the time we happen to live in than hairstyles. “Beauty” is all about culture and class, status and money.
If African-American women represented the majority of CEOs in America, professors and department heads of Ivy League universities; if they dominated our boards and Academy Award winners, movie dierctors and nightly news anchors and on and on, do you think for one second any viewer would write in that the black lady on TV looks like she has cancer?
The racist comment has nothing to do with hair or “beauty” and everything to do with what it means to be black and a woman in America.
You’ve got a better chance getting into the power ranks if you look the part. Every woman knows how important her appearance is and how intimately what she looks like influences her chances of success.
In the history of People Magazine, only two African-Americans have graced the “World’s Most Beautiful Woman” cover. I guess white people are just prettier than black people. Go figure. Note that Beyonce wins the title as a blonde.
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If women ran Hollywood, do you think People would create a “most beautiful” issue at all? Or would the magazine come out with something more like “The Sexiest Woman Alive” featuring older stars on its cover? Real life “Sexiest Man Alive” winners include Pierce Brosnan at age 48, Harrison Ford at age 56, and Sean Connery at age 59.

Of course, it helps to come off as “sexy” when you’re portrayed in movie after movie as a hero and shown with “hot” sidekicks who are desperately in love with you. Though People covermen do have one thing in common with the women: Denzel Washington is the only African-American ever deemed “sexy” enough to win.

When Rhonda Lee defended her hair to a racist commenter, she wrote:

Little girls (and boys for that matter) need to see that what you look like isn’t a reason to not achieve their goals.

That’s the same reason Chris Rock made his documentary. It’s the same reason Willow Smith wrote her song, and Jada Pinkett Smith spoke up for her daughter. Is Rhonda Lee not famous enough or powerful enough to speak up for herself without getting punished for it?

Please support Rhonda Lee and sign the petition to demand that she get her job back.

 

Beyonce may be People’s first black “most beautiful” in 9 yrs, but why is she blonde?

Jezebel reports:

The new issue of People magazine features Beyoncé on the cover as the World’s Most Beautiful Woman. As People editor Janet Mock notes, it’s the “first time in 9 years that a black woman lands this coveted cover.” In 2003, Halle Berry was named World’s Most Beautiful Woman; she and Beyoncé are the only two black women to hold the honor in 22 years.

So are white people prettier than black people?

Clearly, our culture’s standards of beauty are racist and have nothing much to do with “beauty” and everything to do with replicating the power structure.

People’s “most beautiful” cover women are predominantly actresses. Those actresses are culled from Hollywood movies, most of which feature casts of white people and are also directed and produced by white people. Those movies are then awarded prizes and accolades by committees of white people. Oscar voters are nearly 94% Caucasian. Blacks are about 2% of the academy, and Latinos are less than 2%. (source LA Times)

What about TV, which is often a crucial stepping stone to making it into movies?

Women and Hollywood reports:

Of the 2,600 episodes analyzed of scripted series for the 2010-2011 season (which comprise of over 170 series), white males directed 77% of all the shows. White women directed 11% and women of color only 1%. The numbers women were the same from the previous season.Breaking it down a bit further, white men directed 80% of all one hour shows and 74% of half hour series (source Director’s Guild of America)

It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out why so few women of color make it to People’s “Most Beautiful” cover.

Jezebel reports:

A look back at the celebrities People has called “most beautiful” reveals that past honorees are ladies like Meg Ryan, Nicole Kidman and Cindy Crawford. Michelle Pfeiffer has been called Most Beautiful twice; Julia Roberts has been the cover gal four times. Jennifer Lopez, the 2011 Most Beautiful, is the lone Latina on the list. And there have been zero Asian women.

It creeps me out that, so often, the more “successful” people of color get, the “whiter” they often look. Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Whitney Houston, and of course, tragically, Michael Jackson all adopted a more Caucasian look as they became more well known. Did they get more “beautiful?”

Beyonce may be People’s first “most beautiful” black woman in nine years, and she’s talented and gorgeous, but why is one of the only two black women EVER to get this award shown as a blonde? What does People’s cover say about our culture’s biased standards of “beauty?”

If the directors, producers, casts of movies, and awards committees of Hollywood were mostly made up of African-Americans, who do do you think would be on People’s covers year and after year? What would those women look like?

And if women ran Hollywood, would People create a “most beautiful” issue at all? Or would the magazine come out with something more like “The Sexiest Woman Alive” featuring older stars on its cover? Real life “Sexiest Man Alive” winners include Pierce Brosnan at age 48, Harrison Ford at age 56, and Sean Connery at age 59.

It helps quite a bit to come off as “sexy” when you’re portrayed in movie after movie as a hero and shown with “hot” sidekicks who are desperately in love with you. Though People covermen do have one thing in common with the women: Denzel Washington is the only African-American ever deemed “sexy” enough to win.