Saturday, February 18, 2012

Chris Christie, the Flag and Homophobia

I’m amused.  New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, really knows how to change the news when he’s about to get a lot of bad press.  Want to veto a pro-same sex marriage bill?  Bring up a flash-in-the-pan controversy that will have no lasting impact.

Of course, maybe he really loves Whitney Houston and demonstrates that when he issued an executive order lowering of the flag to half-staff to honor her on the day she is buried.  But unless he’s more stupid than I believe he is, he must have known that his actions were bound to offend many social conservatives.  Here are two typical responses from comments on the blog, Northwest Ohio:

As a member of the US military I couldn't be more offended. She died of the decisions she decided to make. Our military members gave their life's [sic] fighting for us and not because of stupid acts of drug use. If the flag is at half staff for her I would want to see him removed from his position.


This is a perfect example of what is wrong with our country! This is sickening and discusting [sic]! I thought Christie was a really good politician, BUT I wouldn't vote for this pathetic waste of human being. Matter of fact, Christie and Bill Reilly aren't Americans and should leave our country!

Surprisingly, perhaps, Bill Reilly defended Christie’s decision.  I think his endorsement is a sign that this anger won’t last very long.  Now, Christie gets to seem like not such a bad conservative as he vetoes a bill passed onto him by the New Jersey Assembly that gives same-sex couples the right to marry.  

My friends know that I hate conspiracy theories.  But, I love to acknowledge brilliant strategies when I see them.  Politicians know that you just have to feed the media a new juicy story if you don't like what they're reporting and the press will change the headlines for you.  

Let’s see if he gets away with this one.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Maids and Madams

This discussion of The Help, has gotten me really interested in a comparison between domestic servants and race in the US and South Africa.  First, I turned to Zanele Muholi’s work on what she calls domesticated labor.  This first photo is from her "'Massa' and Mina(h)" project.  Thanks to Ellen for helping me find these.

For her interesting statement on the project, click here.

And one of our favorites:

For an extra delight, see this blog piece on Zanele’s work by the brilliant Columbia University professor Hlonipha Mokoena from the Africa is a Country blog:

I also asked my South African friend, Jabu Pereira, if she had seen the film.  She had many insights about the problem of having the film set from the white woman’s viewpoint that echoed many of our concerns over here. 

Then we turned to the experience of seeing the film in a largely white audience.  She said that she was one of three black people in the theater.  The white folks were quiet both throughout the film and when it was over.  They didn’t even laugh at the things that were meant to be obviously funny.  She said that she and her friends were cracking up but noticed how uncomfortable the rest of the people were.  They must have thought: "Has this happened to me?  Have I thought I was eating a delicious pie when I was eating s**t?"  What I thought was over-the-top humor really hit home for some people.  Who knew?

The audience Ellen and I were in was also largely white.  The black people seemed very moved by The Help and were not ready to leave when it ended.  We both noticed, however, that the white people laughed really loudly at any of the humor and they cleared out of the room quickly at the end.  But Elle and I had different interpretations of their laughter.  I thought they experienced the humor as a kind of comic relief that allowed them to escape from the tensions of the movie and dis-identify with the white racists.  Ellen, on the other hand, felt that the laughter had a darker origin—most white people’s custom of laughing at black people’s ‘antics’ on screen. 

Again, what I find most interesting are the contrasts.  If I were starting out in my career, I’d love to do a historical study that compares domestic workers, race and class in the US and SA.  There are so many similarities that the differences would illuminate so much in each culture.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

A Cultural Studies Response to the Movie, The Help

I finally got a chance to see The Help.  The Newark (DE) Free Library showed in Friday night and Ellen and I went.  Having seen so much criticism by people whom I respect but also having heard positive reviews from a few other people I also respect, I wanted to see for myself what I thought.  [Here’s a thoughtful review that includes a list of other great reviews Critique] As is typical of me, I come down somewhere in the middle.  But this isn’t because I’m being wishy-washy.  I just think that the product, like most popular culture products, can elicit contradictory and even competing interpretations.

At heart, the movie is a film about race that is intended for a largely white, mass audience.  No matter how well intended or potentially progressive a project is, this goal inevitably creates certain well-known problems.  Kathryn Stockett’s book, The Help, on which the movie was based, must have appealed to the film’s producers precisely because it had a white woman at the center with whom a mass audience could identify.  Since the contrasting behavior of the white people was central to the film’s narrative, there had to be so many white people in it that there was little room for black characters.  The two main maids, Aibileen played by Viola Davis and Minny played by Octavia Spencer, had to represent virtually all black women.  The Minny character particularly suffered from this problem; she had to be funny, sassy, lovable, mean, domestically abused, brave, and more.  Only a great actor could carry all that off as well as Spencer. 

We all know that, usually, race movies designed to attract white audiences are to be avoided.  But a movie about black maids: we had to go see it!  Our mothers and grandmothers scrubbed and bowed so we could become black intellectuals.  Someone more poetic than I has to say what those women mean to us.  I can’t resist the desire to proudly proclaim that my mother worked as a maid from time to time, even though that was not her primary identification when I was growing up.  I was lucky to get my first job cleaning a store at 14 because my aunt who was a well-respected domestic worker recommended me.  These women are close to my heart.

I don’t know about my colleagues and friends; but I had mixed emotions as I watched The Help.  There was something so appealing about the way Viola Davis played her part that even people who hated the film wanted her to get best actress awards.  That so many praised her performance made me feel that I wasn’t the only one who had conflicting emotions about the movie.  How could she be so separated from the rest of the movie?  Was there something about the contrast between her role and that of Cecily Tyson’s that has meaning for us?  I know I wanted to hide in a hole when Tyson was on the screen. 

I’ve seen my sister scholars complain that too many realities about black maids’ lives were left out.  Where was the reference to sexual harassment, they demand.  To me, that seems more like a criticism that should be made of a documentary than a feature film.  More troubling is the charge that The Help downplays the dangers and systematic oppressiveness of the Jim Crow South.  I hope my sister scholars will allow me the room to present an alternate view.
By focusing on the relationships between black and white women, the movie is able to show the daily, bitter humiliations that women faced.  In fact, the film is unusual for its emphasis on white women’s racist pasts and the horrors of the domestic sphere.  And, it was very clear that those women were ready to resist Jane Crow wherever and whenever they could.  Those old segregated, rattle-trap buses that delivered women from the ghettoes to the white areas were meant to remind us of Rosa Parks’ heroic deeds.  The shooting of Megar Evers was suppose to indicate how dangerous life was for blacks in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi.  The state was there to enforce white women’s policing of black women’s behavior.  The domestic worker who ended up in jail—whose name, ironically, I can’t seem to find online—represented that story.

While I was writing this post, a South African friend Skyped Ellen and asked if we had seen the The Help.  She and her girlfriend had just been to see it and wanted to know what we thought of it.  This is a woman who grew up with a live-in domestic worker as a mother. The mother’s ‘liberal’ employers were relatively generous but seemed blissfully unaware of the toll that umama’s absence took on her own children.  Our friend cried during the movie; it touched something deep inside her. 

I’m not trying to legitimate my view of the film by presenting an ‘authentic’ response to The Help.  I’m sure the reasons the film touched our friend are as complex as the reasons that make us have conflicting emotions and responses to it.  I mention it because it reminds me of what Stuart Hall teaches us: the meanings of cultural products are never fixed as good or bad or positive or negative.