Category Archives: Media

Mad White Men

Three years ago, slightly depressed and living in New Mexico while I got my M.F.A., one of my friends said, “Oh my God, you haven’t seen Mad Men? You must see Mad Men.” Or something like that, something compelling enough that I started illegally downloading the first and second seasons.

The first year of the show, I actually had watched a few episodes, in real time with my sister while I lived in NY, but then missed some episodes and failed to pick it back up. When I began watching again, I got hooked for good. The clothing and the furniture of the 60s are kind of my thing, so that was easy enough to be pulled in to start, and the story did the rest. Don Draper was a terrible husband, a distant father, and an altogether fascinating human being. I couldn’t get enough and have waited for each season’s return, excited for what the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, would have in store for the ad men of Mad Avenue. And with that I measured my feelings about the treatment of race in the show. I hoped like a lot of viewers (and complained along with some non-viewers) that they would get to race and handle it deftly. Weiner had deftly handled gender, representing the sexism and repression present for women of that era, while also creating nuanced female characters. He showed the boot on every woman’s neck and then never hesitated to take the camera in close to show the bruises there too.

This year promised, according to its timeline, to change that. It’s 1968 and Martin Luther King is assassinated, and like Kennedy’s before him, his death helped to define that era. My heart kind of broke then when the event I had expected finally happened and Matthew Weiner proved the answer to this question so aptly asked by the writers over at The Atlantic: can Matthew Weiner do as good a job on race as he did on gender? My answer, minus some of the profanity included when I watched the April 28th episode of Man Men entitled The Flood: absolutely ______ not.

Some critics called the move by Weiner to treat race lightly, to focus the characters inward rather than outward struggle, as “brave.” Uhhh, yeah. Sure. Brave would have been allowing these characters–white, well-to-do or at least well-enough-to-do, and too ensconced in their own privilege to recognize the lack thereof for black people–to be more narrow-minded and glibly racist. Weiner allows one character to be that, one that viewers have come to expect to be ham-handed on just about everything. But what about Don or Roger? Joan gives an awkward hug to THE black secretary when she comes in late having struggled to get to work through the rioting in Harlem. It’s about the only moment in the show on race I thought was interesting. We all cozy up to our own privilege, our lighter skin, our skinnier body, our better house, our white collar job, and I can’t escape the idea that in the 1960s there would have been very little to stop these characters from cozying up to their privilege that much more. It’s New York you say, it isn’t Mississippi. Tell that to the Central Park Five or Amadou Diallou. Privilege is privilege and no one likes the people who threaten it.

Some would argue that this glancing treatment of race is Matthew Weiner working hard to be true to the era. It’s the same response people give when someone comments on how sexist the show is. But, remember that boot I talked about earlier? In the course of this episode, I realized that Weiner probably has no idea how to show the bruises on the neck of black people. Get me David Simon, stat! The only two real black characters on the show are mostly absent. I won’t necessarily quarrel with that creative choice, but why must one woman call the black people rioting in Harlem fools? Why does the other black woman practically beg to stay at the office for fear of what she would find in Harlem? How could a writer who made Don Draper so greatly three-dimensional, so tender and terrible, how could that writer not have known or allowed those characters to express some joy at the rioting? How could he have not understood that those women would have hungered, just like any of the “fools” in the street, to let the world know how angry they were? I didn’t need this episode to end with We Shall Overcome, the thought of that makes me ill. But no one can tell me that Weiner’s failure to be bold in some way, in any way, in this episode was brave. It was actually out and out cowardly.

Every Inch of You Is A Scandal

I love the television show Scandal: Kerry Washington in a starring vehicle and Shonda Rhimes behind the scenes. It’s a Negro girl’s dream. I never watched Rhimes’s other shows, Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and the short-lived Off the Map. Mostly because of medical show burnout, but now when I watch Scandal, I get the appeal those other shows must have. It’s decadent, a dessert and you can’t help digging in again and again. I’ve had conversations with black women from their twenties to their seventies who all love Scandal. And then, I’ve also had friends, who are both entranced with and troubled by the character Kerry Washington plays, Olivia Pope. A recent episode was entitled, A Criminal, A Whore, An Idiot, and A Liar. All ended up being features of Olivia Pope. She loves the wrong man, doesn’t marry the one who’s right for her, breaks the law, breaks her friend’s heart, kidnaps, double deals, and would do most all of it again, any time it was needed.

A new ad for the show has Kerry Washington in just her underwear with scenes of the show projected onto her body. At the end the announcer says, “When you’re having an affair with the president, every inch of you is a scandal.” Not a bad tagline and as beautiful as Kerry Washington is not a bad visual either. But the second part of that line, that every inch of her body is a scandal, was too fraught to not stick in my mind for a few days after the first time I saw the ad. Because although Olivia Pope is in many ways delightfully complex, she is also a symbol. Shonda Rhimes has been clear that the character isn’t a role model and so the character’s choices are not meant to be applauded or to uplift the race. Black art often gets weighed down with those expectations. I had a conversation with a friend once as we imagined how sweet it would be to not be saddled with race sometimes, to live with the audacity of a white man, when your body is labeled as nothing but your own, not one that anyone else can own or bargain with, never needing your consent to label your body as someone else sees fit. Little black girls can be cunts and women on the stage at the Superbowl singing and dancing their hearts out can be no more than black hoes (what one white man in my Superbowl watching group jokingly called Beyonce and her dancers). Because that Scandal ad is right: every inch of the black body is a scandal.

But, the black body isn’t just a sexual scandal like Olivia Pope’s might be considered, it’s also a scandal as in a violation, something of which to be ashamed. On The Walking Dead, the black female character of Michonne is that kind of scandal. She has mutilated one of the white male characters, a man called The Governor (think Southern, racist, turn-the-dogs-and-the-firehoses-on-people-kind-of-governor) and in order to save themselves the group the viewer is meant to root for, the group with which Michonne has stayed, fought, and now even helped save, might offer her up to The Governor. On tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead, we’ll discover whether or not the group actually gives up Michonne in order to save themselves. It seems an understandable choice, right? Michonne has committed an act of violence and really, shouldn’t everything possible be done to save themselves? But perhaps more importantly, it would rid their group of the one who is markedly different, darker with coarse hair and wider nostrils. Michonne is a scandal and Olivia Pope is one too because they are othered, from (nappy) head to (brown) toe. Black bodies looked at as violations made slavery an easier enterprise. And Jim Crow. And housing discrimination. And letting forty years go by between a black woman as a lead in a network drama. Those who we malign can ever after be easily oppressed.

Every inch of the black body is a scandal.

But, I’ll wonder when I see that Scandal ad again, when will that only be the tagline for a television show and not a sentiment that people believe?

The World Is Too Close

I joined Twitter a few years ago, but had up until earlier this year tweeted exactly twice. In the last few months, though, I’ve tried to change that, mostly because I’m job hunting and trying to transition to a new city. Twitter seemed a good way to stay aware of what’s happening in that city and in the arts community there. I picked some people to follow, writers I admired, publications I trust, arts organizations I hoped would magically tweet me job offers. I also found celebrities, lots of them. Twitter is teeming with them. Of course, I should know this from any celebrity scandal that has broken in the last couple of years. Somewhere surrounding the before, during or after of the scandal, an entertainment reporter is checking Twitter feeds. But, when a writer I admire and had decided to follow followed me back, I was paralyzed. What would I write to prove to her that I was smart and witty and worthy of being followed? I wouldn’t consider myself a star-struck person. I don’t have autograph books. I have no iPhone pictures of me interrupting an actor’s meal at a steakhouse. The Lenny Kravitz poster that used to hang on my wall when I was a teenager was taken down long ago. Twitter, however, begs for you to interrupt, to eavesdrop, to feel like you could be their best friend. Inappropriateness sets in. And it isn’t just with celebrities.

I know I’m late to this: who hasn’t worried over social media in the last few years? I’ve discovered far too much about people I barely know over the years via Facebook. Somehow though, that famous author suddenly having access to what I say and think brought the world too close and I think, it’s too close without the reward of real intimacy. This moment right now, of you reading my words, well that’s a sort of collapsed distance too. And yet, the distance of writer to audience is one I accept somehow. Maybe because it’s more established, but probably because as far I know I’m not in conversation with anyone in particular, only with this screen or only with the page. And maybe that’s why the world feels too close, maybe that’s why I’ve tweeted just once to an @soandso and felt painfully awkward afterward.

I’d rather the world stayed a bit of a distance away, things tend to look prettier when they aren’t viewed through a microscope.

A Good Whitewashing

For the first time a few days ago, I saw the movie I Love You Man starring Paul Rudd and Jason Segel, where they become friends because Paul Rudd needs male friends and a best man for his upcoming wedding. Rudd’s fiancee is Rashida Jones, an actor who has been making her way on shows like Parks and Recreation and who is also the daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton.

Negro Girls everywhere I thought could rejoice a bit. Here is a colored girl whose color isn’t the point in the movie. The prospect of her not being white isn’t even mentioned. Color blindness I don’t believe in, but color-beside-the-pointness I can get. At the end of the movie, when Rashida Jones heads down the aisle to meet Paul Rudd, she isn’t escorted by her father, but we’ve been told that her father is out of the picture. Yet, no one at all from the family of Jones’s character seems to be there. Besides a black minister, there doesn’t actually appear to be any people of color at the wedding. It made me…uncomfortable. Was there a decision to not even in a minor way nod to the fact that Jones isn’t just another white girl? Does she want it that way? It seems in more roles than just this one that she is stripped of any racial designation. Or maybe producers and directors want it that way? Or maybe, I was making more of this than necessary. Except for the other day.

Jones is in a new series of Dove hair commercials that asks if your hair has a mind of its own and wants women “to make friends with their hair.” Sure. Sounds good. In the commercial that just started running, Jones shows up to lunch with her white girlfriends. Her hair is a mess, bedraggled, bushy, unmanageable. Is her race equally unmanageable in Hollywood? Dove wants to tame her hair, make it lay down in submission and make it no different than the sleek and shiny hair of the white girls across from her at the lunch table. But, she is different. She isn’t just like them in hair or in color. A decision to be homogenous would make getting roles easier, better to not stand out Rashida Jones might think. I would hope it would actually be better for she and every woman of color be incorporated to make a broader spectrum instead of being whitewashed.

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Filming in Soft Focus

All summer, I ranted about the movie The Help (hear other opinions here and here). I’d actually been ranting since the book came out, but I’ll save my bookstore rant for another time. I still haven’t gone to see the movie, and I have no plans to do so. I’m sure some Saturday afternoon not too long from now, I’ll stomach watching it on Lifetime or maybe OWN. I am a movie lover though, especially a classic movie lover. If I had no other channel than Turner Classic Movies (ok and probably Bravo for Top Chef and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills), I would be content. I can end up watching old movies all day when I’m supposed to do far more productive things.

Being a Negro Girl, however, troubles the waters of say a Carole Lombard marathon. In Hands Across the Table, Lombard’s love interest Fred MacMurray does a racist impression of a Chinese man. Later, a bumbling black man comes to give Carole Lombard a message. The black man is Fred Toones, better known by his nickname Snowflake. He was often the shoeshine man in the movies and if you look at his long list of films he goes uncredited in most of them. It could be said that films have progressed far from Snowflake, at least The Help is bringing race concerns to forefront. Fred Toones would never have had such luck. Or The Help is just doing an updated version of what lots of old movies did: filming in soft focus.

In The Misfits, screen icon’s Marilyn Monroe’s last movie (and also that of her co-star Clark Gable, he more famously of a movie that speaks to racial depiction and Hollywood: Gone with the Wind) she is filmed in soft focus. Her features are slightly blurred, her eyes soft and welcoming. Who couldn’t fall in love with that idealized image? But whenever there’s a shot that includes her and background, the background is blurred as well. Maybe it was a stipulation of Monroe’s, maybe because of depression and drug abuse, director John Huston looked at the movie and thought it was better for her features to not be sharp. But when you watch the movie, it does more of a disservice to Monroe. If you fall in love with that soft focus, you aren’t falling in love with the truth. And if you leave The Help feeling like you’ve just gotten a history lesson about the lives of black women in the sixties, you’re leaving with a feeling that isn’t based on the truth. The Help and the story of the Civil Rights Movement, of racism and racial struggle itself, are filmed in soft focus. It is a way to make racism more comfortable, more palatable, easily digestible. But I can’t see when there’s ever a time when racism should go down easy. Injustice–fire hoses and church bombings and lynchings–should burn all the way down.

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